BOOK REVIEW: Musashi’s Dokkodo ed. Lawrence Kane & Kris Wilder

Musashi's Dokkodo (The Way of Walking Alone): Half Crazy, Half Genius-Finding Modern Meaning in the Sword Saint's Last WordsMusashi’s Dokkodo (The Way of Walking Alone): Half Crazy, Half Genius-Finding Modern Meaning in the Sword Saint’s Last Words by Miyamoto Musashi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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“The Dokkōdō” consists of 21 precepts written by Miyamoto Musashi in his last days. Musashi was solitary, a minimalist, and single-mindedly resolute as a swordsman – all to extremes few of us can fathom. [Imagine a cross between Diogenes and Muhammad Ali.] These twenty-one sentences barely fill a page, let alone a book. However, as with sutras of yoga and Buddhism, a book’s worth of material comes from elaboration and analysis. This approach is taken in this book by way of five commenters from different walks of life, though all with martial arts experience.

However, normally the explanations would be made by: a.) someone who understands the language (particularly the archaic form the author wrote in – i.e. Musashi’s lifespan overlapped with Shakespeare’s, so consider the changes in the English language that transpired,) or b.) someone with a depth of understanding of the worldview of the author (in this case, that would be someone immersed in a mélange of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, the Chinese classics, and the influence of life in the wake of centuries of feudalism and militancy on a person’s psychology.) This isn’t the approach taken in this book. While the five commenters are clearly well-read and intelligent individuals, they are also firmly ensconced in a worldview that is Western, Abrahamic, and materialistic. [I suspect this was the editors’ intention – to relate to the lives of the likely readership, but it does have stark implications for how the book is perceived.]

If one is looking for a book that will explore what – if anything – from the legendary swordsman’s deathbed lesson aligns with a Western / Abrahamic / American-suburban strip mall dojo lifestyle, this is your book — 5-stars – buy it immediately. However, if one approaches the book from the assumption that Musashi was an exceptional person who must have had valuable insight into how to be exceptional, then one is likely to find this book presumptuous and dismissive of Eastern values and philosophies.

Much of the book is the commenters dismissing Musashi’s ideas as wrong-headed. In some cases, this is because Musashi was such an extremist that few could hope to live a life like his. [It’s not “the way of going alone” for no reason. Though that’s arguably why we are still interested in what Musashi has to say 400 years after his death.] However, in many cases, the commenters seem to be talking past Musashi’s ideas because their assumptions are inconsistent with the swordsman’s cultural milieu.

This is most often seen with respect to a fundamental difference between Eastern and Western psychology. In Buddhism, there are purely mental constructs that have no reality except within the mind, and which can cause suffering with no material upside. For example, in precept #6 when Musashi argues against regret, some of the resulting commentary was as if the precept was “Don’t learn from your mistakes. Never change.” For a Buddhist, not holding onto regrets does not at all mean that one doesn’t learn or make corrections – mid-course or otherwise. It just means that there is this cancerous mental construct that can’t help one because the past is the past, and so it is jettisoned. Another example involves not having preferences, which – again – doesn’t mean that one won’t make a choice (if the situation allows one a choice.) It means not holding onto a mental attachment. [e.g. If I like coffee more than tea, and a choice presents itself, I order coffee. What I don’t do is let my mind obsess about not being offered a choice.]

There are some beautiful insights peppered throughout this book, some that appear to be in line with Musashi’s thinking and others that I suspect the swordsman wouldn’t recognize as related to his own words. However, there is also a lot of commentary that sounds like college students railing against how bad Shakespeare is, in part because they are missing much of the Bard’s nuance and in part because his works seem unrelatable to their experience.

My recommendation of this book would be contingent upon where you fall on dichotomy that I mention in paragraph three. You might love it, or you might loath it.

P.S. If you’d like to know what differences can result from translation, you can find a scholarly translation that is done by a Japanese linguist (Terou Machida) and published in the Bulletin of Nippon Sport Sci. Univ. right here. You’ll note that most of the precepts are (for-all-intents-and-purposes) the same, except the conversion from first to third person. However, you will notice that several precepts (10-12, 15, and 20) are substantially different, and one (#16) is arguably of the exact opposite meaning.

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