“Shishio’s logic dictates that the winner of a battle — in other words, the strong — is always correct, that it does. If the truth could be discovered by winning one or two battles, then we’d all go through life without ever being wrong. A person’s life isn’t so simple a matter, that it isn’t. The true answer is something you find out yourself by how you live your life from this day forward, that it is.” — Kenshin Himura
I was first introduced to Kenshin Himura in the mid-1990s via the animated series Samurai X — and watching the live-action adaptation, Rurouni Kenshin (The Wandering Samurai), evoked in me a certain nostalgia.
A fearless and feared assassin, Kenshin Himura was a prominent figure in the revolution against the Tokugawa Shogunate of feudal Japan — and may have been a Hitokiri of the Bakumatsu war. After the fall of the Tokugawas, Kenshin shed off his Battōsai (manslayer) persona to become a Rurouni (wanderer) and roamed the countrysides of Meiji-era Japan on a quest to atone for his sins by becoming the protector of the innocent. His reverse-blade sword became a testament to his vow not to kill anymore.
No, I am not doing a review of the movie.
Kenshin Himura, in some ways, reminded me of the great real-life samurai, Miyamoto Musashi. Both men perfected the art of sword fighting before the age of 20… only to forsake it and live a life of anonymity.
Musashi was an epitome of a true warrior, however, he’s something of an enigma in Japanese Samurai history. Despite living in a culture where adherence to grandiose protocols and rituals — as well as sacred notions of respect and honor — were the preferred, nay, THE ONLY way, he abhorred all prefectures. He was a self-taught swordsman, as Kenshin Himura was, and adhered to no specific discipline, school or kata. He was an iconoclast, a nonconformist, seemingly unconcerned completely with aesthetics, status, rank, or ‘playing by the rules.’ He lived only by his rules, and strived only to achieve a singular goal — to perfect his art, the art of the long sword. There is a general misconception that Musashi was expert only with the katana — a curved, slender, single-edged blade with a circular or squared guard and long grip to accommodate two hands. This is somewhat inaccurate and limiting. Musashi had no preference for one particular weapon over another — he excelled in the use of all of them — that when he accepts a duel, he almost always allowed his opponent to choose the weapon they’d use in dueling. Yet he never lost, culminating his career with 60 confirmed kills in formal duels and probably at least another 100 unaccounted for in combat. After his final mortal duel at age 30 with Sasaki Kojiro, Musashi never fought opponents to the death again. He would duel only with nonlethal weapons, such as wooden swords. What ushered in this complete turnaround is still a matter of debate among Musashi scholars.
I got interested with Musashi upon reading this passage in the Go Rin Nō Shō:
“Sharpen your wisdom, distinguish principle and its opposite in the world, learn the good and bad of all things, experience all the arts and accomplishments and their various Ways, and act in a way so that you will not be taken in by anyone. This is the heart of the wisdom of the martial arts.” — Miyamoto Musashi
The Go Rin Nō Shō or The Book of Five Rings is just one of the very few philosophical works that I have ever read. Attributed to the legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi — perhaps the greatest samurai who ever lived — the book delves into various martial arts strategy, tactics and philosophy that are also applicable to one’s everyday life and which still hold true today. In 1645, barely one week before his death, Musashi wrote this 21-point philosophy, as an ‘instructional manual’ for Terao Magonojo, his favorite disciple. It expresses a stringent, honest and ascetic view of life.
- Do not turn your back on the various Ways of this world.
- Do not scheme for physical pleasure.
- Do not intend to rely on anything.
- Consider yourself lightly; consider the world deeply.
- Do not ever think in acquisitive terms.
- Do not regret things about your own personal life.
- Do not envy other’s good or evil.
- Do not lament parting on any road whatsoever.
- Do not complain or feel bitterly about yourself or others.
- Have no heart for approaching the path of love.
- Do not have preferences.
- Do not harbor hopes for your own personal home.
- Do not have a liking for delicious food for yourself.
- Do not carry antiques handed down from generation to generation.
- Do not fast so that it affects you physically.
- While it’s different with military equipment, do not be fond of material things.
- While on the Way, do not begrudge death.
- Do not be intent on possessing valuables or a fief in old age.
- Respect the gods and Buddhas, but do not depend on them.
- Though you give up your life, do not give up your honor.
- Never depart from the Way of the Martial Arts.
