Monday, January 7, 2019


Miyamoto Musashi was the most famous sword fighter in the history of Japan. His Book of Five Rings has been taken as advice for how to win in business, especially in America during the Japan-obsessed 1980s. Is this kind of extrapolation valid?

Is it sound advice, transposed from war to sports, let alone peaceful everyday life? Musashi himself, a practitioner of Zen, held that the attitudes of a swordsman should  be those of everyday life, and vice versa. Can we learn something from this, even if our aim is not to defeat other people?

My discussion takes the form of comments on Musashi’s writing. I have shortened and rearranged the text under new headings to make the main points easier to follow. Musashi himself wrote: “What is recorded above is what has been constantly on my mind, written down as it came to me. This is the first time I have written about my technique, and the order of things is a bit confused.” And Japanese grammar is much simpler than English translations.


Language does not extend to explaining the Way in detail, but it can be grasped intuitively. 

Absorb the things written in this book. Do not just read, memorize, or imitate. To realise the principle in your heart, train hard to absorb these things into your body. 

With sufficient training you will be able to beat ten men with your body and your spirit. If you attain this strategy you will never lose even to twenty or thirty enemies.

You win battles with timing, and by knowing the enemy’s timing. You will come to win with your eye.   -- Miyamoto Musashi,  1645 A.D.


In all forms of strategy, it is necessary to maintain the combat stance in everyday life and to make your everyday stance your combat stance.

Both in fighting and in everyday life you should be determined though calm. Meet the situation without tenseness but not recklessly. Even when your spirit is calm do not let your body relax.

When your body is relaxed do not let your spirit slacken. Do not be influenced by your body, or your body influenced by your spirit. An elevated spirit is weak and a low spirit is weak.

Do not be misled by the reactions of your own body.

comment:  This last sentence touches on the most fundamental point in the micro-sociology of violent conflict. It applies also to sports and to any contest of wills in everyday life.

Whenever humans are in danger, and especially when they are in face-to-face confrontation that threatens to escalate into open violence, their heart starts to race. Normal resting heart rate is about 60 beats per minute; alert activity is about 80-100 bpm; vigorous physical exercise will raise it to 130 or 140. At this level fine motor coordination is beginning to be lost, and above 150-160 bpm your action will be out of control. You fire or swing wildly and hit the wrong target.

This is your body pumping adrenaline, the fight-or-flight hormone. Your body is primed to attack, or to run away. Musashi says both are to be avoided; neither too elevated spirit, nor too weak. Anger and fear share the same arousal; it is just a matter of which direction it is turned. Similarly in emotional situations of everyday life; any extremely strong emotion-- anger, fear, even elation and laughter, even bliss-- takes over your body so that you lose conscious direction. Hence Musashi’s aim: to stay calm and on course.

Micro-sociology of violence shows several pathways around the barrier of confrontational tension to arrive at effective performance. Several of these coincide with Musashi’s advice: maintain a conscious focus on your own technique rather than on locking horns with the opponent; achieve emotional domination, so that you operate in a zone of calm while pushing your enemy into the out-of-control zone. How is this done? Read on.


With your spirit unconstricted, look at things from a high point of view, where you cannot be deceived by men.

It is important to see distant things as if they were close, and to take a distanced view of close things.

It is important to know the enemy’s sword and not to be distracted by insignificant movements of his sword. The gaze is the same for single combat and for large-scale strategy.

On the battlefield, even when you are hard-pressed, you should ceaselessly seek out the principles of strategy so that you can develop a steady spirit.

comment:   This sounds very Zen to me. A distanced point of view is what you do in zazen meditation.  Zen practice differs from most other forms of yoga or Buddhist meditation in that it is done with your eyes open rather than closed. More exactly, you meditate with your eyelids half-closed, not looking at anything but with your gaze focused somewhere in empty space in front of your face. Not closing your eyes avoids falling into a dream-like state or seeing hynogogic imagery. These are distractions from the pure consciousness of just gazing,  your mind and eyes like a piece of clear glass. In zazen meditation, one can attain the feeling of looking down on your body, as if your point of view were located in the back of your head, and you are sitting back seeing the world at a distance. A distanced point of view is exactly the right way to put it.

