An Interpretation of Musashi’s “Shrike on a Withered Tree” 枯木鳴鵙図 Koboku Meigeki Zu (Sep 2022)

As a bit of a change from our normal content, please see the attached presentation with my interpretation of 宮本武蔵 の 枯木鳴鵙図 Miyamoto Musashi`s Koboku Meigeki Zu “Shrike on a Withered Tree”.

Koboku Meigeki Zu
“Shrike on a Withered Tree”
(Image: Wiki Commons)

In the philosophy of Kanō Jigorō, a well-rounded human pursues the study of 文武両道 bunbu ryōdō “the martial and the arts, both Ways”. This concept, that the study of both martial Ways and the Way of the arts is vital to balanced humanity is widely spread in the Far East; years ago I visited an ancient Buddhist temple in Vietnam and leaned my shoulder against a huge pillar to steady myself to take a long-exposure photo inside in the dim light. After I took some shots, I put my palm on the vermillion pillar to push myself upright, and only then noticed that my hand fell next to an intricate pattern carefully carved into the huge pillar and painted in black to stand out – 文武両道.

Although a miserable artist and calligrapher myself, I’ve always been fascinated by the ability of true artists to create a separate reality on canvas, and, for me, the fewer strokes, the better.

In Japan a genre called 墨絵 sumie, ink painting (sometimes ink wash painting) has a tremendous history. Classically written Japanese and Chinese are written with a brush dipped in ink. Traditionally the ink is made by rubbing soot ink from a 墨 sumi inkstick, a dried block like a soot crayon stabilized in glue, on the 硯 suzuri inkstone, and mixing it with water and adjusting for darkness. Practiced by hundreds of millions around the world for thousands of years, such calligraphy also provides a basis in the techniques of sumie ink wash painting, using the same basic simple tools.

One of the best known proponents of 文武両道 studying both the martial and the arts is the famous swordsman 宮本武蔵 Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645). Swordsman, strategist, philosopher, author, ronin masterless samurai and sumie artist, Musashi, as he is commonly known today, was never bested in 61 recorded duels. In his first duel at age 13, he wielded a wooden staff to best a grown man armed with a sword, stunned him with a blow between his eyes, then beat him to death…..
(continued at “READ MORE” link below,
including a PowerPoint presentation that can be downloaded.)

Retiring to seclusion after a life of training, study, violence and wandering, Musashi penned his most famous work 五輪書 Gorin no Sho, A Book of Five Rings in 1643. It is a treatise on what is often called “military strategy” but is more a collection of tactics in personal combat and aphorisms on life in general than normally considered “strategy”.

In it, Musashi stresses the need to study “both Ways” in his principles, namely:

• Do not think dishonestly.
• The Way is in training.
• Become acquainted with every art.
• Know the Ways of all professions.
• Distinguish between gain and loss in worldly matters.
• Develop an intuitive judgement and understanding for everything.
• Perceive those things which cannot be seen.
• Pay attention even to trifles.
• Do nothing which is of no use.

From the first I saw it, I was drawn to a particular Musashi sumie ink wash painting, 枯木鳴鵙図 Koboku Meigeki Zu “Shrike on a Withered Tree”. It’s stark lines, simplicity and at first to me unusually long vertical layout appealed to me, but I always felt I was missing something. Then, years ago, a martial arts colleague made an off the cuff comment that led me to develop a whole new understanding of it. The presentation attached describes that understanding.

枯木鳴鵙図 Koboku Meigeki Zu
“Shrike on a Withered Tree”
(Wiki Commons)

I hope you enjoy this – constructive comments and corrections welcome, please use the email below.
Musashi images courtesy Wiki Commons.
To me, as a former US military strategic planner, nearly none of the traditional Japanese “military strategy” texts reach the level of strategy; at their highest military love they focus on tactics. Call me pedantic, OK.
For a great English translations of Musashi’s works, see
The Complete Musashi – The Book of Five Rings and Other Works (Tuttle, 2018)
by eminent martial arts historian / scholar and kendōka swordsman Dr. Alexander Bennett.

Lance Gatling
Author / Lecturer
The Kanō Chronicles
Tokyo, Japan for feedback.
Thank you!

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