Miyamoto Musashi was a revered Japanese warrior and philosopher from the 16th century. His seminal work, the Book of Five Rings, is a fascinating text concerning itself with strategy and martial thought. While the first four sections of the text see Musashi outline his ideas for combat and instruction in practical methods of application, he takes a sharp turn into the abstract near the work’s conclusion. The final addition of the text, translated as the “Book of Void” (or: “No-thing”) is fundamentally different from the four prior sections. Rather than exploring the concepts of practical strategy and combat instruction, the Book of Void brings the reader into brief yet formidable exercise in abstract thought. Within this abstraction, however, Musashi has weaved together a profound lesson for all who study his work. Musashi begins the discussion of his “Way” as follows:
“What is called the spirit of the void is where there is nothing. It is not included in man's knowledge. Of course the void is nothingness. By knowing things that exist, you can know that which does not exist. That is the void.”
Musashi’s presentation of the idea of “void” can certainly be puzzling at first. Knowing of things that you do not know of, as the last sentence of the above passage would indicate, seems like a self-contradicting concept. For example: if, through deductive thinking, you have inferred that some previously unknown concept to you does in fact exist by subtracting what do not know from what you do, that concept has now become known. Approaching this text, however, in such a manner will likely lead the reader astray. This text cannot be seen as a solution to a strategic problem in an instructional, step-by step manner. Rather, one must attempt to broaden their thinking and view it as a single ideal being expressed in different ways. By approaching Musashi’s thinking in this manner, it becomes easier to grasp the concepts that could otherwise remain elusive as subsequent passages illuminate prior ones and breathe life into the text.
When thinking about the passage above, then, I tried to breakdown the principal question of the idea he is presenting: what is this “void”? Musashi leads his reader towards the idea of void by first explaining what it is not. In my understanding, this begins with him trying to get the reader to reassess what they consider to be knowledge. Specifically, he is writing of “man’s knowledge”. In my interpretation, the addition of the adjective “man’s” is his way of showing that it is a specific kind of knowledge that is different and, in a sense, skewed. Knowledge should be unqualified knowledge. Man’s knowledge, however, is specifically born from an individual’s reason and experiences and, as such, is not wholly independent from worldly influence. An individual’s knowledge of things, even abstract concepts, are still thoughts that they have formulated from themselves. It is the summation of their experiences and their reason. It is their knowledge. Yet this is not how Musashi wants his reader to think, as this is incompatible with his Way. He wants them to divorce themselves of this experiential approach to knowledge, as it is not coming from a place of “nothingness”, or void. It is being developed from the world around us, our experiences, our emotions, our biases. As a result, it is invariably influenced by the world and our perception of it. It is not objective nor impartial; it is subject to a multitude of exogenous factors. “Man’s” knowledge, then, comes from something. This is, of course, incompatible with Musashi’s call for “nothingness.”
This is a useful start, and from here one can continue their journey into understanding nothingness. However, even after assuming this understanding, Musashi’s idea of void remains hidden. He continues:
“People in this world look at things mistakenly, and think that what they do not understand must be the void. This is not the true void. It is bewilderment. In the Way of Strategy, also, those who study as warriors think that whatever they cannot understand in their craft is the void. This is not the true void.”
Here, Musashi further gives examples as to what his idea of void is not. He is referring to interpretations and understandings which he considers misguided. The void is not the absence of understanding, he writes. Thus, the implication is that the void is something. Further, and perhaps more importantly, by specifying that bewilderment follows “mistakenly” perceiving the world, he inversely implies that, by correctly perceiving the world, one can be led to understanding “the true void”. As such, the reader is ushered to the conclusion that the void is not solely contingent on intellectual prowess and is not beyond the understanding of any willing and determined individual. He cautious against tricking oneself into thinking that the void is either that which they do not know or that if they do not understand it at one point, it is permanently out of intellectual reach. Now, even from here, I remained stuck stuck at the classic philosophical question posed in the opening sentence: how does something come from nothing? I believe that this question, with regards to Musashi, can be resolved only if one considers nothingness as something far more profound than simply the absence of something, as implied by the prior passage.
Finally, the next passage, by keeping the prior established conditions in mind, reveals what the void is and how one can come to understand it. He continues:
“With your spirit settled, accumulate practice day by day, and hour by hour. Polish the twofold spirit heart and mind, and sharpen the twofold gaze perception and sight. When your spirit is not in the least clouded, when the clouds of bewilderment clear away, there is the true void.”
What Musashi is trying to lead his readers towards is that the idea of void, or nothingness, does not preclude the possibility of knowledge and understanding; rather, it is the precondition to knowledge and understanding. Through proper practice and exercise of both the body and mind, we can come to see the void for what it is; a place mental and spiritual tranquility, from where the potential for understanding is unlimited. The void, being absent of any exogenous influence, which is what Musashi believes can lead to your “spirit” being “clouded,” should be understood as an ideal that that lays the foundation for subsequent thought and reflection towards knowledge. There can only be potential for this knowledge, in other words, though the deliberate suspension of all else that would otherwise cloud you mind. The human mind, as amazing as it is, is subject to a multitude of constraints and pre-dispositions which obstruct its ability to truly know, Musashi believes. Worldly concerns, biases, and human emotions can lead the mind to be clouded and “bewildered”, and as such remain victim to falling into lesser forms of knowledge, or “man’s knowledge”, as he already outlined. By making nothing the medium through which one approaches any given concept, they are able to open the door to much more beyond their prior, more basic understandings.
