”In my doctrine, I dislike preconceived, narrow spirit. You must study this well.” This is what the Japanese swordsman, writer and samurai Miyamoto Musashi wrote in The Book of Wind in approximately 1645. These words might be almost 400 years old, but they still ring very true today and are especially applicable to ABOAGORA’s values of openness and open-mindedness. This begs the question of how much commonality is there between Musashi’s philosophy and ABOAGORA’s ideals, which is what ABOAGORA’s intern Julia Autio explores in this blog post.
Earth, water, fire, wind and void form ABOAGORA’s current thematic plan “The Five Rings” (2019–2023), taking inspiration from Miyamoto Musashi and his book. Musashi was a rōnin, a samurai without a master, and is largely considered to be the greatest swordsman in history with his undefeated record of 61 duel victories. During the last years of his life, he lived as a hermit and wrote The Book of Five Rings, which was directly addressed to one of his pupils as a guide to learn his Way of strategy.
The Book of Five Rings, like the name suggests, consists of five books (or scrolls) named after the abovementioned elements. Even though the five elements function as the basis of the book, Musashi does not write about the elements per se; instead they represent different sides or parts of battle. To read more about the five elements and what meaning they have been given in different cultures and times, you can check out Johanna Juupaluoma’s (ABOAGORA’s intern 2021) blog post “Viisi sanaa maailmasta” (in Finnish). In this text I will delve more in detail into The Book of Wind, and discuss how it does, or maybe doesn’t, correspond to ABOAGORA.
Before ABOAGORA, The Book of Five Rings has inspired many others throughout history. Musashi’s school, Niten Ichi-ryu, is still practiced today. Thus, quite expectedly, the students of the school have read and interpreted the book plenty. Musashi writes in a way that makes it possible for both a beginner and a master to study the book; the teachings are also applicable to both small-scale duels and larger battles. This writing style makes it possible to use the book for any situation where plans and tactics are used. Most notably, Musashi’s teachings have been applied in the context of business and leadership. However, because The Book of Five Rings allows for broader interpretation, it can be analyzed in a context of arts and sciences as well; which, of course, is what ABOAGORA has done.
“In strategy, you must know the Ways of other schools, so I have written about various other traditions of strategy in this, the Wind book.”
From ABOAGORA’s point of view, The Book of Wind is especially interesting in that it specifically focuses on other schools and their ways of teaching. In a way, this creates a sort of dialogue between the different schools, which is obviously very similar to what ABOAGORA aims to do. Like Musashi, ABOAGORA offers an arena for different schools of thought to compare and combine their perspectives. The variety might be greater when it comes to ABOAGORA, but the basic idea is there. There is one major difference, however. By introducing the other schools, Musashi aims to prove why his Way is superior compared to them; thus, the goal is significantly different, even opposite of ABOAGORA’s objectives.
We have to remember, that despite different meanings given to it later on, The Book of Five Rings is first and foremost a guide for warriors. Its aim is to teach a winning strategy, which in the context was exceedingly important; duels and larger battles were ‘kill or be killed’ situations. Thus, it is quite understandable that being knowledgeable of different viewpoints also serves the purpose of defeating one’s opponent. ABOAGORA, on the contrary, does not seek to prove the superiority of any field of study or art. Instead, ABOAGORA aims to create dialogue and break barriers. One of the base convictions, however, is the goal of comprehensive problem-solving of current social challenges. Thus, one could maybe say that ABOAGORA also aims to win; but the winner is the whole of humanity and not a single person or army in a battle. This is obviously a bit of a stretch; essentially Musashi’s and ABOAGORA’s goals are very different.
“In as much as men’s opinions differ, so there must be differing ideas on the same matter. Thus no one man’s conception is valid for any school.”
On the other hand, the reason why Musashi sees other schools as inferior to his, is because he considers them to be too narrow in their way of thinking. Some schools think a long sword is better, others prefer a short sword; some schools consider speed to be of key importance; and others put emphasis on written pledges and regulations. Whatever it may be, the thing Musashi criticizes is how the other schools are too set in their ways and focus mostly on surface level details. They are not open to other perspectives and think they have found the superior Way in a specific technique. Musashi sees strategy as something broader than just skillful sword-fencing and dexterity.
Combining different perspectives is thus at the root of both Musashi’s and ABOAGORA’s thinking. This is seen throughout The Book of Five Rings, as Musashi draws examples from other professions and arts. In fact, Musashi himself was also a master of ink painting and produced works of metal. He guided his followers to ‘study all professions’ and to ‘become acquainted with every art’ and thus saw the value of extensive knowledge and a broad mindset. In order to learn his Way, one should know other schools and other professions; and once one has learnt his Way, it can be seen in all aspects of life. The goal might be to win battles, but the method of achieving that is an all-encompassing philosophy. This might be a loose interpretation of what Musashi actually meant. However, it is the takeaway I was able to get.
Bringing together the arts, humanities and sciences is what ABOAGORA, in turn, aims to do. Where Musashi focuses on a personal level, ABOAGORA’s objectives are broader. Obviously ABOAGORA offers individuals a chance to broaden their mindsets, but the aim is to break barriers between disciplines as well as between arts and sciences on a larger scale.
“By Wind, I mean old traditions, present-day traditions and family traditions of strategy.”
The reason Musashi wrote about other schools specifically in The Book of Wind is that he sees wind as a symbol for traditions. Wind is both ancient yet renewing; we breathe the same air our ancestors did, yet its composition is not exactly the same anymore. By introducing both old and new traditions of strategy, Musashi demonstrates the differences but also similarities between them and his school. Despite seeing his Way as superior, Musashi admits that it builds on traditions and thus it is not entirely different from all other schools. The strategy taught in The Book of Five Rings was a new tradition built on top of the old ones; being 400 years old, it has now become an old tradition itself.
Both the arts and sciences have traditions that are thousands of years old. Both also have very new traditions. The way they are presently separated could be considered a relatively new tradition compared to the long history of scientific and artistic activities being quite adjacent. ABOAGORA could be described as a melting pot of an immense amount of traditions. It’s a forum where a variety of artistic and scientific traditions can meet, merge and create new ones, while this forum itself is also an attempt to create a new tradition. For ABOAGORA, this is the goal itself, whereas for Musashi engaging with traditions was more of a means to another end. And this is perhaps where the biggest differences between them lie.
So, what can we conclude of the interconnectedness of Musashi and ABOAGORA? Both see the value in combining and being familiar with different perspectives. Both also aim to create new traditions on top of older ones. Despite being 400 years apart, we can still find kinship between the two. To me, that says something beautiful about humanity.
Written by Julia Autio (ABOAGORA’s intern 2022)
- Miyamoto Musashi (translated by Victor Harris): The Book of Five Rings, Arcturus 2018.
- Kai Koskinen: Kaksi taivasta yhdessä. Miyamoto Musashin tie, Bookwell 2011.
All quotes are from the English translation mentioned above.