Monday, April 12, 2021

Lessons and Teachers - Musashi

Lessons and Teachers - Musashi

“The teacher is as a needle, the disciple is as a thread. You must practice constantly.”*

*Miyamoto Musashi, A Book of Five Rings, Translated by Victor Harris, The Overlook Press, Woodstock New York, 1974 [all subsequent quotes and page references are to this addition/version - and all subsequent references to the author will simply say “Musashi”]

In the spirit of repetition, practice, and redundancy - I will begin my comments regarding Musashi with a set of disclaimers similar to those I provided regarding my thoughts and feelings about Xenophon [see previous post]... No one should strive to be exactly like Musashi. The man was, in no small part, a cruel cold killer. Many people died by his hand (expertly wielding a sword). Like Xenophon, he comes from (and thrived in) a time and place in history which is very nice to visit in the imagination - but none of us should want to live there... By today’s standards (and with anachronistic, inappropriate, and un-credentialed diagnosis across time and culture) we would likely consider him a psychopath.

Re-reading A Book of Five Rings, I couldn’t help but think of two disparate (and somewhat disturbing?) points of reference. One, is The Water Margin: Outlaws of the Marsh by Shi Naian [my preferred translation is by J. H. Jackson, but I have also read the Pearl S. Buck version, All Men Are Brothers). The second is Rogue Warrior by Richard Marcinko (his 1992 book about his military service and the creation of [US Navy] Seal Team Six). 

When thinking of Musashi’s exploits, I thought of The Water Margin because it has long been my favourite Classical Chinese novel (I even have two of the “outlaws”/“heroes” from it tattooed on my shoulders). Yet, as I have re-read it over the years I find it more and more disturbing... It is full of many of the most vile, hideous, atrocious, brutal, and horrific scenes and episodes of outright mayhem and murder one could imagine. It is likely loosely based on some historical events, and it may be, in some ways to my mind, a Chinese Iliad. That is, it is one hell of an exciting and blood-soaked adventure story, but not the best place to search for role models (other than perhaps, if being generous, the [unbalanced] virtues of loyalty and courage). As I get older, I find it more and more difficult to defend the stories and characters in the book. Of course, the book has withstood the test of time for over seven hundred years (and it’s a book) so it doesn’t  really need me to defend it. Despite all my concerns, I remain a loyal fan (although not blindly so).

I thought of Richard Marcinko, because, well, I was 17-years-old when I (repeatedly) read Rogue Warrior and I figured that he was about as bad assed as bad assed could get... I remember reading a review for the book back in 1992 (I can’t remember the source) where his ex-wife (I think it was) described “Demo Dick” as a man who should be kept (in waiting, in training) behind glass with a big warning sign that reads, “Break glass in case of war!” Man, my angry-scared 17-year-old self thought that was pretty tough and supremely cool. In some ways Marcinko (and some others like him - the “former Navy Seal” book/podcast genre has grown considerably since then...) are probably real, ‘modern day’ Musashi’s. They are people who dedicated much of their lives (most of their waking hours) to combat. To destruction. To serving their masters (of war). To killing.

Love or hate these people. Respect or despise them. It doesn’t matter. They have withstood, survived, and conquered in ways that most of can only dream of (and for most of us dealing with their reality would actually be the stuff of our nightmares). These are people who have gone into some very dark territory. In my humble opinion, they deserve some respect. They deserve some thanks. Of course, they are flawed (i.e. human) people, too. Just like the rest of us - only a whole lot better at legally sanctioned violence. They also probably don’t really need me to defend them - as they are more than capable of defending themselves (!).

As time (be it ~700 years for Water Margin, or ~500 years for Five Rings) has a way of smoothing things out a bit, I’m going to stick with ‘good old’ Musashi for the remainder of this commentary. Just know, however, these sorts of people are still among us. We should probably cut the contemporary ones a bit more slack, and we should probably be a bit more critical of those out doing what they did hundreds of years ago. That all said, Musashi is certainly still worthy of learning from (despite all the disclaimers that should go along with the risks of idolizing anyone - particularly those so adept at dealing out death).

If you’ve never heard of Musashi, go look him up. There are multiple videos out there on the ‘interwebs’ (not to mention articles, biographies, biographical novels, graphic novels, etc.) about his life and his greatest duels. It is also worth looking at the beautiful calligraphy, paintings, and sculptures he made later in his life. It is also worth reflecting on the fact that this is a person who sat in meditation in a cave for two years after retiring from active duelling and wartime service. He is not considered the Japanese “Sword Saint” without good reason.

