01 June 2006

Review: The Book of Five Rings

My head hurts.

I was visiting a friend a couple months ago, and we were discussing books (a frequent topic of conversation with me). He said he never rereads books, because he remembers everything that happened. Had he let me get a word in edgewise, I would have countered that rereading a book isn't about going back over what happened. It's about returning to the work with context gleaned from additional experiences, and gaining new insights.

Obviously, I don't mean something like E. Nesbit or Edgar Rice Burroughs, which I read purely for enjoyment. I mean a book like, for example, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which will be a very different experience for a fifteen-year-old as opposed to a twenty-three-year-old. Same for anything by Steinbeck. Same, even, for Lord of the Rings.

That isn't to say that brain candy books aren't subject to differing interpretations at different ages. I know I'll see John Carter and Dick Seaton very differently when I'm forty. But the more profound works naturally have more impact on the reader, and so when I reread something like East of Eden, I'm looking for new insights and new understanding that I couldn't have had before, simply because I hadn't lived enough.

The Book of Five Rings, by Miyamoto Musashi, is one of the books I will read and reread. I read it twice today, in fact, simply because the first reading was so beyond me. I caught a concept here and there, but I can't say I understood the work.

Musashi, born in feudal Japan in 1584, was a samurai. More specifically, he was a ronin, meaning he had no master, and roamed the land, frequently fighting other samurai to see whose technique was better. He is supposed to have been undefeated, and around the age of fifty, came to understand that he was undefeated because of his perfect mental approach. The Book of Five Rings, then, is about the mental approach - about how to achieve Zen in daily living, so that in everything you do, you act with the same unconscious instinct.

As I said, I had a lot of difficulty understanding the work, so take my interpretations with a grain of salt. But I gleaned that Musashi says that everything, whether it be swordplay or painting, must be practiced until it becomes intuitive, until the muscles of the body act with no direction from the mind. Also, the practice must be correct. There is no point, for example, in practicing when you are very tired and falling into sloppy habits, because practicing poor habits causes you to learn those habits instead of learning it correctly.

I thought about this in terms of playing the piano. I've never had a piano lesson in my life, and am not particularly good at sight reading, so my ability to bang out a simple Bach solo is the result of considerable study and practice. I don't need the sheet music to play either of the two pieces of which I am thinking (Chorale in F major and Minuet in G major), as I have practiced both so often that my fingers know them by heart. There have been times when I've fallen out of practice (such as when I was away at school), but when I sit down to the piano again, after a couple false starts, my fingers remember the piece and I can play it note-perfect.

I do have a tendency to ignore dynamic markings when I am just learning a piece, however. I have a feeling Musashi wouldn't approve.

One part of the book is about swordfighting, which on the surface isn't particularly relevant to my life. This book, however, is not about surface meanings. Here is one excerpt that I immediately understood.
When the opponent sets up a move, it is important to leave that which is of no use to the opponent and to hold down that which can be of use so as to make it impossible for the opponent to carry out his plans...When the opponent attempts to execute a move, frustrate it from the onset, make whatever the opponent was trying to accomplish of no use, and achieve the freedom with which to lead the opponent.
I understood this passage because this is exactly how I play chess. Nevertheless, my overall chess strategy would not meet with Musashi's favor, because it's very defensive, and Musashi says that when you are on the defense, you are allowing your opponent to lead you.

Another passage I immediately understood and saw the applications of was the following.
By "to stab at the face" is meant that when the long swords of the opponents and allies are equal, to stab the face of the opponent with the point of one's own long sword between the long swords of the opponent's and the long swords of one's own side. If there is the will to stab the face of the opponent, the opponent will endeavor to move away his face and torso. If the opponent tries to move away his face and torso, there are many ways by which one can achieve victory. This should be thought out.

During combat, if the opponent intends to get out of the way, for all intents and purposes you have already won. That is why this "to stab at the face" should not be forgotten. While practicing the martial arts, one should train well in this advantageous method. [Emphasis added.]
This applies not just to swordfighting, but to any fighting, to chess, to poker, and even to business negotiating, and I'm sure to dozens of other aspects of life I can't think of late at night. Basically, if you have the guts to take an action, and your opponent flinches, you win.

The Book of Five Rings is page after page of these sorts of insights, many of which I understood only imperfectly. I'll be coming back to this book year after year, trying to put more of it in context, trying to grasp Musashi's philosophy, so that I too may be undefeated.

I highly recommend it.


Anonymous geoff said...

Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (a psychology prof at U. of Chicago) wrote a book called: Flow: the psychology of optimal experience, in which he talks about which experiences in life make us happy. What he came up with (excluding mundane physical pleasures) after interviewing dozens of successful people, was that they all experienced the common sensation of "flow." "Flow" is what we would call "being in the zone" - when time stops, the outer world ceases to exist, and complete focus on a challenging task is achieved.

This experience, when applied to one's life, seems to be what people are talking about when they discuss "Zen," and what Musashi Miyamato is talking about in his book. It is, in my experience, to be sought when missing and treasured when found. I don't think Musashi's philosophy can be fully apprehended without understanding both Flow and combat styles of the samurai. But I try every five years or so.

Csikszentmihalyi's book and it's sequels don't offer much beyond the original premise - if you understand the concept of being "in the zone" you have pretty much grasped his arguments. After his initial presentation, it's pretty much example after example. They are short books, though, so if you feel compelled to go to the original source . . .

1:51 AM  
Blogger Mrs. Peel said...

So Musashi is his patronymic? I know patronymic is supposed to go first in Japanese names, but I'm never quite sure whether that rule is being obeyed or not in a translated work. So I just use whatever order the translator(s) used.

Yeah, the "stopping mind" is mentioned several times as an obstacle to achieving Zen, and Musashi says to concentrate on the big picture rather than any one little detail. That's how I drive, and I am very rarely surprised by an action taken by any vehicle.

I guess coding is being in the flow. It's so easy to lose yourself in the problem and forget everything around you.

9:27 AM  
Anonymous mark flacy said...

And how does The Book of 5 Rings apply to this? I mean, focus!

12:41 PM  
Anonymous geoff said...

So Musashi is his patronymic? I know patronymic is supposed to go first in Japanese names

No, Miyamoto is his last name, and it should come first. I had a leetle beer in the system last night, and I was focusing so hard on getting Csikszentmihalyi's name right that I whiffed on Miyamoto's. Despite the fact that you had it correctly in your post.

I guess coding is being in the flow. It's so easy to lose yourself in the problem and forget everything around you.

I have the same experience when things are going right (i.e., I'm in the mood and my environment allows me the time and peace to really focus) - it also hits me when I'm writing sometimes. It's what keeps me in the game.

1:22 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

To "stab at the face" definitely can work in a high-stakes mult-million dollar negotiation. But you need to understand stabbing. In that context, the goals are to establish personal credibility, negotiate from priniciples, and offer a deal they want. Of course, you have to know they want it. But the underlying principle is the same as stabbing at the face -- you want to play offense, not defense. You want to act, not just react.

12:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Preemption of action, man. Feint a jab before the other punk set his guard. Set the tone, set the rhythm, make your opponent(s) play your game, not the other way around.

Icepick the Mad!

11:57 PM  

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