If Musashi had not written this exposition Go Rin No Sho and Koshikawa subsequently publicized it centuries later, it is likely that Japan’s most famous swordsman would have been relegated to the dustbins of history along with most other luminaries of his period, known only by historians and historical re-enactors. Nevertheless, Musashi retired to a cave near the end of his life, put down his swords, and took up a pen. And, Koshikawa brought those ancient writings back to life. In the process he is largely responsible for making Musashi the venerable sword saint that he is today.
When legendary figures pass away, we tend to turn them into saints, though not necessarily in a spiritual manner. Nevertheless, we do it much in the same way that religious institutions deify noteworthy members of their organizations. The formula works this way: First, while the future saint is still alive society does not acknowledge his or her brilliance. These individuals are often branded eccentrics,
mavericks, or rabble-rousers. Secondly, after they die we discover their message, recognize their contributions, and adopt them as our own. Thirdly, we canonize them, putting special emphasis on their remarkable deeds and honorable behaviors while ignoring or brushing over any questionable or contemptuous acts they may have performed. “No, he wasn’t crazy, just a little quirky. Perhaps a touch eccentric, but what genius isn’t? Think of all the contributions he made to…” we might say to ourselves. Once that justification has taken root and been accepted by the masses, the last stage of canonization takes place when we as a society turn them into saints. And then we build statues of them, name things after them, and pay homage to their memories.
And so it was with Musashi. Roughly three hundred years after his death in 1645, Musashi suddenly became an icon and a hero. His name is synonymous with samurai ethos, as ubiquitous as katana, bushido, and shogun. In fact, he is often called kensei, the “sword saint” of Japan. Musashi is, without doubt, a larger-than-life figure. However, he was not just a mythic hero; he was a real person too… In studying his writings it is important to remember that. Before he became the symbol of a bygone era, arguably the greatest swordsman who ever lived, Musashi was a real person, and an imperfect one at that. His icon is an affair of the heart, but to understand his reality requires an analysis of the mind. Who is to say that we cannot hold a perspective about him that blends both heart and mind?
Today we know that Miyamoto Musashi (1584 – 1645) was born Shinmen Takezō. He grew up in the Harima Province of Japan and slew his first opponent, Arima Kihei, in a duel he fought at the tender age of thirteen. Over a lifetime of blood and strife he killed more than sixty samurai warriors in fights or duals during the feudal period where even a minor battle injury could lead to infection and death, a miraculous feat. He was the founder of the unconventional Hyōhō Niten Ichi-Ryu style of swordsmanship, which translates as “Two Heavens as One,” or more simply “Two-Sword Style.” Like most samurai, he was a highly trained martial artist, a veritable killing machine, but he was also skilled in the peaceful arts as well, an exceptional poet, calligrapher, and artist. Two years before he died, Musashi retired to a life of seclusion in a cave where he codified his winning strategy in Go Rin No Sho which, in English, means The Book of Five Rings.
At an early age, Musashi exhibited the traits of a saint. Legends state that when he was only eight years old he left home to learn calligraphy, poetry, and other arts, leaving almost everything behind. Impressive, right? Perhaps, but let’s try to separate the man from the myth for a moment. In Japanese society tatemae (official truth/outward story) often varies from honne (secret truth/inward story). Was leaving home the first steps along a path toward enlightenment in an ascetic lifestyle or simply a young man running away from an abusive father?
At the age of thirteen Musashi challenged a famous swordsman, Arima Kihei, to a duel and defeated him using a stick in lieu of a sword. Was this a heroic battle as it is customarily portrayed (tatemae) or did Musashi through grit, determination, anger, and a burning desire for glory ambush Kihei, knock him to the ground, and savagely beat him to death (honne)? Clearly we cannot know with certainty what actually occurred, yet we are hard pressed to think of a less elegant or more brutal way to murder another human being than to pummel them with a hunk of wood. Imagine a young man standing over a hapless swordsman lying on the ground and repeatedly slamming a bludgeon into his victim’s face until he stops
breathing. Then, he keeps pounding on the samurai’s bloody pulp of a face to ensure that he is not just unconscious but, in fact, dead. And then he walks away smiling afterward, knowing that his reputation has been enhanced…
In 1612, Musashi fought another famous duel, this time with Sasaki Kojirō.2 Musashi showed up three hours late. When he finally arrived, both his adversary and the officials of the duel were irritated by his tardiness. Rather than carrying a steel blade he was once again armed with a wooden sword. This time it was a bokken that he had carved out of an oar. Furthermore, Musashi knew that Kojirō’s sword was a little longer than a normal katana, so he spent the extra time to carve a wooden weapon that was just a little bit longer than that, giving him an additional advantage in reach.
2 The duel has been immortalized with an impressive, larger than life sculpture of the two warriors battling on a small island in the Kanmon Straits, close to Shimonoseki. Kojirō is depicted with his long sword whereas Musashi is armed with his bokken. At the time of the battle the island was called Funa-jima, but afterwards it was renamed Ganryū, after Kojirō’s style of swordsmanship, an interesting historical oddity since Musashi won the battle.