Miyamoto Musashi's Strategy to Learn or teach Anything


Musashi gives us three sets of laws to understand, those being the laws of nature, the laws of the land, and the laws of the society.

The need to understand the laws of nature should be evident, but it seems like most people don't have a clue. Here we're talking about things like physics, biology, etc. Maybe if you have a desk job and don't spend much time interacting with the real world you won't need to worry about it. On the other hand, having an informed understanding of the natural laws that govern our lives and the lives of our friends, subordinates, and clients, can really help us to excel at what we do. Here it's not necessary to have a degree in quantum mechanics and astrophysics, but a general comprehension of how things tick is recommended.

My favorite example of not taking into account the natural laws is actually the humanities library of University of Toronto, Robarts Library. The designer didn't take into consideration the weight of the books that were to be housed in the library when he designed it. (I know, books, in a library - crazy, isn't it?) As a result the library is sinking very slowly into the soil. That's what happens when you fail to respect the laws of nature - the slow, loamy demise of one of Toronto's ugliest buildings.

The laws of the land, on the other hand, are less obvious. Sure, with your expertise and your supreme understanding of the natural world you set out to accomplish something. Only you find out after the fact that what you made or did was against the law, and so you're going to jail or paying a fine, or your beautiful project will be dismantled despite all your hard work. Think of how heartbroken and frustrated you would be if you built a large, beautiful addition to your house without checking the building by-laws and, as a result of your ignorance, you're asked to dismantle it because it's not up to code.

Granted there may be cases when defying the laws of the government might be warranted, but even in those cases it will serve you well to actually know what those laws are, and what the consequences are for breaking them.


A great martial arts example is use of force. Let's say you are attacked and manage to defend yourself. How much force can you use in return? Are you allowed to use weapons if they have one of their own? What if they don't? What if they die as a result of your act of self defense? All these things should be taken into consideration so that when you're confronted with that knife you already know what you're in for if you survive the attack.

The last set of laws, that of the society, are the most obscure. Sometimes they are clearly set out, mostly they're unspoken but understood and respected by most people - the things you just don't do. Musashi, in the context of carpentry, calls them the "laws of building" in my translation, which I'm abstracting to the laws of the society that surrounds the art you're practicing.

I'm actually going out on a limb here, and welcome Musashi scholars and lay people alike to chime in with your own interpretations. I think he's talking about the established laws of a circle, both spoken or unspoken. Sort of like in a karate school when you have to deal with all the etiquette, such as when to bow, when not to, when to speak, what you should call your seniors and juniors, etc. In other words, there are rules in every society or club, and it is best to understand those rules.

That might sound strange in the context of war. The point is to win, right? Etiquette isn't going to help your strategy. Probably not, but I think an understanding of etiquette, of what is and is not done, is essential. If you know that your opponent is bound to a certain code you can better predict their behavior. Likewise will be able to see what his response will be if you break that same code. If you can provoke them into an unwise move because you flour his social mores you can gain the advantage. In this way you can use this set of laws to better predict and control whatever you're doing.


Did you know that in most cultures there are two words that mean "to know"? One word means experiential knowledge, like "knowing what it feels like to skydive." The other knowing is abstract, as in "knowing about gravitation and aerodynamics." These are two sides to of the same thing, the theory and the practice, and both are needed. In English we just have "to know" which is loses the distinction in meaning.

Theory without practice is little more than a dream. Practice without theory is harder work than it needs to be and is prone to massive oversight. If you jump in the ocean without any knowledge of how to swim, you will die.

Everything that is can be broken down into theory, and understanding the theory is essential to mastering the thing itself. Imagine coming across something you've never experienced before. How do you react? Without theory you have to wing it, which is liable to end in disaster. If your theory covers this new experience you can expect an easier time of things.

Theories are road-maps that guide the way. Sure, our experience is much richer, filling in the map with landscape and texture, but the map itself is how we find what we need and pick the best route to get there.

Musashi reminds us many times that mastery comes with constant study - not just practical skills, but theories that get at the essence of the art we learn.


Understanding the laws and the theory will do you no good if you can't perform. If you know what you need to do but lack the skills to do it you won't find excellence or victory. So it should be pretty obvious that the best way to find mastery is to practice your skills.

But which ones?

If you asked a beginning karate student what skills they needed they might say good punches and kicks, good stances, and good kata. That's correct to a point, but it's only part of the picture.

What about footwork in relation to your opponent? Timing? Concealing your intent? Feints? Setup attacks? Knowing what move to use when? Knowing how to trick your opponent, how to bait them, how to make them go where you want them to?

