Marco Verrocchio and Javier Olaechea Lázaro.

The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi, alongside Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, is one of main masterpieces in strategic studies. Not only can it be considered as a manual for leaders in the military and private sectors, but it can also serve as a way for self-development and success in daily life. Encompassing five books on spiritual symbols from Buddhist culture, the combination of Mushashi’s martial arts and his literary skills is a tremendous inspiration for us all.  

Historical setting

The end of the Momoyama Period and the beginning of the Edo, when Musashi lived and wrote the Book of Five Rings, was an age of political, religious and social turmoil. An age that started with the Warring State period and culminated with the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate in the 1603. The main actors of this era were the Daimyō , warlords who fought each other to control the country. Initially, the Daimyō were open to new trade routes, especially with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1543 and the arrival of Christianity through the missionaries. Soon, these improvements brought technical development such as the arquebuses and printing. Thanks to these, the Daimyō were able to increasingly focus on military campaigns meant to control Buddhists and Shintoist religious institutions, as well as merchants. This resulted into urbanisation of civic society, with Samurai, merchants, and bureaucrats settled around local warlords' fortified castles, and farmers gathered in small villages in the countryside. 

Other than creating a strict hierarchy of social classes, the Samurai class benefited from great privileges serving under a Daimyō. Samurai became so relevant that many of them were able to gain political and military power, overthrowing members of upper classes. War amongst the Daimyō continued in the last decade of the XVI century, especially after failed attempts to invade Korea in 1592 and 1597. The Warring Period ended only with the preeminence of Tokugawa Ieyasu. After defeating opposing Daimyō at Sekigahara, he established the Shogunate in 1603. The Edo period began. This is known as an era marked by Japan's isolationist foreign policy, which lasted for 214 years. The missionaries were ousted and Christianity was prohibited. With the unification of Japan, firm social hierarchy was ultimately consolidated.

The role of the Samurai changed too. The latter increasingly transitioned from warriors to courtiers, bureaucrats, and administrators. Keen to preserve their glorious past from the Warring Period, Samurai-led martial arts schools flourished all over the country and many Samurai started to write novels and manuals to preserve and pass down their precious cultural heritage. The famous Bushido written by Yamaga Soko (1622-1685) and the Book of Five Rings of Miyamoto Musashi are examples of this period. 

Author setting

Little is known of his early life. Miyamoto Musashi was born around 1584 in the Harima province, situated in the south-west part of Japan. His father, Hirata Munisai, was a Samurai but Musashi lived his early years with his uncle, a clergyman, studying Confucianism and Buddhism. Three years later, Musashi left his village, fighting several Samurai in order to be accepted under the patronage of a Daimyō. At the age of 25, Musashi established a school of martial arts in Edo, the capital of the Shogunate. 

Musashi explored other arts, such as poetry, acting, calligraphy, and tea ceremony. He established the school of martial arts ``two skies in one” (Niten Ichi-ryu), teaching the use of two swords. In 1643, he exiled himself to a mountain with the aim to write the Book of Five Rings. He died aged 62 years old two years later. 

Insights and Lessons for our Times

From its purely formal conception, the book describes a series of stages designed to guide us along the path of personal growth in any field where we seek to develop. Musashi divides the book into an introduction presenting himself and five chapters, or rings, from which we chose the three most relevant in relation to our time:

Earth Manuscript: the importance of military strategy, or the "Way of strategy", sets out the spirit and moral requirements for understanding this domain. As the great swordsman explains, for any challenge we may be faced with, very few (if any) require the mastering of only one single skill. To master any field, it is argued, it is important to understand and master all the constituent parts of that peculiar field. 

Water Manuscript: methods to achieve victory through certain techniques to master body and arms correctly. Focus is allocated particularly on the importance of “looking in” and “looking out”, as one seeks to maximise strategy. Within this context, we learn about the damaging nature of tunnel vision and blind spot. This is given by narrow approaches that push us to consider a limited number of solutions vis-à-vis challenges instead of valuing alternative course of action.

Fire Manuscript: describes techniques that have to do with different situations such as the environment where the fight is taking place, how to handle the mood of the opponent or what attitudes are to be adopted according to the situation. The most valuable word here is “timing”. The timing to decide when to fight or, conversely, when not to fight. Musashi teaches us to think deeply about our preparedness to fight life-battles. He explains how there is no shame in admitting we are not ready to overcome challenges. There is instead shame in knowing we are not ready and still convince ourselves we can fight and win. Whilst self-confidence remains key, right timing is even more important.

In general, this piece is about the type of honour and impeccable conduct that coexist with bushido[1]. One could argue that its relevance to today's time is minimal. And yet, whilst focus is mostly military, the Book of the Five Rings can actually be applied to other, if not all, ethical and psychological dimensions that feature adversarial competition.

In truth, we claim it promotes effort and search for self-improvement through discipline, which greatly resonates to the kind of lessons we are to internalise in our daily lives.

[1]  It is a term translated as "the way of the warrior", in the Japanese tradition. It is a strict and particular code of ethics to which many samurai (or bushi) gave their lives, demanding loyalty and honour until death.