I recently read ‘Musashi’ by Eiji Yoshikawa, based off of Sebastian Marshall’s recommendation as the best book for Creative Builders. I enjoyed reading it once I held myself to finishing it, but I can’t say that I came away at the end of it with as glowing of a review as Sebastian. Perhaps it is because I went into it thinking it would be like the other books on that list – the kind that are more prescriptive rather than true novels. I love novels that can help shed insight on real life – the ones that can provide an exciting story yet help you grow as a person.
That is why I went into Musashi with such hope. The problem is that it is an absolutely massive book (almost 1000 pages) and while the story is swashbuckling, the ‘swordplay per chapter ratio’ is not very high, nor is the ‘life lessons per chapter’ ratio. The vast majority of the book is taken up by Musashi doing his own thing, which usually doesn’t include swords. It’s just him wandering around the countryside looking for people and experiences to make him a better swordsman. Since it is so large and wanders so much (I don’t think any of the chapters that focus on Jotaro or Otsu have extrapolatable lessons in them) I don’t think I rate it as a good philosophical read, as Sebastian does.It’s a wandering narrative written with the maddening patience that only someone from the east could muster, with a few decapitations and useful quotes here and there.
If you want a book that will just barely hold your interest but is nowhere close to a page turner, this is your best bet. I had no trouble putting it down at any time and could pick it up again days later, which, when coupled with its large size, makes it good for eating up little bits of time sprinkled around, rather like Atlas Shrugged was for me. You have to have patience.
If a 1000 page read doesn’t sound like your cup of sake, below are the main lessons I took away from Musashi:
Take an apprentice: First with Jotaro and later on with young boy her finds later on, Musashi goes out of his way to help teach the impressionable young men he finds lying around the road. He’s so famous that they hassle him until he says yes, but i think even our stoic hero comes to appreciate his little buddies by the end of the story. An apprentice gives you the opportunity to share your way of life with another. The aphorism that ‘the best way to learn is to teach’ applies here – by teaching your apprentice you know your craft better and also spread the love.
Imbue your life with your own meaning: We, too, can learn Takuan’s potent lesson to young Takezo without tying ourself to a tree for days on end. I may by soliloquizing here, but I think that there is no intrinsic meaning to life – it has the meaning that we give it. Yet so many of us never try to do that and instead search for some outside meaning they can work towards. Make your own!
Be Mt. Fuji: As Musashi tells his second disciple, there’s no point in trying to impress people. Be like the mountain: it simply is what it is, and people are impressed by its large size. Strive for your own ideals, and let the crowd’s love come as a result – not the other way around.
Pain can yield you a greater pleasure: Suffering under hardship intensifies your pleasure. If you only pursue pleasure without hardship, you will never know the pleasure that comes after a hardship. Musashi likens this to the yawn at the end of a long day of work – it is treasured far more than the yawn of an idle man.
Enemies are teachers in disguise: The Way of the Sword is filled with constant danger, but every person trying to kill you makes you stronger. You don’t have to be a samurai to use this yourself – just remember that every obstacle between you and your goals makes you tougher. Embrace the difficulty, and pummel your obstacles.
Nothing is god-given: If you don’t ever try very hard, it’s easy to say that the successful man is who he is due to destiny or some higher power. Nobody sees the years of hard work you put in to get there.
Don’t worry about what’s not important: Musashi is mentioned for his unkempt appearance almost more often than his prodigious sword skills. Other samurai place their appearance above their sword skills. Musashi doesn’t care how he looks – what matters is his sword.