Now we're making progress, but there's still another layer to consider. What about skills like identifying your own weaknesses and figuring out how to correct them? What about prioritizing your own training so the right elements get the right amount of work? What about the skill of managing your expanding set of skills, making sure none of them goes to atrophy because of neglect?

There are many kinds of skills, and each one requires diligent practice to develop and maintain. This is another of Musashi's repeated points: practice your skills day and night!


In any discipline you have tools to work with, unless you only work with your body, our only your mind. Even then you could consider your mind and each of your body parts as individual tools. And like good workmen we ought to understand each tool, when to use it, what it can do, and how to care for it. After all, what good is a powerful side kick when you don't know how to use it, or if your flexibility and strength begin to wither through poor maintenance?

Identify your tools. Are you a writer? Maybe your tools are pen and paper, a laptop, a thesaurus, a dictionary, and a stack of good books that inspire your writing. Are you a karate student? Your uniform is a tool. So are your techniques, your endurance, your conditioning, your strength, your gaze, your kiai, and so on.  If you are a teacher, your responsibilities is even greater because, you have to understand human nature, their strength, weakness and which technique will work better for that each individual.

It's easy to see what tools you use in your daily life. But what I find incredible is how often the care for and understanding of these tools is ignored. I don't know how many times at different jobs that I've had to search around for working tools because someone broke the old one - or it broke from misuse - and no one bothered to replace it. Or watching someone use a wrench for a hammer, bending the nails they're supposed to be hammering in and destroying the wrench in the process.

Using the wrong weapon for the attack - using the wrong tactical maneuver for the scenario - can mean death on the battlefield.

Know your tools. Know what each one is for, what it's capable of. Know the pros and cons of using this tool over that one. And know how to get the most out of each of them by taking care of them.


Much like tools, a master will know each thing that he as to work with (the pens, paper, operating system, weapons etc.) If you run off to build a deck but end up using non-pressure treated wood you going to watch the thing pop and twist. If you build a beautiful, state of the art coffee shop but buy cheap coffee beans your not going to have any loyal customers.

Most of this is already covered in the tools section. Just remember to know what's available, what it's good for, and understand the pros and cons of each one.


I dislike the term "human resource" because it has the effect of reducing individuals, in all their quirks and unique wonder, to the sate of tools and materials. In fact, Musashi seems to agree with me to a point here. Everyone has their own skills set, strengths, limitations, and so on. But he also suggests that you must understand their morale, that you have to "mingle" with them and get a feel for their spirit. Einstein said it right: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

People aren't computers. We're not tools or building blocks. We are capable of incredible things, but we are all terribly flawed, too. A good leader understands what will make his people strong and efficient, and what will break them or make them lethargic.

If you don't understand theories, skills, tools or materials, you should at least understand people. The world we live in is defined in terms of our relationship to other people. If it's the most important thing then having some understanding of how people work, how they relate to you or the task at hand, should be of clear value to anyone.

Don't have anyone working under you? You should still understand how people tick because it will help you understand what you coworkers are doing and why, when trouble's coming, and what's likely to make them to motivate them to help you or be a pain in your back.

Work alone? You still have to work with yourself. If you know what will help you achieve your best, you know what to do. If you don't understand yourself, your going to be fighting a confused battle just to get anything done.


Great, so you understand the laws, the theory, the skills, the tools, the material, and the people. Now you have to bring it all together into one, unified work. This is sort of like the super skill. It's how you balance and harmonize your mastery of the other parts of your art.

Teachers know this aspect of things well. They understand children, educational theory, they can create assignments and lessons, they know what tools they and their students have at their disposal, what materials they can use. But if they can't bring it all together the students won't get anything out of it. They'll be surrounded by all this goodness, all this potential for learning, and they won't be able to grasp it if it's not balanced together.

Part of this should be covered in the theory of your art. Part of it is practical experience. It's not easy, but it's essential, and it's worked out through constant application and reevaluation.

Final Notes

What we get from Musashi in all of this is that learning a skill or an art is a skill in of itself, and he helpfully breaks it down for us. If you have this skill - if you develop the habit of seeing the world in this way - you can learn or teach yourself almost anything.


Most people drift through life without really paying attention to more than what's right in front of them. Human beings can't help but learn, but this as-you-go and only-because-you-have-to learning pales compared to what you can accomplish when you see things clearly and as a whole. So learn how to learn, and whatever else you're interested in should follow.


joshua barbosaComment