The Book of Five Rings

Miyamoto Musashi, translated by Thomas Cleary


In many areas of life, but particularly martial arts, an overemphasis is placed on technique, showmanship and equipment. The martial arts that Musashi1 teach are simple, direct and practical. One should keep a calm, clear mind and act without personal biases, choosing one's actions swiftly and precisely to bring about victory.


Musashi details his dueling life: more than sixty victorious duels between the ages of 13 and 29. At 30, he realises that his victories were not due to “consummate attainment of martial arts” but something else, an insight into a deeper martial science. He spends the rest of his life investigating and systematising that insight, and this book is the result.

The Earth Scroll

The way of the warrior is not to be ready to die — all artisans give up their lives to a particular craft — but rather the drive to “excel others in anything and everything”. One should try to “distinguish the superficial from the substantial” and prefer practical professionalism over commercial showmanship. Like a carpenter, the martial artist must learn to make prudent use of the correct tool for the job, following these rules:

  1. Think of what is right and true.
  2. Practice and cultivate the science.
  3. Become acquainted with the arts.
  4. Know the principles of the crafts.
  5. Understand the harm and benefit in everything.
  6. Learn to see everything accurately.
  7. Become aware of what is not obvious.
  8. Be careful even in small matters.
  9. Do not do anything useless.

The Water Scroll

Stress is put on the state of mind of the martial artist: one should remain as calm as in everyday life, focusing on relaxing the mind and letting go of subjective biases. With good battle posture too, the martial art should be fully integrated into your life: you should “make your ordinary bearing the bearing you use in martial arts” and vice versa. Musashi contrasts hitting or “feeling out” your opponent with striking:

Even if you hit an opponent so hard that he dies on the spot, this is a hit. A strike is when you consciously and deliberately strike the blow you intend to strike.

The Fire Scroll

Musashi emphasises fighting “with the sun at your back”, using every advantage possible and inhibiting all your opponent's moves at their very outset. He encourages putting yourself in an opponent's shoes, thinking carefully about the psychological state they are in when facing off against you. Giving off a relaxed mood, you can infect your opponent with that same calm and put them at ease — then strike when the critical moment arises: maintaining internal calm, disrupting your opponent's mood, then suddenly making a vital strike is at the heart of Musashi's psychology.

The Wind Scroll

This chapter focuses on the flaws of subjective bias in other martial schools: the correct way is the ordinary way which works, clear and direct. Subtle emphasis is put on the aesthetics of correct technique: for example,

The performance of an expert seems relaxed but does not leave any gaps. The actions of trained people do not seem rushed.

The way is understanding the relative merits and flaws of all techniques, and without bias choosing the right path ahead.

The Scroll of Emptiness

Lack of knowledge is not emptiness. Rather, through diligent, consistent study and practice one finds “there is no obscurity, and the clouds of confusion have cleared away”. The goal is thoughtless, unbiased action: this is emptiness, and is the way.

  1. Wikipedia refers to him as Musashi, but he used at least five different names throughout his life. Musashi is a title.