Two Principles

Off to a bit of a slow start this year, but now that I’m back online I’m posting a couple of quotes I came across over the holidays:

“If there is anything to do, there is certainly a best way to do it, and the best way is both the most economical and the most graceful.” ~Inazo Nitobe

“Do not be negligent, even in trifling matters.”
~Miyamoto Musashi

Nitobe’s statement, from his 1899 book Bushido: The Soul of Japan, comes when he notes some Europeans disparage Japan’s “elaborate discipline of politeness,” dismissing elaborate ceremony as trivial. On the contrary (according to Nitobe), elaborate ceremony develops out of long efforts to find the best way to achieve a result. He specifically mentions the tea ceremony, but it seems to me he could equally be talking about certain aspects of traditional martial arts practice:

“To a novice it looks tedious. But one soon discovers that the way prescribed is, after all, the most saving of time and labor; in other words, the most economical use of force…”

In traditional training (if all goes well) we find that the rituals and discipline, the exercises that sometimes seem far removed from practical application, combine to condition mind and body to move and react in the most economical and effective way. This is a foundational goal of training—one that is broader and deeper than learning an arsenal of practical techniques; and the practitioner who achieves it will perform better at that arsenal than the one who tosses ritual and discipline aside. That, at least, is the traditionalist’s theory. In addition, we might find that our traditional exercises actually move mind and body toward the goal in the most economical and graceful fashion.

But there is more to love about that first quotation. For one thing, it expresses a wonderful attitude toward pursuit of excellence. That’s probably what drew me to it at the turn of the year, when we can’t resist resolving to do better going forward. It’s an attitude of striving for perfection—perfectionism in the best sense, not the overbearing neurotic sense. It also seems to me to express an idea at the heart of both science and art: Science strives for economy and elegance in both the means of discovery and the explanation of it. Art reaches for the same things in immediate expression.

Now to the Musashi quote. I came across it on the Nintai Budo blog; it’s the eighth of Musashi’s nine precepts for those who would follow in his Way. Interestingly, when I pulled out my two different editions of the Book of Five Rings, they offered slightly different translations of this precept. One said, “Pay attention even to trifles.” The other said, “Be careful even in small matters.” A quick search online found yet another version: “Study the details.”

Translation is an interesting sport. You can see how the choice of words draws in or omits different shades of meaning. The translators’ choices no doubt reflect their judgments about the meaning of the document as a whole. The reader’s attitude brings shades of meaning, too, and I stumbled on the Nintai blog while thinking about Nitobe and the pursuit of the “best way.” Therefore, I related the ideas, and went through a train of thought something like this:

Don’t be sloppy, even in small matters.

No detail is so small as to be unimportant.

No matter is too minor to deserve full attention and the best possible effort.

Principles to live by.


One Response to “Two Principles”

  1. Imagine how the world would be if people just approached doing their jobs with those principles in mind!

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