Musashi adopts the kind of Zen that is Zen-in-action. You are doing physical things, your body is intensely in action, but you are not being swept along by your body, nor above all by your enemy’s body. You are seeing everything of importance, in a calm detachment that is not hurried even though you may be moving very fast. Even when the battle is at its worst, your path towards winning is not to be caught up, but to look down on it from on high.

Musashi will tell us what this feels like when your hands are holding a razor-sharp sword.


Footballers do not fix their eyes on the ball, but by good play on the field they can perform well. When you become accustomed to something, you are not limited to the use of your eyes. People such as master musicians have the music score in front of their nose, but this does not mean that they fix their eyes on these things specifically. It means that they can see naturally.

When you have fought many times you will easily be able to appreciate the speed and position of the enemy’s sword, and having mastery of the Way you will see the weight of his spirit. Fixing the eyes means gazing at the other man’s heart.

In single combat you must not fix your eyes of details. If you fix your eyes on details and neglect important things, your spirit will become bewildered and victory will escape you.

comment:   This reminds me of learning to play the piano. It’s more difficult if you keep moving your eyes back and forth between where you are in the score and looking at the keyboard. The two tend to get out of synch, and it’s hard to keep the rhythm. Better to see everything at once, without moving your eyes. You widen your view-- done more with your brain than with your eyeballs.

Use of feet: In my strategy, the footwork does not change. I always walk as I usually do in the street. You must never lose control of your feet. According to the enemy’s rhythm, move fast or slowly, adjusting your body not too much and not too little.

With the tips of your toes somewhat floating, tread firmly with your heels. Whether you move fast or slow, with large or small steps, your feet must always move as in normal walking. You should not move one foot preferentially.

When you close with the enemy, strive with him for superior height without cringing. Stretch your legs, stretch your hips, and stretch your neck face to face with him. When you think you have won, and you are higher, thrust in strongly.

comment:  Stretching is always good for you. You can do it almost all the time when you are standing up, and even sitting. Always be as tall as you can. It’s good for everything.


When you take up a sword, you must feel intent on cutting the enemy. As you cut the enemy, you must not change your grip, and your hands must not cower.  When you dash the enemy’s sword aside, or ward it off, or force it down, above all you must be intent on cutting the enemy in the way you grip the sword.

The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means. Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy’s cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement.

comment:  This is like playing music when you play the piece, not the particular notes.

“Continuous Cut”: When you attack and the enemy also attacks, and your swords spring together, in one action hit his head, hands, and legs. You must practice this cut.

It is essential to attain this. If you think only of hitting, springing, striking or touching the enemy, you will not be able actually to cut him. More than anything, you must be thinking of carrying your movement through to cutting him.

When you have closed with the enemy, hit him as quickly and directly as possible, without moving your body or settling your spirit, while you see that he is still undecided.

comment:  Obviously some of your body must move. But it should feel like pivoting from an unmoving center.

You must train to achieve this timing, to be able to hit in the timing of an instant.

comment:  In Musashi’s famous duels, he always disrupted the enemy’s timing. His first duel was when he was 13 years old, and answered a challenge that a wandering samurai had posted on a placard. His uncle arrived at the dueling spot and tried to apologize for a boy challenging a grown man. But Musashi jumped in with his weapon-- a wooden staff-- and beat the samurai to the ground. When a duel was arranged  with the head of a famous fighting school, he made his insulted opponent wait until he arrived late. He attacked immediately and crippled the samurai’s arm. For the revenge match, Musashi again outraged his rival by arriving late, and won a humiliating victory. For the third match, Musashi played on his reputation for arriving late, instead arriving early and hiding himself. His opponent showed up with a band of armed supporters, whereupon Musashi jumped out of hiding, killed his principal opponent, drove the others back, and escaped.

A similar pattern occurred in Bobby Fischer’s world championship chess match in Iceland in 1973 against the Russian champion, Boris Spassky. Fischer lost the first game on a strange move when he could have had a draw, and forfeited the second game before it started, leaving Spassky ahead 2-0. Fischer then proceeded to win 7 of the next 8 decisions over his rattled opponent.

