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21 Life Principles of the Sword-Saint Miyamoto Musashi

In 17th century Japan, there lived a sword saint, philosopher, and Ronin named Miyamoto Musashi. For the uninitiated, a Ronin is a Samurai without a master.

Unlike Samurais, Ronins didn’t commit seppuku – a ritual suicide to restore honor after defeat. Once dispossessed by their masters, some Ronins became thugs and dacoits and some simply became wandering souls.

Musashi was also a wanderer who made honing the craft of swordsmanship his sole purpose in life. It is said that he fought close to 60 duels and remained undefeated in all. After calling it a day, he became a teacher and an author.

Like Epictetus, the Greek Stoic philosopher, whose writings saw the light of the day courtesy of his student Arrian, Musashi’s work was also saved and circulated by his student Terao Magonojo.

It is said that Musashi wrote Dokkodo – a short book comprising 21 life principles a week before his death. In this post I share a condensation of his 21 lessons.

What helped Miyamoto Musashi focus?

In his own words, it was the following attributes that helped him focus:

  • Restraint
  • Sacrifice
  • Discipline
  • Not being swayed by pleasure.

Focus was a non-negotiable for him. It was the lynchpin around which he practiced his craft of swordsmanship and built his character.

Since he was often away from civilization for his duels, he inculcated the abovementioned four values to bring mathematical neatness to his life. In case you are wondering how Miyamoto Musashi managed to ingrain those values, well, the answer lies in the following 21 principles:

#Principle 1. Never let yourself be saddened by a separation.

Musashi was a wandering soul. He wandered from one place to another to fight duels with worthy swordsmen. During his journies, he learned the significance of death and the insignificance of material possessions.

He realized that life is full of separations, all things come and go. As a Ronin, he accepted the ultimate fate – death – as there is no other truth. Death awaits us all. If you come to grips with this fact, then, when death comes, it won’t scare you at all.

Musashi, in short, became conscious of the delusion of possession. The ancient Hindu scripture Bhagavad Geeta also calls such materialistic delusions detrimental to the soul.

#Principle 2. Resentment and complaint are appropriate neither for oneself nor for others.

People spend inordinate amounts of time criticizing others. More often, when others are not even around to defend themselves. People also manufacture reasons to complain even when none exist.

As the saying goes, “Man always needs a monster to slay, if there is none he creates one.”

Musashi says that a man of focus should steer clear of engaging himself in such futile acts. Venting out your emotions is like a double-edged sword, it hurts the giver more than the receiver.

One thing must be understood – not everyone is created equal. Yes, it’s a fallacy when they tell you that all are created equal. The truth is we are not. Not everyone has the same skills. Not everyone has the same physical features, not everyone is handsome or beautiful – some are more, some less.

Musashi urges you to turn a blind eye to such inconsistencies because they don’t matter.

#Principle 3. Don’t let yourself be guided by the feeling of lust or love.

If Musashi were alive today, he would deplore the form of romantic love that is practiced today.

Lust can overcome us and deter us from reaching our goals.

Principle 4. In all things in life, have no preferences.

The problem with preferences is that they make us dependent. Our happiness comes to depend upon them. If your preferences are being met, you will be happy, if not, you will be mad.

Musashi advises keeping a tranquil mind and avoiding strong preferences. If you love to eat Potato pancakes with smoked Salmon on the weekend, and you don’t get it when you expect it, don’t blow a gasket…even if you have to make do with boiled potatoes.

Principle 5. Be indifferent to where you live.

Mushashi was a wanderer. As a former Samurai and a Ronin later, he was used to traveling. People nowadays put a great emphasis on where they live, what kind of furniture they possess, or what their neighbor possesses.

Again, attaching yourself with material stuff causes disgruntlement. People get emotionally attached to their dwellings also.

Musashi was of the opinion that as long as you live a simple life, it doesn’t matter where you live. He would stress that in order to stay focused, you have to become indifferent to where you live.

Principle 6. Don’t pursue the pleasure of good food.

Since Musashi was a wanderer, he used to eat simple food. Wining and dining are a no-no in Musashi’s book. He discourages gluttonous behavior and exhorts his fellow humans to not chase good food.

The problem is, when you are used to eating fancy, Michelin-star restaurant meals, you tend to become averse to eating a standard diet. This attitude can make you more extravagant and stimulate ways to satisfy your pleasures (Principle 4).

Musashi advises eating simple food, mindfully and in limited amounts. The purpose of eating is nutrition. Period.

Principle 7. Don’t hold on to things you no longer need

Musashi knew a thing or two about the minimalist lifestyle it seems. Drifting from place to place taught him the ultimate truth. The more we own, the more we crave. It’s a never-ending cycle and it creates the fear of losing.

