BOOK REVIEW: Legends of the Martial Arts Masters by Susan Lynn Peterson

Legends of the Martial Arts MastersLegends of the Martial Arts Masters by Susan Lynn Peterson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This book consists of 21 short stories from the lives of martial arts masters: some modern, some historical, and some anonymous folktales with unknown origins. The majority of the stories are about Japanese or Okinawan martial artists, but Chinese, Thai, American, and Koreans are also represented.

These stories can be roughly grouped by theme (though they aren’t organized in that way in the book and some stories cut across more than one of the themes.) The first theme is peacefulness, non-violence, or minimization of violence. This idea is central to the stories featuring Tsukahara Bokuden and his school of “no sword,” Yasutsune Itosu who invites an attacker for tea, Hisamori Takenouchi who is taught the folly of war by an old man, and Gichin Funokoshi who gives robbers cake.

The second theme is the power of an immovable mindset. This can be seen in the story of the sumo wrestler Onami who had to overcome a stint of choking, the parable of the tea master who is challenged to a duel and is advised by a swordsmanship teacher to take up the sword with the mindset with which he takes up his tea utensils, and the tale of the unbreakable prisoner Gogen Yamaguchi. There are also stories about the ability to win by preventing the opponent from achieving this mindset. This was most famously achieved by Miyamoto Musashi (on several occasions,) but it’s also seen in the story about an archer who is unable to make a shot from a perilous position even though the shot wouldn’t be a hard one for him from stable ground.

The third theme is the importance of the student/teacher relationship and the value of a teacher’s wisdom. This can be seen in the stories about American Karate founder Robert Trias and his experience with the master who wanted to trade him Hsing-I lessons for his own boxing lessons, about Morihei Ueshiba’s demystification of mysteries that perplexed his students, and about Chatan Yara’s reversal of a would-be student’s tactic.

The final story theme deals with the virtue of being diligent in one’s training. These include the amazing feats of the likes of Sokon Matsumura (an Okinawan fighter who fought a bull), Nai Khanom Tom (a Muay Thai legend who defeated twelve of Burma’s best fighters in rapid succession), and Mas Oyama who sentenced himself to training exile for what most would consider a minute infraction. There are other tales in this category such as how Duk Ki Song and other Korean students practiced secretly under a martial arts prohibition or how Yim Wing Chun got out of an arranged marriage to a cad through her diligent training.

This is a short book (about 120 pages) and most stories are only 4 to 6 pages. If you are a long-time practitioner of martial arts, you’ll probably have heard some of these stories, but you’re also likely to come across something new. There are obscure tales intertwined with one so popular it’s been made into multiple movies (e.g. Mu-lan.)

It should be noted that this is more of a collection of morality tales than historical accounts. One shouldn’t take these stories as established history as opposed to mythology or folktales. To her credit, Peterson leaves tales like the parable of the tea master and the tale of the three sons anonymous. Famous martial artists, like Miyamoto Musashi, are often cast into these stories either because people read a fictional account that borrowed from folktales, to lend more power to the story, or because the facts have become muddled in retelling. However, for example, the chapter on the Bodhidharma is most likely wrong. (The consensus view among historians is that Bodhidharma didn’t introduce martial arts to the Shaolin temple as is popularly thought, and that the popular myth is the result of revisionist history.) That doesn’t mean the story doesn’t have virtue—it’s got great hang time for some reason.

I’d recommend this book for martial artists who are interested in the philosophy and ethos of the martial arts. It’s a quick and easy read.

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6 Science Books That Martial Artists Should Read

When one has a passion for an activity,  it’s easy to get tunnel vision and miss out on the many avenues of information by which one might improve oneself.  I’ve done many posts on martial arts books, but I thought it might be useful to do one about books that aren’t about martial arts per se, but which have none-the-less contributed to my thinking as a martial artist.


1.) On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by LTC Dave Grossman

OnKillingWhat it’s about? Psychologically, it’s a lot harder to kill another human being than one might think. Even when one is a combatant in a just war, the reluctance to kill–even one’s sworn enemy–is intense. Grossman examines the roots of this reluctance, what methods have been employed to get soldiers over it, and what the cost of doing so is.

The book also goes into a topic one might find surprising: video games. Not to give too much away, but military researchers discovered that getting infantrymen to kill required conditioning them to shoot targets that look human. This resulted in moving from bulls-eye targets to silhouettes, pictures of humans, and even Firearms Training Simulators (i.e. FATS, systems that run shoot / no-shoot scenarios on a screen, like an interactive movie.) It turns out that shoot-em-up video games may contribute to a child’s conditioning to be willing to shoot another human being.

Why it’s a good read for martial artists? Martial arts vary radically in realism and relevance to combative situations, but it’s easy for students of the martial arts–even martial arts that seem “hardcore” and self-defense oriented–to have unrealistic notions about the realities of combat. As François de La Rodefoucauld said, “One cannot answer for his courage when he has never been in danger.” By reading this book one might, perhaps, begin to rethink one’s assumptions, and change how one prepares to defend oneself and others.