Musashi fought 60 duels and was never defeated.


If we watch men of other schools discussing theory, and concentrating on techniques with the hands, even though they seem skilful to watch, they have no true spirit. The true Way of sword fencing is the craft of defeating the enemy in a fight, and nothing else.

comment:  Musashi goes straight to the jugular, like chess champion Bobby Fischer, rated by many the greatest of all time. His book on how to play chess is the opposite of any other chess book I’ve read. Other chess writers start with the openings. Fischer starts with the end game. Checkmating your opponent’s king is the purpose of every move you make. You reverse the gestalt, seeing your way from the checkmate back to where you are now.

To cut and to slash are two different things. Cutting, whatever form of cutting it is, is decisive with a resolute spirit. Slashing is nothing more than touching the enemy. Even if you slash strongly, and even if the enemy dies instantly, it is slashing. When you cut, your spirit is resolved.

Avoid preconceived narrow spirit.


Whatever attitude or stance you are in (Upper, Middle, Lower, Right Side, Left Side), do not be conscious of making the attitude, think only of cutting. The one purpose of all of them is to cut the enemy.

Middle attitude: Confront the enemy with the point of your sword against his face. When he attacks, dash his sword to the right and ‘ride’ it. Or, when the enemy attacks, deflect the point of his sword by hitting downwards, keep your long sword where it is, and as the enemy renews his attack cut his arms from below.

comment:  “riding” the enemy’s sword is discussed below under “Ways to Overcome Stalemate”. The feeling is like riding a horse.

Upper attitude: cut the enemy just as he attacks. If the enemy evades the cut, keep your sword where it is and, sweeping up from below, cut him as he renews the attack.

Lower attitude: you are anticipating scooping up. When the enemy attacks, hit his hands from below. As you do so, he may try to hit your sword down. If so, hit his upper arm horizontally with a feeling of ‘crossing’. From the Lower attitude, you hit the enemy at the instant he attacks.

Left Side attitude: as the enemy attacks, hit his hands from below. If he attempts to dash down your sword, parry the path of his long sword and, with the feeling of hitting his hands, cult across from above your shoulder. Through this method you win by parrying the line of the enemy’s attack.

Sword in the Right Side attitude:  According to the enemy’s attack, cross your long sword from below at the side to the Upper attitude. Then cut straight from above. If you use this method, you can freely wield a heavy long sword.

I cannot describe in detail how to use these five approaches. You must learn large-scale timing, and become used to the five methods, with various timing considerations discerning the enemy’s spirit.

You will always win by using these five methods. You must train repetitively. 

comment:  Like seriously working out at the gym. The life of a samurai after Musashi’s youth was largely training in the dojo. The civil war battles and deadly duels of the first half of his life gave way to the enforced peace of the Tokugawa shogunate, when samurai spent most of their time practicing in sword-fighting schools. Musashi popularized kendo, fighting with a wooden sword. Training continues to be getting the spirit into your body-- or is it the spirit you are training?


The ‘Red Leaves Cut’ (like falling leaves) means knocking down the enemy’s long sword. The spirit should be, getting control of his sword. When the enemy is in a sword attitude in front of you and intent on cutting, hitting and parrying, you strongly hit the enemy’s sword. When the enemy’s long sword and your long sword clash together, you cut as strongly as possible without raising the sword even a little. This means cutting quickly with the hands, body, and legs-- all three cutting strongly.

comment:  Musashi gets the whole body into it.

If you then beat down the point of his sword with a sticky feeling, he will necessarily drop his sword. You must train repetitively.

When the enemy attacks and you also attack with the long sword, you should go in with a sticky feeling and fix your sword against the enemy’s as you receive his cut. The spirit of stickiness is not hitting very strongly, but hitting so that the swords do not separate easily. It is best to approach as calmly as possible when hitting the enemy’s sword with stickiness. The difference between “Stickiness” and “Entanglement” is that stickiness is firm and entanglement is weak.

