9 Life Lessons We Can Learn From Miyamoto Musashi (Japan’s Greatest Samurai)

Arguably the most famous fighter from history was Miyamoto Musashi from the early Edo (Tokugawa) period of Japan, a Ronin that was alleged by some to have roamed this world between the years of 1584-1645.

Musashi was a master in martial arts and subsequently much more. He wrote his now famous texts towards the end of his relatively long life, with the Dokkōdō (Way of Walking Alone) being written just a week before his demise. Reading Musashi’s works and the biographical accounts of him will undoubtedly leave you in complete admiration of such an authentic figure. His relentlessly astute observations of the natural world, as well as of ‘The Way’ in martial arts, echo very similar sentiments and conclusions one may find in even seemingly unrelated endeavours, from business to art and ultimately everyday life.

Here are some of those lessons derived primarily from The Book of Five Rings, The Dokkōdō and William Scott Wilson’s ‘The Lone Samurai’ (a biographical text on Musashi).

When overwhelmed, take one step a time

‘Observe their attacking order, and go to meet first those who attack first. Sweep your eyes around broadly, carefully examining the attacking order, and cut left and right alternately with your swords. Waiting is bad.

Now of course, he is talking about enemies within a combat scenario, but the same can be applied to any opposing forces we face (that often appear impolitely in inconvenient clusters). This can range from family, work, fitness, finances. It’s a lesson in observation and learning to prioritise, by being proactive and taking on a situation one step at a time; as they align with your priorities. This is exponentially more effective than waiting and wishing your worries away.

“In all things . . . immobility is undesirable. Immobility means a dead hand; mobility means a living hand”

Don’t be dissuaded by difficulty 

‘It will seem difficult at first, but everything is difficult at first.’

It sounds so simple and even obvious, but at times, the difficulty of a situation can knock someone’s confidence across the spectrum of daily activities from the large to the small.

Passing on a difficult activity will have its obvious effects. In the macro, it could mean not moving towards your ideal life because it would be a lot of work to get there and for the smaller activities it can simply mean not achieving the small duties each day. Doing things you find difficult is the only way for them not to remain difficult for the rest of your life.

When you next hear that voice bellowing in your brain “forget it, it’s too hard! If I can’t do it perfectly, then I may as well not bother” take a breath, remind yourself of this mantra and you may find that voice shouldn’t have the final say.

We can utilise our opposition and fears

‘Using the wisdom of strategy, think of the enemy as your own troops. When you think in this way you can move him at will and be able to chase him around’

The ‘F’ Word. Fear. Often perceived to be a part of ourselves that gets in our own way. So, in treating fear like your own troop, it can be integrated and utilised for progress. Fear activates adrenaline, making us more alert and aware in addition to saving us from the temptation to jump off a cliff because that naughty person our mother referenced said so.

It is shown in practices such as exposure therapy that when we wilfully expose ourselves to our fears, we create crucial psychological processes, allowing us to access the positive aspects of fear. Bravery isn’t the absence of fear, it’s to move in spite of it, embracing it.

Commit to everything that you do

‘Strike with the intention to kill’.

Or in less murderous terms…’Do not under any circumstances, depend on a partial feeling’

This feeling ensured a lifelong career that sustained not one single defeat (according to one side of the roaring discussion). This becomes very obvious in sports where physical danger is associated with defeat: a fist in the face for boxers, a face skidding along the concrete in for skaters or being pinned to the floor by an overloaded barbell you’ve half-tried to squat. All this could have been avoided if you weren’t so busy thinking about the comforting grace of your duvet. 

To strengthen your focus, try dedicating your attention towards one thing at a time. It is incredibly easy in the current world to have a thousand stimuli at your disposal for distraction whenever you want it during any task. For example, checking your phone after every exercise at the gym and taking too much rest or switching between your tasks and the internet or emails at work and never getting into the proper flow and doing concentrated work on your intended task. 

Force isn’t always the answer

There is no quote here, just context.

Let’s make one thing clear. Musashi’s path quickly began to paint the pavements red. He was confident enough to triumphantly duel local celebrities (such as Arima Kihei) as a 12 year old and continued to cut down, kill or severely injure, each and every one of his opponents until his later years. It’s been debated that his practice of Zen Buddhism became a more significant part of his life and he began to duel with a different approach. He began to exhaust his opponents of all their moves and strategies until they had accepted they could not defeat him and his wooden practice katana (referred to as a bokken). 

