The Dokkodo: Miyamoto Musashi's 21 Rules of Life (2023)

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

The Dokkodo: Miyamoto Musashi's 21 Rules of Life (1)

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

A week earlier, he gathered his friends and family, said goodbye, and gave away his possessions. He presented two writings to his closest disciple: his now ubiquitous oneBook of the Five Rings, and a lesser-known scroll he wrote a few days earlier, the "Dokkōdō".

The "Dokkōdō" ("The Way of Walking Alone", "The Way Walked Alone") is an obscure text that is as concise as it is wise, distilling Musashi's philosophy and way of life into the 21 Commandments. Miraculously she isOriginalThe manuscript survives to this day and remains as relevant as it was four centuries ago.

About Musashi and the Dokkōdō

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

Musashi became famous for his unique double-bladed fencing skills and his unbelievable unbeaten record of 61 duels. He was disciplined, humble, and thoughtful in his pursuit of expertise, which in itself became a means of self-control. Thus, the "Dokkōdō" can be interpreted as a guide to humility, self-discipline, asceticism, and personal development, and as an early commentary on the psychology of mastery and optimal performance.

Sources & Translations

There are numerous English translations of the Dokkōdō, each uniquely balancing literal and poetic, self-reflection and instruction. Endless debate surrounds the exact meaning of each rule.

As author Alexander Bennett explains inThe complete Musashi,The text is not difficult to translate, but it is ambiguous. Likewise inMiyamoto Musashi: His Writings and Life,Author Kenji Tokitsu notes that each rule contains "a large number of implicit terms intended to be understood by one who has received its teaching firsthand". Therefore, the text requires extensive annotations to be accessible to the modern reader.

The list presented here is an amalgamation of the above sources and others, including an academic sourcePapierby Teruo Machida, who tries to translate the text as literally as possible. This article does not attempt to be an accurate account of Musashi's philosophy and rules for the western world. Rather, the goal is to provide an understandable interpretation that is respectably aligned with Musashi's original text and ideas, while serving as inspiration and food for thought for our own endeavors.

Without further ado, here are the “Dokkōdō”, the last words of the famous samurai and philosopher Miyamoto Musashi:

Dokkōdō ("The Way of Walking Alone")

As a preface to the 21 Rules, let's examine what Musashi generally means when he refers to "the way.” The concept is complex, but basically it means path, route, doctrine or principle. More specifically, the path “aExpressionused to denote the fundamental principle underlying a thought or belief system, art, or skill. It is also used more broadly to refer to a system of thought or belief in its entirety, or to the body of principles and skills that make up an art. In this latter sense, it is used in Japan as part of the name of a set of traditional skills or "codes of conduct", for example the warrior's way (Bushido), the way of the sword (Kendo) or even the way of tea (Sado).

ImBook of the Five Rings, Musashi famously said, "When you know the way broadly, you will see it in all." Understanding the principles of excellence in one area informs and improves others. This helps explain how Musashi, a master swordsman and strategist, became a respected artist, sculptor, calligrapher, philosopher, writer and teacher.

1.) Don't resist the ways of the world

Some things cannot be changed - the way of the world, human nature, the past. Accept everything as it is. Don't dwell on things you can't control and don't let them overwhelm you. Focus on what is in your sphere of influence.

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

AccordinglyMasayuki Imai, the 10th Headmaster of Musashi's SwordsmanshipSchool, pain and distress are part of life. One should accept this truth of human nature freely and willingly. Don't look for an easy life, because there is no such thing.

One can hardly wonder why Musashi came to mind in his final days as he grappled with his own mortality.

The Dokkodo: Miyamoto Musashi's 21 Rules of Life (2)

Portrait of Miyamoto Musashi (Edo period)

2.) Do not seek pleasure for its own sake

Living in self-discipline requires that you pursue what is meaningful and useful, often at the expense of what is pleasant or convenient. For Musashi, happiness is not an end in itself worth chasing. It is fleeting and simply a by-product of the quest for meaning, growth and mastery. As Tokitsu explains:

“For Musashi, renunciation of pleasure is a prerequisite for getting down to the essentials. In doing so, he follows the path that other great and accomplished practitioners of the martial arts have trodden. Such asceticism is connected with a view of life that sees the pleasant side of existence as a darkening of its hard and heavy depths. Musashi tries to avoid getting stuck on the plane of pleasure, which would only distract him from what is important.”