When you have come to grips and are striving with the enemy, and you realise that you cannot advance, you “soak in” and become one with the enemy. You can win by applying a suitable technique while you are mutually entangled.

comment:  You can’t always defeat the enemy in the first clash. Some enemies are too skilled for that. Here Musashi recommends breaking the deadlock by deliberately getting tangled up with the enemy. Ordinarily this is a bad thing, but here you do it so that your opponent will become tangled up, while you anticipate the moment when you can seize the offensive.


By “smacking parry” is meant that when you clash swords with the enemy, you meet his attacking cut on your long sword with a tee-dum, tee-dum rhythm, smacking his sword and cutting him. The spirit of the smacking parry is not parrying, or smacking strongly, but smacking the enemy’s long sword in accordance with his attacking cut, primarily intent on quickly cutting him. If you understand the timing of smacking, however hard your long swords clash together, your swordpoint will not be knocked back even a little.

comment:  tee-dum” has the accent on the second beat-- tee-dum-- presumably “tee-”  is the sound of the opponent’s sword, and dumis the immediate reply of yours.

To tread down the sword: In single combat, at times we cannot get a decisive victory by cutting, with a “tee-dum tee-dum” feeling, in the wake of the enemy’s attacking with the long sword. We must defeat him at the start of his attack, in the spirit of treading him down with the feet, so that he cannot rise again to the attack.

When you have grasped this principle, whatever the enemy tries to bring about in the fight you will see in advance and suppress it. The spirit is to check his attack at the syllable “at...”; when he jumps check his jump at the syllable “ju...”; and check his cut at “cu...”. 

“Treading” does not simply mean treading with the feet. Tread with the body, tread with the spirit, and of course, tread and cut with the long sword. You must achieve the spirit of not allowing the enemy to attack a second time. Once at the enemy, you should not aspire just to strike him, but to cling after the attack.


Speed is not part of the true Way of strategy. Speed implies that things seem fast or slow, according to whether or not they are in rhythm. Whatever the Way, the master of strategy does not appear fast.

comment:  Similarly, the winningest of basketball coaches, John Wooden, used to tell his UCLA team in practice: “Be quick, but don’t hurry.”

In the Way of dance, accomplished performers can sing while dancing, but when beginners try this they slow down and their spirit becomes busy. Very skilful people can manage a fast rhythm, but it is bad to beat hurriedly (on a drum). If you try to beat too quickly you will get out of time. Of course, slowness is bad. Really skilful people never get out of time, and are always deliberate, and never appear busy. 

In large-scale strategy, a fast busy spirit is undesirable. The spirit must be that of holding down a pillow, then you will not be even a little late.

When your opponent is hurrying recklessly, you must act contrarily and keep calm. You must not be influenced by the opponent.

“Flowing Water Cut”: when you are struggling blade-to-blade with the enemy, and he breaks and quickly withdraws trying to spring with his long sword, expand your body and spirit and cut him as slowly as possible with your long sword, following your body like stagnant water.

comment:  Cut him as slowly as possible.  How do you do this, in the middle of life-or-death combat? Bill Walton is quoted in John Wooden’s book as saying that team practices at UCLA were so fast that when they were actually playing a game, it seemed slow. It should feel slow to yourself.  


Many things are said to be passed on (by contagion). Sleepiness can be passed on, and yawning can be passed on. Time can be passed on also.

In large-scale battles, when the enemy is agitated and shows an inclination to rush, do not mind in the least. Make a show of complete calmness, and the enemy will be taken by this and will become relaxed. When you see that this spirit has been passed on, you can bring about the enemy’s defeat by attacking strongly with a Void spirit.

In single combat, you can win by relaxing your body and spirit and then, catching onto the moment when the enemy relaxes, attack strongly and quickly, forestalling him.

What is known as “getting someone drunk” is similar to this. You can also affect the enemy with a bored, careless, or weak spirit.

comment:  Contagious moods and rhythms are at the center of human social interaction. There is a strong tendency for persons who mutually focus attention on each other to fall into the same rhythm and to become entrained in the same emotion. This is what creates solidarity feelings: in a meandering chat about nothing in particular, in a serious religious ceremony or a politicized crowd. Musashi warns against getting caught up in an enemy’s moods, by keeping your attitude detached, and recommends turning the tables by sucking him into a faked weak mood of your own contrivance.


