In ancient China, wars left millions dead and the leaders in search of a new way of governing. In the Art of War, Sun Tzu recommended a strategic method to win that rarely required actual war. Spies, diplomats, deception, and a well organised internal structure were his main tools. If it came to war though, he had detailed insight into its methods and strategies.

Text Size


{webgallery indent="25%"}Edo Period Zen Garden{/webgallery}

Book of 5 Rings
The Emptiness Book

Musashi's condemnation of reliance on tradition is simultaneously strongest and most subtle in the enigmatic "Book of Emptiness".  The Emptiness Book is by far the shortest as befits its Zen

influences.  To understand it let's have a look at the Zen concept of Emptiness using the metaphor of the Zen Garden:

All things have an ultimate nature.  A real existence that ordinary people's minds are unprepared to see.  For example, when ordinary people see something, they immediately classify and label that thing.  They are unable to make sense of reality without this process.  It's like trying to think of the sky without thinking of the word "sky" or "blue".  This conceptualization process is based on our subjective experiences and always causes gross distortions.

Perhaps the clearest example of this is fashion.  The things we wore 20 years ago look dated and even humorous now.  The clothes didn't change.  Since the climate and manufacturing materials are about the same as 20 years ago, we can conclude that the clothes' functionality didn't change.  Our minds changed.

Here's the connection to the Zen Garden:
It is as if we look at the rock, but only see the rings around the rock.  Knowing where the rings are is useful information.  The rings tell us a lot about the rock's size shape and location, but it is very far from seeing the rock directly.  Similarly, ordinary perception is useful in day to day life, but is a poor second to seeing reality directly.  We think we see the rock, but we can only see our subjective, emotional, reaction to the rock.

Here's the connection to Strategy:
Illogical subjectivity can get you killed on the battlefield.  In the Wind book Musashi explained why preferences are bad.  Now he is explaining the theoretical structure of the alternative.  Clearing your mind of bias and ego lets you see through fashion, pier pressure, preconceptions, so you can perceive the truth.

This lack of reliance on preconceived ideas is what enabled Musashi to take out two swords to beat 30 men.  It enabled Suleiman to carry his boats overland past the blockade of Constantinople.  It can enable us to see beyond what our piers are talking about when we formulate strategy in business, sports or personal endeavours.

Perhaps, the next time you see a Zen Garden you can ask yourself, in my life, am I looking at the rocks or the rings around the rocks.

These photos by the way are from the Ryuan Zen Buddhist Temple in Kyoto, Japan.  The garden was well respected in Musashi's time, so there's a good chance he visited it.