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A samurai learning mindset

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After reading the famed books The Book of five rings By Miyamoto Musashi and the Life-giving sword By Yagyu Munenori, I started making connections between the teachings of the art of war and the teachings of any other craft. Yagyu clearly mentions the state of mind required to survive in battle can be used in any other profession to your advantage as well.

The back of the book states that “every manager, seeker of life wisdom and practician of martial arts should use this”. I have no clue why only a manager could benefit from the words written in 1643. Yagyū’s work is much more zen-inspired than Musashi’s and it does require you to see through some technical martial arts terms in order to see why one could leverage ideas from these Japanese sword experts to your own advantage, in the present - 2017.


Let’s start with different stages of learning. Musashi writes that only after he was 50, he finally fully understood the effective usage of two swords. He stopped dueling after 30 to settle and study, and to form his Individual School of Two Swords. He claims to have studied “day and night” for years, and that in order for you to fight well, you must think everything through. That sentence literally closes each section. Yagyū said:

In order to become a true master, one must let go of everything he has learned and rise above.

This looks like an interpretation of “Shu - Ha - Ri”.


In martial arts, there are 3 stages to learning mastery:

  1. shu - “obey” - follow the rules until they sink in. You have no idea why, or what you’re doing. Like in cooking, you’re strictly following a recipe. Like in learning to drive, you’re shifting gears but you have to think on how to handle the shift stick.
  2. ha - “detach” - breaking the rules. After following them, you contemplate on the rules and find loopholes and start to break them down.
  3. ri - “leave” - there are no more techniques, everything has become intuition.

The Shu-Ha-Ri concept may come from martial arts, but it seems to have found it’s way to software development according to Martin Fowler and Alistair Cockburn. They simply rephrase everything to be applicable to software development. You could go one step further and generalize it into learning any craft, not just martial arts or programming.

  1. I need clear steps in order to do something. I need context.
  2. I am starting to understand the context and can do something myself.
  3. It has become second nature and I don’t think while I’m doing it.

Clark Terry’s three steps of learning jazz are exactly the same:

  1. Imitate
  2. Assimilate
  3. Innovate

The Dreyfus model of skill acquisition is another representative model that looks the same. Musashi’s studying day and night manifests itself into learning 10.000 hours or roughly 10 years but with deliberate practice, not doing the same 10 years over again and again. Otherwise you will be stuck in the Shu step. Dreyfus' master level states:

transcends reliance on rules, guidelines, and maxims

Which is exactly what Ri means. The problem with masters is that it’s very difficult for them to translate intuition into simple easy-to-digest rules for newcomers to the craft, as they are still stuck in the beginning of Shu. I like to have some context when starting out something new like drawing, not someone who says to me I should wax on and off without the why. But then again, I’m not Japanese and I’m very familiar with learning how to learn.

Musashi wrote down the rules for people who wish to study his martial arts, and I like the conciseness:

  1. Think about what’s right and wrong.
  2. Practice and develop.
  3. Meet other general arts.
  4. Know the basic principles of the crafts.
  5. Understand the advantages and disadvantages of everything.
  6. Study everything accurately.
  7. Become aware of what is not obvious.
  8. Give attention to small things.
  9. Don’t do useless things.


Both Musashi and Munenori talk about the rhythm in martial arts. Let’s quote Miyamoto:

Rhythm is something that occurs everywhere but are difficult to follow without practice. The rhythm is reflected in things. These are all harmonic rhythms.

One has to study hard in order to learn to recognize the different rhythms - of enemy movement, of foot work, of anything. Rhythm is about reacting to the present and nothing more. It reminded me of Leo Babauta’s Focus. It of course touches on Buddhism. In essence, seeing the rhythm requires you to be present in the very moment and to ignore everything else. Only then you can react fast enough to the position of your enemy’s sword.

If I think about software engineering, I can acknowledge that focusing (on one task) is a very important skill that requires a lot of discipline (let’s call it willpower). If I do not have the strength to focus on one thing, a couple of problems usually occur:

  • I cannot relate to any problem I’ve solved before to be able to match this one. Pattern matching is extremely important in software development, as in martial arts: recognizing movement, reacting accordingly.
  • I cannot fix one thing and move on, but I keep on seeing things that have to be improved upon. I’ll start shaving a yak.
  • Most importantly, I cannot learn actively and thus will never move up from shu all the way to ri.


Understand the advantages and disadvantages of everything.

In order to move from Ha to Ri, you must not only practice a lot but also understand the why and the how. Yagyū Munenori calls it seeing the possibilities and intentions. There are maybe a hundred sword positions but only one will help you win. After learning something, contemplating on what you’ve learned allows you to unlock it’s greater potential. Plato and Aristotle were great Western thinkers and share this vision with their Eastern counterparts. Especially Yagyū talks a lot about the like mindedness of buddhism and martial arts.

One thing that struck me: masters in martial arts usually became priests after their bloody careers. Warriors seek advice in deeper understanding of everything and they find it with buddhism masters. The greatest export product of Japan is not the dazzling skill of the sword from masters like Musashi, but the enlightening mindset of zen. Why else would a warrior seek advice with a monk, and not a monk seek advice with a warrior? Why else would masters like Yagyū Munenori keep on making comparisons between martial arts and zen?

I am convinced that in order for you to get your skill level to the next level, you must contemplate on what you have learned. Stop practicing and developing (rule #2) and don’t forget understanding (rule #5) and becoming aware (rule #7). Of course all those rules are intertwined within another.

One cannot be a devoted master in the arts as long as one is attached to his different skills.

I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

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