Two Skies, Two Swords, Five Spheres

Two Skies, Two Swords, Five Spheres is a series of nine instrumental pieces inspired by Miyamoto Musashi, arguably the greatest swordsman in Japanese history. You can listen to the tracks by clicking on either the titles below or the play button for each, or you can download a zipped folder containing the entire album.


Liner notes

“Musashi and the Zen Monk” concerns Musashi’s relationship with Zen Buddhism. When Musashi was seven years old, his father died and he was raised as a Buddhist by his uncle, Dorinbo. Dorinbo, interestingly, was a Buddhist priest, a follower of that particular brand of Buddhism known as Zen. In fictional works about the swordsman, he is also associated with Takuan Soho, a famous Zen monk from that time period. Legend has it that Takuan took the rugged, barbaric youth and introduced him to the ascetic ways of Zen. Anyone who has seen the amazing Samurai 1 film by Hiroshi Inagaki will remember the iconic scene in which Takuan captures Musashi and suspends him high on a tree for many days.

“Lonely Otsu”: In Eiji Yoshikawa’s seminal novel on Musashi (which was adapted into three brilliant films), a fictional love interest was created, a woman named Otsu, who spends nearly a thousand pages waiting like Penelope for her warrior to return from his wanderings. Now, though Otsu is not a historical person, I’ve stumbled across an interesting theory about the origins of her name. In Japanese, the word for “dao” or “tao” is “do” (as in “bushido,” the way of the warrior). An alternate reading for the character representing “do” is “tsu.” Add to this the honorific prefix “o-” and you have the makings of a very rich symbol… the path that Musashi seeks in his wanderings and duels is itself waiting for Musashi, ready to guide him to the enlightenment implicit in the mastery of the sword…

“He Is My Son” concerns Iori, the orphaned boy that the normally solitary warrior adopted and trained. Iori was Musashi’s nephew… second son of his elder brother, Hisamitu Tahara. Musashi himself had lost his father at age 7 and had also been raised by his uncle, a Buddhist monk. The thought of this gruff ronin feeling paternal tenderness moves me, makes me think of my own son and our relationship. The result is this piece, which begins somberly, but about halfway in transforms into a folksy tune of joy. These sorts of shifts are not uncommon in the music of kabuki or noh drama, where the highly prescribed melodic lines can be supplanted of a sudden by a traditional tune.

“The Drying Sword” echoes Musashi’s long rivalry with Sasaki Kojirō, another master swordsman with a weakness for spectacle and showiness. In April 14, 1612 the two finally dueled on the small island of Funashima. Kojirō was using a nodachi, a type of long two-handed sword about 90 cm in extension… he called it “Monohoshi Zao” or “The Drying Pole” after the long pieces of bamboo used to hang wet clothes out to dry. Musashi came late and unkempt (possibly as an attempt to unnerve his opponent) and killed him with a bokken (wooden sword) that he had carved from an oar on the boat ride over; he specifically used an oar so that it would be longer than the nodachi. Most versions of the fight describe how Musashi simply disembarked and with a single blow defeated Kojirō. Musashi switched to wood after this fight, believing it to be superior in reliability to steel.

“Earth Sphere”: At age 60, Musashi retired from the world to write the Go Rin No Sho: the Book of Five Spheres (or rings, or elements, depending on the translation). The samurai called his first scroll “Earth” because in it he laid out the general principles of his martial strategy: the “groundwork” or foundation needed to set those who are seeking on the true path… “bushido” or “the way (dao) of warriors.” Aside from his famous adage that a warrior must (like a carptenter) use all the tools at his disposal, Musashi outlined 9 rules for learning an art (specifically, the martial arts).

1. Think of what is right and true.
2. Practice and cultivate whatever field you study.
3. Become acquainted with the arts.
4. Know the principles of the crafts.
5. Understand the harm and benefit in everything.
6. Learn to see everything accurately.
7. Become aware of what is not obvious.
8. Be careful even in small matters.
9. Do not do anything useless.