Again, Tokitsu points out that such a view of life derives from Buddhist thought as well as from ancient Japanese conceptions of nature and the world - two pervasive themes in this text and in all of Musashi's writings.

3.) Under no circumstances rely on a partial feeling

This rule relates to the idea ofHeijoshin, commonly used in connection with martial arts, meaningpresence of mind.

Keep a clear view of your circumstances, avoid prejudice and preconceptions, and exercise determination. Learn to trust your intuition. If you only rely on a "partial feeling," your gut feeling — often referred to as "thatsecond brain" - indicates that something is wrong. Later we will delve deeper into Musashi's fixation on congruence, confidence 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 see ourselves as the center of the universe.

This is an exercise in humility. Tokitsu explains that Musashi invites us to meditate on our own smallness—another firmly 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 promotes better judgment, adaptability, and growth, and can act as an antidote to frustration and pain.

The Dokkodo: Miyamoto Musashi's 21 Rules of Life (3)

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

5.) Be detached from cravings all your life

Machida posits that people are driven by different desires. They motivate us to act, but lead us all too easily astray. According to Tokitsu, this includes a desire to be viewed positively by others, a selfish desire for material wealth, and a desire to surpass and/or conquer others.

This is another sentiment inspired by Buddhism and foreshadows many of Musashi's later rules. While it is impossible to give up your desires completely, practicing detachment can help us maintain presence of mind orHeijoshin(see rule 3) to focus on the essentials.

6.) Don't regret your past actions

Mistakes hurt thoughnot so much as inactionor missed opportunities. Nobody is perfect and you cannot change the past (see Rule 1). Break free from the shackles of regret and learn from every misstep.

This was crucial for Musashi, a lifelong martial arts student. In swordsmanship and martial arts, a practitioner is constantly faced with failure of the most humiliating and painful kind. Their success rests on their ability to learn from it and move on.

In a broader sense, mistakes are part of life, and those lessons are part of you. things don't happenToThey, they happenforYou – you only have to dig through the discomfort to find the underlying lesson. A reliable way to rid yourself of regret is to look back at an action you found shameful, regrettable, or embarrassing, promise yourself it will never happen again, and make a plan to make sure that this is 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 poisonous. Comparison is the thief of joy, as they say, and we often fall into the trap of measuring our "behind the scenes" against the "highlights" of others.

While Musashi discourages using others merely as a basis for comparison, there is immense value in what psychologists "social learning,"We haveresearchedhow observing and modeling peers serves as a useful tool in fostering a sense of positive self-efficacy. According to the psychologistAlbert Bandura, on the one hand, this works because "social comparative inference" can open (or close) your mind to the possible. Your perception of your own abilities and capabilities is profoundly affected when you observe how others like you succeed or fail. We can also learn vicariously from peers and role models, imitating their actions and adapting them for our own toolbox.

The Dokkodo: Miyamoto Musashi's 21 Rules of Life (4)

8.) Never let a breakup upset you

This rule has many meanings for Musashi. He spent most of his life traveling, honing his swordsmanship against enemies far and wide, making it difficult to form strong bonds with others. He practiced Zen Buddhism, which Tokitsu explains teaches that separation is an illusion, a mental folly of confusing the ephemeral with the immutable. And according to Bennett, that rule was a clear reference to a man's death in his final hours. Musashi understood that he would soon endure a major and final breakup.

Just as many Buddhists practice Maraṇasati meditation and use visualization and contemplation techniques to meditate on the nature of death, the Stoics also observed this phraseremember death("Remember Death"). As author Ryan Holidayexplained, the contemplation of death is not intended to discourage you, but acts as a "tool to create priority and importance." Finally,Bushido, the warrior code of the samurai, was referred to in its simplest form as the "way of dying," or living with an intense intimacy with death, as recorded inHagakure.

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

9.) Don't hold grudges against yourself or others

Mark Twain once said, "Anger is an acid capable of doing more harm to the vessel in which it is kept than to anything it is poured on." Resentment, malice, and anger cloud your judgment and hinder clarity and presence of mind (see Rule 3). Like jealousy and regret, a tendency to hold grudges hinders your pursuit of the path. What use is a grudge to a man on his deathbed?

