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Lessons Learned: Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa

Musashi is an outstanding novel that I'd recommend to anyone. I recently finished reading it, and after reviewing the notes I took and mulling over them, I've decided to publish them here.

This isn't a book summary, it's a Lessons Learned summary. Don't be afraid to keep reading if you plan to read the book, this will be spoiler-free. I will include quotes from the book, and I hope they serve as motivation for you to actually read it. If you already have, I invite you to let me know what you learned and how that compares with my takeaways.

About The Book

Miyamoto Musashi

Depiction of Miyamoto Musashi

Musashi is a japanese novel written in 1953 by Eiji Yoshikawa. It relates the journey of Miyamoto Musashi, a real-life samurai from the 1600s who decided to follow the Way of the Sword. It's an interesting novel because some of the events related in the book are documented to have happened in real life. I'm not sure how much of the book is real or fiction, but I don't think it matters. Some works remain written by the real Miyamoto Musashi, the most famous of which is The Book of Five Rings.

In essence, this book relates the journey of a man who dedicates his life to self-improvement and self-discipline, and how he reaches enlightenment.

I know, "enlightenment", that's one of those words that can have thousands of connotations. What it means to me is reaching a state of mental clarity and calmness. Nothing less, nothing more. I think of this as an ideal to strive for, and not as something that can be grasped.

Without further ado, let's get into what I learned reading Musashi.

The Path and The Way

One of the most prominent ideas mentioned throughout the book is the Path and the Way. We are all walking our own path, and it is our actions that lead us to the place we want to reach. Continuous learning and self-discipline will get us where we want, only if we follow the Path.

This can feel like an abstract concept to understand, but after reading the book I get what it means. It makes a lot of sense for how I see the world and my life. This quote from the book encompasses its meaning:

He well knew that to live was more than merely to survive. The problem was how to imbue his life with meaning.

For Musashi, meaning comes from being a samurai. Early in the book he decides to follow the Way of the Sword:

To Musashi's way of thinking, there was one way of life for ordinary people, another for the warrior. It was vitally important for him to live like a samurai and to die like one.

Don't be discouraged if you don't know what's your path. I'm not sure I'd be able to put mine in words, but I know I'm on it. I know because I make progress every day and I am satisfied with my life. There is always room for improvement, but that's ok. It's part of the Path to never reach its end.

You shouldn't evaluate whether you're on the Path or not by looking at your current situation. And your circumstances don't matter either. Being on the Path means walking on the right direction, doing what you know you need to do. And it's a long journey. Temporal digressions don't make a difference as long as the overall direction is correct.

This passage comes from another important character in the book, Takuan. He explains how different paths are in reality the same:

People talk about combining the Way of Learning with the Way of the Samurai, but when properly combined, they aren't two—they're one. Only one Way.

You should be looking for your own path and what brings meaning to your life.

And it doesn't have to stay the same. Musashi's opinion of his path evolves throughout his journey:

He had come to see the Way of the Sword in a new light. [...] To cut people down, to triumph over them, to display the limits of one's strength, seemed increasingly vain. He wanted to conquer himself, to make life itself submit to him, to cause people to live rather than die.

The Limits We Set for Ourselves

In Musashi's time, status and position were very important. Part of which came from family bloodline. That's why it's surprising that him, who's got no prominent relatives, becomes increasingly uninterested with the idea of obtaining status.

Here's a description of what a rōnin (a samurai without a master) should be:

A true rōnin did not seek fame or profit, did not curry favor with the powerful, did not attempt to use political power for his own ends, did not exempt himself from moral judgments. Rather he was as broad-minded as floating clouds, as quick to act as the rain and quite content in the midst of poverty. He never set himself any targets and never harbored any grudges.

Society imposes judgement and limitations upon us. Some are unintended, and some are self-imposed. It's important to understand those and define our own standards.

We must reassess our perspective frequently and not make any assumptions. Musashi is well aware of his shortcomings, and he's constantly evaluating his knowledge and how far he's from reaching his goals:

I'm afraid I'm still immature, imprudent—far from being truly enlightened. The more I travel, the longer the road becomes. I have the feeling I'm climbing an endless mountain path.

And this also needs to be applied when things are going our way. Don't sit complacent when you get someone else's seal of approval. One of the things I admire the most about Musashi is his humbleness and how he responds to undeserved praise:

Don't embarrass me. I'm still an amateur. But the world's full of people who don't seem to be as good as I am.

That's why the Path is a journey of constant learning. To me, learning is one of the fundamentals of life.

Another fundamental is the Self.

The Self and Looking Within

We get wrapped up in external stimuli, and we end up with a skewed view of reality.