He wrote A Book of Five Rings very near to the end of his life. He wanted to pass on his knowledge (which he did in life, face-to-face) to his students in written form, too. The book is, primarily, about individual swordsmanship and how a deep knowledge and understanding of that can also apply to broader military strategy. Of course, the “Way” (Do / Dao / Tao) of the sword and Way of the general were earned through constant study, practice, action, and reflection. The concept of gradually, repeatedly putting in the time and effort and work to excel at combat (or anything one wants to do very well - “Men must polish their particular way” p. 47) is, as I and others have discussed before, central to the concept of gong fu / kung fu.

Musashi’s 9 keys to (his) strategy (elaborated throughout the book) are [p. 49]:

  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 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.

It is hard for me to imagine a better starting point, when endeavouring to get good at anything important, than a list like that above. I need only think of the hardest moments in my own life, where I needed to use my martial arts training to survive and recover (not from opponents wielding weapons but from “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”) - and I only wish that I had been exposed to Musashi [and Xenophon] earlier and I had studied his Ways even closer (and applied them to my life and my Ways). 

Whenever I train or teach martial arts to people (in the 21st Century, in a time when we’ve never been safer), I always emphasize that I don’t ‘care’ whether they get particularly good at ‘fighting’ or not (although I’d certainly prefer they become good enough to defend themselves when they need it!). What I care much more about, however, is that they use what they learn through martial arts to survive and thrive in life. That they develop a discipline and a courage and a Way through martial arts - for themselves - that they can apply of use, to be of use, in the messy, complex world in which they live and work. 

It is highly unlikely that we will face an opponent with a sword trying to strike us down (thank goodness). It is unavoidable, however, that life will rain down pain, and struggle, and, eventually, death - upon those we care about and ourselves. 

In the darkest moments of my life (so far) back in 2007/08, I certainly could have been more gentle and graceful. I wish my (metaphorical) footwork had been more smooth walking - than so many trips and falls (mind you, at least, I always got back up again...). There are certainly things I regret. But, for my part, I realize that I (to use one of the cliches I most hate), “did my best” (with what I grasped and who I was at that time). 

Now, I am stronger, more flexible, more patient and kind, and - when I work hard to ensure that I access it - more “wise” than I was then (e.g. I try not to grasp so hard at anything anymore!). I keep trying to improve. I am glad that I found Xenophon and Musashi (among many other teachers of many other sorts) on my journey so far. I hope you find them (these teachers and/or others) earlier in life than I did (or at least when you need them). They sure can help on those thousand mile journeys...

Look again (above) at those nine keys to “strategy”. Read Musashi closely. Apply his lessons - as they apply to your life and circumstances.

For me, at this point, at least one way I can adapt and conceptualize those nine lessons (at least for me, at this point, on my journey) would be:

  1. Don’t fool yourself. Accept the reality of a situation for what it is.
  2. Training is a good in-and-of itself. Train for it’s own sake as much as for your own good. Practice daily the things you want to master.
  3. Be willing to learn about, and enjoy, a wide variety of (other) things without ever seeking to master them. Don’t be a perfectionist!
  4. Be curious and open-minded. Ask everyone questions. Be quiet and listen to their answers. Ask them more questions.
  5. Understand opportunity costs. Do not fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy. Always consider the calming logic of a cost-benefit analysis.
  6. Listen to your guts - but then check it out with your brains (and with all the tools and skills of evidence-based practice that you can bring to bear!). 
  7. Be willing to sit with things, think through things, and feel uncomfortable doing so. Seek out opinions different from your own.
  8. Sometimes it’s the little things that can make a bit difference in the long run. Don’t lose sight of the low-hanging fruit, either, though! Remember to be as nice, as possible, to everyone - they are journeying, too.
  9. Strive to do things mindfully. Even goofing off can be of great use when done with a purpose (such as rest - or not taking yourself too seriously). 

And, tomorrow, it could all change. And it will change. Reserve the right to change to face change! But don’t get all bent and twisted out of shape [see p. 88]... 

I simply have to love (at least aspects of) a man like Musashi who could write such an incredible work about his hard-earned insights and who could also say things like:

“This is first time I have written about my technique, and the order of things is a bit confused. It is difficult to express it clearly.” [p. 82]

Or, even more simply put - and which I continue to apply to my own lists and rules (and the fight against dogmatic thinking) as they change with age, and time, and learning, and experience:

“Accordingly I dislike passing on my Way through written pledges and regulations” [p. 92].

Keep studying and practicing. Keep re-writing your own personal pledges and regulations. Keep going. Heart and mind bound together. Needle and thread.

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