Forgiveness means breaking free from some form of unnecessary attachment — i.e., holding on to a past pain — and moving forward on your journey unencumbered.

10.) Avoid the walk to the bond

Mahatma Gandhiwas fundamentally antithetical to Musashi in every way except one: they were true essentialists, both of whom practiced non-attachment in order to gain the clarity and presence necessary to pursue a higher mission.

Gandhi lived the life of a "poor beggar" and when he died he owned fewer than ten items. Similarly, Musashi resisted the all-too-human tendency toward attachment in all forms — attachment to love, luxury, delicacies, possessions, grudges, ego, superstition, and even the tools of his craft.

For this specific rule, 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 failure (see Rule 5). For Musashi, attachment was indulgence, and indulgence breeds drowsiness and distraction. This subject encompasses many of its rules.

Understand that all things - objects, emotions, relationships, even life itself - come to an end. Practice detachment and strive for presence of mind in your quest for mastery, a higher purpose, and the path.

The Dokkodo: Miyamoto Musashi's 21 Rules of Life (5)

11.) Having no preferences in everything.

This is another enigmatic principle that varies between translations. Machida points out that at the end of the 16th century various artistic "paths" tried to reflect "an irreplaceable sense of beauty in everyday humble things", such as the path of incense, flowers or tea. While all things have their own beauty, history, and meaning, all too often these avenues become metaphysical and abstract, and the beauty or ritual are valued higher than the thing itself. Musashi, a practical man, would have seen this trend and “wanted to draw a line “.

Don't let the pomp, glamor and luxury distract you. Many masters in their respective crafts come from humble beginnings. From the seed of adversity and darkness, they cultivate tenacity and are therefore successful.

Stay focused, disciplined and distanced. Some of the most valuable things in your pursuit of excellence won't be pretty, but they will be useful. Pursue optimal performance as a vehicle for your own development, not for glamor and attention.

12.) Have no luxuries in your home

Keeping up with the Joneses can be a major distraction and obstacle to your quest for a better life. And as explained in Rule 11, luxury and beauty should not be ends in themselves. As the increasing popularity of "minimalism" demonstrates, people are discovering that clinging to worldly possessions and "things" can do more harm than good.

Your sense of satisfaction shouldn't come from the things you accumulate. In his poem "let it envelop you' Charles Bukowski notes that a life of glamour, comparisons and fleeting pleasures can wear you down:

"Careful, I allowed it

to feel good


I found moments of

peace in cheap


just stare at them

buttons of some


or listen to it

rain in


the less I needed

the better me


13.) Don't go for treats for yourself

Just as Musashi eschews luxury in his home, he does not strive for exquisite food and other lavish trappings—another austere principle.

14.) Don't hold on to possessions you no longer need

As described in the previous rules, Musashi finds the pursuit of a luxurious home, good food, and imaginative possessions distracting. Here Bennett points out that Musashi is probably referring specifically to family heirlooms and other sentimental items. Musashi valued the usefulness of a thing, but parted with it when it was no longer useful to him.

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

15.) Trust yourself and avoid superstitions

Musha shugyōwas the samurai warrior's quest or pilgrimage for improvement, similar to the Chinese conceptYouxia, orKnight Errantin medieval Europe. A young warrior was constantly traveling, practicing and honing his martial arts skills without the protection of his family or school. Often living off the land and working odd jobs to support themselves, they developed discipline and mental strength in the process.

For the lonely, vagrant warrior, trusting himself and his own was an existential necessitycapabilities. Be unhesitating and congruent, completely in harmony in thinking and acting.

And while Musashi was a student of Buddhism, Tokitsu explains that "at a time when most Japanese were subject to a large number of superstitious beliefs, Musashi dared to reject them in order to try to see the world as they did is.” About superstitions, the always practical Musashi appreciatedHeijoshin.

UFC-ChampionConor McGregoris known to reject superstitions and lucky routines. "Ritual is another word for fear," he saidexplained, which describes how performers depend on and are hampered by nonsensical routines and superstitions. Rather than building trust, the fighter says the rituals are just signs of trepidation that weaken her confidence and self-efficacy.

