"It is difficult to imagine another character from either history or literature who has captured the imagination of a people. Miyamoto Musashi did not change the politics or shape events in Japanese history. Nor did he write a work that would affect a genre of literature or poems that would become classics. Yet there is something at the heart of his story that has commanded the attention of the Japanese people and others who have heard it. The story as told in any one iteration - any play, movie, novel or comic book is never definitive enough. The story of Musashi, even in its paucity of facts, is much too large to fit once and for all in any single package."
At the age of thirteen Miyamoto Musashi won his first duel, by the age of thirty he had fought around sixty more, and had lost none, most ending in the death or serious injury of his opponent. After the age of thirty although he still fought - he chose to no longer kill or harm his opponents, he merely blocked, thwarted and demonstrated the weaknesses in their style of swordplay, until they gave up and understood that he was the better swordsman. This alone would be enough to create a legend of his life if it were all and yet, as the quote above states, there's much, much more. Musashi was not only one of the greatest swordsman of his time, he was also a poet, an extraordinarily skilled painter, sculptor, metallurgist, garden designer and philosopher and in a time when a career as a Samurai* meant being indentured to a master, Musashi followed his own path, committing his life to the way of the warrior.
Musashi was active during a period called the Kyoto Renaissance (1550 - 1650) after suffering a disastrous 150 years of internal conflict, with ancient temples, artwork and libraries lost for all time. Japan was brought back to unification and with it a path to peace and following that peace came economic prosperity and a renewed blossoming of the arts in almost every arena. This flourishing reached across all facets of Japanese culture, raising to greater heights everything from castle architecture and classical poetry through to the martial arts, with new schools hanging up their shingles all over Japan; this was also the period when the Tea Ceremony reached its zenith. All of this fed into the mind of Miyamoto and was to resurface years later in his book 五輪書 Go Rin no Sho (The Book of Five Rings), this was written as five chapters and represented his views, the chapters were:
The Book of Earth chapter serves as an introduction, and metaphorically discusses martial arts, leadership, and training as building a house.
The Book of Water chapter describes Musashi's style, Ni-ten ichi-ryu, or "Two Heavens, One Style". It describes some basic technique and fundamental principles.
The Book of Fire chapter refers to the heat of battle, and discusses matters such as different types of timing.
The Book of Wind chapter is something of a pun, since the Japanese character can mean both "wind" and "style" (e.g., of martial arts). It discusses what Musashi considers to be the failings of various contemporary schools of swordfighting.
The Book of the Void chapter is a short epilogue, describing, in more esoteric terms, Musashi's probably Zen-influenced thoughts on consciousness and the correct mind-set.
It says in the opening quote that he never influenced politics or shaped events in Japanese history nor did he write a work that would affect a genre of literature or poems that would become classics. To that statement I would add one word - directly. Indirectly his influence can be seen through in an infinite number of ways, through writers as diverse as Yukio Mishima, Takehiko Inoue, Sean Michael Wilson and Junichiro Tanizaki. Through the films about or related to samurai, he has even had a song written about him by Bruce Dickinson of the British metal band Iron Maiden (Sun & Steel). All this shows that this 17th century fighter & artist still holds an interest and a relevance for us today.
The Majority of the information and all of the inspiration for this post came from William Scott Wilson's book The Lone Samurai: The Life of of Miyamoto Musashi. This book is considered to be the authoritative and most reliable text on Musashi, since most of the previously known information is drawn on legends, half truths or fictional accounts.
William Scott Wilson became involved in the life and work of Miyamoto Musashi, when asked to do a translation of The Book of Five Rings, this was to be a bilingual edition and after its completion he was asked to write a short volume on the authors life. In the end this took an awful lot longer and a great deal more research than was first expected, because although stories about this fighter's life are legion, and range from the Kokura Hibun, a monument inscribed with the story of Musashi's life, through the Nitenki, a compilation of stories (1755) and numerous records scattered through many clan archives plus the many fictional accounts, sorting through this store of data wasn't a straight forward procedure. In the process of wading through the discrepancies in time and place and sifting between the various versions due to personal alliances etc., this book took shape. Making the Lone Samurai, not only William Scott Wilson's personal quest, but our best resource to who Miyamoto Musashi; Swordsman, philosopher, Artist was.
"The Cherry blossoms, symbol of the warrior in Japan, had already fallen, and the new light green leaves were everywhere" he died on the 19th of May 1645. He was sixty two years old and was buried in accordance with his wishes, dressed in armour and helmet, provided with six martial accoutrements and placed in the coffin. He was buried in Handa-gun, 5-cho, Tenaga Yuge Village, with the Abbot Shunzan of the Taishoji Temple as officiating priest. When the abbot had finished his address to the departing spirit, a single crack of thunder rang from the clear sky. You can find Miyamoto Musashi's grave marker still there today.