The Way of Walking Alone (or The Way of Self-Reliance)

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Just finished reading The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi, translated by William Scott Wilson. Included in it were 21 precepts that Musashi wrote only days before his death; they take up only two pages in the ~100 page book. At first I wondered why they were included, until I quickly realized that the precepts are the irreducible, atomized points of the "Way" which are further expanded upon by Musashi in this work.

These precepts were called The Way of Walking Alone (or The Way of Self-Reliance). Below are two different translations that seem to be, after a quick Google, the most popular and widely accepted. The first picture is the William Scott Wilson translation.



Now, whenever I finish a book I like to explore it by writing about it. In the case of The Rommel Papers this included a review and a couple articles in which I reflected on specific parts of the text. It seems to me that it isn't just enough to read something, as the words tend to go in one ear and out the other. Nothing sticks. But taking a more active approach and applying myself means I can genuinely take something away from the reading.

The benefit for you is that I might, by some stroke of luck, make you interested enough to either read the book for yourself, partake in the discussion, or be mildly entertained by my musings.

- Precept 1 -

Translation 1: "Do not turn your back on the various ways of this world."

Translation 2: "Accept everything just the way it is."

I won't ponder which translation is more accurate, but I think there's something good to be said about both.

Regarding the former translation, I think of how turning your back to the truth will come back to haunt you. I do not think the latter translation means that one shouldn't try to make change in the world. Rather, if one is to bring about change, they must first come to terms with their present reality. Otherwise you're like a child hitting buttons and flipping switches at random in order to try and fly an F-16. You know what you want to do, but not how to do it, and chances are you will either fail to do anything significant or you will create chaos.

- Precept 2 -

Translation 1: "Do not scheme for physical pleasure." To me, scheme has a negative connotation. When I read this I think of abusing drugs, or using people for selfish hedonism (as a sexual object, for their wealth, etc.)

Translation 2: "Do not seek pleasure for its own sake." While there's nothing wrong with finding pleasure in things, only doing that which is pleasurable leads down dark paths as far as I can tell. Pleasure should come about from truly rewarding experiences, like overcoming challenges or even taking on responsibilities such as marriage and raising children. Pleasure should be sought through effort and discipline, but understand that it is not the ultimate objective or the defining characteristic of a good life.

I also couldn't help but make a connection to "Pleasure Island" from Pinocchio, where the kids slowly become asses, extorted and enslaved.

Or as Juvenal said, "Give them bread and circuses and they'll never revolt."

- Precept 3 -

Translation 1: "Do not intend to rely on anything."

Translation 2: "Do not, under any circumstances, depend on a partial feeling."

It's only natural that if one is to be self-reliant that they do not rely on anybody or anything. However, the second translation goes as far as to say a "partial feeling", and I struggled to make sense of this. The best I've managed, is that any feeling is partial insofar as it is incomplete. So unless you are certain of your feelings, one ought not rely on them. Instead, I think that feelings are more useful for informing you when there is uncertainty that requires further investigation.

To tie this to the previous precept, the feeling of pleasure is also partial in terms of being biased. Do not favor pleasure simply because it feels good, or for "pleasure's sake". This can blind you to things that need to be done but are unpleasant, or it can hinder one from making progress if the pleasure is not attained through instant-gratification, and instead has to be earned.

More pleasure is felt from knowing you are making progress towards a goal, rather than from attaining the goal.

- Precept 4 -

Translation: "Consider yourself lightly; consider the world deeply." (second translation basically identical)

I must often remind myself to not take myself too seriously. I am the main character in my story, but I am a supporting character in that of others. Rarely I can be an antagonist. Mostly, I'm an extra. And usually? Not included or mentioned.

Every hero starts out as a fool. Sometimes, the hero still is the fool.

- Precept 5 -

Translation 1: "Do not ever think in acquisitive terms."

Translation 2: "Be detached from desire your whole life long."