When you and the enemy are contending with the same spirit, and the issue cannot be decided: abandon this spirit and win through an alternative.

To renew: when we are fighting with the enemy, and an entangled spirit arises where there is no possible resolution: we must abandon our efforts, think of the situation in a fresh spirit, then win with a new rhythm.

When we are fighting with the enemy and both he and we have become occupied with small points in an entangled spirit, we must suddenly change into a large spirit, interchanging large with small.

This is one of the essences of strategy. It is necessary that the warrior think in this spirit in everyday life.


The body strike: approach the enemy through a gap in his guard. The spirit is to strike him with your body. Turn your face a little aside and strike the enemy’s breast with your left shoulder thrust out. Approach with the spirit of bouncing the enemy away, striking as strongly as possible in time with your breathing.  If you achieve this method of closing with the enemy, you will be able to knock him ten or twenty feet away. It is possible to strike the enemy until he is dead.

comment:  The weapons on both sides are stalemated, so Musashi changes up and hits him with his shoulder (like a football lineman). This isn’t a polite fencing match.

The stab at the face: when you are in confrontation with the enemy, that your spirit is intent on stabbing at his face, following the line of the blade with the point of your long sword. If you are intent on stabbing at his face, his face and body will become rideable. When the enemy becomes rideable, there are various opportunities for winning.

comment:  “Rideable” is a good word for emotional domination, EDOM, but more specific, giving more of the physical sense of bodies in conflict.


“There are many enemies” applies when you are fighting one against many. Draw both long sword and short sword and assume a wide-stretched left and right attitude. The spirit is to chase the enemies around from side to side, even though they come from all four directions. Observe their attacking order, and go to meet first those who attack first. Sweep your eyes around broadly, carefully examining the attacking order, and cut left and right alternately with your swords. Waiting is bad.

Always quickly re-assume your attitudes to both sides, cut the enemies down as they advance, crushing them in the direction from which they attack. Whatever you do, you must drive the enemy together, as if tying a line of fishes, and when they are seen to be piled up, cut them down strongly without giving them room to move.

Think of the enemy as your own troops. When you think in this way, you can move him at will and be able to chase him around.

To mingle:  In battles, when the armies are in confrontation, attack the enemy’s strong points and, when you see they are beaten back, quickly separate and attack yet another strong point on the periphery of his force. The spirit of this is like a winding mountain path.

“Mingling” is the spirit of advancing and becoming engaged with the enemy, and not withdrawing even one step.

This is an important fighting method for one man against many. Strike down the enemies in one quarter, or drive them back, then grasp the timing and attack further strong points to right and left, as if on a winding mountain path. When you know the enemies’ level, attack strongly with no trace of retreating spirit.

comment:  Individual heroics in combat, such as Congressional Medal of Honor winners, typically involve a lone soldier who takes the initiative when the rest of the troops are stymied by a strong enemy. Sgt. Alvin York, in WWI in 1918, was in a platoon pinned down by German machine-gun fire; he shot a series of machine-gunners, and all 6 Germans who charged him with fixed bayonets. A German officer then surrendered the position to York, who had killed 25 soldiers, captured 130 and 35 machine guns. Anthony King (2013: 117-19) in his comparative research on infantry combat, notes that individual heroic performances do not contradict the tendency of most soldiers to hold back from aggressively firing or advancing under confrontational tension/fear. The one is the background for the other: pervasive ct/f  is what creates an opportunity for a lone individual to seize the initiative (such as by using the weapons his companions aren’t firing) and by attacking multiple enemies who themselves are slowed down by ct/f.


In duels of strategy you must know the opponent’s attitude. Attack where his spirit is lax, throw him into confusion, irritate and terrify him. Take advantage of the enemy’s rhythm when he is unsettled and you can win.

Do not let the enemy see your spirit.

