“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” -Bruce Lee
April 13, 1612: Funajima Island:
A cold sea wind blows in the east, as the small boat rows itself toward the break in the waves, a slit of land known as Funajima, where waits the great Sabaki Kojiro, “The Demon of the West Provinces”; war hero, noble, and recognised as the most skilled swordsman in all of Japan. In the boat, beneath a coat of rags, and carefully whittling a spare boat oar; Shinmen Musahsi: the son of a minor samurai line, barely above peasant class, a Ronin, an oathless samurai, who’s lord was defeated, and who dares to walk the Way of the Sword on his own. A hermit, a duelist, who has the temerity to stand before his betters. The waves crash upon the shore, as the boatman delivers a barefoot Musashi before his regal opponent, there to fight the duel which will decide, who is the greatest swordsman in Japan.
Excerpt From “The Book of the Water Scroll”, Go Rin no Sho:
‘Just One Strike’: The “One Strike”, as it is called—if you have the spirit of it, you are certain to gain victory. It is very difficult to get this without learning strategy thoroughly. If you train diligently in this skill, you will get to the heart of strategy itself, and in this way, become able to win at will. You must practice constantly.” -Shōhō Second Year, Fifth Month, Twelfth Day Shinmen Musashi, [to] Terao Magonojō
The 17th century warrior and poet, Shinmen Miyomoto Musashi is perhaps Japan’s greatest martial legend; how did this man of minor background become the legendary swordsman that he is known to history as? The secret is in the Book of Water; a scroll which Musashi wrote in his twilight years. In it, he hints to his core philosophy of a “Life of Mastery”, what a contemporary Daoist would likely have conceived of as “The Way”, or a Zen Buddhist, the tenets of which Musashi would likely have been intimately familiar, would think of as ‘Enlightenment’; we may call it ‘genius’. The Kensai, the “Sword Saint”: Shinmen Musashi, would have called it, Niten Ichi Ryu, “The Two Sword Style”, or “The Two Gates of Heaven”.
“You can win with a long weapon, and yet you can also win with a short weapon. In short, the Way of the Ichi school is the spirit of winning, whatever the weapon and whatever its size.” -Musashi, The Book of Five Rings
What does Musashi mean by “The “spirit of winning”? He does not mean from a sense of entitlement, no matter how great the skill. It must be earned. As he stands facing Sabaki Kojiro on that beach, Musashi thinks upon his long years which have lead him to this moment of destiny, to stand before the greatest samurai in Japan, and dare to topple him. He thinks of his time as a young man, learning the rudiments of swordsmanship and how to read and write under the tutelage of his adopted father. He thinks of his time on the flaming battlefields of war-torn Japan, during the age of the Warring States, when bodies lined the roads for lack of proper burial sites. He thinks of the years spent in solitude as a ronin, and hermit, training his body and his mind for a lifetime of devotion to the way of the sword. How he wandered the land, seeking out greater and greater challenges to surmount, until finally, he was here, where Master meets Master. And only one may leave.
Kojiro, heir to a noble house, and wielder of the great Dai-Katana, a two-handed sword which could sever the head of a man from seven paces. He too had fought through wars, he too had trained in the ancient ways of his clan. But his rights were granted to him. He had not bled for it in quite the same way as Musashi. Musahsi was an outcast, a beggar…low. So why then did Kojiro want to be him so badly?
Basil De Castiligone, in his “The Book of the Courtier” describes the notion of “sprezzatura”:
“A certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art, and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort, and almost without any thought about it…An easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions which hides the conscious effort that went into them.”
It is a lack of self-consciousness to the point of psychological warfare, which I believe Musashi would have recognised and approved of, particularly in his treatment of “Waiting Initiative”, from the Scroll of Fire:
“…When the adversary advances to attack you, do not worry about it at all, and show your opponent the appearance of weakness. When the opponent draws near… BOOM!,,,”
There’s an old story about a tortoise and a hare. The tortoise didn’t win by accident. You see the tortoise had been biding his time, preparing for just the right moment, when the hare thought that everything was going his way, to finally perform his “one strike” moment upon the hare, as Musashi had prepared for Kojiro.
The two swordsmen stand a short pace apart, but their spirits could not have been closer in conflict with one another, save at the point of death. Kojiro, with his longsword in hand, eyes the disheveled Musashi, standing barefoot in the surf at the blood red light of dawn, holding nothing more than a long pole, and he had even had the audacity to be late to his own duel! What a cretin. Kojiro draws his blade, casting his sheath into the sea, a sign that this duel must be to the death; the story goes that when Musashi asked why he would do such a thing, Kojiro replied: “Because I will never again use a sword that has been profaned with your blood.”
The light of the sun flashes across the water, as the two Samurai circle each other, knowing the next stroke may mean death. At last there is a sudden shift in the wind, Musashi leaps into the air, his long pole, just slightly longer than Kojiro’s own sword, whips through the air, as Kojiro’s blade slices across the bridge of Musashi’s nose.
But Musashi does not bleed. The blade has missed, and there in the sand before Musashi, lay what once was the greatest samurai in Japan, slain by his own hubris, presumption, and a simple tool wielded proficiently in the hands of an outcast, landing squarely against his head, with all of the combined weight of a lifetime of preparedness.
There is a sense of being ‘in the moment’, forever chasing a falling star, which accompanies any act of greatness, in whichever form it may take. It is unlikely that anyone may ever hope to remain in that fixed state for the entirety of their life, but the active goal of attaining this elevated state, is the journey; never mind the destination. When the destination is reached, when the final challenge looms before you, when the blade is pointed toward you: it is then that you summon the entirety of your journey, into one moment: to win at will. In other words, to “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” -Muhammad Ali