• Jon D'Alessandro

The Dokkodo: Miyamoto Musashi's 21 Rules for Life

What we can learn from the last words of a legendary Samurai and philosopher.

Miyamoto Musashi, the legendary samurai, philosopher, and writer, died on June 13, 1645.


A week before, he gathered his friends and family, said goodbye, and gave away his possessions. To his closest pupil he handed two pieces of writing: his now ubiquitous Book of Five Rings, and a lesser known scroll he wrote just days before, the "Dokkōdō.”


The “Dokkōdō” (“The Way of Walking Alone,” “The Path Walked Alone”) is an arcane text, as concise as it is wise, distilling Musashi’s philosophy and way of living into 21 precepts. Miraculously, the original manuscript survives to this day, and it remains as relevant as it was four centuries ago.


About Musashi & the Dokkōdō

Musashi was a solitary man who dedicated his life to the study of swordsmanship, strategy, philosophy, and Zen Buddhism. He was a rōnin, a vagabonding samurai who traveled far and wide to hone his skills and test his mettle in duels against other warriors.


Musashi became famous for his unique double-bladed swordsmanship and inconceivable undefeated record across 61 duels. He was disciplined, humble, and contemplative in his pursuit of expertise, which in itself became a vehicle for self-mastery. Thus the "Dokkōdō” can be interpreted as a guidebook to humility, self-discipline, asceticism, and personal development, and an early commentary on the psychology of mastery and optimal performance.


Sources & translations

There are numerous English translations of the “Dokkōdō,” all uniquely balancing literality and poeticism, self-reflection and instruction. Endless debate surrounds the exact meaning of each rule.


As author Alexander Bennett explains in The Complete Musashi, the text is not difficult to translate, but it is ambiguous. Similarly, in Miyamoto Musashi: His Writings and Life, author Kenji Tokitsu notes that each rule “contains a great number of implicit notions meant to be understood by someone who has received his teaching firsthand.” Thus the text requires heavy annotation to be accessible to the modern reader.


The list presented here is an amalgamation of the sources mentioned above plus others, including an academic paper by Teruo Machida attempting to provide the most literal translation of the text. This article does not endeavor to be a flawless representation of Musashi's philosophy and rules for the Western world. The aim is instead to provide a comprehensible interpretation that aligns respectably to Musashi's original text and ideas while serving as inspiration and food for thought for our own endeavors.


Without further ado, here is the "Dokkōdō," the last words of famed samurai and philosopher Miyamoto Musashi:

Dokkōdō (“The Way of Walking Alone”)

As a preface to the 21 rules, let's explore what Musashi means in a general sense when he refers to "the Way." The concept is complex, but at its most basic means the path, route, doctrine, or principles. More specifically the Way is "a term used to denote the fundamental principle underlying a system of thought or belief, an art, or a skill. It is also used by extension to refer to a system of thought or belief in its entirety or to the entire body of principles and skills that constitute an art. In this latter sense it is used in Japan as part of the name of a number of traditional skills or codes of behavior," for example the Way of the Warrior (Bushido), the Way of the Sword (Kendo), or even the Way of Tea (Sado).


In the Book of Five Rings, Musashi famously says "If you know the Way broadly you will see it in everything." Understanding the principles of excellence in one domain informs and enhances others. This helps explain how Musashi, a master swordsman and strategist, went on to become a respected artist, sculptor, calligrapher, philosopher, writer, and teacher.


1.) Do not oppose the Ways of the world

Some things cannot be changed — the Way of the world, human nature, the past. Accept everything the way it is. Don’t dwell on or become overwhelmed by things you can’t control. Focus on what is within your sphere of influence.


Tokitsu explains that this idea, like many in the "Dokkōdō," belongs to the tradition of Buddhism.


According to Imai Masayuki, the 10th Headmaster of Musashi's swordsmanship school, pain and hardship are part of life. One should freely and readily accept this truth of human nature. Do not look for an easy life, because there is no such thing.


One could hardly wonder why this came to mind in Musashi's final days, as he grappled with his own mortality.


Portrait of Miyamoto Musashi (Edo period)

2.) Do not seek pleasure for its own sake

A life of self-discipline requires you to pursue what is meaningful and useful often at the expense of what is pleasurable or expedient. For Musashi, happiness is not an end in itself worth chasing. It is fleeting, and simply a byproduct of pursuing meaning, growth, and mastery. As Tokitsu explains:

“Renouncing pleasure, for Musashi, is a basic condition for arriving at what is essential. In this he is following the path that has been followed by other great accomplished practitioners of the martial arts. Asceticism of this sort is connected with a view of life that sees the agreeable aspects of existence as obscuring its depth, which is hard and heavy. Musashi seeks to avoid being detained at the level of pleasure, which would only distract him from the essential.”

