33A. Musashi: Good or Evil?

Susan Rutherford asked made the following comments and asked some pertinent questions.

“The samurai class interest me a great deal. These men and women were not simply soldiers as we in America envision soldiers. These people were eventually considered upper class, highly educated and very refined and cultured. On the other hand, they were also fierce fighters who often killed many, many people within their lifetime, often without just cause. At this point I am referring to such men as Miyamoto Musashi who killed 63 people in his life in fights to test fighting ability. I know I have discussed this issue with you before but it still burns inside. I do not fully understand how we can learn from these samurai. How does someone like Musashi learn that he does not need to fight by fighting and how do well educated, refined, cultured, sensitive people kill others? If the samurai, especially the Buddhists, felt that they were so awful to kill that they felt they would be destined to be re-born back into Samurai, and that to do so would be a terrible destiny, then why did they continue?”

First, let’s deal with the great Miyamoto Musashi: Musashi had, according to my memory, 78 battles to the death, thus killing 78 men with sword or bokken (wooden sword). I certainly would not be proud in my life of 1/78th of that history. But, I hope you can understand a REALLY IMPORTANT POINT about history, i.e., that we should not judge a people in history with the standards of our culture and our times. Many of the men who Musashi killed came to him and challenged him to a battle to the death. For Musashi any attempt to escape the battle was against the culture, the time and the place of his life. We in the 20th century wonder why he just didn’t refuse, walk away, or negotiate out of the conflict. But these alternatives are like putting our values from USA 1997 Middle Class Workers on the 17th Century Violent Feudal Sword-Bearing Warrior Class. By our standards the first part (until 1620) of Miyamoto Musashi1s life was abhorrable. But in his society at his time in Japanese history he was as brilliant in martial arts as Sir Isaac Newton was in our society for science and mathematics.

The worship of Musashi we see today in America is mostly because he was a creative martial killer with fantastic technique and brilliant strategy. Musashi was only 12 years old when he killed his first opponent and after that first battle to the death Musashi killed 77 men over a period of nearly 50 years. Musashi was never defeated in battle. And to those who would worship Musashi’s fighting record, it is impeccable from the standards of any time in history.

But that is not all there is to Musashi. Those who worship Musashi’s purely pugilistic fighting techniques and strategy would do well to learn a bit about another aspect of his life. The greatness of Miyamoto Musashi, at least in my opinion, lies in his humanity, what he learned from his violent history and how he gained control of the destiny of his life in spite of the violent society and times in which he lived.

Let’s look briefly at the transformation of Musashi by life experiences:

During the great Tokugawa Revolution Musashi was not on the side of the Tokugawa. He was on the losing side. The Tokugawa came to power in 1603. Musashi was a young man, just about 20 years old, and fought on the losing Ashikaga side. In the most famous battle in Japanese history, the Battle of Sekigahara, the Ashikaga were defeated and nearly 70,000 soldiers died in a mere three days of battle. Miyamoto Musashi barely survived. Immediately after the battle the Tokugawa army pursued the Ashikaga army and massacred them to the last man. No one who was found was spared. It was truly a time when the commanding officers said, “There are to be no survivors. Take no prisoners.”

Pursued for days Musashi escaped by his attention, cunning and brilliance and, yes, at times by the point of his sword (saki). At any rate he survived Sekigahara and was one of the few who were to do so. But survival through Sekigahara led to another difficulty, a practical difficulty; Musashi was left a ronin, a masterless, unemployed, no-food-on-the-table renegade hunted by the in-power Tokugawa regime. He was a marked man a choice opponent for the many samurai who wanted to be in favor with the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. Opponents emerged like flowers after a spring rain. And Musashi left the men slain in their own blood and lust for glory.

In addition, the penniless and incomeless Musashi had a blood-feud with a very powerful family in Kyoto named Yoshioka. He sought vengeance with these people knowing full well that he was not likely to survive if he persisted. But Musashi had little to live for. His family had been slain, he was destitute, he was a marked man and he was hated by the families of the men who he had already slain. But before he died he wanted to revenge the blood feud with the Yoshioka family.

Yoshioka Seijiro, the father and head of the family accepted a duel with Musashi. Musashi in his arrogance fought Seijiro with a wooden sword while Seijiro had a “live” blade. Musashi didn1t want just to kill Seijiro, he wanted to humiliate him and break his body. Musashi beat Seijiro with the wooden sword until nearly every bone in his body was broken. There followed an apparently systematic eradication of the Yoshioka family. Musashi even killed the son who was only 12 years old. But, again, we today will probably never understand the feudal social requirement to mass murder for vengeance of the murder of one’s family. Musashi was a young man full of hate in a society which not only condoned vengeance but demanded it to save family honor and give rest to the slain ancestors. Musashi killed ruthlessly by the standards of our society but then he was not playing to the future, he was a man living his own culture.

In all Musashi fought in six wars in his life. He killed most of his opponents before he was thirty years old. After about 1620 Musashi rarely put on his swords again. He preferred to fight his challengers with a bokken (wooden sword). Using the bokken he broke the challenger’s arms. This was a fate worse than death in feudal society. The challenger was left with a deformed arm (they didn’t have modern setting and casting techniques) and usually could never hold a sword again let alone fight with it. A few of the really insulting challengers Musashi killed with the bokken by crushing their skulls. He was ruthless to his challengers as was the custom of the day.

Remorse came in 1640. Musashi was living in the house of the great Lord Hosokawa teaching Hosokawa1s retinue sword-fighting, strategy, filial piety, and honor. He was challenged again, this time by a man in his twenties. By virtue of his position as sensei at Lord Hosokawa’s fief Musashi was not free to accept the challenge without first consulting Lord Hosokawa and given a dispensation to do battle. Musashi later recalled that as he approached Lord Hosokawa to ask for permission to do battle, Musashi secretly hoped that Lord Hosokawa would deny permission. The realization came to Musashi that he did not want to fight; he had had enough. Killing the young man was repulsive. Maiming the young man was repulsive. Fighting the young man was repulsive. Musashi had not lost his nerve, he just didn’t want any more fighting. Musashi selected a bokken. The young man used a sword and demanded that Musashi use a sword. Lord Hosokawa granted the young man his wish. Musashi was infuriated. He had to kill now that he had a live blade in his hands. The young man attacked. Musashi slashed upward in a furious block of the incoming attack. His opponent1s sword broke. In an instant Musashi1s short sword was at the throat of the young man, already through the skin trickling blood downwards. Musashi had stopped just before the instant of killing. The young man knew he had met a beyond-mortal master. He left defeated but alive and with new knowledge of the awesome ability of a real master.

Musashi disliked the comforts of Lord Hosokawa’s castle. He wanted a rustic, simple and peaceful life where he and nature blended. Musashi retired to a cave in the Japanese Alps and hung his swords in the cave beyond the fire pit. He never took them down again and is reported to say that he would not use them again even if the devil himself challenged him. Perhaps, with this new information you understand why I revere Miyamoto Musashi. It was not that he killed that I revere him, but rather that he learned the lesson of peace in an age where challenging, battles, duels, stealth and vengeance were an integral part of the culture. The last two years of Musashi’s life represent quite a different person than the years for which he is famous.

In the last month of his life Miyamoto Musashi wrote down his reflections on swordfighting, strategy, and the way of martial arts. He had never fostered a following, only occasionally been a sensei, and spent most of his life in destitute conditions. His lasting contribution was his last effort to pass on to future generations his recollections of a violent life. It was titled, “Go Rin No Sho” or as we translate “The Book of Five Rings.”