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Translations of Miyamoto Musashi’s Twenty-One Precepts: The Book he gave to his disciples a week before his death.

2020-05-04

woodblock print courtesy of wikipedia

Since I wrote a post last week quoting Wikipedia’s translation of the twenty-one precepts written by Miyamoto Musashi, I have been reviewing the references at the end of the article “Dokkodo”.  I found the first one to be more confusing than enlightening.  It included the admonition not to trust Buddhist priests because they gave Buddhism a bad name (shocking to those who have studied Zen, among other disciplines).

The website also asserts a copyright and threatens legal action against anyone who “plagiarizes” the work or publishes derivative versions.  I’m not impressed by such threats– it has been my experience that people who assert copyright and make legal threats generally haven’t produced the best work to make copies of in the first place.

The last reference in Wikipedia is to a scholarly article which gives some very deep translation data.  It was originally written in German for a journal and the publication is dated 2012.  The journal is “The Bulletin of Nippon Sport Science University” and I am guessing that the “Sport Science” refers to judo, fencing (swordsmanship or kendo) or a similar “sport”, which in Japan is a variety of “martial art”.  The article is titled “The Last Words of Miyamoto Musashi”, and the author is Teruo Machida, who is said to be in the Foreign Language Department.  A link to the .pdf version in English (keep in mind that it’s a translation from German, which is a translation from Japanese) is here.  (Note that this is archived by the “Wayback Machine” and may not be current or available on the “live” web.)

A summary of the translation appears at the end of that article:

Dokkôdô (The way that I go alone)
1. I will not oppose the ways of the world.
2. I will not seek pleasurable activities.
3. I will give preference to nothing among all things.
4. I consider myself unimportant, but not the world so great and so deep.
5. I will be free of desire throughout my whole life.
6. I will not regret my deeds.
7. I will not be envious of anybody, good or bad.
8. I will not be sad when [I] must take my leave of any way.
9. I will not seek excuses and I will hold no grudge against myself or others.
10. I will not indulge in the way of passionate love.
11. I will not seek elegance and beauty in all things.
12. I will have no luxury in my house.
13. I will have no delicacies for myself.
14. I will not own anything that will one day be a valuable antique.
15. I will have trust in myself and never be superstitious.
16. Weapons are of the highest importance to me, I will not concern myself with other things.
17. I will always be prepared to die on this way.
18. I will take advantage of no treasure or manor in my old age.
19. Buddhas und Gods are worthy of adoration but I will ask them for nothing.
20. Even if I sacrifice my life I will not sacrifice my name.
21. I will never deviate from the way of Heihô.
In the second year of Shôhô (1645)
The twelfth of May  SHIMMEN Musashi
Genshin (handwritten signet)
To Mr. TERAO Magonojô

This translation differs in a few respects from the one given in Wikipedia, but they do not appear to be important differences.

For example, the first precept is translated in Wikipedia as “Accept everything just the way it is” but above, we have “I will not oppose the ways of the world”– there are differences, but the deeper meaning is clear.  Take the translation given by hyoho.com, however: “In no way should one act contrary to the great future you have before you”.  Make allowance for the awkwardness of the use of “one” followed by “you” in which both refer to the same person, that is the individual addressed.  What is this “great future”?  It’s the same as “the way things are” or “the ways of the world”– it’s just extremely awkward.

The differences from the translation (noted first above, in this post) make it more confusing than enlightening.  The first reference: http://www.hyoho.com/Hyoho6.html — but don’t read it before reading this scholarly article, as it will only confuse you and deter you from looking more closely.  Just read it after you thoroughly digest the scholarly article’s explanation of the various meanings of the original Japanese text.

The “Way I go alone” is contrary to most Western thinking in many ways, but on closer inspection an open-minded reader will find it not so daunting.  For example, it does not prohibit one from eating “delicacies” altogether, but from seeking them out specially or demanding them for regular fare.  It is permissible (according to the detailed explanation in the article) to eat a delicacy (“delicious food”) in the company of important persons to whom it has been served, out of politeness: one shares food that is offered at a communal meal.  However, the disciplined person (the “warrior” originally) will have served to himself for regular meals simple, nutritious food– not complicated, highly seasoned or sugared fare.

To take another example, it does not altogether prohibit one from sexual intercourse, merely enjoining what we might call “womanizing”– seeking after women as a pursuit.  The translation given in hyoho.com refers to “married life” and this could be understood as an order to be faithful to one’s wife/husband/spouse.  This is reasonable.

On further examination of hyoho.com, I find this link which tries to explain the Niten Ichiryu, which appears to be a school devoted to the teachings of Miyamoto Musashi.  This school has a “headmaster” who has been selected specially to carry on its traditions; it doesn’t say how the selection is accomplished.  The text emphasizes that the school’s teachings are an oral tradition which can only partially be conveyed in print.

I add a further caveat: one must be fluent in Japanese, preferably at least five to ten years of full-time study.  Even then, Japanese writing or modern kanji is susceptible to at least two and probably more different meanings.  Each individual character has its own history and constellation of meanings.  This complex of meanings can be ill-treated in an English translation.  Finally, Miyamoto Musashi didn’t write his text in kanji; he used a simple proto-Japanese which doesn’t have Buddhist or Chinese traditions behind each character– specifically to avoid coloring his words with those associations.

Now, isn’t that better than thinking/talking/writing/obsessing about the situation we are in today?

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