Again, Tokitsu points out that such a conception of life is derived from Buddhist thought as well as ancient Japanese notions of nature and the world — two pervasive themes throughout this text and all of Musashi’s writing.


3.) Do not, under any circumstances, depend on a partial feeling

This rule relates to the idea of Heijoshin, used frequently in the context of martial arts, meaning presence of mind.


Maintain a clear-sighted view of your circumstances, eschew biases and preconceived notions, and practice decisiveness. Learn to trust your intuition. When relying on only a "partial feeling," your gut - often referred to as the "second brain" - will indicate that something is wrong. Later, we'll dive more deeply into Musashi's fixation on congruence, self-trust, and self-reliance (Rule 15).


4.) Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world

This beautiful aphorism reminds us of the all-too-human tendency to view ourselves as the center of the universe.


This is an exercise in humility. Tokitsu explains that Musashi is inviting us to meditate on our own smallness - another decidedly Buddhist concept - in relation to the power of nature, the immensity of the world, and the ever-changing, unpredictable essence of reality. Maintaining a light sense of self will facilitate better judgement, adaptability, and growth, and can act as an antidote to frustration and pain.

Kinkaku-ji, a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan. Much of The Dokkodo is influenced by Buddhist thought.

5.) Be detached from desire your whole life long

Machida posits that human beings are driven by various cravings. They motivate us to take action, but all too easily lead us astray. Tokitsu says this includes the desire to be viewed favorably by others, the egotistic desire for material riches, and the desire to surpass others and/or defeat them.


This is another Buddhism-inspired sentiment, and foreshadows many of Musashi's later rules. While it's impossible to renounce your desires entirely, practicing detachment can help us maintain presence of mind or Heijoshin (see Rule 3) to focus on what truly matters.


6.) Do not regret your past deeds

Mistakes hurt, but not as much as inaction or missed opportunities. No one is perfect, and you can’t change the past (see Rule 1). Break free from the shackles of regret and learn from every misstep.


This was critical for Musashi, a lifelong student of the martial arts. In swordsmanship and fighting sports, a practitioner is constantly faced with failure of the most humbling, painful variety. Their success is predicated on their ability to learn from it and move on.


More broadly, mistakes are part of life, and those lessons are a part of you. Things don't happen to you, they happen for you — you just need to dig through the discomfort to find the underlying lesson. One reliable way to free yourself from regret is look back on an action you experience as shameful, regrettable, or embarrassing, promise yourself it will never happen again, and make a plan to ensure that's the case.


The fact that Musashi wrote this on his deathbed makes it all the more poignant.


7.) Never be jealous of others, good or bad

Jealousy, like regret, is often toxic. Comparison is the thief of joy, as they say, and we often fall into the trap of measuring our “behind-the-scenes” against others’ "highlight reels."


While Musashi advises against using others as merely a basis for comparison, there is immense value in what psychologists call "social learning," We've explored how observing and modeling comparable others serves as a useful tool for promoting a sense of positive self-efficacy. According to the psychologist Albert Bandura, on one hand this works because “social comparative inference” can open (or close) your mind to what is possible. Your perceptions of your own capabilities and efficacy are impacted considerably by watching comparable others succeed or fail. We can also learn vicariously through peers and role models, imitating their actions and adapting them for our own toolbox.

8.) Never let yourself be saddened by a separation

This rule takes on many meanings for Musashi. He spent most of his life traveling, honing his swordcraft against foes far and wide, making it difficult to cultivate strong connections with others. He practiced Zen Buddhism which, as Tokitsu explains, teaches that separation is an illusion, a mental folly of mistaking the transient for the immutable. And according to Bennett, this rule was a clear allusion to death from a man in his final hours. Musashi understood he would soon endure a great and final separation.

As many Buddhists practice a Maraṇasati meditation, using visualization and contemplation techniques to meditate on the nature of death, so too did the Stoics observe the phrase memento mori (“remember death”). As author Ryan Holiday explains, the contemplation of death is not intended to dishearten you, but instead acts as “a tool to create priority and meaning.” Finally, Bushido, the warrior code of the samurai, at its most basic was said to be the “Way of Dying,” or living with an intense familiarity of death, as captured in Hagakure.


This is another form of practicing detachment (see Rule 5). While grief is a normal human emotion, understand and accept that all things - every event, relationship, and even life itself - comes to an end. This allows you to prioritize, maintain presence, appreciate things more fully, and live with a sense of urgency.

