Posted by: B Gourley | October 7, 2011

10 of My Favorite Books About Martial Arts

Books about martial arts are notoriously arcane. There are a number of reasons for this tendency. For one, the religious/philosophical systems that have gone hand-in-hand with Asian martial arts are themselves arcane (e.g. Taoism and Zen Buddhism.)  Another factor, particularly with respect to older martial arts books, results from a tension between the desire for secretiveness and the desire to transmit information. In the days when these martial arts were used in combat, one didn’t just go broadcasting the secrets one learned at the edge of life and death. Finally, for those of us who don’t speak the panoply of Asian languages and dialects, many of the books are translations, or rely heavily on translations of older texts, and there may have been some migration or degradation of meaning in the translation process. This being said, the arcane nature of these books can create a great learning opportunity.  It requires one interpret, rather than just read, the works. It also makes these books a “gift that keeps giving” because we can re-read as our understanding grows and squeeze out fresh insights.

I will state up front that there are a couple of readily apparent “deficiencies” in my list. First, there exist many martial arts books that are largely collections of photographs of techniques. I haven’t included any of this type of book both because I intend to address books that are vehicles to convey strategies, philosophies, and concepts, and, quite frankly, because I’ve generally found such books a bit worthless (except, perhaps, as a reference for a martial art one has already studied.) One can’t learn anything substantial about the techniques of a martial art by perusing photos. The success of a technique often hinges on subtleties that can’t  easily be conveyed in photos, and the timing of the interaction is crucial yet uncapturable in print media. I go to a dōjō to learn technique; I read books to tap into a higher level understanding of strategic and philosophical concepts. My advice to readers would be to do the same.

While I was not apologetic about the first limitation of the list, I am about this next one. While I generally read eclectically, it has only been recently that I’ve begun to read broadly on the subject of martial arts. For many years I only read books that were about the martial art I studied, similar martial arts, or that were more generic treatises on strategy or philosophy in martial arts.  Thus books of Japanese origin are disproportionately represented and some genres, like martial arts fiction, are not represented.  I’m certain many excellent books on Korean, Chinese,  South Asian, Southeastern Asian, and even European martial arts are not included in the mix. Furthermore, works like the Water Margin and 47 Ronin, perhaps, should be on such a list. [Even within the domain I read, there are many books that I haven’t gotten around to yet. Notably, I am told the works of Donn Draeger are quite good, but I haven’t gotten around to them either.] While I admit this is a deficiency, it is one that is rectifiable by future posts. [Feel free to comment with books I may have missed. I’m always eager to pick up something new.]

The books are listed in [roughly] the order in which they were written and not in a preference ranked order.

1.) The Life-Giving Sword [Heihō Kadensho] by Yagyū Munenori: While this book is associated with the Yagyū Shinkage-ryū of the author, it offers many lessons applicable beyond that system. The book’s lessons begin with the idea that the enterprise of weapons and techniques is not death-dealing but rather cutting through evil. Zen concepts are prevalent throughout this book, as are the Daoist notions of Chi [life force] and [the Way.] However, this work is not simply a treatise on the mind, it does delve into strategy of physical technique. One such lesson that gave me something to reflect upon, and put to practice, is the belief that, with respect to the rhythm of the fight, one should avoid movement that is simultaneous between oneself and the opponent. Instead, one should either get ahead of and under the opponent’s attack or come down upon it with an initiation that lags behind the opponent’s.

There is much discussion of the “No-Sword” (mutō) method that is a specialty of this School. As is repeatedly emphasized, this is not merely a method for taking the opponent’s sword away from them to use against them – as many think of when they hear the term mutō dori. Instead, it is about not being killed when one doesn’t have a sword by using whatever one has freely and appropriately.

2.) The Book of Five Rings [Go Rin No Sho] by Miyamoto Musashi: This book was written during the first half of the 17th century shortly after the preceding work by Yagyū Munenori. Musashi, while he speaks of clarity of mind in much the same tone as those who emphasize Zen traditions, places little emphasis on the connection between religious and philosophical systems and budō. Musashi, it will be remembered, famously said [paraphrasing] that one should respect the gods, but not rely upon them.

As the name would imply, this book is divided into five sections: Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, and Void. The Earth Scroll includes some commentary discussing the warrior’s position in the world as well as introducing the school of two swords that was a Musashi specialty as well as laying out some fundamental concepts. The Water Scroll discusses the Musashi long sword school including elements such as use of the eyes, footwork, the mind, and physical technique. The Fire Scroll discusses a wide variety of strategic concepts that determine victory and defeat. The Wind Scroll discusses the methods and strategies of other schools and how to defeat them. The Void Scroll briefly discusses the concept of “emptiness” that is so critical in Japanese martial arts.

