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The State of Mind

By Christopher Caile

The Japanese term Mushin is comprised of two characters (kanji), "Mu" (left) meaning negation and "Shin" (right)  meaning heart, mind, spirit or feeling.

The Japanese term Mushin is a shortened version of the Zen expression "mushin no shin" which translates as "the mind without mind" or "no-mindness." This means a fully awake and aware mind not fixed or occupied by emotion or thought (implying the eyes or any other sensory input also not fixed or occupied on any specific awareness, action or target).

Mushin thus implies a state of mental clarity, awareness and enhanced perception (sensory and intuitive) known as pure mind, produced by the absence of conscious thought, ideas, judgments, emotion (fear and anxiety), pre-conception, or self-consciousness. It is a state of total awareness and reaction not impeded by higher mental function or emotion, a mind more open and reactive to subtle sensory input, intuition and spontaneous action. It is a mind that is totally calm -- a mind not influenced or caught up in events or others emotion, thus a mind more able to freely perceive and respond.   

In Zen this mind state is achieved through the process of meditative training. The goal is to enhance awareness (zanshin) and sensitivity, while reducing thought and emotion to allow intuitive and spontaneous action - to let the body, not the thinking or emotional mind, to take charge.

Mushin is prevalent throughout all Japanese arts, from flower arrangement (Ikebana) to calligraphy (Shodo) to modern martial arts. A friend who studied Japanese flower arrangement once told me that the state of mind was the biggest difference between Western flower arrangement and what she had learned in Japan: That in Japan her arrangements were intuitive and seemed to flow outward from her non-conscious mind.

The New York Police Department also teaches new recruits the importance of keeping a clear, non-emotional mind in difficult, potentially violent or emotional situations. They teach recruits not to feed anger or emotion and instead to allow calm authority and verbal strategies to resolve issues and gain compliance when possible.

For the Japanese classical warrior (Samurai or Bushi), or the 20th century soldier equivalent, as well as modern martial artists, mushin or clear mind is equally important. On the battlefield it could mean the difference between life and death. The Samurai recognized that the state of mind was an equal partner to technical weapons training. When potential death faces you from multiple directions, awareness had to be encompassing. Recognition of danger and response needed to be instantaneous, the body and weapon fully committed in powerful action without concern for the self or hesitation of thought.

This required the non-conscious mind and the instinctive trained body to be free. No longer inhibited, slowed, distracted, or clogged, the mind was free to fully perceive, respond and commit to action. The mind is not fixed on anything and is open to everything; a mind expanded through the whole body with total awareness of and focus on everything. (1)

The concept of Mushin was developed by Hui-Neng (Wei lang in Chinese), the sixth Patriarch, or successor to Bodhidharma, who brought to China (and the Shaolin Monastery from India) meditative Buddhism and the concept that all the world comes from the mind and meditation should be used to attain a state of pure mind without stain or dust. The concept is closely akin to the Taoist concept of stillness (inside) within motion, a concept closely akin to Fudo and Fudoshin (derived from the Buddhist deity Fudo myoo, a deity portrayed as calm within a ring of fire). Lao-Tsu (the 6th century  Chinese philosopher who fathered of Taoism) said "The stillness within stillness is not the true stillness (as in meditation), the true stillness is within motion."

It is widely believed (but not always so) that Zen (and its mediation practices) was an important element of the ancient Japanese Warrior practice to develop Mushin.. (1) In reality the influence of Zen on Japanese martial arts is a more modern reality than an ancient one. But Zen meditation was not the only path to a mushin-like mind state. War, combat and experience dealing with danger, all promote clarity of mind and enhanced awareness. Experience itself (if survived) allows modern day experienced solders to survive,  they eye sensitized to see almost invisible trip wires, the senses honed to recognize patterns and subtle signs of roadside danger, or the presence enemies hidden behind buildings. This experience is also what allows an experienced law enforcement personnel to sense danger on the street, a potential crime situation, or an impending assault.

The modern view of Zen and the martial arts was promulgated largely by several factors. First was the relationship of the famous Japanese Zen monk, Takuan Soho, and the founder of Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, Yagyu Munenori (1570-1646), one of the most famous sword schools in Japan. (2)

Takuan also is known to be a friend and advisor to Miyamoto Musashi (further lending credability to the idea of Zen's influnce). Musashi (c. 1584 – June 13, 1645), was a sword master and ronin (masterlessw warrior). He created a unique two handed sword school (know today as Hyoho Niten Ichi-ryu) and was made famous through his many sucessful duels recounted in books and publications ever since. Musashi is also famous for his "Book Of Five Rings" (Go Rin No Sho), a book on strategy, tactics and philopshy peopular even today amoung martial artists and in business. Musash was also an accomlished Zen inspirted artist and calligrapher.

Takuan related the proper state of mind to flowing. He wrote "The mind must always be in the state of 'flowing,' for when it stops anywhere, that means the flow is interrupted and it is this interruption that is injurious to the well-being of the mind." (The Unfettered Mind)

Today much of modern Japanese karate and other martial arts have adopted Zen into their practice. Here Zen is not considered as a religion but as a meditivate practice and philosphy of simplicity that stresses reduction of ego, where hard, dedicated practice conditions the mind and body (the path) towards self-development. Zen type mediation within these groups is used to condition the mind toward the state of mushin (having nothing to do with religious beliefs or doctrine).

Learning to develop and apply mushin is not easy. For some practical advice on this subject, see my article on entitled : Fighting Zen - How Meditation Can Enhance Your Fighting Skills.


1-While it is thought by many that the classical Samurai warrior used Zen mediation to achieve a mushin mind, historical records are not so clear. Zen did have an important cultural impact on Japanese culture and art. But the classical Samurai were more prone to esoteric Buddhism practices and rituals to attain divine protection and promote a type of self-hypnotism to armor and focus the psych. These warriors looked to foster divine assistance to bolster their battlefield percentages. Esoteric Buddhism (Mikkyo Buddhism) and its ritual practices was one source of assistance and magical power. Esoteric Buddhism was founded on teachings of the Indian monk Nagarjuna) where requests for assistance were directed towards various deities such as Fudo-myoo and Marishiten as go between to reach the most influential Buddha deity, Dainichi Nyorai. Included within these practices were chanting, use of sacred incantations or mantras and specific finger entanglements or mudras as well as inscriptions (use of specific characters, (many of which were modified Sanskrit characters often inscribed on weapons which was thought to provide protection) -- all which also worked on a psychological level ti induce a self-hypnotic state of mind akin to mushin, to armor and focus the warrior's psyche. The mental state achieved was similar to mushin but one also invigorated by indomitable will to action fostered under a protective wing of the divine.

2- Some of Takuan Soho writings have been translated by William Scott Wilson into English in the book, "The Unfettered Mind."

About the Author:

Christopher Caile is the founder and Editor of

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

mu, shin, no mind, fudo, Fudoshin

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