Miyamoto Musashi | A Life of Ultimate Focus

Miyamoto Musashi is one of the most legendary samurai and famed as Japan’s greatest swordsman – undefeated in more than sixty duels. After he escaped death during the Battle of Sekigahara, Musashi became a ronin. Aside from being a swordsman, he was also a philosopher, artist, and well-learned Buddhist. Before he died, Musashi left us with twenty-one principles named Dokkōdō. These are timeless rules that can inspire us today to live well. The majority, if not all, of these rules, help us to establish one thing: ‘focus’.

Focus is the quality of having a concentrated interest or activity on something. Needless to say, ‘focus’ was a crucial component in Musashi’s life, or, what he called ‘the way’, which is a life of ongoing practice. His writings reveal that his lifestyle revolved around restraint, sacrifice, discipline, and not being swayed by pleasure. These virtues were all established by or in support of being able to ‘focus’. Especially when he spent time apart from society, Musashi was only concerned with perfecting his skill, while aiming for enlightenment by the Way of the sword.

This three-part series elaborates on the twenty-one principles from Musashi’s Dokkōdō. The first part explored the first seven principles. This second part will explore how to live a life of ultimate focus, based on the next seven principles. Please note, the elaborations in this video are based on existing philosophies, the author’s interpretations, and reasoning, and are intended to be an inspiration for present-day life.

8) Never let yourself be saddened by a separation.

Separation can take place in several ways. We can be separated from someone temporarily because of traveling, relocation, or permanently because of death. We can also become separated from certain objects, like personal items or money. For most of us, the separation from what we love leads to suffering. As we’re attached to the object or person we’re separated from, we experience an intense feeling of lack, as we believe that what’s taken away from us belongs to us, and is part of us.

In Buddhism this idea of possession is delusional. Many Buddhists would agree that we don’t truly own anything outside of our mental faculties; even our bodies aren’t our own as we don’t fully control them. Musashi being a ronin and a Buddhist was probably aware of this delusion of possession, as well as the burden of attachment to objects and people. His way was one of solitude and practice, and therefore he couldn’t afford to be saddened by separations, because life is full of separations: all things come and go, whether it’s people, stuff, or wealth – especially for a ronin who’s traveling from place to place. Attachment to the people he met and the places he visited would have led to continuous grief.

Instead, as a ronin, he had to embrace the temporary nature of things, including the inevitable conclusion of life, which is death. In his Book of Five Rings, Musashi wrote that the way of the warrior is the resolute acceptance of death. For a warrior, life is surrounded by death; the death of the people he slays, of the people that fight by his side, of the people he failed to protect, and, of course, the risk of being killed himself. Like no other, Musashi must have realized that death awaits us all. By being aware of this, and accepting the impermanence of life, we’ll have an easier time when we encounter it.

9) Resentment and complaint are appropriate neither for oneself or others.

It’s very common for people to spend insane amounts of time resenting and complaining about the world. The traps of resentment and complaint are very easy to fall into. For one with a critical eye and strong opinions on how life should be, there’s always something to complain about. But when we find ourselves in a continuous state of resentment about the world, it means that we’re focused on others and not on ourselves.

For someone who’s dedicated to a life of ongoing practice, spending time resenting and complaining about the world, or one’s own life, is detrimental. The world is beyond our control. People will act in ways that don’t comply with our ethics and values all the time. People will behave foolishly, rudely, ungratefully. People will dislike us, try to interfere with our lives, treat us unjustly, try to take advantage of us. Furthermore, life isn’t fair. We don’t get equal shares of the pie. We aren’t equally gifted, equally handsome, equally healthy. Trying to change this is a sincere ideal created by the human mind, but it’s almost impossible to achieve, as we’ll find nature working against us all the time.

From a Buddhist point of view, we shouldn’t spend too much time trying to change the world, and we should especially refrain from resenting what is. Instead, it’s much wiser to focus on ourselves, live the best life we can, while being accepting of those who don’t. Or as Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius put it: “be tolerant with others and strict with yourself.”

10) Do not let yourself be guided by the feeling of lust or love.

In a previous video, I’ve explored the different types of love with selfless love called ‘agape’ by the ancient Greeks on one end, and selfish love called ‘eros’ on the other end. Musashi seems to point to eros in this case, which is a form of love motivated by lustful desire, also known among Buddhists as ‘romantic love’.

In many of today’s cultures, we see that romantic love is elevated to the status of ultimate concern. This human experience is almost seen as divine and, thus, worthy of our pursuit and sacrifice. Musashi clearly wouldn’t have endorsed the way we treat romantic love today. This probably wasn’t just because lust and love are so distracting, and would have been harmful to his progress as a swordsman, but also because he was a Buddhist. And Buddhists don’t buy this sacralization of romantic love. In fact, they are aware of the dangers of being guided by it.