Albeit brief, this context is home to a lesson. Force is not always what is necessary for the attainment of victory. In fact, if Musashi had killed Musō Gonosukke (a Samurai of the time) in their first martial bout, he would not have had the opportunity to appreciate the short staff (Jo) technique his opponent had developed in reflection of their first duel. This allowed Gonosukke to arguably tie with Musashi in their following ‘test of skill’. Impressed, Musashi took it upon himself to teach this technique to his disciples. At the broad level, when your scenario involves other people, there is so much to learn and appreciate in one another that it makes sense to avoid unnecessary destruction at all costs.

Appreciating diversity

‘It is difficult to know yourself if you do not know others’. 

In choosing to be ignorant of diverse opinions, people, places and techniques, regardless of how inaccurate or bad they may appear to be, we are robbing ourselves of the knowledge that can be gained from paying attention.

Seeing the person at work who seemingly has the ability to stand up at work and talk effortlessly to a group can feel like they have some sort of superpower. At the same time, think about the things that come easy to you and I’m sure there are multiple that you would surpass that same person in. There’s a reason companies are made up of different job roles and sports teams have different positions.

Diversity in people in their skills, experiences and thought-processes is exactly what pushes groups forward. You can’t be the best at everything and we won’t all have the same perspective on things, but being aware of this, listening carefully, having the ability to talk through our opinions without immediate disregarding alternative views and choosing the best path forward is exactly what drives progress.

Now that may seem obvious but it is hard to put into practice, so if you are able to you are already ahead of the vast majority.

Acceptance is key

‘Accept everything just the way it is’ 

As an individual who had achieved so much in martial arts and many other fields, he was living proof that acceptance is not the same as complacency, a generally disregarded and disdained word that makes people recoil when they’re labelled as such.

As with every single thing on this list, you need to research what he says with experience. Being a traveller that immersed himself into the topography of the land, he would have had to accept the harsh realities of simply surviving when traversing the brutal civilisation.

One practice that respectively imitates the relentless rule of nature, yielding tangible results is cold exposure training i.e. ice baths, winter walks, cold showers. Upon immersing yourself into the freezing temperatures, one’s breath has a rug pulled from underneath its lungs. However, when you confront the cold by steering your focus away from that obsession of escaping it and hone in on your breath alongside the sensation of being inevitably cold, the body begins to adjust and a warm blanket surges into the surface of your skin from within. You feel alert and switched on with a newly discovered sense of flow in that you can trust yourself to adapt to the hardship, which translates across the rest of your life.

Ultimately, you find comfort in discomfort and an emerging pillar of inner peace helps purge your suffering, even if it is for just a moment. Musashi didn’t persevere with a panicked mind, nor did he avoid his more than fair share of scathing encounters; acceptance was a fundamental step.

Broaden your horizons without sacrificing yourself

‘Practice and understand the realisation that by knowing one Way, you know a thousand.’

As teased earlier, Musashi was also a highly regarded painter, gardener, buddhist, calligrapher and of course, writer. He’d realised that we must squeeze our general understanding through the eye of a needle, in order to come out of the other side, noticing the interconnected and mutually arising essence of all things.

With that said, Musashi does not advocate for losing touch with our natural inclinations. He says: ‘even though [some paths] are not part of the Way, if you know the Way broadly you will see it in everything. Men must polish their particular Way’. It is this that justifies…well, this entire article. You don’t have to be a wandering fighter from feudal Japan to bear witness to some eternal truths that can be just as applicable to us.

This flexible acknowledgement of form the Way can develop, was made clear in how it was he trained his disciples. He would refuse to rely upon one absolute, broad-stroked teaching methodology. He would tailor every ounce of his teaching to the student’s nature he’d keenly observed, aiding them in utilising methods that their anatomy, personality, interests etc would thrive in. This can be incredibly useful in managerial professions, maintaining healthy familial relationships, even for how it is you go about treating yourself in the pursuit of personal development. In following this aphorism, you may have less food for those antagonistic thoughts that sometimes sit in the background.

Focus on applying knowledge deeply

‘deeply consider the things written in this book one at a time.‘

This article has hopefully provided you with a wishy washy list of only a small portion of Musashi’s lessons we can apply to our contemporary lives. Some of it may float into the abstract and go into the intellectual discussion box rather than actual application.

So, there is one crucial instruction repeated throughout The Book Of Five Rings: You must research/investigate/practice everything that he says thoroughly, as knowledge without application is futile.

It may be an unreasonable task to read his works or this article and put everything he said into immediate practice. Some may take days to realise or experience, some even years. Thus these lessons come full circle, it comes back to taking on life and every ounce of adversity it thrusts upon us, one step at a time. To wander with an endlessly observational and curious eye, shifting with the adaptability of water and realising that even suffering can result in a more deep understanding of the world and ourselves.

Resource Recommendations
For those being successfully teased into Musashi’s work and curated compilations of accounts that refer to him:

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