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Book of Five Spheres

Category: Books sutras and myths

The Book of Five Spheres is also known as the Book of Five Rings.  It was written in 1643 by Miyamoto Musashi, a masterless samurai, undefeated dueller and independent teacher.

Superficially it is a book about war, conflict and the martial arts, emerging from the Japanese warrior culture and this is exactly how it can be read.  The subtitle of the book also leads one to the same conclusion ‘the Japanese Way of the Sword’.  But sword in Japanese society had more than one meaning and in common parlance, to do something with a real sword means to do it with utmost earnestness.  To have an attitude proper to a real sword means to be deadly serious.  There are other meanings of the word sword too, which also apply.

Although Miyamoto Musashi had an eventful military career, he himself says he did not realise the deeper meaning of martial arts until late in life, which is when he wrote the book.  In effect, one can view the book as a symbolic reference to internal struggle and mastery – the spiritual battle – and thus the book is in a sense about the spiritual path.

The book was written in Japanese rather than the literary Chinese customary in elite bureaucratic, religious and intellectual circles in Japan at that time.  The Japanese in which it is written is relatively uncomplicated and free of the subtle complexities of classical high court Japanese.  The basic simplicity and deliberate clarity of the work makes it accessible to a wide and varied audience, just as Musashi intended.  The book is also very small and compact.  I have used the translation by Thomas Cleary.  The book is split into the following parts, which should also help to show that the path Musashi is describing is that of ascension and related to the Chinese elements:

  • The Earth Scroll
  • The Water Scroll
  • The Fire Scroll
  • The Wind Scroll
  • The Scroll of Emptiness

This is from the Preface to Musashi's book

The science of MARTIAL ARTS called the Individual School of Two Skies is something that I have spent many years refining. Now, wishing to reveal it in a book for the first time, I have ascended Mount Iwato in Higo province of Kyushu. Bowing to Heaven, paying respects to Kannon, I face the Buddha.

I am Shinmen Musashi no Kami, Fujiwara no Genshin, a warrior born in the province of Harima, now sixty years old.  I have set my mind on the science of martial arts since my youth long ago. I was thirteen years old when I had my first duel. On that occasion I won over my opponent, a martial artist named Arima Kihei of the New School of Accuracy. At sixteen years of age I beat a powerful martial artist called Akiyama of Tajima province. When I was twenty-one, I went to the capital city and met martial artists from all over the country.

Although I engaged in numerous duels, never did I fail to attain victory.  After that, I traveled from province to province, meeting martial artists of the various schools.  Although I duelled more than sixty times, never once did I lose.

That all took place between the time I was thirteen years old and the time I was twenty-nine.  When I had passed the age of thirty and reflected on my experiences, I realized that I had not been victorious because of consummate attainment of martial arts. Perhaps it was because I had an inherent skill for the science and had not deviated from natural principles. It may also have been due to shortcomings in the martial arts of other schools. In any case, I subsequently practiced day and night in order to attain an even deeper principle, and spontaneously came upon the science of martial arts.

I was about fifty years old at that time.

Since then I have passed the time with no science into which to inquire. Trusting in the advantage of military science, as I turn it into the sciences of all arts and skills, I have no teacher in anything.  Now in composing this book, I have not borrowed the old sayings of Buddhism or Confucianism, nor do I make use of old stories from military records or books on military science. With Heaven and Kannon for mirrors, I take up the brush and begin to write, at 4:00 AM on the night of the tenth day of the tenth month, 1643.

 

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