9.) Hold no grudges against yourself or others

Mark Twain once said “anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” Resentment, malice, and anger cloud your judgement, and impede clarity and presence of mind (see Rule 3). Like jealousy and regret, a tendency to hold grudges hinders your pursuit of the Way. What good is a grudge to a man on his death bed?


To forgive is to free yourself from a form of unnecessary attachment - i.e. clinging to a past hurt - and to continue on your journey unburdened.

10.) Steer clear of the path to attachment

Mahatma Gandhi was fundamentally antithetical to Musashi, in all ways except one: they were true essentialists, both practicing non-attachment to obtain the clarity and presence necessary to pursue a higher mission.


Gandhi lived the life of a "poor mendicant," and when he died, owned fewer than ten items. Similarly, Musashi defied the all-too-human penchant for attachment in all forms — attachment to love, luxuries, delicacies, possessions, grudges, ego, superstitions, and even the tools of his trade.


For this specific rule the translations vary, with some claiming that Musashi was referring to love, and others describing the focus as more diffuse. But love and passion, like all forms of attachment, are desires that can distract you or lead to mistakes (see Rule 5). For Musashi, attachment was indulgence, and indulgence leads to daze and distraction. This theme spans many of his rules.


Understand that all things - objects, emotions, relationships, even life itself - have an end. Practice detachment, and pursue presence of mind in your pursuit of mastery, a higher purpose, and the Way.

11.) In all things, do not have any preferences.

This is another enigmatic precept that varies between translations. Machida points out that at the end of the 16th century, various artistic “Ways” sought to reflect on “an irreplaceable sense of beauty in everyday humble things,” like the Way of Incense, Flowers, or Tea. While all things have their own beauty, story, and meaning, all too often these Ways become metaphysical and abstract, and the beauty or rituals are held in a higher regard than the thing itself. Musashi, a practical man, would have seen this trend and “wished to draw a line.”

Don’t be distracted by ostentation, glamor, and luxury. Many masters in their respective crafts rise from humble beginnings. From the seeds of adversity and obscurity they cultivate tenacity, and succeed because of it.


Stay focused, disciplined, and detached. Some of the most valuable things in your pursuit of excellence won’t be pretty, but they’ll be useful. Pursue optimal performance as a vehicle for developing yourself, not for glamor and attention.


12.) Have no luxury in your house

Keeping up with the Joneses can be a great distraction and hindrance to your pursuit of a better life. And as explored in Rule 11, luxury and beauty should not be an end in itself. As demonstrated by the rising popularity of "minimalism," people are discovering that attachment to worldly possessions and "stuff" can do more harm than good.


Your sense of satisfaction should not come from the things you accumulate. In his poem “Let it Enfold You,” Charles Bukowski remarks that a life of glamour, comparison, and fleeting pleasures can wear you down:


"cautiously, I allowed

myself to feel good

at times.

I found moments of

peace in cheap

rooms

just staring at the

knobs of some

dresser

or listening to the

rain in the

dark.

the less I needed

the better I

felt."


13.) Pursue no delicacies for yourself

In the same way Musashi renounces luxuries in his home, he does not pursue exquisite foods and other indulgent trappings — another ascetic principle.


14.) Do not hold on to possessions you no longer need

As explored in previous rules, Musashi finds the pursuit of a luxurious home, fine food, and fanciful possessions distracting. Here, Bennett points out that Musashi is likely referring specifically to family heirlooms and other sentimental things. Musashi had an appreciation for a thing’s utility, but parted with it when it was no longer useful to him.


Fittingly, in his final days the warrior-poet gave away the last of his possessions to friends and pupils. (However, in a last fit of irony, most were kept as heirlooms and passed on for many generations.)


15.) Have trust in yourself and avoid superstitious beliefs

Musha shugyō was the samurai warrior's quest or pilgrimage for improvement, similar in concept to the Chinese Youxia, or Knight Errantry in medieval Europe. A young warrior would travel continuously, practicing and honing their skill in the martial arts without any protection from their family or school. They often lived off the land and worked odd jobs to sustain themselves, developing in the process discipline and mental fortitude.


For the lone, vagabonding warrior, it was an existential necessity to have trust in one's self and one's abilities. To be unhesitating and congruent, wholly aligned in thought and action.


And while Musashi was a student of Buddhism, Tokitsu explains that "in a period in which most Japanese were subject to a great number of superstitious beliefs, Musashi dared to reject them in order to try to see the world as it is." Above superstition, the ever-practical Musashi valued Heijoshin.


UFC champion Conor McGregor famously dismisses superstitions and good luck routines. "Ritual is another word for fear," he explains, describing how performers become reliant on and handicapped by nonsensical routines and superstitions. Rather than build confidence, according to the fighter the rituals are only signs of trepidation, weakening their self-belief and self-efficacy.