My respect for Musashi, having read a biography of him as well as his own writings, has grown vastly as I’ve come to see the remarkable nature of the man beyond the exceptional swordsmanship.

3.) The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts by Issai Chozanshi: Moving into the early 18th century, Chozanshi‘s work teaches about martial arts in the guise of lessons from a Tengu. Tengu were mythical beasts of the mountains; half man and half crow, these goblins were known for their expertise in swordsmanship as well as their orneriness. In the edition put together by William Scott Wilson the sermon itself is sandwiched between a series of discourses on the one hand and the “mysterious [or marvelous] techniques of the old cat”, a story which also appears in the Steven’s book below, on the other. Wilson’s volume also includes extensive front matter that provides background.  

Unlike Musashi‘s work, this book does not deal in physical technique. Instead, it addresses philosophical concepts such as shizen, or what it means to be “natural.”  Shizen as well as “the Way” are addressed extensively in the opening discourses, which emphasize the virtue of not desiring to be something other than what one is and instead to act in accordance with one’s nature. “Naturalness” is a concept that people often have an intuitive feel for without being able to define or articulately describe it, and, thus, it is an area ripe for misunderstanding.

The sermon itself begins with these words: “Man is a moving being. If he does not move to what is good, he will surely move to what is not.” Such begins the advice from the gruff goblin.

Perhaps the most famous of Issai‘s writings is “The Mysterious Technique of the Cat” in which an old cat is able to solve a rat problem that proves beyond the capabilities of others because he is free of doubt or vacillations.

4.) Karate-Dō: My Way of Life by Gichin Funakoshi: This book’s inclusion transitions us to books dealing in the post Meiji Restoration era of martial arts. There begins to be a lot more written, not only because publishing is advancing but because the mindset about martial arts is changing. Martial arts are moving from an endeavor exclusively practiced by an established warrior class to a pastime of the broader populace, and from a highly secretive activity to something out in the open.

However, having said that, for me one of the most interesting parts of this book was to hear Funakoshi‘s experience of practicing martial arts during the time when it was explicitly prohibited to do so. In those days they had to practice in the teacher’s backyard because it wasn’t lawful to have a dōjō. In fact, the inclusion of interesting vignettes is one of the reasons for this book’s appeal. (As opposed to Jigorō Kanō‘s Mind over Muscle which, while informative and a fine work, I found much more sterile as a book – perhaps owing to Kanō‘s background as an academic.)

One particular quote that Funakoshi-sensei attributed to one of his teachers, Matsumura-sensei, I found particularly profound, “…if two tigers fight one is bound to be hurt and the other to die.” This speaks to the realities of combat in a visceral manner.

5.) Secrets of the Samurai by Ratti and Westerbrook: This book returns us to the Feudal Era martial arts of Japan, but, unlike the first three books, this is fundamentally a historical and anthropological work. While it does get into the strategic and moral aspects of budō with somewhat of a scholarly tone, the bulk of the book tells of the history and everyday life of that era as it pertains to the martial arts that developed as well as giving one overviews of the weapons, armor, unarmed fighting styles, and the various ranks and stripes of warriors. It does also go into the advent of more recent martial arts as outgrowths of the Feudal Era martial arts (as well as Sumō, whose history is said to date far back in Japan’s history.)

I should mention another outstanding historical reference book that I’ve read, and that is Meir Shahar’s The Shaolin Monastery. This scholarly work gives a great overview of the history of Shaolin Kung fu. In doing so, it dispels popular myths such as that Bodhidharma brought martial arts to the Shaolin from India. This myth is widely believed and has numerous proponents, but is now believed to be incorrect.

6.) Zen in the Martial Arts by Joe Hyams: this book offers reflections on a number of martial arts maxims by way of a series of vignettes about the author’s experiences and conversations with famous modern-day martial artists including Bruce Lee, Mas Oyama, and Ed Parker.

While a lot of the concepts, such as “empty your cup” and “know your limits”, are common almost to the extent of being cliché, the book’s format as a series of conversations with masters lends it an inspirational air. It is reassuring to see that the lessons have been passed down and are now reflected in the actions and teachings of contemporary martial artists. These include concepts like maintaining composure.

7.) Sword and Brush by Dave Lowry: This book consists of many short chapters that are each an elaborate definition of a key term in Japanese martial arts. Words are infused with cultural connotations that often cannot be captured by simple dictionary definitions. This is particularly true with specialty language, such as that of the martial arts. Even native speakers of Japanese will often not have deep insight into the meaning of some of these terms either because they are not words used in common speech, or because they may be used with a different meaning from the colloquial.