In contests of strategy, it is bad to be led about by the enemy. You must always be able to lead the enemy about. Obviously the enemy will also be thinking of doing this, but he cannot forestall you if you do not allow him to come out. In strategy, you must stop the enemy as he attempts to cut; you must push down his thrust, and throw off his hold when he tries to grapple. This is the meaning of “to hold down a pillow”-- not allowing the enemy’s head to rise (like lying on a Japanese neck pillow). 

comment: When both sides are wise to the other’s strategy, switch to the physical plane, don’t give him time to swing into action.

When in a duel you must forestall the enemy and attack when you have first recognized his school of strategy, perceived his quality and his strong and weak points. Attack in an unsuspected manner, knowing his metre and modulation and the appropriate timing.

In single combat you must put yourself in the enemy’s position. But if you think, “Here is a master of the Way, who knows the principles of strategy”, you will surely lose.

comment: “Do not let the enemy see your spirit.”  Combine this principle with Dan Chambliss [1989] “the mundanity of excellence.”


Everything can collapse. Houses, bodies, and enemies collapse when their rhythm becomes deranged.

In single combat, the enemy sometimes loses timing and collapses. If you let this opportunity pass, he may recover and not be so negligent thereafter. Fix your eye on the enemy’s collapse, and chase him, attacking so that you do not let him recover. You must utterly cut the enemy down so that he does not recover his position.

If the enemy is less skilful than oneself, if his rhythm is disorganized, or if he has fallen into evasive or retreating attitudes, we must crush him straightaway, with no concern for his presence and without allowing him space for breath. It is essential to crush him all at once. The primary thing is not to let him recover his position even a little.


Whenever you cross swords with an enemy, you must not think of cutting him either strongly or weakly; just think of cutting and killing him. Do not try to cut strongly, and do not think of cutting weakly. You should only be concerned with killing the enemy.

If you rely on strength, when you hit the enemy’s sword, you will inevitably hit too hard. If you do this, your sword will be carried along as a result.

In large-scale strategy, if you have a strong army and are relying on strength to win, but the enemy also has a strong army, the battle will be fierce. This is the same for both sides.

comment:  This is a stalemate or war of attrition, with high casualties on both sides, for little gain. The Battle of Verdun.

The sure Way to win is to chase the enemy around in a confusing manner, causing him to jump aside, with your body held strongly and straight. You must chase the enemy around and make him obey your spirit.

In order to cut the enemy you must not make twisting or bending cuts. In my strategy, I bear my spirit and body straight, and cause the enemy to twist and bend. The necessary spirit is to win by attacking the enemy when his spirit is warped.

You must force the enemy into inconvenient situations.


There are three shouts: before, during, and after. Shout according to the situation. The voice is a thing of life. The voice shows energy.

In large-scale strategy, at the start of battle we shout as loudly as possible. During the fight, the voice is low-pitched, shouting as we attack. After the contest, we shout in the wake of victory.

In single combat, we make as if to cut and shout “Ei!” at the same time to disturb the enemy, then in the wake of our shout we cut with the long sword.

We do not shout simultaneously with flourishing the long sword. We shout during the fight to get into rhythm.

We shout after we have cut down the enemy-- this is to announce victory.

comment:  Shouting is a connection between mind and body. My karate instructor said you shout from deep in your torso to tense your stomach muscles, so that you won’t feel getting hit.  The low-pitched shout that Musashi describes above is probably this kind of sound.


It is bad to repeat the same thing several times when fighting the enemy. There may be no help but to do something twice, but do not try it a third time.


When we are fighting with the enemy, even when it can be seen that we can win on the surface, if his spirit is not extinguished, he may be beaten superficially yet undefeated in spirit deep inside. By “penetrating the depths” we can destroy the enemy’s spirit in the depths, demoralizing him by quickly changing our spirit.

comment:  Bobby Fischer trained for his match with Boris Spassky, not by reviewing chess scenarios with a staff of assistants, but by training hard at tennis, swimming, and boxing.

Penetrating the depths means penetrating with the long sword, penetrating with the body, and penetrating with the spirit. This cannot be understood in a generalization.

Study strategy over the years and achieve the spirit of the warrior. Today is victory over yourself of yesterday; tomorrow is your victory over lesser men.

Next, in order to beat more skilful men, train according to this book, not allowing your heart to be swayed along a side-track.  Even if you kill an enemy, it if is not based on what you have learned, it is not the true Way.  