Buddhists don’t chase possession with a higher purpose (contentment, stillness). Travel light

Principle 8. Don’t act following orthodox beliefs.

Mushashi had freed himself of the webs of orthodoxy. He refused to conform to the beliefs handed down to him. He believed that you throw your critical faculties and intellect out of the window when you follow the herd.

People who blindly fall in line, and conform to the opinions of the crowd often get stuck or live mediocre life. Musashi had an anecdote to this – solitude. It was his way of shielding himself from outside influences.

Principle 9. Don’t collect weapons beyond what’s useful.

Musashi carried two Katanas (long swords) and one Wakizashi (small sword) and those were the weapons he practiced with and wielded when needed. He exhorted going beyond what was most needed. Basically, the idea is to focus on one craft until you attain mastery in it.

Principle 10. Don’t fear death.

When we don’t fear death, we don’t give in to the foolish demands of life. The acceptance of death is empowering.

Musashi says it’s pointless to worry about death because we don’t know when it is coming.

Principle 11. Don’t seek to possess either goods or fiefs for your old age.

This principle comes as a little controversial to many.

Musashi doesn’t want you to chase money and material items – shit you plan to cherish in your old age. However, at no point does he say that acquiring wealth is bad.

When you put this in the perspective of the modern world, you see that people today plan to enter old age with loads of money so that they could retire to the sunny beaches in Portugal or the Bahamas or at least, have a decent lifestyle. The fact is you don’t need bucketloads to enjoy your retirement. You can retire with a small amount in your portfolio, too.

Musashi stresses that you can walk into old age with contentment instead. You can attain self-actualization and cultivate yourself into a well-rounded personality.

Principle 12. Respect Buddha and the Gods without counting on them for help.

We are responsible for our own lives. Fearing God, and following religious practices is good, but counting only on God to do your job is a bad strategy.

Principle 13. You may abandon your body, but you must preserve your honor.

Musashi remarks that the value of honor far outweighs the value of life. Don’t indulge in actions whose outcomes you regret later. Live a righteous life, and become an example for others to look up to.

Miyamoto Musashi Life Principles

Principle 14. Never stray from the way.

Musashi’s way was the way of the sword – to which he completely dedicated himself. It transcended everything else including life and death.

These days true commitment is rare. Most of us are consumers in a throwaway society, seeking instant gratification and going from pleasure to pleasure. If you were to follow Musashi today, you’d choose a more difficult path of sacrifice and restraint – all in the service of a higher goal (quality of life and well-being).

When we are not dedicated, it’s difficult to get anything worth it done.

Principle 15. Accept everything the way it is.

We can’t improve if we don’t accept the current state of affairs. Face your fears and only control the controllable. Whatever lies outside your sphere of influence, let it be. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t change it.

Principle 16. Don’t seek pleasure for its own sake.

Mushashi could have become a thief or a mercenary, but instead, he chose to cultivate his own mind by instilling certain virtues. His attitude is similar to the Stoic attitude.

The pursuit of guilty pleasure can become a trap – Netflix binge, lust, office politics, etc. If Musashi had indulged in mindless pleasures, he couldn’t have perfected his craft of swordsmanship.

Principle 17. Do not, under any circumstances, depend on a partial feeling.

Feelings are often based on irrational thinking. Therefore, feelings in many cases don’t tell the whole story. This can lead to a disaster.

Assessing a situation with full mental clarity and mindfulness can give a better picture. The best practice is to let the dust settle and then make a decision.

Principle 18. Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world.

Musashi was a formidable swordsman. But he was lethal and humble at the same time. He never thought highly of himself.

In this universe, we aren’t important. Our stint on this planet is limited. If we die tomorrow, will the world stop spinning ? No. Then, why think so highly of ourselves?

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we remove ourselves completely from worldly affairs. The point to remember is not to inflate ourselves.

Principle 19. Be detached from desire your whole life long.

Desire means that we let our happiness depend on extraneous factors. Not very Stoic.

Musashi was of the view that attachment is the root of all suffering. That’s why he preferred solitude. The age-old Hindu and Buddhist scriptures also underline the same thought.

Principle 20. Don’t regret what you have done.

Don’t beat yourself up about your past mistakes. What is gone is gone. The only way is the way forward. With shame and damage, comes wisdom, says Musashi.

Principle 21. Never be jealous.

Musashi used to drift across the lands. During his travels, he came across wealthy people and their trappings of wealth. It was easy to become envious. But he knew his satisfaction lay within him. He would walk with the figurative blinders on.

The truth is that in this life, we all walk alone, so it is unwise to burden ourselves with feelings of envy and judgment.

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