Like any other feeling, love and lust can overcome us. But we have the choice whether or not we engage with these feelings. Instead of letting ourselves be blindly guided by romance, it’d be wiser not to forsake our ability to think rationally so we stay grounded and focused on our path. People tend to make very unwise decisions while enchanted by lust and love; from choices that affect their work or violate personal boundaries, to violence and even murder.

11) In all things have no preferences.

The problem with preferences is that we create a dependency when it comes to the state of the outside world. When we come across something that we prefer, we’re happy. But we incur what we don’t prefer or even dislike, we’re disappointed. As we don’t have anything to say about what the environment presents to us, by having preferences we’ll give outside circumstances the power over our mood. Our equanimity will depend on whether or not the circumstances are preferable.

This is kind of an inferior way to go about life. Musashi encountered many different people, objects, and situations, but had to keep a tranquil mind so he wouldn’t stray from his path. Strong preferences would have been harmful to his practice.

So, it’s wise to keep our preferences in check, and instead embrace whatever fate overcomes us and make the best out of it. This way, we can never go wrong, and thus the quality of our focus remains independent of the result.

12) Be indifferent to where you live.

As a ronin, Musashi wandered over Japan, staying in many different places, from castles to caves. But regardless of where he lived, his way remained the center of his life. People nowadays put great emphasis on their living environment. They care a lot about the size of their homes, the neighborhood they live in, the kind of furniture they possess. But when we’re too attached to having certain living conditions, we’ll get anxious when these conditions are threatened. When our living situation is truly unsafe, it’s, of course, no luxury to abandon that place. But, oftentimes, it’s simple dissatisfaction with current circumstances that makes people look for another home.

Some people are quickly bored and unhappy with their current home and believe that moving will take away this dissatisfaction. Unfortunately, the sense of fulfillment that follows after moving into a new place is only temporary. Because wherever we go, we always take ourselves with us. Satisfaction and dissatisfaction happen within, not outside. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter where we live if we’re content within ourselves. By being content with our homes, no matter how simple and small, we’ll have one less thing to worry about, and are more likely to stay focused on our purpose.

13) Do not pursue the taste of good food.

Many if not most people indulge in the pleasure of the tongue by enjoying a good meal. Some spend long evenings wining and dining, consuming drink after drink and course after course. But foodies, beware: this behavior has its downsides. Miyamoto Musashi discourages the pursuit of good food. His exact reasons for this aren’t known, but when we look at what other philosophers had to say about this, we might get an idea.

The ancient Stoics for example were also concerned about food. They encouraged people to eat simply. Founder of Stoicism Zeno of Citium observed that when people get used to eating fancy, expensive meals, they stop appreciating the simple foods. When our appetites become oversaturated, we’ll only crave more extravagant and stimulating ways to satisfy the pleasure of eating.

Immoderate eating habits could very well turn into gluttony, which leads to health problems. We’d say that a glutton enjoys and appreciates food, while the opposite may be the case. Voracious eaters and drinkers usually don’t take time to eat mindfully, and with an appreciation for the dish in front of them. Instead, they compulsively consume as much as possible, to be temporarily relieved from the pain of food cravings.

What we could do instead is eat ‘mindfully’ and in limited amounts, and train ourselves to not give in to cravings. By doing so, we’ll be less attached to taste, and our cravings for food will weaken, so we’re less likely to overeat. At the end of the day, the purpose of eating is nutrition, as we need fuel to live and thrive.

14) Do not hold on to possessions you no longer need.

It seems like Musashi already knew the benefits of a minimalist lifestyle. His life as a ronin didn’t lend itself to having possessions. Traveling Japan, staying in different places, fighting duels, perfecting his skill, possessions would only have been a burden. Besides his two swords, he only needed the basics to survive and practice.

Some people tend to collect possessions as if the accumulation of material goods increases their happiness. This could be the case for a while but, mostly, it only creates a hunger for more. Eventually, the more we own, the more weight we carry on our shoulders until we become servants of our possessions instead of the other way around. Clinging to our belongings as well the pursuit for more creates anxiety; the fear of losing what we have, and the fear of not getting what we want.

But when we have a higher purpose and are able to achieve higher levels of happiness, there’s no point in chasing all these material possessions anymore. In Buddhism, when one finds contentment in stillness, without needing entertainment like television or music, chasing possessions doesn’t make much sense.

What it all comes down to is the ability to travel light, like a ronin, so we can focus on what matters.

Thank you for watching.