Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings (五輪書, Go Rin No Sho) is a popular historical book on kenjutsu, martial arts, and philosophy.

However, the book is not only useful for Japanese historians and martial artists, but it’s also a book that contains lessons that can be valuable to almost anyone.

It’s a small book, and if you can get your hands on it, I highly recommend flicking through it. My copy is a translation from William Scott Wilson, which I would recommend if you’re unsure.

In this article, I’ll take you through a quick summary of the author, Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, and a summary of the book’s core message.

We’ll also end on a more practical note and go through how to apply Musashi’s lessons in our own lives to help us grow as people, flow with the timing of the world, find purpose in our work, and become more adaptable to challenges.

“Both in fighting and in everyday life you should be determined though calm. Meet the situation without tenseness yet not recklessly, your spirit settled yet unbiased. Even when your spirit is calm do not let your body relax, and when your body is relaxed do not let your spirit slacken. Do not let your spirit be influenced by your body, or your body be influenced by your spirit.”

– Miyamoto Musashi

Eastern Philosophy Page Break


Around the year 1645, martial artist and Japan’s most renown swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi wrote The Book of Five Rings, a text on the fundamental principles of kenjutsu, correct mindset, martial arts, and philosophy.

The book’s core philosophy centres around turning a pursuit into a way of life and understanding that when we become competent in one discipline, the skill carries over into all others. In the book, he writes:

“If you know the way broadly you will see it in everything.”

-Miyamoto Musashi

This idea, and the way in which Musashi explains it, has led people to apply the book’s teachings in all areas of life, from martial arts to business.

The simplicity of Musashi’s approach is likely part of its success—casting aside unnecessary frills of life and actions that have no practical purpose and focusing only on those that get us from A to B most effectively.

“Do nothing which is of no use.”

In Musashi’s case, he was concerned with martial arts, sword fighting, and ni ten ichi ryu (two-sword fencing style). This was about cutting down his opponent as quickly as possible while minimising risk to himself.

In a more modern application, this could be applied to making efficient business decisions, the best way to achieve a goal to run a marathon, or building better relationships.

The Book of Five Rings reflects the lessons Musashi taught his students in his own dojo, and while Musashi adapted many of the ideas from other sources, he added his own interpretations and unique insight to make The Book of Five Rings a personal and unique body of work.

Split into 5 books, each book is dedicated to different physical elements described as Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, and the Book of the Void. The Earth chapter serves to explain a different element of Musashi’s philosophy.

  1. The Book of Earth: lays the foundation of Musashi’s philosophy and strategy. It’s a sort of introduction to the way of the warrior and the principles of the man’s strategy.

  2. The Book of Water: describes Musashi’s specific martial techniques and principles of swordsmanship. It explains the importance of flexibility and adaptability, similar to water (If you’re old enough to remember Bruce Lee, this will be farmiliar).

  3. The Book of Fire: goes over the heat of battle, covering the importance of aggression and initiative. It’s about understanding the dynamics of combat, gaining an advantage over one’s enemy, and seizing the moment.

  4. The Book of Wind: critiques and analyzes the techniques and philosophies of other schools of swordsmanship. Here Musashi points out the danger of adhering too rigidly to a specific style.

  5. The Book of Void: represents Musashi’s spiritual and philosophical ideas. It deals with the nature of true reality, stressing the importance of intuition and understanding the deeper aspects of life.

Eastern Philosophy Page Break


In the earth chapter, Musashi speaks about the introduction to the Way, and outlines the strategy he teaches his students of the Ichi School.

Musashi writes of knowing the world around you and the importance of seeing clearly:

“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.”

This strategy outlined in The Book of Earth is aimed at enabling his students to see the world clearly and make the best decision for the given situation.

For example, when to use various types of weapons based on the terrain and available space. This requires not only the knowledge of how to use each weapon, but also the where and why.