To further illustrate, Tokitsu describes Musashi's preparation for one especially dangerous battle:


"As he approached the place appointed for the combat, he passed a Shinto shrine and found himself before the altar to the god. He was just about to start praying to ask for divine help in his fight—which he could expect to come out of alive only with great difficulty—when he suddenly realized the significance of his gesture. “I was about to ask for the help of the gods just because I was about to face very powerful enemies, whereas ordinarily I never pray to the gods.” Musashi then withdrew his hand from the string of the shrine bell and kept himself from ringing it, as is done to awaken the mind of the god of the shrine."

This antithesis to a crisis of faith epitomizes Musashi's 15th rule.

16.) Do not concern yourself with superfluous trappings, only the tools of your trade

Musashi found value in practicality alone. Even the Japanese weapons he came to master, which are renowned to this day for their supreme workmanship and aesthetic qualities, were not collector's items. They were tools. And like a craftsman, Musashi believed a warrior needs to have the right tools at his disposal, and mastery in using them. But once they exceeded their useful life, the unsentimental Musashi discarded them and moved on.

Antique Japanese samurai swords

17.) Do not shun death in the Way

This comes from a man who, according to Tokitsu, claims to have fought more than sixty duels before the age of 30, "in most of which his opponents met death."


This idea pervaded Musashi's life and writings (see Rule 8). Tokitsu describes the aforementioned musha shugyō as "a journey in the course of which one put one's life on the line in order to make progress in the way of the sword." Musashi was more than willing to lay down his life in pursuit of mastery in the martial arts, and in turn, mastery of himself. The ever-present possibility of death only served to make the experiences more profound, and the lessons more ingrained.


Whatever your pursuit - even if your life is not on the line like Musashi - remembering the finitude of life creates a sense of urgency, presence, and ambition.


18.) Do not seek goods or fiefs in your old age

As we've explored, in his final days Musashi gave away what little possessions he had to friends and family. His fulfilment came from his lifelong pursuit of the Way, of mastering the martial arts to which he dedicated his life. Following his legendary fighting career, he dedicated the remainder of his life not to accumulating land or useless trappings, but to teaching and training others, and refining his philosophies.

19.) Respect Buddha and the gods but ask them for nothing

This was not hyperbole for Musashi. As we learned from the anecdote in Rule 15, he respected the gods and tradition, but relied only on himself. He cultivated his sense of personal agency. And throughout his epic life, his self-belief and self-efficacy served him well.


The Ancient Greek raconteur Aesop expressed the same sentiment in his tale "Hercules and the Wagoner," summarized below:


Driving his wagon after a heavy rain, a farmer gets stuck in the miry, muddy road. He did nothing to save the situation but feel sorry for himself. He cursed and screamed to the heavens, calling upon Hercules to save him.


Miraculously, Hercules appeared. But he didn't save the wagon. He said only: "Put your shoulder on the wheel, man, and urge on your horses. Sulking won't save the wagon. Hercules will not help unless you make some effort to help yourself."


And so the farmer put his shoulder to the wagon, urged on his horses, and the wagon emerged from the mud.

Hercules and the Wagoner

20.) Sacrifice your life before you sacrifice your name

Fellow samurai Ishida Mitsunari once said "Honor may not win power, but it wins respect. And respect earns power."


Of course, honor is a revered concept for warriors throughout history: the samurai Bushido, the Laconic code of honor in Ancient Sparta, the code of the West in America's frontier, the Roman military's Stoic-inspired ethics, the knight's code of chivalry in medieval Europe, and many more. Morals, virtue, and honor were encoded into each ethos.


Rather than back down and sacrifice his honor, Musashi claims to have fought an unfathomable 61 duels, enjoying near-mythical success. Because of his ethics and legacy, he has since been canonized — Musashi is now considered a Kensei, a sword-saint of Japan.


21.) Never stray from the Way of strategy

Whatever you mission - whether you pursue the Way, mastery of your own performance area, your "life's work," or some other extraordinary goal - Musashi was an advocate of deliberate, unwavering discipline and focus.


You will be tempted by attachment, attention, luxuries, and glamor. There will be doubt, your enthusiasm will wane, you will question your path. But the Way is the ever-ascending journey. "The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart," as Albert Camus once wrote. Never stray from the path. Enjoy the happiness of pursuit. Find joy in the journey.


To quote another great figure in his own right, Sir Winston Churchill:


“Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.”

P.S. — If you enjoyed this article, you would love the Bring Ambition Newsletter where we share more inspiring stories from ancient figures, explore the pursuit of mastery and the psychology of peak performance, and much more!


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