Miyamoto Musashi | The Way of the Ronin

The Japanese word ‘rōnin’ describes a samurai without a master, who wanders alone. The status of a ronin varied across different time-periods. In a general sense, being a ronin implied failure. More specifically, a ronin had renounced the act of ‘seppuku’, which is a form of Japanese ritual suicide that was applied to restore honor after defeat. Those who refused seppuku became outcasts that endured a reputation of disgrace.

Walking their own path, some ronin worked as mercenaries and bodyguards, and others became criminals. One of the most legendary ronin is Miyamoto Musashi, who is famed as Japan’s greatest swordsman – undefeated in more than sixty duels. Musashi became a ronin after he escaped death during the Battle of Sekigahara, when serving general Hideyori. Aside from being a swordsman, he was also a philosopher, artist, and well-learned Buddhist.

Among other writings, Musashi left us with twenty-one principles for those who walk alone named Dokkōdō, that he wrote down not long before he died. Even though the age of the samurai is long gone, Musashi’s principles are timeless and can inspire us today to live well.

This three-part series elaborates on the twenty-one principles from Musashi’s Dokkōdō. 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.

1) Accept everything just the way it is.

In The Book of Five Rings, Miyamoto Musashi explains the way of the warrior through the art of sword fighting. When reading this book, it becomes clear that ‘the way’ means a life of ongoing practice. Especially when we look at this from a Buddhist lens, we can conclude that the only effective way of practice is based on the acceptance of how things currently are. We cannot improve, if we aren’t willing to be novices at first. Part of meditation practice, for example, is the acceptance of the current state of affairs, in order to strengthen the mind.

But Musashi goes even further by saying that the warrior should resolutely accept death. Death is not just an inevitable part of life, but also an acceptable fate to preserve honor according to old Japanese traditions. The act of Seppuku is based on the idea of ‘honorable death’, which follows in a situation when staying alive would be a disgrace; for example, when someone has failed his or her duty. Now, especially for the modern Western mind, this idea is extreme. Nevertheless, the resolute acceptance of death can help us to accept that it’s a path we all take someday. In Buddhism, there’s a practice called ‘corpse meditation’, during which one can contemplate death in the presence of a dead body, or simply by imagining one. By doing this practice repeatedly, a Buddhist comes to terms with the reality of death.

For a ronin, we can say that the acceptance of one’s aloneness is essential. Musashi, for instance, had to face the world without the support of a school or master, traveling the land, and fighting duels to perfect his skill. Thus he walked a very solitary path, on which one can only flourish when aloneness is accepted.

2) Do not seek pleasure for its own sake.

Despite his ronin status, Musashi emphasized virtue above pleasure. He could have become a mercenary or a thief, but he chose to develop himself spiritually, to perfect the art of the long sword and sacrificed his life for the greater good multiple times. 

At most, pleasure should be a side effect of one’s pursuit of virtue. The meaning of virtue is different across time periods, as ethics and views on morality change over time. But we can distinguish pleasure-seeking, meaning the pursuit of selfish gratification of the senses, from doing something good for the world without taking sense gratification into account.

Musashi’s attitude toward pleasure is very similar to Stoic and Buddhist attitudes, which go together with sense-restraint. Epictetus, for example, argued that, in the long term, the victory of abstaining from pleasure is better than to be overpowered by it. The Buddhists argue that sensual pleasure in itself isn’t enjoyable at all; it’s simply a scratch to an itch; an itch that will worsen if we keep scratching, to the point that it will lead us astray.

For a ronin, it can be vital to keep pleasure-seeking at bay. As ronins wander alone, the pursuit of pleasure can become a trap, in which they get entangled in the world in destructive ways. The pursuit of tasty food, cheap entertainment, lust, not only tethers people to the mundane; it also holds them back from practice, which, according to Musashi, could lead to a deeper spiritual understanding. In his days of solitude, Musashi could have never perfected his swordsmanship if he had indulged in pleasure.

3) Do not, under any circumstances, depend on a partial feeling.

Feelings are important, as they indicate that something is going on. But they aren’t always ideal when it comes to making decisions. The problem with feelings is that they’re often based on irrational thinking, thus, based on a delusional view of reality. Therefore, feelings are, in many cases, partial, as they don’t tell us the whole story which means that acting upon them can lead to actions that might be wrong and destructive.