In The Book of Earth, Musashi also places importance on timing, writing:

“Timing is important in dancing and pipe or string music, for they are in rhythm only if timing is good. Timing and rhythm are also involved in the military arts, shooting bows and guns, and riding horses. In all skills and abilities there is timing…. There is timing in the whole life of the warrior, in his thriving and declining, in his harmony and discord. Similarly, there is timing in the Way of the merchant, in the rise and fall of capital. All things entail rising and falling timing. You must be able to discern this. In strategy there are various timing considerations. From the outset you must know the applicable timing and the inapplicable timing, and from among the large and small things and the fast and slow timings find the relevant timing, first seeing the distance timing and the background timing. This is the main thing in strategy. It is especially important to know the background timing, otherwise your strategy will become uncertain.”

The Book of Earth ends with a list of nine principles – describing the foundation on which a person must be built. A practical guide to building and maintaining character. These are:

  1. “Do not think dishonestly.”

  2. “The Way is in training.”

  3. “Become acquainted with every art.”

  4. “Know the Ways of all professions.”

  5. “Distinguish between gain and loss in worldly matters.”

  6. “Develop an intuitive judgement and understanding for everything.”

  7. “Perceive those things which cannot be seen.”

  8. “Pay attention even to trifles.”

  9. “Do nothing which is of no use.”


The Book of Water concerns itself with the idea that water can be used as an analogy for the flow and adaptive nature of life. It also covers some basic technique of Musashi’s fighting style.

Water shifts to fit the container it is poured into, much like a person can learn to adapt to their surroundings rather than remain rigid and awkward, unable to shift quickly between disciplines and thoughts when faced with changing information and circumstances.

Musashi also promotes the need for spiritual balance, writing:

“In strategy your spiritual bearing must not be any different from normal. Both in fighting and in everyday life you should be determined though calm.”

Musashi teaches that a spirit in perfect balance is also a physical presence in perfect balance. A presence that does not create weakness in the individual does not reveal weakness to the enemy.

During battle, Musashi places importance on maintaining your spiritual balance.

Eastern Philosophy Page Break


The fire chapter refers to the art of the fight and is written in such a way that it’s focused more specifically on fighting than other chapters in the book.

While it doesn’t provide any specific fighting techniques, it does look at martial arts from a bird’s-eye view, instructing one to observe their surroundings, process the situation, and act accordingly.

“As one man can defeat ten men, so can one thousand men defeat ten thousand. However, you can become a master of strategy by training alone with a sword, so that you can understand the enemy’s stratagems, his strength and resources, and come to appreciate how to apply strategy to beat ten thousand enemies.”

Musashi describes the importance of positioning during battle, circling to the non-dominant side of your enemy2, forcing your opponent into unfavourable ground, and trying to create uncertainty in them.

He also explained that one’s vision must be clear of obstruction from things like buildings and unblinded by sunlight and moonlight, as well as the importance of high ground, writing:

“You must look down on the enemy, and take up your attitude on slightly higher places.”

“These things cannot be clearly explained in words. You must research what is written here. In these three ways of forestalling, you must judge the situation. This does not mean that you always attack first; but if the enemy attacks first you can lead him around. In strategy, you have effectively won when you forestall the enemy, so you must train well to attain this.”


In the wind chapter, Musashi changes his focus a little, from his writing on individual techniques and strategies (covered in the earlier books) to the broader, more philosophical aspects of martial arts and strategy.

The term “wind” here can be interpreted metaphorically, representing the invisible, intangible elements of strategy and combat.

However, in the book of Wind, Musashi warns of the overreliance on one set of tools and the lack of flexibility that comes with it. He wrote:

“Some other schools have a liking for extra-long swords. From the point of view of my strategy these must be seen as weak schools. This is because they do not appreciate the principle of cutting the enemy by any means.”

This warning of overreliance on one way can be applied to almost anything, and it’s a good reminder to think and learn broadly.

The ideas of adaptability, open-mindedness, and the concept of “no-style” are parts of this book that we can learn to apply in our own lives. This is especially true given how quickly the world is changing right now.


The final book in Musashi’s book of five rings is the book of the void, a short book that links the philosophies of that which we can see and know and that which cannot be seen.

“By knowing things that exist, you can know that which does not exist.”

The book is about people learning to perceive what cannot be seen or understood, such as spirituality and things that are based more on instinct than knowledge.

 “In the void is virtue, and no evil. Wisdom has existence, principle has existence, the Way has existence, spirit is nothingness.”


