The Book of Five Rings (Gorin no sho) by Miyamoto Musashi

The Book of Five Rings (Gorin no sho), similar to other pre-modern East Asian philosophical texts, is comprised of brief passages under headings that deal with different issues.  Written by Miyamoto Musashi, a swordsman of mythical proportions, the book serves as a guide to both the martial arts and military strategy.  In this “guide,Ehowever, Musashi rarely goes into specific details on techniques or actual tactics but rather gives advice on the general picture of how one should react in a given situation. The booksEformat and ambiguities might be compared to Sun Tzu’s Art of War, another book on military strategy from the East Asian tradition.

The Book of Five Rings and Zen Buddhism
Zen Buddhism had a great influence on Musashi’s teachings.  Indeed, the austerity and simplicity in his teachings are similar to the doctrines of Zen.  Musashi insisted that knowledge is full circle, meaning that the most elementary teachings are also the more important.  The last chapter of the book, the “Scroll of Emptiness,Eemphasizes the importance of understanding and recognizing the existence of nothingness.  For in order to focus the mind completely on the attainment of the way, one must be free from the distractions of worldly matters.  Ultimately then, the sword becomes “no swordEas one is able to see the way of other things through the way of the warrior.

The Book of Five Rings and Japan’s Economic Boom
The Book of Five Rings has attracted a great deal of attention as some sort of salaryman’s bible.  Some have attributed Japan’s economic boom during the 70’s and 80’s to the bushidô legacy.  And consequently, the Book of the Five Rings has been credited with playing a role in developing both corporate strategy and the single-mindedness of Japanese white-collar types.  In fact, Musashi did deal with the subject of moneymaking directly in his work.  For example, in the chapter titled “Ground Book,EMusashi wrote that the “way of the merchantEis “always to live by taking profit.E/font>

Miyamoto Musashi
Shinmen Musashi no Kami Fujiwara no Genshin, or as he is more commonly known to Japanese, Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645), was born to a family of powerful samurai retainers.  His mother died when he was very young, and his father abandoned him soon after, so he was brought up by relatives.  Dedicated to kendô at a very early age, young Musashi was said to have killed a man for the first time at age thirteen.  The combative Musashi found abundant opportunities to hone his skill, having been born in the midst of the unification campaigns first undertaken by the powerful daimyo warlord, Oda Nobunaga.  With more than sixty duels under his belt by the time he was twenty-nine, Musashi decided to abandon real swords once and for all and fashioned a wooden sword instead.  By the time he was fifty-five, Musashi understood the way of strategy.  He lived out his final years in a cave, away from luxury, where he wrote the Book of Five Rings.

English Translations
There are four different English translations of Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings available.  Each is listed below with some brief comments on the comparative strengths and weaknesses of the various translations.

A Book of Five Rings: A Guide to Strategy translated by Victor Harris (Woodstock: The Overlook Press, 1974)
This version does an excellent job of situating Musashi in a historical context.  The book begins with a fascinating piece about Japan during Musashi’s lifetime, including a discussion about the political system and the unification process that was about to change Japan.  The next section is a biography of Musashi with interesting anecdotes about his various duels.  Portraits of Musashi, pictures of swords he used, and paintings by Musashi appear throughout the book.  Not coincidentally, the author/translator is a curator at the British museum and an authority on Japanese swords.  The translation of the work itself is easy to understand and provides footnotes for Japanese terms that appear in the text.

The Book of Five Rings translated by Thomas Cleary (Boston & London: Shambhala, 1993)
This edition, from Buddhist scholar Thomas Cleary contains disappointingly little on the historical background of Musashi and his times.  The lack of any interesting pictures, maps, or footnotes also make reading this book a rather dry experience on the whole. The translation, however, is easily readable, and he avoids using any Japanese terms.  Perhaps his goal was to make the text as easy to read as possible.  The small label, “Business/ Martial Arts,Eappears on the back cover, suggesting that the book might be for businessmen who do not have the time or inclination to learn more about Japanese history and culture.  Cleary’s biggest contribution is his ability to make abstract religious concepts understandable to the reader.  This is especially important in the final chapter of the work, the “Book of Emptiness,E which is regarded as the chapter most heavily influenced by Musashi’s Zen Buddhist background.

