One Explanation of a "Zen" State of Mind - Mushin


One Explanation of a "Zen" State of Mind - Mushin
By Nick Lukich & Jason Armstrong
mushin zen mizu no kokoro
There is a Japanese term often used in Karate called mushin, meaning "empty mind."  This term does not strictly imply no thought, but rather no attachment to any one thought or emotion. To obtain this state of mind mushin, you must let go your fears, doubts, your ego, and any preconceived thoughts of action, or the mind will not react openly. 
There is a famous Zen saying called mizu no kokoro that may help to clarify this term. This translates as A mind like water.  Everyone understands how the water of a pond can be calm and clear.  In this state, it will reflect all around it truthfully, much like a mirror.  In Karate and in life we strive to have a calm mind that reflects everything around us accurately.  Therefore, the mind must be clear like the glass surface of a still pond, reflecting everything accurately and without distortion.  If the mind gets attached to any thoughts, this is analogous to throwing a large stone into the tranquil pond.  The ripples that the stone creates (or thought) will interfere with the smooth surface of the pond making the reflection (mind) distorted. If your mind is cluttered with thoughts, how can it possibly react quickly in stressful situations? Only when the mind is clear and calm will you act instantly without hesitation or fear. 

enso circle calligraphy
Like a full circle, the mind must be empty, yet complete.

In terms of fighting, the argument for mushin has been put forward in many karate fighting and zen books. The argument is often paraphrased from Takuan, a Zen master of the 16th century Japan or of an interview with Zen master Deshimaru:

"If I think about my defence against a sword, my offence will be weak,
 if I think about my offense, my defence will be weak,
 therefore I have to place my mind on neither.."

Interestingly, modern science has also added a dimension to this. On example is in data that relates to your brain making decisions before you consciousness has become involved (which if you let it get involved, only slows down the execution of a motion). In fact, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, found that by scanning the brains of the study participants, they could predict which hand the participants would use before the participants were consciously aware of the decision (Soon et al. 2008)Surprisingly the researchers could predict which button the participants would choose 7 seconds before the participants registered the conscious decision to push the button. Much like our article reflecting on "being in the zone", or as zen calls it, Joriki , the key is to have a state of mushin and have drilled things to the degree motor actions just flow based on training repetition over the years.

Mushin is a state often first realised by a karate-ka in kata training and then kumite later onFor example, when you realise you have finished a kata and did not think about what was next. Asscoaited with that would also be the fact that time disappeared in doing the act (see also our Joriki article). That is, doing without your conscious mind getting involved.


Deshimaru (1967) The Zen Way to Martial Arts: A Japanese Master Reveals the Secrets of the Samurai. ISBN-10: 0140193448

Soon et al. (2008). Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain. Nature Neuroscience DOI: 10.1038/nn.2112

Takuan (1500s). The Unfettered Mind: Writings from a Zen Master to a Master Swordsman. ISBN-10: 1590309863

The above mushin kanji provided by Mayuko Sumida - click here to see Mayuko sans karate & zen calligrpahy download page...

strategy in kumite fighting zen karate