The Elements

August 31, 2011
Depiction of the four elements

Photo by Dskley

Musashi names the sections of his book after the Greek elements of earth, air, fire, and water, plus a fifth which he names “void”. He clearly has meanings in mind based on the techniques he describes in each section, but he never directly explains what he means by these elements. I’ve given this some thought, and I find that it’s a useful framework for describing combat strategies, so I thought I’d lay out my understanding of the elements here.

First, “earth”. Earth is solid, stable, unchanging. An “earth” strategy establishes a position and holds it. It advances slowly but steadily, and does not allow itself to be diverted or balked. In terms of combat, an “earth” fighter relies on powerful structure, good root, and linear attacks. He uses interception and deflection to defend himself, but does not allow his movement to be dictated by events – instead, from his strong center, he forces his opponent to adapt to his own motion. An “earth” fighter will tend to counter-striking, strong blocks, and powerful body strikes. This style is normally taught first, because it is conceptually simple and requires the least subtlety of the elements, though there is certainly plenty of room for subtlety in its execution.

Second is “water”. Water flows, adapts, is never still. It resists, but yields. A “water” fighter moves a great deal, usually off-line, but always with forward intent. He rarely uses blocks – instead, he will redirect the opponent’s power and move into the space. Any suki (gaps) are immediately occupied, and the opponent finds himself unable to relieve the pressure being applied. “Water” fighters tend towards deflections, infighting, and grappling. This style, done properly, is one of the most difficult for an opponent to deal with, since it prevents the opponent from exerting his own power while still applying continuous offensive pressure.

The third element is “fire”. Fire burns – it cannot be touched without harm. It grows and spreads, and is difficult to contain or control. A “fire” fighter focuses on offense, and forms his defense from it. He will use stop-hits and interruptions in timing, and will frequently move off-line, but always attacks. The opponent finds that any movement is instantly countered with an attack, and escape is impossible.

The last of the Greek elements is “air”. Air is ethereal, intangible, invisible. An “air” fighter evades, retreats, and circles. Footwork is central – the primary goal is to establish a position from which he can strike safely and surely. Infighting is very rare; most combat is done at extreme range, and most strikes are aimed at the hands or even the weapon. Only when the opponent is helpless, out of position, off-balance, does the “air” fighter move in for the kill. Perception and control of the opponent’s intent and attention is key.

To the standard four elements, Musashi adds a fifth, “void”. His description of “void” is opaque, even for him (from the Victor Harris translation):

What is called the spirit of the void is where there is nothing. It is not included in man’s knowledge. Of course the void is nothingness. By knowing things that exist, you can know that which does not exist. That is the void.

My understanding of this is that “void” is the absence of attachment, in the Zen sense. By releasing attachment to any of the four elements, one can flow from one to another freely, as conditions demand. Starting with “earth”, one might become “air” momentarily to evade an attack and establish a superior position, move to “water” to counter the opponent’s reaction, then attack with “fire”. The elements become aspects of a larger strategy, rather than strategies in and of themselves.

In this way, the fighter can be unpredictable and adaptive, instantly adopting the ideal solution for any situation. This is obviously an unattainable ideal, but it serves as a polestar to guide us along the Way. Using the elements as milestones, one can gauge one’s progress towards the void.



  1. I read this and thought of Count Sir Khalek, the Yrta-Khan. He is a “water” fighter, with a touch of a “fire” fighter mixed in, I think.

    • If I’ve seen him fight, it was a long time ago, so I can’t comment directly. Combining “water” and “fire” is possible, though harder than some of the others – usually, you end up just switching back and forth rather than trying to do them together. “Earth” and “air” are similarly opposed. Combining “water” and “fire” means flowing with the opponent’s movements while striking; hurting them without actually opposing them. It’s tricky, and requires very great sensitivity, but it’s possible.

  2. Gosh, I wish WordPress and blogger were more integrated so I could one click follow ya. 😀

    • Not sure what you mean by “blogger” – Blogger is a publishing platform, same as WordPress – but you can get an RSS feed – click “Entries RSS” in the right-side bar.

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