|Woodblock of Miyamoto Musashi, 19th Century|
Although the Five Rings is Musashi's most notable, if not only, substantial work, the focus of this post and those to follow is a smaller composition by the warrior. Entitled "The Way of Walking Alone, or, The Way of Self Reliance", his text consists of 21 single sentence aphorisms that advise warriors on the best way to live according to his own experiences. Although written after Musashi's adoption of Buddhism, The Way lacks the cryptic mysticism that characterizes many religious or spiritual writings of the era. It is frank, straightforward advice befitting its author. Over the next few posts, I want to discuss some of the most resonating aspects of his writing. At least, I focus on the most personally resonating qualities; as with most warrior writings, The Way will appeal to different practitioners in different ways.
For broader reference, here is a preferred translation. There are others, but this interpretation feels most in line with Musashi's teachings. Admittedly, I am no Japanese speaker, but I am somewhat familiar with the tenor of his writings. Like the rest, The Way is instructive without being pedantic, introspective without being esoteric.
Like with Nietzsche, Musashi's writings lend themselves towards the infamous collegiate "close reading" style of analysis. To that end, it is best to focus on key, illuminating lessons of the greater text, even if at the expense of less pressing ones. This is not to say that any one part of Musashi's Way lacks value. Rather, certain quotes tell more than others, and are deserving of more emphasis.
"Do not intend to rely on anything"
This might be the oddest of Musashi's lessons. If nothing else, history and experience offer countless examples of people, objects, and societies that warriors relied on. How was the Mesopotamian spearman supposed to eat, if not from reliance on his farming home town? What of the Athenian hoplite who had to link shields and thrust spear in unison with his formation neighbors? Or even the modern competitor who trusts his trainer and training partners in preparation for the big event? These all seem strong counter examples to Musashi's principle.
In interpreting this quote, as with most of Musashi's aphorisms, I find that it is important to focus on individual words. It is too easy to try and comprehend the entire sentence at the expense of its constituent pieces. Here, the key word is "intend". That is also to say, "anticipate" or "count on".
Although Musashi's martial exploits were overwhelmingly solitary endeavors, there is just no way that the warrior would have been ignorant of the feudal soldiers and Samurai of his era. Musashi lived in a time of war and battle, and it would have been impossible for him to wield the blade without knowing of his contemporaries. He would not have been so arrogant to discount their cameraderie. This is especially true given that he wrote The Way in the last few months of his life, at the end of his journeys. Harboring great wisdom and humility, Musashi would not have been so vain as to ignore the importance of martial brotherhood.
So what is he saying then? Why is "intend" so important? Musashi wants to warn warriors that they should never have the expectation of relying on others. Warriors should not have the intention to depend upon allies and friends. But can they? Yes. Should they under some circumstances? Of course! But that should not be their intent from the beginning. That is also to say, warriors should be perfectly capable of acting on their own in the event that support systems and friends fail. If I harbor expectation that my comrades will always support me, and circumstances prevent their aid one time, I will be temporarily paralyzed and unable to act. Hence, the title of the entire composition itself: The way of SELF reliance.
Concluding the discussion of this point, we should remember that warriors must rely on their own abilities and virtues before all others. They can draw on support and assistance from others. Indeed, they should, and it would be foolish to spurn the aid of allies. If, however, those allies should fail, or those supporting systems give way, the warrior should be perfectly capable of solo survival, motivation, and action. To intend reliance on other forces is to mitigate your own abilities. To Musashi, that is one of the worst fates that can befall the warrior.