Consider the word ryū, whose basic meaning is flowing water. It is easy to translate this as  “school”, “lineage”, or “tradition”, but none of those terms is infused with the vibrance or implications of the word ryū. Some concepts, such as Ma [the interval of things], are often understood too narrowly because they are hard to convey [Note: Ma is treated in the Hatsumi book referred to below as well.] As regards such concepts, without this depth of explanation a student can be like the blind man who describes an elephant through the limitation of the solitary piece of the animal to which he has access.

8.) Angry White Pajamas by Robert Twigger: This book is a bit of a departure from the others in that it is a sort of travelogue of the author’s experience practicing budō in Japan. He went through the Tōkyō Riot Police course, which is, needless to say, quite intense and not for the faint of heart. In this course, for example, students trained for hour after hour practicing suwari waza (kneeling techniques) until they bled through the knees of their pants [and then training some more.] The author does an excellent job of conveying the dedication of those who engage in this training.

As with the history books, I will mention another book in the same genre from a practitioner of Kung fu. Matthew Polly’s American Shaolin tells the author’s story as a man who went to train at one of the schools in the Shaolin area. It is worth noting that this is a worthwhile read for anyone going to China, be they interested in martial arts or not, as it wittily lends insight into life in China outside the big city. Furthermore, the book provides a cautionary tale about the need to choose wisely when selecting a school because of the vastly wide-ranging experiences offered between Shaolin schools in the present day (there is the good, the bad, and the ugly of Shaolin Kung fu.)

9.) Ninpō: Wisdom for Life by Masaaki Hatsumi: I will first warn that if you aren’t familiar with Hatsumi-Sōke, this is probably not the best book with which to start. However, this book probably offers as much insight per page as any of the other books. First-time readers and those who’ve never experienced his teachings are advised to pick up  Ninjutsu: History and Tradition first.

Hatsumi is as arcane and difficult to follow as any on this list, but he often offers lessons that are unique among the books mentioned herein. In this book, Hatsumi conveys stories about his own life, such as when he kept training while he was sick for five years, and a number of stories about his teacher Takamatsu-sensei, such as Takamatsu‘s bout in China with a burly Kung fu practitioner. He also addresses maxims in brief essays as do some of the other books. However, included among them are several lessons that are quite different from those in the Hyams book or the work below by Stevens. Among the more unconventional admonitions is “be bold, act timid”, which requires an understanding of the peculiarity of the Japanese word that is translated as “timid” [attention to small things] and thus gives the maxim a slightly different implication than the English translation would convey. Some of these less conventional admonitions come across as humorous or absurd at first such as “look for a spouse who understands seppuku” [seppuku is the ritualized suicide that was once practiced in Japan], but the author gives insight into the meaning of seppuku through his essay. Of course, some of Hatsumi‘s maxims do convey similar ideas to those in other books. For example, “do not rush to build your house” is not so different from Hyam’s “conquer haste.” 

10.) Budō Secrets by John Stevens: This is a collection of thoughts from modern as well as historic martial artists. (By “modern” in this context I mean post-Feudal Era, which may include individuals long since passed away.) A couple of the chapters are mere lists, but others describe various warriors’ budō-kun (a concise list of precepts given as the core principles of one’s martial art), and others include stories or vignettes about the martial arts.

While a budō-kun (or whatever you might call it) is a short list of direct and concise statements, it should not be undervalued or derided as “fortune-cookie wisdom.” To strip things down to their essence is and important skill for a martial artist – be it stripping down movements or sentiments. Among the precepts that I found most interesting are those of Musashi in his “Following the Solitary Path”, which  includes:

Do not seek comfort for your person.

Do not pile up possessions.

Do not become obsessed with having splendid weapons.

The latter reminds one of how Musashi bludgeoned a swordsman to death with a bokken he carved out of a boat oar.

There is a wide range of advice and lessons offered throughout the book from “Associate with dangerous criminals.” [in Bukyo Shingen Goden Ryū] to “Karate begins and ends with respect.” [Gichin Funakoshi].

Even as I’ve written this post, I’ve thought of many other excellent works. This is, of course, not meant to be a complete canon by any means, and I can already imagine a sequel.



  1. Great list. I am more involved in the Chinese martial arts but I quite enjoy a number of the books you listed. I love the “Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts” and am making time to read “Angry White Pajamas” over the Christmas holiday. I noticed Shahar in the photo. That book definitely makes my top ten list, but it looks like it must have missed your cut-off.

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