The Water Scroll

This week I will continue my summarizing of the classic text from 1643, The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. Last week I wrote about the first scroll which was the Earth scroll, and this week I will move on the the next section, the Water Scroll.

This scroll goes in to detail about specific sword movements taught at Musashi’s school, the Two Skies school. As he writes at the beginning of this scroll, the heart of his school is based on water. The long sword as the primary weapon used by his students is what is mainly discussed; however from the beginning, Musashi notes that “As for the principles of martial arts, although there are places in which I have written of them in terms of a duel between two individuals, it is essential to understand in terms of a battle between two armies, seeing it on a larger scale.” This is an interesting thread that runs through Musashi’s writings so far; even though I don’t have any plan to command an army, it is interesting to think of martial arts and army strategy as microcosm and macrocosm, the same thing on a very different scale.

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The first category in the Water scroll is the “State of Mind in Martial Arts:

In the science of martial arts, the state of mind should remain the same as normal… let there be no change at all- with the mind open and direct, neither tense nor lax, centering the mind so that there is no imbalance, calmly relax your mind, and savor this moment of ease thoroughly so that the relaxation does not stop its relaxation for even an instant. Even when still, your mind is not still; even when hurried, your mind is not hurried… Once you have sharpened your intellect to the point where you can see whatever in the world is true or not, where you can tell whatever is good or bad, and when you are experienced in various fields and are incapable of being fooled at all by people of the world, then your mind will become imbued with the knowledge and wisdom of the art of war… “

“Physical Bearing in Martial Arts:

As for physical appearance, your face should not be tilted downward, upward, or to the side. Your gaze should be steady. Do not wrinkle your forehead, but make a furrow between your eyebrows. Keep your eyes unmoving, and try not to blink. Narrow your eyes slightly. The idea is to keep a serene expression on your face, nose straight chin slightly forward.” I will have to practice this at work. “The back of the neck should be straight, with strength focused in the nape. Feeling from the whole body from the shoulders down as one, lower the shoulders, keep the spine straight, and do not let the buttocks stick out. Concentrate power in the lower legs, from the knees down through the tips of the feet. Tense the abdomen so that the waist does not bend. There is a teaching called “tightening the wedge,” which means that the abdomen is braced by the scabbard of the short sword in such a manner that the belt does not loosen. Generally speaking, it is essential to make your ordinary bearing the bearing you use in martial arts, and make the bearing you use in martial arts your ordinary bearing. This should be given careful consideration.”

“Focus of the Eyes in Martial Arts:

The eyes are to be focused in such a way as to maximize the range and breadth of vision. Observation and perception are two separate things; the observing eye is stronger, the perceiving eye is weaker. A specialty of martial arts is to see that which is far away closely and to see that which is nearby from a distance. In martial arts it is important to be aware of opponents’ swords and yet not look at the opponents’ swords at all. This takes work. This matter of focusing the eyes is the same in both small- and large- scale military science. It is essential to see both sides without moving the eyeballs…”

“Gripping the Long Sword:

In weilding the long sword, the thumb and forefinger grip lightly, the middle finger grips neither tightly or loosely, while the fourth and little fingers grip tightly. There should be no slackness in the hand…”

“On Footwork:

In your footwork, you should tread strongly on your heels while allowing some leeway in your toes. Although your stride may be long or short, slow or fast, according to a situation, it is to be as normal. Flighty steps, unsteady steps, and stomping steps are to be avoided… complementary stepping; this is essential. Complementary stepping means that you do not move one foot alone. When you slash, when you pull back, and even when you parry, you step right- left- right- left… This is something that demands careful attention.”

“Five Kinds of Guard:

The five kinds of guard are the upper position, middle position, lower position, right- hand guard and left- hand guard… There are no other kinds of guard besides these five. Whatever guard you adopt, do not think of it as being on guard; think of it as part of the act of killing… The middle position is what the guard is all about. Consider it in terms of large- scale military science: the center is the seat of the general, while following the general are the other four guards. This should be examined carefully.”

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“The Way of the Long Sword:

To know the Way of the long sword means that even when you are wielding your sword with two fingers, you know just how to do it and can swing it easily… The idea is to swing the sword calmly, so that it is easy to do…”

Musashi writes in more detail about movements designed to move in on an opponent and strike him down. I cannot copy all of what is written and encourage you to read further of Musashi’s techniques. There is even more information on line, such as the website on which I found the above picture. Here are some highlights (for me) from the rest of the water scroll:

“On the Teaching of Having a Position without Having a Position:

Having a position without a position, or a guard without a guard, means that the long sword is not supposed to be kept in a fixed position… Sometimes the upper guard is lowered a bit, so that it becomes the middle position, while the middle guard may be elevated a bit… In this way, the principle is to have a guard position without a position. First of all, when you take up a sword, in any case the idea is to kill an opponent… In large- scale military science, the arraying of troops is also a matter of positioning. Every instance thereof is an opportunity to win in war. Fixation is bad. This should be worked out thoroughly.”