  1. Beyond Technique and Knowledge: In “The Book of the Void,” Musashi moves beyond the tangible aspects of martial arts, exploring something that is neither visible nor tangible. This represents the culmination of martial arts mastery, where the mind is free from obstructions and distractions. Bruce Lee references the same concept when he says, “Be like water”.

  2. A State of Absolute Freedom: The void is a state of absolute freedom and spontaneity. It’s the point where a warrior acts without conscious thought or hesitation. This concept is not just about combat but a way of life, symbolizing the ultimate level of mastery in any field. This can be thought of as a state of flow.

  3. Embracing Nothingness: Embracing the void is about understanding that true wisdom and understanding come from a place beyond conventional knowledge. It’s a state of being that transcends the physical and enters the spiritual.

Eastern Philosophy Page BreakWHO WAS MIYAMOTO MUSASHI?


Miyamoto Musashi, born in 1584 in Japan, is one of the most renowned samurai and swordsmen in the history of Japan.

His life, which crossed the late Sengoku and early Edo periods, was marked by significant historical and cultural changes in Japan.

From a young age, Musashi was immersed in martial arts and the way of the warrior, initially learning under his father, Shinmen Munisai, an accomplished martial artist and swordsman.

Musashi actually became a Ronin, or masterless samurai.


After learning from his father and maturing into a man, Musashi’s life became a series of duels.

He is known to have engaged in over sixty duels, many to the death, in which he defeating many of the popular masters of the time.

His most famous duel, a legendary battle against Sasaki Kojiro in 1612, is particularly famous in Japanese history.
Through his fighting and adapting, Musashi developed the Niten Ichi-ryū style, or “Two Heavens as One,” a distinctive approach to swordsmanship that involved the use of two swords at the same time. Generally, one standard-sized katana and one shorter wakizashi.


Outside the world of martial arts, Musashi was also a philosopher and an artist. Something which is clear in his writing.

He authored “The Book of Five Rings” (Go Rin No Sho) as we’ve already touched on.

Unsurprisingly for the time, he was also proficient in calligraphy and painting, displaying the deep interconnection between martial and artistic disciplines in Japanese culture.

As we’ll come to see, Musashi believed that by learning one discipline, we can strengthen all others.

He is now a cultural icon in Japan, revered not only as a warrior but also as a philosopher and strategist, and he’s been the subject of films, cartoons, and TV shows for decades.


Miyamoto Musashi’s “The Book of Five Rings,” is more than just a treatise on martial strategy and sword fighting; it’s a guide that can be applied to many areas of our life.

This means that you can take the lessons from the book and weave them neatly into your day-to-day routines.

First, before we can implement anything, we need a clear understanding of some of the core principles we’ve already discussed and how they are relevant to different areas of life, from personal growth to professional work.


  1. The Way of Walking Alone: Musashi explains the importance of self-reliance and independent thought. In your life, this might mean trusting your own judgment and not being swayed by the opinions of others when making important decisions. It could also mean not putting too much importance on getting other people to like you. Approval can often be sought at the expense of oneself.

  2. The Rhythm of Timing: Just as in swordplay, timing is a critical theme in life. Musashi’s principle of understanding the rhythm in any situation can be applied to recognize and seize opportunities, whether in career advancement or personal relationships. This can also be applied to how we interact with people, or how we notice the timing of the human body.

  3. Adapting to Circumstances: musashi’s descriptions of adaptability in combat can be used as a metaphor for flexibility in life. It’s about being open to change and ready to modify plans or strategies in response to life’s unpredictable nature.

Where can we apply this?

  1. In the Workplace: Musashi preached teachings on strategy; these teachings can be groundwork for leadership and decision-making in a business context. His emphasis on understanding the environment, adapting tactics, and leading with conviction can be mirrored in effective management styles.

  2. Personal Development: The disciplined life of a samurai, shown by Musashi, can inspire us to develop more self-discipline and focus in our personal lives. Whether it’s pursuing fitness goals, academic achievements, or artistic endeavors, Musashi’s dedication to The Way can be applied to all areas of life.

  3. Relationships: Musashi’s respect for his opponents and acute awareness of their movements can teach us the value of empathy and understanding in our interactions with others. Recognizing and respecting different perspectives can lead to more harmonious and productive relationships.

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