Further reading on related topics:  I’ve heard good things about the works of Rory Miller–particularly Facing Violence and Meditations on Violence, but I haven’t gotten around to reading his books yet. If you have, please feel free to comment with your thoughts.


2.) The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler

RiseOfSupermanWhat it’s about? Kotler examines a state of mind that is widely call “flow,” and how extreme athletes are tapping into flow to achieve unprecedented advances in performance. There are a number of ways by which this state of mind can be defined, e.g. neurochemically (i.e. a neuro-cocktail of serotonin, anandamide, endorphins, dopamine, and norepinephrine), neuroanatomically (transient hypofrontality), neuroelectrically (high theta / low alpha wave–i.e. between meditation and resting wakefulness), or psychologically (intense concentration on a challenge that’s just beyond one’s present skill level.)

Kotler proposes that risk is an important trigger for entering a deep state of flow, and that this is why extreme athletes are proving so much better at achieving these states (and translating them into radically increased performance) than many other groups who seek to master flow.

Why it’s a good read for martial artists? It should be noted that not only is flow not a newly discovered state of mind, but it sounds a lot like the state of mind that martial artists have sought for centuries in the practice of their arts–often in conjunction with disciplines such as Zen or Vajrayana Buddhism. What is new, which makes this book worth reading, is an understanding of the science behind flow states. By moving beyond the hazy mix of truth and falsehood embodied in systems of spirituality, one may be able to find a way to more reliably increase one’s performance.

Further reading on related topics:  Flow in Sports: The Keys to Optimal Experiences and Performances is a book that is co-authored by the granddaddy of flow research Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.


3.) Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero by E. Paul Zehr


What it’s about? (Arguably, this is a martial arts book, but I’m including it because one wouldn’t get that from the title or blurb.) This book’s central question is whether a real life person could achieve the level of crime-fighting bad-assery that is the Batman, and–if so–what combination of genetics, training, and conditioning would be required. It also addresses what would be the cost in terms of wear and tear on one’s body and how long one could be expected to maintain said abilities. (Also, for the martial artists of feminine persuasion, how Batgirl or Catwoman might fair in combat against Batman.)

Why it’s a good read for martial artists?   There is tons of great information relevant to martial artists about the toll of extreme practice and regular fighting on one’s body (e.g. concussions, broken bones, etc.), what the limits of human performance are, by what means those limits are approached, and how realistic it is to have an unreciprocated policy prohibiting lethal weapons.

Further reading on related topics: Actually, if you know of any books on related topics, I’d love to hear about them. There are a number of such books, but they’re on textbook pricing (i.e. insanely expensive.)


4.) Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger by Jeff Wise


What it’s about? This book is about the mental and physical effects of mortal peril, and why some people’s performance excels under dire threats while other people just let themselves die while cowering in a fetal ball. The book asks what we can all learn from those people who manage to keep their heads about them when death seems certain.

In the interest of full-disclosure, as of this writing I’ve not completed this book. I just started it and am only in the second chapter. However, so far it’s been both informative and interesting.


Why it’s a good read for martial artists? Much like On Killing, I think this book may be valuable because there are many martial artists with daydream-induced misconceptions about how they will perform in dangerous situations. This book may help one evaluate one’s true state of preparedness, and discover how to go about making changes to improve one’s level of preparedness for a worst-case scenario.

Further reading on related topics:  If you want a scholar’s account, the book Anxious by Joseph E. Ledoux may be more your style. (Wise is a popular science writer.) I see that Ledoux is cited a lot in books I’ve been reading as of late, but I can’t say I’ve read any of his books yet. However,  I know he’s widely regarded as one of the foremost experts on fear. It looks like his book isn’t so much on mortal peril as Wise’s book, and covers all kinds of anxiety and fear.


5.) Faster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes–and What We Can Learn from Them by Mark McClusky

FasterHigherStrongerWhat it’s about? The super-long subtitle says it all. It’s about how athletic performance is being improved by bringing scientific methods to the study of sports, and–as the second half of the freakish subtitle suggests–it explains how amateurs can put this information to good use. There are some methods used by elite athletes that aren’t at all suitable to the run-of-the-mill martial artists (e.g. don’t consume mass quantities of baking soda.) However, there are other approaches to nutrition and training that are readily translated to amateurs without much downside.

Why it’s a good read for martial artists? You may or may not think of yourself as an athlete. I can hear some martial artists saying, “I don’t practice a sport, I’m a martial artist. I deal in lethal combat, not games. yada, yada, yada…” Maybe so, but fitness, nutrition, and conditioning matter. If you want to be able to hold your own against more skilled opponents, you need to improve your capabilities and capacities. Fitness matters. If you think technical proficiency will get you through any situation, you haven’t run up against someone who is both technically skilled and highly fit–and when you come up against said person, your disillusionment will be swift.

Further reading on related topics:  As with the Becoming Batman book, most of the books on this subject are textbooks and are outrageously priced. If you know of other books in this vein, I’d love to hear about them.


6.) Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson et. al.