“Striking Without Thought and Without Form:

When your opponent is going to strike, and you are also going to strike, your body is on the offensive, and your mind is also on the offensive; your hands come spontaneously from space, striking with added speed and force. This is called striking without thought or form, and is the most important stroke. This stroke is encountered time and time again. It is something that needs to be learned well and refined in practice.”

“The Body Instead of the Sword:

The body in this sense can also be called the body that takes the place of the sword. In general, when you take offensive, your sword and your body are not launched simultaneously. Depending on your chances of striking the opponent, you first adopt an offensive posture with your body, and your sword strikes independently of your body. Sometimes your may strike with your sword without your body stirring, but generally the body goes on the offensive first, followed up by the stroke of the sword. This requires careful observation and practice.”

“The Sticky Body:

The sticky body means getting inside and sticking fast to an opponent. When you get inside the opponent’s defenses, you stick tight with your head, body and legs. The average person gets his head and legs in quickly, but the body shrinks back. Sticking to an opponent means that you stick so close that there is no gap between your bodies. This should be investigated carefully.”


When your opponent and you both strike forth, and your opponent catches your blow, the idea is to close in with your sword glued to the opponent’s sword. Gluing means that the sword is hard to get away from; you should close in without too much force. Sticking to the opponent’s sword as if glued, when you move in close it does not matter how quietly you move in. There is gluing and there is leaning. Gluing is stronger than leaning. These things must be distinguished.”

“Stabbing the Face:

When you are even with an opponent, it is essential to keep thinking of stabbing him in the face with the tip of your sword in the intervals between the opponent’s sword blows and your own sword blows. When you have the intention of stabbing your opponent in the face, he will try to get both his face and his body out of the way. When you can get your opponent to shrink away, There are various advantages of which you can avail yourself to win. You should work this out thoroughly. In the midst of battle, as soon as the opponent tries to get out of the way, you have already won…”

The Water scroll concludes:

“Thinking unhurriedly, understanding that it is the duty of warriors to practice this science, determine that today you will overcome your self of the day before, tomorrow you will win over those of lesser skill, and later you will win over those of greater skill. Practicing in accord with this book, you should determine not to let your mind get sidetracked. No matter how many opponents you beat, as long as you do anything in contravention of training, it cannot be the true path. When this principle comes to mind, you should understand how to overcome even dozens of opponents all by yourself. Once you can do that, you should also be able to grasp the principles of large- scale and individual military science by means of the power of knowledge of the art of the sword. This is something that requires thorough examination, with a thousand days of practice for training and ten thousand days of practice for refinement.”

For my post this week (this post is postponed from last week) I will be discussing the meaning of the South Korean flag.

In a previous post Master Pearson introduced the concept of oryoki. Since I came across a letter about it in the other book I am reading, The Life and Letters of Tofu Roshi, I thought I would share that this week. As I noted when I introduced this book a couple posts back, this is a purely fictional book about a fictional Zen advice column. Here is the letter and response:

“Dear Tofu Roshi:

My understanding is that in correct oryoki practice we must eat everything in each bowl. At a recent sesshin, a fly landed in my Buddha bowl, got stuck, and died there. I picked it up with my chopsticks and surreptitiously put it under my zafu. Was this the correct thing to do, or should I have eaten it? -J. Goldblum

Dear J.:

I can see you’re one of those people who believes that rules are made for everybody else but themselves, who fly in the face of tradition whenever they feel like it. Of course you should have eaten it, as you said yourself at the beginning of your letter. That fly chose to be born into this life in order to nourish a Zen student. And you chose to be born into this life in order to offer your body as the burial site for a fly. By turning away from this opportunity, you have put off, perhaps by thousands of years, the day when both you and the fly, hand in hand, will escape the wheel of karma to the other shore, to buzz around from flower to flower, from cube of tofu to cube of tofu.”

In the glossary of the same book, the entry for “Oryoki” reads: “Set of three nesting bowls and utensils used for formal meals in the zendo. The word is a contraction of Oreo cookie, because in strict traditional practice, the first bowl was used for the top wafer, the second bowl for the bottom wafer, and the third bowl for the cream filling.”

What do you think?

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