Cryptic Samurai Advice On Time Well Spent

Miyamoto Musashi. Woodblock print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

In college I first picked up a translation of Musashi’s “Go Rin No Sho” or Book of Five Rings.  Briefly, Musashi was one of the great, if not the greatest, swordsmen of his day and is still revered as an icon of Bushido and the Samurai life.  This is all the more interesting since he didn’t always follow the social conventions of the Samurai class.  He composed this work near the end of his life when he retired to contemplate and write in a cave.  His precepts for living according to the martial way were not for the faint of heart.  There was a bit of the mad genius in Musashi.

Like many who have turned to this book over the centuries I was hoping it would offer some roadmap to becoming a great strategist or a great swordsman or both.  Generations of martial artists, soldiers, businessmen and politicians have contemplated Musashi’s words.  There may well be a map in there but it doesn’t offer a quick, clear route and parts of the map just say “here there be monsters”.  It wasn’t until many years later that I had a few “ahhh  I see” moments when rereading the book.

One very brief line struck me early on and I’ve come back to it again and again.  In the work’s  first part called The Earth Scroll (Cleary Translation) there is a short list of “rules” if one wishes to seriously study his way.  The last of these says simply:

Do not do anything useless.

I’ve seen this line translated as “Do nothing that is without use” and “Do nothing that is without purpose”.    Allowing for variations on the theme, the line seems to be telling us don’t screw around.  Get serious.  Focus.  That line could be read through a dour even Puritanical lens (idle hands do the devil’s work, etc.).  In a society where people feel pressured to give more and more to jobs, answering work emails until the wee hours I’m not sure a dictum to only do what is productive and useful is really what we need to hear.

But I don’t think that’s all he was saying.  What constitutes “useful”?  Musashi was a man who contemplated nature.  In addition to being a swordsman he was also an accomplished artist.  While he committed an astonishing amount of energy to his work as a professional martial artist he didn’t suggest that all life must be labor.  He did seem to be saying that all activities, even the pleasurable ones, should contribute to our well-being and development as humans on our path in life.

I’ve thought about this in terms of leisure.  Is leisure “useless”?  No, we all need rest and social time and things we do for the sake of enjoyment.  But Musashi’s rule might be worth considering if the choice of leisure activities is watch television reruns with a six pack at your side versus playing a game of chess or going for a hike with a friend.  Which is truly restful, sitting in quiet meditation contemplating art or nature or staring off into space and scrolling through I Am Bored?  While leisure is necessary and not useless the leisure we choose will speak volumes.  What we’re talking about is intentionality.

Intentionality tells us that our thoughts and actions are about something.  If I say “I am eating potato chips while lying on a couch” that makes a statement with regard to myself and is about my condition.  When we engage in any action whether it is for work or leisure, self-improvement or pleasure, the action will be about something.  The action will reflect on the state of our being independently of our thoughts on the matter.  In one of those odd philosophical twists of terminology this isn’t the same thing as an intention (I intend to start weightlifting tomorrow).  Intentionality is a revealed meaning or purpose of a thought or action.

I think what Musashi was suggesting was not just that we should keep busy and avoid frivolity (though being something of an ascetic he probably would say that too).  I think the point of the line “do nothing that is useless” is to live in such a way that our actions automatically contribute to continued refinement of ourselves.  If you are working then work meaningfully and well.  If you are resting then rest meaningfully and well.  Aristotle told us we are what we repeatedly do.  I think in his own gruffer way Musashi was saying something similar.

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