the five rings

Although it is difficult to grasp it from the book, Go Rin No Sho, these books are actually the teachings which Musashi preached to his students in his own dōjō. Despite taking some ideas from others, the books are not based on any other school of teaching.

The five “books” refer to the idea that there are different elements of battle, just as there are different physical elements in life, as described byBuddhism, Shinto, and other Eastern religions. The five books below are Musashi’s descriptions of the exact methods or techniques which are described by such elements.

The term “Ichi School” is referred to in the book, Go Rin No Sho. When referring to such books, it refers to “Niten No Ichi Ryu” or “Ni Ten Ichi Ryu”, which means, when literally translated, “Two heaven, one school”, although many could see the translation as “Two Swords, One spirit”, or “Two Swords, One Entity”. However, the translation of “Two Swords, one Dragon” was thought to be a transliteral misinterpretation of the Kanji word Ryu.

  • The Book of Earth chapter serves as an introduction, and metaphorically discusses martial arts, leadership, and training as building a house.
  • The Book of Water chapter describes Musashi’s style, Ni-ten ichi-ryu, or “Two Heavens, One Style”. It describes some basic technique and fundamental principles.
  • The Book of Fire chapter refers to the heat of battle, and discusses matters such as different types of timing.
  • The Book of Wind chapter is something of a pun, since the Japanese character can mean both “wind” and “style” (e.g., of martial arts). It discusses what Musashi considers to be the failings of various contemporary schools of sword fighting.
  • The Book of the Void chapter is a short epilogue, describing, in more esoteric terms, Musashi’s probably Zen-influenced thoughts on consciousness and the correct mindset.

The Book of Earth

The Earth book, according to Go Rin No Sho, is mentioned as the book that refers expressly to the strategy taught by Musashi at the Ichi School, and it is said to be how to distinguish the way through “Sword-Fencing”, or “Swordsmanship”. The idea of strategy would be encouraged to be very astute in their study and strategy:

Know the smallest things and the biggest things, the shallowest things and the deepest things. As if it were a straight road mapped out on the ground … These things cannot be explained in detail. From one thing, know ten thousand things. When you attain the Way of strategy there will not be one thing you cannot see. You must study hard.

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