We mustn't forget that we are the center of our life, and I don't mean it in a selfish way. Helping others is one of the best things you can do for yourself.

Here's another gem uttered by Takuan:

One's self is the basis of everything. Every action is a manifestation of the self. A person who doesn't know himself can do nothing for others.

Something that can lead us astray from looking within is envy or aspiring to be like someone else. It's always good to have someone to look up to, having goals and ideals is what helps you make progress. But don't lie to yourself thinking that anyone is perfect. At the end, we're all going through the same struggles:

Whether people were great or not, there was not much variety in their inner life experience. Any difference lay merely in how they dealt with common human weaknesses.

Which ties neatly into this other quote:

It is easy to crush an enemy outside oneself but impossible to defeat an enemy within.

What it comes down to is being comfortable in your own skin. Musashi spends a good deal of time alone. And it's in those moments of introspection where he feels the most alive.

Counting his footsteps, listening to the silent voice of the heavens above, he could forget everything and rejoice in his own being. When he was surrounded by crowds of busy people, his spirit often seemed sad and isolated, but now he felt alive and buoyant.

The Value of Experience

This has been introspective and abstract so far. But this book relates a samurai's journey, so there is a good deal of action.

It's good to reflect and ponder, but it's also necessary to put thoughts into practice.

The truth of the scholar, alone in his study, does not always accord with what the world at large considers to be true.

Growing consists of a cycle of thinking and doing. And none can be fully effective without the other.

The knowledge that comes from books is of no use to the warrior, if a man worries too much about what others think or do, he's apt to be slow to act.

This is not only for the sake of our physical existence. The world of ideas is intangible, and our minds need to be fed with experiences to thrive. A feedback loop between our experiences and our thoughts is necessary for growth.

Only those who had actually grown their own grain and vegetables really understood how sacred and valuable they were. Those who hadn't were like priests who did not practice what they preached or swordsmen who learned combat techniques but knew nothing of the Way.

This leads us to reevaluate our view on obstacles and adversity.

A Different Look on Hardships

This is one prayer that Musashi makes in a temple on his journey:

Please test the lowly Musashi with hardship. Let him become the greatest swordsman in the land, or let him die.

Quite extreme, but gets the point across. The fact is that going through difficult situations is essential to reevaluating our assumptions and getting outside our comfort zone. You should not necessarily see them as bad or something to avert.

If something scares you, analyze objectively if it's worth doing. And most of the times, it will. Fear often comes from inexperience and lack of knowledge. By facing our fears we can expand our self where we need it the most.

The path that Musashi chose tested him constantly on this regard:

Any person who followed the Way of the Sword was constantly in danger of being killed. [...] Danger was the grindstone on which the swordsman whetted his spirit. Enemies were teachers in disguise.

In those situations, it's difficult to remain calm and absorb all the lessons. But we need to take control and get a handle on our emotions. We need to learn how to detach and make objective judgement.

The ability of detaching from a situation doesn't come naturally, specially from high-pressure situations. It may even be contrary to our nature. But it isn't something that cannot be tamed:

While custom was bred by daily experience, being on the boundary between life and death was something that occurred only a few times during a lifetime. Yet the ultimate aim of the Way of the Sword was to be able to stand on the brink of death at any time: facing death squarely, unflinchingly, should be as familiar as all other daily experiences. And the process had to be a conscious one, though movement should be as free as if it were purely reflexive.

Granted, we don't have to be as extreme as him. But that's because we're not on the Way of the Sword. So find the equivalent for your Way, and do it. By exposing yourself to those environments you'll absorb all the stimuli and improve drastically.

But don't limit your experiences only to what you consider your Way.

Fighting isn't all there is to the Art of War. [...] A serious student is much more concerned with training his mind and disciplining his spirit than with developing martial skills. [...] He wants, essentially, to go everywhere he can and learn everything he can.

Go everywhere you can and learn everything you can.

Being One With The Universe

I have talked about the importance of both mind and body. And this is something that's expressed throughout the book as being one with the universe. It encompasses everything: our inner experiences, our outter experiences and everything around us.

I've also spent some time traveling about the country side, learning from the mountains and the rivers. I regard them, too, as teachers.

Be in contact with your environment and become a spectator to your life. Looking at the true essence of the world will allow you to move freely. But don't try to bend it to your will.

Do not attempt to oppose the way of the universe. But first make sure you know the way of the universe.

Things are what they are, there's no point in complaining about things we can't control. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we'll start walking the Path.

I feel like I've only scratched the surface and there are many ideas I didn't get into. If you found this useful, I commend you to read the book for yourself. It'll be a journey you won't regret.

And don't let all of this get to your head. At its core, life is simple:

The Buddha's Law is simple: Eat your rice, drink your tea, wear your clothes.

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