Easier said than done. At first I thought of greed. But I see now how I did not delve deeply enough. Alan Watts goes into great detail about the double-bind we all face here, which is desiring to stop desiring.

This makes me wonder: Why is it bad to desire in the first place? Doesn't it depend on what you desire?

- Precept 6 -

Translation 1: "Do not regret things about your own personal life."

Translation 2: "Do not regret what you have done."

Another lesson I could really benefit from taking to heart. It's meaning is multi-fold. Implicitly it seems to be saying that one ought to act in a way that would give you no reason for regret. More literally, if you are regretting something from your past, you cannot move on. You cannot be in harmony with the present moment. And if you have regrets, that means you have not learned from those mistakes, which is perhaps the biggest regret of all.

I believe that everything happens for a reason, and that the dots are often connected backwards more than they are forwards. We know the what and how before we get the why. The Chinese farmer story comes to mind. His horse runs away, but brings back more wild horses. However, one of the wild horses breaks the leg of the farmer's son. What a shame right? But then the conscription officers come around, and they do not take his son now because of his broken leg. All the while when the fellow villagers ask if these events are good or bad, the farmer simply says, "We will see."

- Precept 7 -

Translation 1: "Do not envy another's good or evil."

Translation 2: "Never be jealous."

To be envious or jealous would mean breaking the first and fifth precepts. The most peculiar thing about this is the "or evil". Maybe it means that you should not seek to possess the capability for doing evil. As in, wishing to have no conscience so as to con others, or commit murder, as just a couple of many examples.

- Precept 8 -

Translation 1: "Do not lament parting on any road whatsoever."

Translation 2: "Never let yourself be saddened by a separation."

This relates to the third precept, which says not to rely on anything (and I extended that to "or anybody"). As well, it's a fitting principle for a way of self-reliance. This idea of separation does not only apply to people, but it applies to places too. Separation is not always permanent. Places and people may be returned to, and if not, then that means they have played their part, and you should not prevent future places and people from playing theirs.

- Precept 9 -

Translation 1: "Do not complain or feel bitterly about yourself or others."

Translation 2: "Resentment and complaint are appropriate neither for oneself nor others."

This relates to precepts one, six, and seven. Jealousy would certainly lead to complaint and resentment. Regret could certainly do the same. And so could not accepting the way things are. It's not only unattractive to behave this way, but it prevents you from finding solutions.

I can only change myself. I must constantly remind myself of this, or else risk disappointment. I can recommend change to others, and show them where they may be going wrong, but I have no control over them. I should not expect to fix anything but myself, so that I can lead by example and naturally influence those around me.

- Precept 10 -

Translation 1: Have no heart for approaching the path of love.

Translation 2: Do not let yourself be guided by the feeling of lust or love.

Probably the precept that I have the greatest problem with. After much thinking, I've concluded that the "Way of Walking Alone" is not something that must be walked permanently, and at all times. Instead it is a path that all of us, at one point or another, will find ourselves on. Or a path we will need to eventually choose in order to get ourselves out of a quagmire.

Perhaps this precept should also not be taken so literally. Instead I interpret it as saying that lust or love cannot guide you by themselves. It isn't practical. They are forces which become dangerous when out of balance in that manner. To fall in love is to take on the risk with courage.

- Precept 11 -

Translation: "Do not have preferences." (alternate translation is basically the same)

To prefer one thing over another can be stifling and prevent one from being as versatile and adaptable as they otherwise could be. To hold preferences, one must consciously accept and know that they are compromising their versatility and adaptability. Of course, one can also argue that simply having a preference does not mean it is impossible for them to do otherwise. But it can certainly lead to disappointment.

- Precept 12 -

Translation 1: "Do not harbor hopes for your own personal home."

Translation 2: "Be indifferent to where you live."

It's suitable that this follows precept eleven. I think that again, the most practical way to think of this precept is to consider that the "Way of Walking Alone" is not something you must do forever, as I described before. Really, I think better advice would be to persevere if your home is taken away by disaster. Rebuild, or relocate, but do not despair. Or even less dramatically, there will be times in one's life where you must leave the nest, whether it be moving into an apartment for the first time, raising a family in a new home, traveling on business ventures, etc.