Consider the following passage in the Harris translation: “What is called the spirit of the void is where there is nothing.  It is not included in man’s knowledge.  Of course the void is nothingness.  By knowing things that exist, you can know that which does not exist.  That is the void.Enbsp; Cleary translates these esoteric concepts in a more comprehensible way: “The meaning of emptiness is that the realm where nothing exists, or cannot be known, is seen as empty.  Of course, emptiness does not exist.  Knowing of nonexistence while knowing of existence is emptiness.Enbsp; Cleary gives the reader a better chance of understanding the material in this difficult chapter.

The Book of Five Rings: The Real Art of Japanese Management translated by Nihon Services Corporation: Bradford J. Brown, Yuko Kashiwagi, William H. Barrett, and Eisuke Sasagawa (New York: Bantam Books, 1982)
This translation, as its title suggests, seems to promise businessmen a fast track up the corporate ladder through understanding the secrets of Eastern mysticism.  The cover features a salaryman and a samurai standing opposite each other in a similar pose, suggesting some sort of equivalency between the two figures.  Despite its kitschy appearance, the translation is not as bad as might be expected.  A short commentary precedes every scroll in the book, summarizing the contents of each scroll.  Their language, however, is rather awkward, and they are not all that helpful.  The translation itself is more readable, but the wording is slightly clumsy, and the translators fail to provide explanatory footnotes for Japanese terms.

Consider the following excerpt: “In Heiho as it pertains to large numbers, it is important to chase the opponent so as not to lose the moment afforded by seizing the rhythm of the opponent’s collapse.  If you lose the moment afforded by the opponent’s collapse, the opponent may recover.Enbsp; In the Harris book, this excerpt is translated in a more succinct and fluid manner: “In large-scale strategy, when the enemy starts to collapse you must pursue him without letting the chance go.  If you fail to take advantage of your enemiesEcollapse, they may recover.Enbsp; The repetitiveness and wordiness in the Nihon ServicesE translation can be tedious for the reader.  This translation does seem to offer a more literal translation (which would probably explain the clumsy and repetitive wording).

The Martial Artist’s Book of Five Rings: The Definitive Interpretation of Miyamoto Musashi’s Classic Book of Strategy translated by Steve Kaufman (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle, 1999)
Steve Kaufman, a karate expert living in New York City, has produced a responsible translation of Miyamoto Musashi’s classic.  Although there is little in terms of historical context and background, Kaufman does an excellent job of translating the text.  Not as concise as HarrisEtranslation, Kaufman nonetheless avoids the wordiness of the Nihon ServicesEversion.  Kaufman points out in his introduction that “this is not another book about Japanese business strategy,Epointing to the obvious, yet often ignored, difference between “not getting a deal signed and having your head cut off.Enbsp; It would be safe to assume then, that Kaufman would not be too pleased to learn that the back cover of the book has “Martial Arts/ BusinessEwritten on it.  Aimed at “martialistsE(not to be confused, Kaufman adds, with martial-artists, for the concept of “artEin the context of battle can be problematic), the book conveys a vital sense of physicality in its writing.  This version pays additional attention to passages that discuss individual combat.  As compared to other translations, Kaufman goes into much more detail when discussing the “martialistEmaterial in the book.

In the section titled “Holding the Long Sword,EKaufman gives a very descriptive account on how the swordsman should conduct himself: “It is important for you to understand the proper manner in which to hold the long sword.  The grip should be both loose and tight at the same time.  What I mean by this is that you should hold the sword firmly and resolutely, yet at the same time your hand and wrist must be pliable.  Hold the sword as you would a fishing rod and strike with it as if you were casting a fish line.  Hold the sword tightly with the bottom two fingers to give yourself the added support you need to wield the long sword correctly. Direct the sword with your thumb and forefingerE  Kaufman’s long-winded translation contrasts sharply with HarrisEbrevity as he omits the first half of the passage: “Grip the long sword with a rather floating feeling in your thumb and forefinger, with the middle finger neither tight nor slack, and with the last two fingers tight.  It is bad to have play in your hands.Enbsp; Overall, Kaufman’s translation comes out sounding precisely like it was written by the man he claims to be, one who has practiced karate for over forty years and studied the “ringsEfor another ten.