BuddhaBrainWhat it’s about? This book turns the lens of modern science on the serene, immovable state of mind that martial artists have historically sought out through Buddhist and yogic systems. It discusses how Buddhist practices help people to be more cognitively effective and less prone to emotional manipulation or disturbance.

Why it’s a good read for martial artists?  If one reads the works of warriors–ancient and modern, one will discover that the greatest warriors place a premium on the importance of the mind.

Consider the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi. Musashi was exceedingly successful in defeating his enemies by making them angry. He would show up late and behave disrespectfully, and he would make his own mind imperturbable. This allowed him to easily defeat warriors who were considered at least his equal in terms of technique.

Further reading on related topics: There are many books that look at similar questions.  Zen and the Brain is probably a better book in terms of the amount of information / insight provided, but it’s a much more daunting read. I wouldn’t put the latter in the category of “pop science” as much as just “science.”  (Zen and the Brain is also a much older book.)


These are my recommendations, I’d love to hear about yours in the comments section.


BOOK REVIEW: The Lone Samurai by Wm. Scott Wilson

The Lone Samurai: The Life of Miyamoto MusashiThe Lone Samurai: The Life of Miyamoto Musashi by William Scott Wilson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

[Note: this was previously posted in my martial arts blog, Jissen Budōka.]

This is a concise and well-researched biography of one of Japan’s most famous swordsmen. Miyamoto Musashi, however, wasn’t just a swordsman, he was also a writer, a painter, a sculptor, a Zen Buddhist, a poet, a philosopher, and a strategist. In short, he was a renaissance man. While The Lone Samurai focuses heavily on Musashi’s many duels as a traveling warrior, it also describes his artwork as it paints a portrait of a complex and beguiling character.

Musashi holds a curious allure among figures in Japanese history. The Japanese tend to be strictly bound by societal conventions, and being respectful and well-mannered is valued above all else. Musashi flouted convention whenever it served him. He used irreverence for strategic advantage. He was an astute reader of men. He often showed disrespect in order to get into his opponent’s head. This is most famously exemplified in his Ganryu Island duel with Sasaki Kojiro.

Musashi adopted a life of musha shugyo, or warrior errantry, though he could have been much wealthier and more comfortable had he chosen to be. He enjoyed simplicity, and only owned a few possessions. In his travels, he engaged in over 60 duels, and is usually credited with being undefeated [Note: I’ve heard some dispute the outcome of his second duel with Muso Gonnosuke. Wilson calls it a draw, but I’ve heard it called Musashi’s only defeat as well.] He fought as a samurai in battle at Sekigahara as well, but his adulthood was a relatively peaceful time.

One fascinating, but controversial, claim is that Musashi had no teachers–neither in swordsmanship nor in any of the fine arts he practiced. Musashi said this himself, but some historians dispute it. If true, it really takes being an extraordinary person up a notch. It should be noted that Musashi was only 13 when he had his first duel.

There is much about Musashi that is lost to the ages, but this book does a great job of pulling together what is known and weaving it into a portrait of the man.

There is an extensive series of appendices providing background information, notes, a glossary, and even a collection of pop culture (e.g. movie and novel) depictions of Musashi.

It’s well worth the read if you’re interested in strategy, history, or the biographies of incredible people.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi

A Book of Five Rings: The Classic Guide to StrategyA Book of Five Rings: The Classic Guide to Strategy by Miyamoto Musashi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Miyamoto Musashi is probably the most famous swordsman in Japan’s history. Oddly enough,he’s not known for his experience in battle(he lived at the tail end of the Warring States period and was only in a couple of battles), but for his time spent in musha shugyo (warrior’s errantry), during which he engaged in over 60 duels. It is The Book of Five Rings that largely accounts for his continued fame. That being said, Musashi was quite the renaissance man, a painter and sculptor of note. He also left behind a school of swordsmanship, Niten Ichi-ryū.

The Book of Five Rings is divided into five parts: earth scroll, water scroll, fire scroll, wind scroll, and void scroll.

The earth scroll provides an overview of martial science and an introduction to Musashi’s school, which is noted for its simultaneous use of both the large and short sword. A section is devoted the rhythm of martial arts, a crucial topic. It also includes what might be considered Musashi’s 9-point budō kun (a list of warrior precepts.)It’s worth mentioning a couple of these.
#7 Become aware of what is not obvious.
#9 Do not do anything useless.

The Water scroll describes Musashi’s approach to swordsmanship. It covers a range of elements of a martial art including footwork, the focus of one’s eyes, physical posture, mental posture, techniques,kiai (spirit shout), and approaches to cutting and thrusting.

The Fire scroll deals with the strategic or interactive aspects of the battle. Among my favorite quotes from this scroll is, “If your own power of insight is strong, the state of affairs of everything will be clear to you.”

The Wind scroll teaches us about other martial arts. Musashi discusses martial arts that use an unusually long sword, an atypically short sword, that focus on powerful strikes, and those that focus on many rapid strikes. He contrasts other martial arts with his own on subjects such as their focus with the eyes and their footwork.

The void scroll deals with, well, emptiness.

Musashi had great insight into strategy from his career of dueling. His book is worth being read and reread.

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