- Precept 13 -

Translation 1: "Do not have a liking for delicious food for yourself."

Translation 2: "Do not pursue the taste of good food."

That which tastes good and pleases you, is not necessarily good for you. It is better to eat healthy, both in content and quantity. College students who live on ramen noodles and water have mastered this precept.

- Precept 14 -

Translation 1: "Do not carry antiques handed down from generation to generation."

Translation 2: "Do not hold on to possessions you no longer need."

I really couldn't see the utility in this wisdom until I found the alternate version. Hoarders have failed to abide by this precept. In seriousness, one could also expand upon this to mean that one should live within their means. Do not become so attached to material things that you cannot get rid of them, even when they are no longer of any service to you.

- Precept 15 -

Translation 1: "Do not fast so that it affects you physically."

Translation 2: "Do not act following customary beliefs."

This precept is interesting if only because of the vastly different translations. In regards to the first, it is important that you do not end up in the opposite extreme of the hoarder, where you have nothing. You need enough to be strong and healthy. In regards to the second, this seems to be saying that just because your grandparents would fast, or would vote Republican, or had some sort of tradition, doesn't automatically mean you do it. You need to know WHY you do it, which means thinking for yourself. If you're a follower, justify it.

- Precept 16 -

Translation 1: "While it's different with military equipment, do not be fond of material things."

Translation 2: "Do not collect weapons or practice with weapons beyond what is useful."

This goes back to what I said about precept fourteen. Know your tools in whatever it is you're doing, their purposes, advantages, and disadvantages. And take greater care of people, yourself, art, and the immaterial, before your luxury car and overly expensive clothes.

- Precept 17 -

Translation: "While on the Way, do not begrudge death." (alternate translation basically identical)

To constantly fear death is no way to live. It is a natural and necessary part of life, although it's difficult to come to terms with. Anxiety is paralyzing, and constantly counting down the days is anxiety inducing. Acceptance of death also need not be taken so literally; it is fundamental to accepting that things change. Things come and go, and then might come again.

- Precept 18 -

Translation: "Do not be intent on possessing valuables or a fief in old age." (alternate translation basically identical)

I take this to mean that one should not sacrifice their twenties, thirties, fourties, and fifties, under the assumption that you'll get to some magical place that will finally let you enjoy life. Maybe you have a big house, but so what? Your kids will all be grown and moved out. You'll have all this money and material possession, but you'll be too old to enjoy it, as bad habits catch-up to you and your body has taken too much of a toll.

Live for the now. Enjoy now. Don't waste decades for a reason as shallow as becoming rich. Spend decades living within your means, providing a quality life for your family and for yourself. Nothing is guaranteed, and you cannot afford to bank on the fact that everything will go precisely according to plan over the course of half a century.

- Precept 19 -

Translation: "Respect the Gods and Buddhas but do not depend on them."

God, or whatever divine power you believe in (if any), is not here to serve you. Don't flatter yourself into thinking you're that important. Act properly in the world, and you will generally reap what you sow. Regardless, the only person you can depend on is yourself.

- Precept 20 -

Translation: "Though you give up your life, do not give up your honor." (alternate translation basically identical)

This seems to require following precept seventeen, even at the end. To face death with courage is to die with honor. However, this does not have to refer to literally dying. It could refer to sacrificing your life for something greater than yourself. If you're going to dedicate the rest of your life to a pursuit, do not sell your soul in the process. Do not dishonor yourself, or your family.

- Precept 21 -

Translation: "Never depart from the Way." (alternate translation basically identical)

This rule says to follow this Way, or else risk becoming lost. Following the Way doesn't mean you'll never experience hardship, and trying trials. It means to understand yourself, to stay steady, and know where you're at in the metaphysical sense even during the darkest hour. This Way is the embodiment of stoicism.
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