The Book of Five Rings – Book Notes and Summary

The Book of Five Rings is a classic disappointment.
The Book of Five Rings is great – if you need advice for winning a battle with swords.

One-sentence summary: The Book of Five Rings is another classic strategy text that doesn’t live up to the hype.

Rating: 4/10

Author: Miyamoto Musashi

Date Completed: 2020

Tags: War, Power, Strategy, Philosophy

Hot take: Abstraction on top of abstraction. If you’re not a swordsman, you don’t need The Book of Five Rings. If you’re thinking about reading this one, you should probably read Baltasar Gracian instead.

Big Ideas

Control your mind while warping the mind of your opponent.

  • “In both everyday and military events, your mind should not change in the least, but should be broad and straightforward, neither drawn too tight nor allowed to slacken even a little. Keep the mind in the exact center, not allowing it to become sidetracked; let it sway peacefully, not allowing it to stop even for a moment.”
  • “Do not let your mind stand still even when you are in repose, but do not let it speed up even when you are involved in quick actions.”
  • “Do not let the mind become clouded inside; keep it broad, and place your wisdom in that broad place. It is very important to polish both wisdom and mind earnestly.”
  • Your body and mind may be composed straightforwardly, but you should hope to bend the mind of your opponent, confusing them and taking victory in the process.

Two types of sight: seeing and observing.

  • The eye of observation allows you to see the faraway as near and vice versa – both of which are essential to poise.
  • “If you fix the eye with a detailed, narrow focus, you will miss the large picture, create for yourself a confused mind, and be stripped of a sure victory.”

“Remain calm, then attack first and quickly.”

  • Taking the initiative is better than being reactive. The only thing you can afford to focus on is the present moment. If you’re distracted, you’ll lose your edge.
  • Figure out your opponent’s style, rhythms, and allies. Once you’ve learned them, you’ll know when to take the initiative.
  • Attack suddenly when your opponent least expects it, and you’ll be able to steal victory quickly.
  • If your opponent attacks first, lure them into a false sense of security before counterattacking once they’ve decided you aren’t a threat.
  • If attacked, you have to defeat your opponent in a way that keeps them from striking a second time.
  • If you’re fighting against multiple enemies, push them all in one direction. Get them off balance and tripping over one another, then move forward.

You don’t have to make it back the way you lost it.

  • “Thinking you have come to a stalemate, you should know enough to discard the situation immediately and gain the victory by some other method.”
  • If you find yourself in a fight where nothing is going right, and there’s no progress, be ready to throw everything out and start over.
  • “Whenever you think that you and your opponent are just grating along, you should change your mind on the spot and take the victory by using another tactic.”

Cause confusion.

  • Keep your opponent on their toes. If you’re just a little unpredictable, you’ll be harder to understand and beat.
  • To that end, don’t overuse the same techniques. If something works once, it might work a second time – but it won’t work a third.

Speed is not the answer.

  • Someone who isn’t working on the right things can move quickly and get nowhere. On the other hand, someone who knows what they’re doing can work only a little and get a long way.
  • Similarly, the key to winning isn’t speed; it’s working diligently on the right things.
  • Don’t let anyone push your pace. You choose your speed.
  • “If someone is indiscriminately fast, it is essential that you counter this, become tranquil yourself, and not be pulled into this speed by him.” 

The library will loan you The Book of Five Rings for free. However, if you’d like to buy a copy (and support the site), you can do so here.

Related reading:

The Art of Worldly Wisdom – Baltasar Gracian

The 48 Laws of Power – Robert Greene (Book notes coming soon!)

Mastery – Robert Greene (Book notes coming soon!)

The Prince – Niccolo Machiavelli

The Art of War – Sun Tzu (Book notes coming soon!)