[end of Book of Five Rings excerpts]

How applicable are Musashi’s techniques to modern life?

In business or politics you are not trying to kill your competitors except in a figurative sense (at least in the civilized part of the world). Musashi says, “You must discern your enemy’s grade”, meaning that techniques that work with an over-excited, unperceptive, or inexperienced swordfighter will not work against an expert. In business, politics, and sports, the aim is still to disrupt the opponent’s timing and seize the initiative. This requires careful observation of competitors’ practices, and above all, their frame of mind.

Purposeful observation of what goes on around you is always valuable, even when we are not concerned with being competitive.


No word is more central in Musashi’s text than “spirit.” It has a similar range of meanings as in English, but is much more important, both as the key to victory in combat and for samurai life.

The Japanese word for “spirit” (‘kokoro’) is a Chinese-based ideograph that also means “heart”. But it is not simply the jock cliché “you gotta have heart.” Never-give-up can be part of it, but when Musashi writes about spirit he is telling you how to achieve that attitude, and giving you techniques that make it easier rather than sheer all-out effort.

Spirit is not a quantity, that either you have it or your don’t,  a lot of it or a little. Being too spirited (in the conventional sense) is undesirable, just as is having a low spirit.

Spirit is contrasted with body, in expressions like “defeat the enemy with your spirit and your body”. But body is not merely a passive instrument, and it does not invoke the philosophical mind/body dualism. “Do not let your body affect your spirit” implies they are distinct ‘things’, each having its own dynamism, while they flow together in various ways.  Which ways are best is what Musashi writes about.

Spirit is inside, metaphorically deep, as when Musashi warns about defeating an enemy superficially but not in spirit.

Spirit is not mind per se, but it is part of mind-- it infuses your mind. Spirit can refer to your intention or goal that pervades what you are doing. (E.g. not just trying to touch swords or touch the enemy’s body, but the intention to cut him the from the moment you grip your sword.) If this is a state of mind, it goes right into your body-in-action. It is not a real intention in the sense Musashi means if it is only a mental plan.

The are many varieties of spirit. Musashi mentions:
a calm spirit;
a steady spirit;
a resolved spirit;
a spirit of attacking unrelentingly;
driving multiple enemies in the spirit of a winding mountain path;

and negative kinds of spirit:
a bewildered spirit;
a retreating spirit;
a fast busy spirit, hurrying recklessly;
a weak spirit, a low spirit (with rhythm unsettled-- in contrast to the settled spirit of the zen samurai)

Musashi says you must discern your enemy’s spirit, and act accordingly. You discern not just from physical manifestations-- “trivial movements of the enemy’s sword” are distractions-- but his bodily movements are a clue to what is inside. Thus especially with high-quality opponents, one must hide one’s spirit.

Spirit is intention in the sense of a plan of action, except it is more fluid-- flowing through your body and the situation created by contact-in-motion with your enemy. Musashi’s techniques include the spirit of getting control of your enemy’s sword; the spirit of stickiness; the spirit of breaking an impasse by hitting your opponent with your shoulder in the spirit of bouncing him backwards.

Musashi wrote: “When you are at a standstill with both sides having the same spirit, you must break off that spirit and launch a fresh spirit-- a new approach with a new rhythm. If you are muddled together scrapping over small things, flip from the small spirit to the large spirit.” Above all, the samurai’s all-pervasive aim is to make the enemy obey your spirit-- whatever your spirit is at that time. 

And what if there is no enemy? Can a samurai live at peace?

The most pervasive samurai spirit should be lived in everyday life: calm but determined.


Miyamoto Musaki, 1645 (1974). A Book of Five Rings.

“Miyamoto Musaki.” An unusually high-quality Wikipedia article.

Eiko Ikegami. 1995. The Taming of the Samurai. Harvard Univ. Press.

Randall Collins. 2008. Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory.

Anthony King. 2013.  The Combat Soldier.  Oxford Univ. Press.

Bobby Fischer. 1966. Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess.

Daniel Chambliss. 1989. “The Mundanity of Excellence.” Sociological Theory.