In the 21-maxim Dokkōdō or The Path of Aloneness or more popularly, The Way of Walking Alone, Musashi wasn’t beating around the bush with his initial salvo: Do not turn your back on the various Ways of this world. This first adage — or sometimes written as “Accept all things just the way it is.” — is perhaps the cornerstone of the entire Dokkōdō‘s philosophy of self-reliance… and it echoes one of my own personal tenet: The Serenity Prayer.
The key word in his first ‘instruction’ is Ways. What precisely did Musashi mean by ‘Ways’? To have a clear understanding of what he’s trying to tell us, we must first define ‘Ways’ from his perspective, as reflected in some of his other pronouncements:
“Entrusting myself to the principles of my martial art, I have never had a teacher while studying the Ways of the various arts and accomplishments, or in anything at all”.
Here, Musashi talked about several ‘Ways’. Presumably, there is a Way for each ‘art and accomplishment’:
“First, as representatives of Ways, Buddhism is a Way of salvation for man, Confucianism venerates a Way of culture, and medicine is a Way of curing various diseases. Moreover, poets teach the Way of Japanese verse; and then there are tea masters, archers, and others who teach the various arts. All of these practice according to their own thoughts and relish what they do according to their own hearts.”
To Musashi, ‘Way’ is the underlying principle or goal of an art or achievement that dictates its practice — there are many different Ways and one for each different art… and that each person has their own individual Way that they practice, where each different art has as many different Ways as it does practitioners. Thus, “It is essential that each person polish his own Way well”, he reminds his disciple.
Furthermore, he tells us that:
“There is a rhythm to everything, but particularly in the martial arts, if you do not train in its rhythm it is difficult to succeed. To indicate some of the rhythms in the world, there are those for the Way of Noh drama. When the rhythms of the musicians playing wind and stringed instruments are coordinated, the entire rhythm is balanced. In the military arts, there is a rhythm and timing in the release of the bow, in the firing of a rifle and even in mounting a horse. You cannot ignore rhythm in any of the arts and accomplishments… The rhythm is different according to each and every Way. You should discriminate thoroughly between the rhythm of success and the rhythm of failure”.
Each different Way has lessons to teach us, a new way of looking at things that might bring us closer to the best way of achieving success in all things. Just as his fascination with Noh led him to the realization that proper rhythm is necessary to the martial arts; hence, Musashi believed that mastering various Ways will eventually lead us to a similar revelation.
On the other hand, he warns us that although each can practice a Way “according to their own thoughts”, there are still norms to follow:
“How to fix the eyes goes according to the style. Some fix their eyes on their opponent’s sword, while in other styles they fix their eyes on their opponent’s hands. Others fix their eyes on the face, and others on the feet. All of these, as they fix their eyes on one special place, confuse the mind and pose a malady to the martial arts”.
There is a right and a wrong method in practicing a Way, and it is not up to individual interpretation. According to Musashi, correct practice or technique springs forth from the correct understanding of a Way:
“From the time I was young I have set my mind on the Way of the Martial Arts, practiced the one subject of swordsmanship with my entire being and experienced various and different understandings. Looking into other styles, I have found that they were either speaking with clever pretexts or demonstrating detailed hand maneuvers; while they looked good to the eye, none of them had the heart of truth… the true Way of Swordsmanship is to fight with your opponent and win, and this should not be changed in the slightest”.
So, how do we practice a Way correctly?
Musashi propagated the idea that no matter what technique a practitioner employs, as long as he is focused on seeking victory, each Way he chooses will help him succeed. This dictum tells us to focus on our idea of seeking victory over mastering a particular technique — let our goal to succeed be the guiding principle of our technique. Technique is the implement of each different Ways — a tool to be used in accomplishing a Way. For instance, in the Way of Martial Arts, technique is to be used as a tool to overpower an opponent and achieve victory. A dedicated disciple who follows a Way should be able to visualize victory in all things, and should seek it. But not even the most avid practitioner of a Way can attain victory through a singular art; thus it becomes necessary to seek out a different Way to achieve victory.
That is why Musashi exhorts us not to depart from or forget the various Ways. He’s teaching us that success can only be achieved by ‘mastering’ all Ways. In essence, he’s telling us that we cannot fully claim success in one aspect of our life if there is a part of it that suffers. Harmony. Balance. These are the essentials of true victory.
… and that’s just the first maxim of the Way of Walking Alone.