Miyamoto Musashi | The Path of the Warrior

At the age of fifteen, Miyamoto Musashi went on ‘musha shugyō’, which means ‘warrior’s pilgrimage’. During this time of his life, he traveled the land practicing his skills independently and engaged in a series of duels. After he received ronin status, he encountered the most challenging opponent he ever faced – Sasaki Kojiro – and killed him. After this event, he renounced doing lethal duels. He eventually retired to a cave where we wrote down his knowledge and wisdom for later generations.

Musashi’s written works expand on the ‘path of the warrior’, which is the samurai way of discipline, focus, restraint, and honor. The path of the warrior is governed by moral and ethical codes that are commonly referred to as Bushidō. Shortly before he died, Musashi compiled twenty-one principles on how a warrior should live. These timeless principles known as Dokkōdō can inspire us today to live well. This three-part series elaborates on the twenty-one principles from Musashi’s Dokkōdō. The first part and second part explored the first fourteen principles. This third and final part further explores the path of the warrior, based on the last 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.

15) Do not act following customary beliefs.

When we look at human behavior, we see the characteristics of a herd animal. Many people slavishly follow the norm, not necessarily because it’s the best thing to do, but because everyone does it. Musashi was aware of the dangers of blind obedience, and probably experienced the unskillfulness of leaders in his time.

These could be the leaders of a so-called Ko-ryū, which is a Japanese school of traditional arts, but also politicians and even the emperor himself. When we carelessly follow customary beliefs, we throw away our common sense, rational thinking capacity, and in some cases our morality in the process. Something being the norm doesn’t mean that it isn’t evil. We can find countless examples of this in history, in which people collectively engage in evil, convinced that what they do is, somehow, justifiable.

The events during the second world war illustrate that people who blindly follow the dominant narrative are capable of doing horrifying things. Another example is the general attitude towards drinking in Western culture. While the use of narcotics is frowned upon, drinking alcohol is institutionalized and considered acceptable, fun, and social, even though its effects can be as destructive (if not, even more) as using narcotics.

It’s so normalized, that it’s the only drug that we have to justify not taking, even when alcohol consumption contributes to approximately three million deaths each year, according to the World Health Organization. Hence, customary beliefs aren’t always the best guidelines. Musashi who has lived as a ronin, as well as a hermit, spent significant amounts of time separated from society and its norms. One of the benefits of such solitude is that it shields us from outside influences and lets us watch the world from a distance. This makes it easier to independently decide what’s beneficial to our lives and what isn’t.

16) Do not collect weapons or practice with weapons beyond what is useful.

Miyamoto Musashi carried a long and a short sword; not because he wanted to show off his weaponry, but because he was skilled in fighting with two swords, and carrying two swords was the ‘way of the warrior’. In The Book of Five Rings, Musashi explains that every weapon has unique characteristics. The companion sword, for example, is preferable in confined spaces or when you’re close to your opponent, as opposed to spears and halberds that are best used on the battlefield

So, even though there’s a wide range of choices and functionalities when it comes to weaponry, Musashi advises us not to collect or practice with weapons beyond what’s useful. We can see this as a metaphor for everyday life. One of the traps that many ambitious people fall into is that they don’t stick with the essentials that get the job done.  They engage in unnecessary activities, make unnecessary investments, spend unnecessary amounts of time ‘networking’ with people without making any significant process. The inability to clearly define what we need to achieve our goals, and stick with doing what needs to be done, is a recipe for failure.

Sometimes, this involves ruthlessly cutting out the elements that despite their inherent value and usefulness, are useless in the context of our pursuit. However, Musashi also argues that we shouldn’t get too attached to one particular way or method either. The samurai practiced with a variety of weapons, from swords to sticks, and knew the abilities and characteristics of each weapon they used, which made them flexible fighters that could be deployed in different kinds of battles.

You should not have a favourite weapon. To become over-familiar with one weapon is as much a fault as not knowing it sufficiently well. You should not copy others, but use weapons which you can handle properly. It is bad for commanders and troops to have likes and dislikes. These are things you must learn thoroughly.

Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings, 1.7 (The Benefit of Weapons in Strategy)

So, being successful is a delicate process, and Musashi seems to point to the golden middle path between having a lack of focus and being too fixated and attached to one thing. 

17) Do not fear death.

The awareness of death was an essential part of being a samurai. Students of the sword were trained to fight duels to the death. By being subjugated to relentless practice, they were made ready to fight battles and to be routinely faced with death. “Generally speaking,” Musashi stated, “the Way of the warrior is the resolute acceptance of death.” End quote. 

Truly accepting death means not fearing death. And when we don’t fear death, we won’t give ground when our lives are threatened in battle. Thus, on the battlefield or in a duel, the acceptance of death is empowering. But how about everyday life? Even though most of us are probably less prone to getting our skulls crushed by a longsword compared to those who lived in 17th century Japan, death is still lurking in the shadows everywhere we go. Life isn’t a fairytale. We all die, and we could die anytime.

Yet, many of us let the fear of the inevitable generate unnecessary anxiety. This is unfortunate because as long as we’re still alive, we’re not dead, so in no way it hinders us. But when we’re dead, we’re not alive, and we simply don’t know what it’s like, so we cannot judge whether or not it’s a bad thing to die. Maybe death is the portal to something much more enjoyable than life, maybe not. But if death means simply the absence of life, then we’re at least liberated from all of life’s sufferings. In short; it’s pointless to worry about death because we don’t know what it is.