The second section of The Book of Five Spheres details Musashi’s Hyoho Niten Ichi Ryu (Two-skies-as-one) school of swordsmanship. The two skies apparently refer to the two celestial guardians of Buddha, but his style has also been called “two-swords-as-one” because, to the dismay of his opponents, Musashi hit upon the revolutionary idea of fighting with both the long and short swords simultaneously (inspired, apparently, by taiko drummers, hence the beats in this piece). His intensive studies of the way and innovations in fighting philosophy technique led him to abandon steel swords at about age 30 and fight exclusive with wooden ones (and even then, he defeated everyone he fought). Musashi titled the section on his school “The Water Scroll” because of the relationship between the fluidity and deceptive power of water and that required by the true way of warriors. Beyond the specific techniques that he enumerates in the scroll, Musashi admonishes would-be disciples to use all tools at their disposal, practice constantly, and be prepared to empty themselves of their studied knowledge to obtain the deeper knowledge accessible only through dao and to allow the dao to fight through them. In the “Water Scroll,” Musashi says several things about learning the warriors’ way.  For example, it’s impossible to write down all the details of knowledge: teachers cannot impart certain aspects of skills. In practicing a skill, students discover on their own the specifics that cannot be explained. Small-scale skills can be extrapolated to situations on larger scales. It is important to drill skills till they become second nature while simultaneously reflecting on practice. Knowledge of the way is continuous: “Do not think you are reading or learning, and do not make up an imitation; taking the principles as if they were discovered from your own mind, identify with them constantly and work on them carefully.” Musashi insisted there be no distinction between initiatory and inner teachings: all students need to have access to all learning, whenever they want it.

“Fire Sphere”: Musashi’s “Fire Scroll” took the principles he had expounded upon in his discussion of martial arts and of his particular school and extrapolated those outward, adapting the strategies of the duel to the broader scope of warfare. The same sort of flexibility, awareness and abrupt wildness of innovative attack that he advocated in his training of individuals he also implemented on the battlefield.  I had a lot of difficulty composing this piece. At first, I went with a very dark scheme, minor chords and fierce martial drums, but I was uncomfortable with that idea for a reason I couldn’t put my finger on. Finally I understood: I was imposing my view of war on Musashi. The man was a warrior, for Kannon’s sake! He lived for battle, saw warfare as a deeply spiritual affair. With this epiphany, I was able to strike the dark melodies in favor of something more soaring, majestic, military in the traditional sense (think of all the military songs they used to teach us to sing in elementary school, those of you from my generation or older).

In the “Wind Scroll” of his book on martial arts philosophy, Musashi criticizes many other schools as not true proponents of the Way. He specifically faults them for focusing on just one tool, when students need to use all the tools at their disposal. The schools of fighting that were springing up as the samurai class opened up to commoners (providing them a previously unheard of social mobility) emphasized too much one way of doing things (supposedly the “right” or “best” way) rather than turning out flexible learners who could adapt to the situations they encounter (like Musashi endeavored to do). Commercializing study (most of these schools charged hefty rates) resulted in too much flash and not enough heart. Musashi used “wind” to represent these sorts of schools because the stylistic fads they propagated were as inconstant and fleeting as the wind itself.

Emptiness (sunyata) is the goal of Mahayana (Zen) Buddhism: emptying one’s self of all desires (and thereby eliminating all suffering), and finally even of one’s own illusory selfhood: this is equivalent to attaining Nirvana, dissolving of one’s being back into the All. How does emptiness impact the martial arts? Musashi says, “Having attained a principle, one detaches from the principle; thus one has spontaneous independence in the science of martial arts and naturally attains marvels: discerning the rhythm when the time comes, one strikes spontaneously and naturally scores.” In other words, once one has studied and practiced the martial arts extensively (or frankly, any other art), one can empty one’s self of all the specific elements of that training and allow the art itself to act through one’s body, no longer thinking at all about what one is doing.

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