And this is why the idea of void, despite being “empty”, is the way towards a greater understanding of oneself and the universe. The void, by being detached and entirely free of
thoughts of glory, fame, anger, etc. allows one who has surrendered these passions to gain a greater understanding of, and appreciation for, the world around them. In an almost Platonic line of thought, Musashi makes the case that one’s understanding of the void leads to knowledge, and from this knowledge, his strategy can be understood. As such, Musashi is able to explain how nothingness can, in fact, lead to something quite profound.
To conclude the book, he leaves the reader with this last thought:
“In the void is virtue, and no evil. Wisdom has existence, principle has existence, the Way has existence”
Looking at the work from this perspective, then, it becomes clear how profound Musashi truly believed the void is. It was the foundation for his Way, and is a framework from which he can grounded his other works and teachings upon. Through merging aspects from the Zen concept of Mu (“without”) with aspects of the Platonic idea of the rational soul, Musashi developed a philosophical regime which, while directly applicable to combat, has far more resounding impacts if one considers it more broadly. All the admirable things we are called to pursue in life, what characterize what many philosophers would call the “good life”, can be found by understanding and appreciating nothingness. Nothingness, then, is both the precondition to knowledge and virtue.
Upon reaching this particular interpretation of Musashi’s work, I was compelled to consider its direct implications in my own life and philosophical ideals. As a student of political science, I have been able to explore the rich history of philosophy. I am of the opinion that many of the classic works of philosophical thought, from Plato to Rousseau, remain applicable to my life today despite being hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years old. Musashi’s work, while unique in its focus in comparison to some of these other thinkers, is no different in terms of relevancy - human nature and the lives we live (and how we may choose to live them) remains largely constant regardless of space or time.
As such, Musashi’s work led me to reflect on my life. Not in a grand and profound sense trying to discern existential purpose; rather, the thought emerges in the smaller, perhaps more easily overlooked, aspects of my life. The little things, however, are what add-up and sometimes equate to the most profound. As such, I come to ask myself: what in
my life functions to help me grow in understanding, as Musashi would encourage, and what serves to distract? What helps create “nothingness” from where I can reflect, and what fills the void with needless thoughts.
In other words, how much of what I absorb in my day-to-day life is simply noise?
At quick glance, I can quickly find that there is much that serves little to no purpose other than the fill time. Time that, of course, could be spent more with productive concerns. But beyond being unproductive (or even counterproductive), this sort of noise blocks my ability to really focus on things that, perhaps, are of far more consequence. Of course, barring me relocating myself to an isolated mountain to study in abject solitude, this noise is an unavoidable part of life. The goal, then, is not to eliminate all the things in life that take us away from this state of mental tranquility – that is almost certainly impossible. Instead, we must work to recognize the thoughts for what they are and seek to be able to suspend them within our own lives so that they do not cloud our judgment and ability to think and reflect.
But even then, the things that are important, admirable, and good can also serve to cause distraction in our lives. If I sleep one third of my day, should thoughts of work consume the other two thirds? That seems quite dull to me and, philosophically speaking, rather unfulfilling. But even when concerning oneself primarily with a fine balance of work, family, and passion, there should still be a foundation that supports all of those concerns and that seeks to strive and build an understand beyond them. What Musashi would have us do is to consider all of these things through the medium of the void, as it is only from such a place that we are able to grow our understanding of them. From there, the way we approach these things will become more ordered and, subsequently, they will all benefit immensely from greater clarity and understanding.
It is here that my study of karate becomes relevant. Every session of karate begins with a brief period of meditation. In these meditations, we are instructed to clear our minds of all the aforementioned thoughts of our lives which, while important, need not permeate every waking moment. I try to remove stresses from work from my mind. I ignore the readings for school that I will still have to get done. I force myself to ignore the thoughts of what the coming days will bring. Even the good moments in my day have no place in this reflection. The goal is a mental state of nothingness. To create the void in my mind so that, when I do commence and begin exercising my body and spirit, my mind has created an optimal environment for growth and understanding. Subsequently, my karate can flourish in the context of an unburdened mind, which itself further transfers into other aspects of my life. Good habits reinforce other good habits, and I am of the strong belief that the lessons of discipline and principle which we can take from studying karate are no exception.
Musashi’s concept of nothingness helps me approach karate with a less self-critical, yet still focused, lens. Rather than approach every single motion as right or wrong and concern myself with perfection, it pushes me to consider each action as part of something of greater significance. This repeated practice, while still done with intentionality, builds good habit and, from there, the “perfection” that I may have looked for before will draw closer. Of course, perfectly placing oneself in a mental state of nothingness is quite difficult. Meditation takes years of practice to perfect, and I certainly have a long way to go myself. With this in mind, however, there is still much for one to gain from even a moment of exercise and the clarity that is sure to follow.
If principle, virtue, and wisdom exist in the void, as Musashi writes, then even a fleeting moment of true “nothingness” should be seen as a noble victory and as a step towards attaining greater understanding and appreciation in - and of - our lives.