Musashi: what can we learn from the greatest swordsman of all time?

I have put my life on the line many times in combat. I have learned the Way of the Sword by risking everything in the divide between life and death. ‘

‘The victor is already determined before the fight even begins.’

Miyamoto Musashi is indisputably the greatest swordsman of all times. Born in Japan in 1582, he participated and won more than sixty duels from the ages of 13 to 30. After this he created his own fighting school, studied art, painted, practised zen (see my previous post on Zen and chess) and wrote several books including the very famous ‘Book of the five rings’.

The five scrolls that constitue de ‘Books of the five rings’ source : visit-kyushu

He described in great detail his method and techniques of sword fighting (he famously used a two swords fighting style), and his books are still studied today for their relevance in Japanese fencing.

Kendo. source: gify

Musashi spawned an industry of varying quality, books, movies, contradicting accounts of the fairness of his fights. While the fencing part is of anecdotal relevance today, the interesting part is the mindset, not only of combat but also of the development of one’s craft – as Musashi built a style from the ground up, one that ‘just works’.

So what can we learn, that is directly relevant for us, if we compete in a board game like chess or an esport? Or if we just look to master a craft?

First of all, what was Musashi like?

We have his writing and the writing of his contemporaries, and a self portrait!

Musashi, self portrait

His swordsmanship is described by a contemporary account as ‘exceptionally serene, as if one were watching a performance of Noh’ [Japanese dancing theater]’

This description reminds me of Roger Federer, the ultimate image of serene mastery:

Musashi’s fluid sword stroke. source: GIFY

Treat your subject like a craft

Musashi thinks of the ‘Way’ of the warrior similar to the craft of the carpenter:

‘Carpenter is written as two ideograms meaning ‘great’ and ‘craft”
master carpenter, while building a house, uses similar techniques as the ones of strategy and combat.

Just like a carpenter relentless strives to improve at his craft, so should the warrior. Deconstructing a craft is not rocket science:

‘Learn big things first, and then the smaller details

Hard work brings mastery

In the book of the five rings, almost every paragraph ends with ‘train unremittingly’, ‘work hard’, ‘study this well’, ‘train hard in this’, ‘consider this carefully’, etc.

Once things are fully assimilated, it will all be (and look) effortless, manifesting as Kahneman’s ‘system 1’ style of thinking and acting:

‘Think of the principles as emanating from within your own heart, and study hard to devise ways of embodying them at all times.’

Having comprehended the truth of the way, you can let it go.’

and finally reach Federer levels of mastery:

‘Your strike will manifest on its own, and hit the target on its own’

Progress takes time

Compounding small gains slowly but regularly yields large improvements over time:

‘Haste not in your training in the knowledge that this is the warrior’s calling. Seek victory today over the self of yesterday. Tomorrow, conquer your shortcomings and then build your strong points.
One thousand days of training to forge, ten thousand days of training to refine. Be mindful of this.’

Don’t be lured by flashy things you see on social media.

Mushashi in the Wind scrolls criticises other fighting schools, which were very good at advertising but selling a product that was sub-par and exploitable on the battlefield.

‘Other schools extol the virtues of their colorful, flowery techniques like produce peddled to make a living.
By bamboozling novices with countless moves, teachers make them believe that their training method is profound.”

This hits very true in the social media age.

Cultivate the right mindset

I thought that having a ‘mind like water’ was a Bruce Lee quote. Musashi describes this calm and flexible mindset:

‘One’s mind should neither dwindle nor be in an excited state. It must not be rueful nor afraid. It is straight and expansive, with one’s ‘heart of intent’ faint and one’s ‘hear of perception’ substantial. The mind is like water, able to respond aptly to changing situations.’

It is also important to pay attention to your opponent

‘With regards to mindset as you engage in a contest, be calmer than normal and try to see your opponent’s mind.”


I hope you enjoyed these selected quotes from Musashi’s works. They are all very relevant for today’s world and competition. I will write another post on links between zen and the Way of samurais, which will be the third and final in a trilogy of posts with a zen and Japanese influence.

Musashi died in his bed the 13 June 1645 (aged 60), saying shortly before:

‘The strategy of ultimate reality and harmony, even with my death, will endure forever’

Rest well, dear friend.

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