Monday, May 27, 2013

The Lone Samurai by William Scott Wilson

This volume reveals the salient features of probably the most celebrated and talented Samurai of Japanese history: Miyamoto Musashi.  This legendary figure has been the subject of nonfiction, fiction and films because his accomplishments are astounding and worth noting.

To appreciate Musashi, one must understand the feudal structure of Japan in the pre-modern period and see how this great personage developed into the independent figure of heroic proportions.  In feudal Japan there is a martial class of samurai that are retained by a local authority.  The lowest class, the farmer perhaps may break out of his lowly class by becoming a samurai, however, in general, one's class is cast.  Musashi is self taught and one never really understands which clan retains his services, thus being a Ronin, an independent.  He learns the art of swordsmanship alone without a teacher, preferring the two sword method of a short and long sword.  In samurai culture, to be a samurai means being challenged to bouts, the only way by which one gains a reputation of worth.  Musashi's career as a Samurai is sixty individual bouts and 4 battlefield campaigns.  He loses to no one!  His mastery of the sword is so skilled that after he turns 30 years old he matures and shows his determination not to kill his opponents.  With commanding presence, he counters the ability of his opponents to strike with authority.  As a result of his resolute determination his opponents concede the match: he cannot be beaten.

Musashi's life, however, is much more sophisticated then only being a skilled swordsman.  He becomes a truth seeker and delves into art and calligraphy.  He becomes a noted artist with keen insight and philosophizes about the martial arts.  He writes a magnum opus: The Book of Five Rings that explain that the purpose of a fight is to win at all costs, thus including all advantages.  For example, he shows the ways of psychology.  In one bout, Musashi deliberately arrives late on the scene knowing that his opponent will be irritated even angry.  When his opponent unsheathes his sword and casts away the scabbard into the sea, Musashi declares victory by saying "you have already lost because only a loser would no longer need his scabbard!"

He understands the need to be independent and he establishes his own dojo with only a select few students. He breaks with the Samurai notion that a good death is the goal.  Musashi believes in life so one may continue to serve.

This book is worthwhile for the introduction to one of the great personalities of world history.

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