Instead, rational thinking, logic, reason… or, in short, assessing a situation, and observing our feelings with mental clarity is more reliable. Thus it’s important that we’re mindful of what’s going on in our mind and body. Are we overpowered by emotion? Are we coming from a place of anger or fear? If this is the case, our best bet is to let the dust in our minds settle, and reassess the situation again when our minds are clear. Needless to say, battles need to be fought with a clear mind, and enemies should be approached rather with mental clarity than with emotion, as the latter is detrimental to our skills and could lead to stupid decisions.

4) Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world.

Miyamoto Musashi was lethal and humble at the same time, aware of his insignificance compared to the bigger picture, and also with a willingness to serve the greater good. Thinking lightly of ourselves means that we acknowledge that we aren’t that important. Of course, we’re inherently valuable as human beings, but the reality is that if we die tomorrow, the world probably doesn’t stop spinning. If we compare ourselves to the universe, we’re incredibly small, and above all, dependent on the whole.

Why think so highly of ourselves, and elevate ourselves above the environment, when we’re utterly dependent on it? The universe is so incredibly vast, so complex, so much more than this tiny ego in our heads. And by realizing this, we know that not being humble doesn’t make any sense. A ronin was probably aware of this, as facing the world alone can be an eye-opening experience in regards to how small and vulnerable we are.

So, it’s not a bad idea to take ourselves with a grain of salt sometimes, and reflect on how significant our lives truly are. This doesn’t mean that we should remove ourselves from the equation, but that we always try to be aware of the proportions between ourselves and the environment so that we don’t inflate our self-importance and become deluded.

5) Be detached from desire your whole life long.

Desire and aversion are two sides of the same coin. If we’re averse to something, it means that we desire to not incur the thing we’re averse to. Desire, thus, means that we let our happiness depend on something that lies outside of us. Unfortunately, outside circumstances are beyond our control, so if we let our happiness depend on them we’ve put ourselves in an unreliable position. Needless to say, this approach to desire is very Stoic.

The Buddhists see desire, or more specifically, ‘attachment’, as the root of suffering. Being attached to desire means that we’re fixed on our pursuit of external things, assuming that this pursuit will make us happy. Musashi tells us that, despite the vastness of the external world and the smallness of ourselves, the key to wellbeing lies within.

There is nothing outside of yourself that can ever enable you to get better, stronger, richer, quicker, or smarter. Everything is within. Everything exists. Seek nothing outside of yourself.

Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings

So, we could say that even though we should be humble to the greatness of the universe, our focus should be on our own actions within that universe, and not on what we can get from it, as the latter isn’t reliable. This is how Stoic philosopher Epictetus puts it:

The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others.

Epictetus, Enchiridion, 1

Musashi justly realised that desiring things not in our control isn’t an effective strategy for a good life. Also, experience teaches us that following desire can lead to addiction.

6) Do not regret what you have done.

Self-reflection and the ability to see what we did wrong, and how we may have hurt other beings is a very valuable skill, which is essential when it comes to building meaningful relationships and avoiding past faults in the future.

But repeatedly beating ourselves up over the mistakes we made in the past isn’t going to help anyone. At most, we show people that we feel bad about what we’ve done, which can be a good thing, but after a while the only way we can go is forward. Moreover, many bad things that happen tend to be blessings in disguise. And with shame and damage comes wisdom.

The realization of the destructiveness of our own actions is an opportunity to become more cautious and more empathetic, which prevents us from more misery in the future. “When you lose, don’t lose the lesson,” the Dalai Lama stated. Also, what seem bad decisions now, could turn out to be great decisions in the future, as the future will always remain mysterious, and will unfold in ways we can never truly predict.

7) Never be jealous.

When facing the world alone like a ronin, resentment is always around the corner. Being an outcast often means not having what other people have, especially when it comes to material things and social connections. For a ronin it even meant being without a home, drifting across the lands, and not belonging anywhere. So, it’s easy to become envious of those who have what you don’t have.

With envy, we could look at couples when we’re single, at the wealthy when we’re poor, at popular people when we, ourselves, are met with contempt. It’s pain, based on a desire of wanting things to be different than they are, of wanting what other people have but, for some reason, we don’t have.

When we walk alone, it’s unwise to burden ourselves with such feelings of resentment, as they will only harm ourselves. The only thing we’ve got authority over is our own faculty; all energy we spend on bitterly comparing ourselves to other people is wasted. Ronins are better off focusing on their own actions, and walking with blinders on if necessary.

These were the first seven principles from Miyamoto Musashi’s Dokkōdō, in the first part of this three-part-series.

Thank you for watching.