18) Do not seek to possess either goods or fiefs for your old age.

It may be clear by now that Musashi was a minimalist. He lived for honor, victory, perfecting his skill, and contributing to humanity by sharing his wisdom. He fought duel after duel, knowing that he could die at the sword of his opponent. He tells us not to seek to possess either goods or fiefs for old age. In the modern-day, this could translate to sacrificing our time and energy now in exchange for possessions, money, and investments that we can enjoy when we’re old. He doesn’t say that we shouldn’t be concerned with old age at all.

From learning about his life, I’d say that Musashi, despite repeatedly having walked on the edge between life and death, was quite concerned with the future including the possibility of longevity. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have cared about honor or leaving a legacy. So, to find a deeper meaning behind this lesson, we may want to turn to Buddhism again for philosophical substance.

The Buddha isn’t against acquiring wealth, as long as we acquire it in wholesome ways, and use it for good. But running after wealth takes a lot of effort and can exhaust us and even destroy our health and overall wellbeing. So, even though there’s nothing wrong with wealth, we may ask ourselves if achieving it is the best pursuit available. Instead, we might want to invest our lives in developing the mind.

In Musashi’s case, this pursuit was embodied by the perfection of his swordsmanship. But there are other ways available that could potentially be far more fulfilling as well as reliable than the accumulation of wealth. Instead of trying to enter old age as rich as possible, a Buddhist might focus on developing a sense of contentment with the present moment instead. Because if we can be content with little, we can retire with a small pension.

19) Respect Buddha and the gods without counting on their help.

Following Buddha as a spiritual teacher or believing in God (or other deities), doesn’t mean that we aren’t responsible for our own lives (9). There are many religious and philosophical views on why we exist on this planet (10). Some say that we’re here to serve God or multiple gods, others say that our lives are nothing more than a cosmic joke and that our existence is entirely pointless.

Some claim that the course of our lives is written in the stars, others claim that we have free will and that our lives are not predetermined. Whatever the truth might be, we’re still confined to what our senses perceive. When we look at the nature of human existence from our own viewpoint, we see that we do have agency. Moreover, we’re responsible for what we do and don’t do. Now, what Fortune gives us is beyond our control. But we do control how we handle what Fortune (or God for that matter) presents to us. This human ability to choose is an inherent part of most religions. The Christians have their Seven Virtues, the Muslims have their Five Pillars, and the Buddhists have their Eightfold Path.

These guidelines and precepts all imply that it’s up to us to choose the right path, despite the circumstances. So we can pray to a deity for help, hoping that this will change the unwanted circumstances. But does it truly work that way? We better not count on it. A much better investment is to focus on our own strength, wisdom, and resilience, so we can deal with the situation at hand, no matter how dreadful. At the end of the day, we are responsible for our own lives.

20) You may abandon your own body but you must preserve your honor.

The way of the warrior is one of honor, meaning that preserving honor is more important than preserving one’s life.  But honor is a complicated and subjective concept, which differs from culture to culture. Roman Catholic missionary Francis Xavier was one of the first Western people to visit Japan, where he arrived in the year 1550. He described how the Japanese valued honor as well as warfare and weaponry. They felt superior to all nations in, and I quote, “military glory and valor and honored everything that concerned war”.

More recent accounts tell us about the spirit of Bushido of the Japanese soldiers who fought during the Second World War, for whom dying for the Emperor was the greatest honor. Surrendering to the enemy, however, was considered an act of cowardice.

Those who had surrendered to the Japanese—regardless of how courageously or honorably they had fought—merited nothing but contempt; they had forfeited all honor and literally deserved nothing.

Fred Borch, Military Trials of War Criminals in the Netherlands East Indies 1946–1949, pp. 31-32

At the end of the day, the way we handle honor depends on personal and cultural preferences. If we think that honor is more important than life, then it’s worth dying for. But if we don’t care about honor, we probably choose to live over the preservation of it. According to Musashi, however, the value of honor exceeded life and death.

21) Never stray from the way.

The path of the warrior is one of extreme determination, on which there’s little room for deviation. Musashi’s way was the way of the sword, which he dedicated himself to completely and transcended everything else, including life and death. Now, the degree of commitment of those who walked the path of the warrior can be considered ‘extreme’, looking at it from a modern Western viewpoint.

These days, true commitment seems rare, as most of us are consumers in a throwaway society, going from pleasure to pleasure, instead of choosing a more difficult path of sacrifice and restraint at the service of a higher goal; even if this higher goal could be the quality of our own life and wellbeing. 

But still. If we truly want to get something done – something significant – we have to commit to a certain degree. It’s difficult to get any serious work done when we aren’t dedicated. This applies to business, relationships, creative projects, or a spiritual path. It applies to mastering any skill, from cooking to playing an instrument; but also to conquering bad habits and addictions.

Musashi’s life is a testimony of what we can accomplish if we fully, wholeheartedly commit to a goal – in his case: sword fighting. Musashi fought more than sixty duels, many of which were to the death, and he won all of them. Furthermore, he left a legacy for centuries to come and he’s honored to this day.

Thank you for watching.