Philology of the day – Musashi’s “Dokkōdō”, The Way of Walking Alone

It strikes me that the two major writings of Miyamoto Musashi, one of the most famous swordsmen across the spans of the world, are rather short. His first work, The Book of Five Rings, which encapsulates Musashi’s ideas on swordsmanship, is less than 90 pages long. His second work, Dokkōdō, translated as “The Way of Walking Alone”, which expresses his view of life, is 21 sentences long. 21. Sentences.

Musashi wrote Dokkōdō at a time when Death was sitting by his side. Although he was undefeated in over 60 duels, many of which were duels to the death, this time Death was sitting there for good. So Musashi composed his precepts of life, passed them onto his closest student and died one week later.

It is one of these precepts that caught my attention as I was reading an excelent novelisation of Musashi’s life, Eiji Yoshikawa’s novel Musashi. I highly recommend it by the way, I’m reading it for the second time myself. In one part of the story where Musashi is still a young wandering student of The Way of The Sword, he pauses and reflects on his deeds. He notes to himself: “Never regret anything you have done.” Mulling it over, he realises this does not differentiate between good deeds and bad deeds. It invites oneself to be ambivalent towards one’s own conduct. So he rewrites it a couple of times and arrives at: “Don’t do anything you may come to regret.” I recalled that this is one of his precepts from Dokkōdō, so I searched it up.

As his sixth precept, Musashi writes: 我事において後悔をせず (Wagakoto ni oite kōkai wo sezu), which is translated as: Do not regret what you have done. It is the ambivalent wording. I was intrigued about the translation, because at one point during a battle Musashi had beheaded a 12 year old boy, albeit an heir to the hostile Yoshioka School of Swordsmanship, with which had been fighting. So I wondered, would he brush it off as “do not regret what you have done”, period?

I’ve contacted my friend who told me it really does point towards the past (contrary to the novel’s interpretation) about not regretting what one has done, but there might be a meaning which says even if you have done things you might be regretting, do not regret them; rather, find in them a seed of learning and use them as your teachers in the future days.

While this does not absolve Musashi of beheading a 12 year old boy, it sheds a bit more light on how he might have reflected on it.* It also sheds some light on the English translation of the sixth precept and shows how some things are difficult, nay impossible, to translate. And that is their beauty.

I wonder how the other precepts are?


*And while we reflect on Musashi, let us remember that we cannot apply today’s moral and ethical standards to the times long gone. We can compare, but we can’t judge. To judge, let us follow the ethical and moral codes of 17th century Japan.

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About Petr Klíma