To further illustrate, Tokitsu describes Musashi's preparation for a particularly dangerous fight:

“As he approached the place designated for battle, he passed a Shinto shrine and found himself in front of the god's altar. He was about to pray to ask for divine help in his struggle - which he could only expect to come out alive with great difficulty - when he suddenly realized the meaning of his gesture: "I was about to ask the gods for help, only because I would face very powerful enemies, while normally I never pray to the gods.” Musashi then pulled his hand from the cord of the shrine bell and refrained from ringing it, as is done to invoke the spirit of the god of the to awaken shrines.

This antithesis to acrisis of faithembodies Musashi's 15th rule.

16.) Don't bother with superfluous trappings, just your tools of the trade

Musashi found value in practicality alone. He even mastered the Japanese weapons, they arerenownedno collector's items to date because of their excellent workmanship and aesthetics. They were tools. And like a craftsman, Musashi believed that a warrior must have the right tools and master them. But once they exceeded their useful life, the unsentimental Musashi threw them away and moved on.

The Dokkodo: Miyamoto Musashi's 21 Rules of Life (6)

Ancient Japanese samurai swords

17.) Do not avoid death on the way

This comes from a man who, according to Tokitsu, is said to have fought more than sixty duels before the age of 30, "in which his opponents mostly died".

This idea permeated Musashi's life and writings (see Rule 8). Tokitsu describes the aboveMusha Shugyōas "a journey risking one's life to advance in the path of the sword." Musashi was more than willing to sacrifice his life to master the martial arts and master himself. The ever-present possibility of death only served to deepen the experiences and deepen the lessons.

Whatever you pursue—even if your life isn't at stake like Musashi—the reminder of life's finiteness creates a sense of urgency, presence, and ambition.

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

As we found out, Musashi gave away what few possessions he had to friends and family in his final days. His fulfillment came from his lifelong pursuit of the Way, of mastering the martial arts, to which he dedicated his life. After his legendary fighting career, he devoted the rest of his life not to amassing land or useless stuff, but to teaching and training others and honing his philosophies.

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

That was no exaggeration 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 personal senseAgency. And throughout his epic life, his confidence andself-efficacyhas served him well.

The ancient Greek narratorÄsopexpressed the same feeling in his narrative "Hercules and the carter,” summarized below:

A farmer is driving his wagon after a heavy rain and gets stuck on the muddy, muddy road. He did nothing to save the situation but felt sorry for himself. He cursed and cried out to heaven, calling on Hercules to save him.

Hercules miraculously appeared. But he didn't save the car. All he said was, 'Put your shoulders on the wheel, man, and spur your horses on. Pouting won't save the car.

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

The Dokkodo: Miyamoto Musashi's 21 Rules of Life (7)

20.) Sacrifice your life before sacrificing your name

fellow samuraiIshida Mitsunarionce said, "Honour may not win power, but it does win respect. And respect brings power."

Of course, throughout history, honor has been a revered term for warriors: the samuraiBushido, the laconic code of honor in ancient Sparta, the code of the west on the border of America, the stoically inspired ethics of the Roman military, the chivalric code of knights in medieval Europe, and much more. Morality, virtue and honor were encoded in every ethos.

Rather than back down and sacrifice his honor, Musashi claims to have fought an unfathomable 61 duels and achieved an almost mythical success. He has since been canonized for his ethics and legacy - Musashi is now considered oneKensei, a sword saint of Japan.

21.) Never stray from the path of strategy

Whatever your mission—whether you are pursuing the path, mastery of your own domain of achievement, your “life's work,” or some other extraordinary goal—Musashi was an advocate of deliberate, unwavering discipline and focus.

They are seduced by attachment, attention, luxury and glamour. There will be doubts, your enthusiasm will wane, you will question your path. But the way is the ever ascending journey. "The struggle to the top is enough to fill a man's heart," wrote Albert Camus. Never leave the path. Enjoy the happiness of the pursuit. Find joy in the journey.

To quote another great personality, Sir Winston Churchill:

“You can make progress every day. Every step can be fruitful. But in front of you will be an ever longer, ever increasing, ever improving path. You know you'll never reach the end of the journey. But that is far from discouraging and only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.”

P.S.— If you liked this article, you would love itBring the Ambition newsletterwhere we share more inspiring stories from old figures, explore the pursuit of mastery and the psychology of excellence, and more!

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