The Iaido Journal  Mar 2008
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‘Being well’ through Japanese Swordsmanship:
‘Mushin’ as hermeneutic, phenomenon, and noumenon in the context of modern Iaido in the West

copyright © 2008 Chris Gilham, all rights reserved
University of Calgary


Japanese Swordsmanship, known as Iaido, is one of many traditional Japanese martial arts with eastern philosophical connections. The practice of Iaido is highly ritualistic and repetitive. There are Japanese terms which when translated directly into English refer to ‘states of being’ we may describe as meditative or spiritual. The key term is ‘Mushin’, translated as ‘No mind’. Attaining this state of being is considered ideal in Iaido. This preliminary exploration of the literature informs a subsequent study that will focus on understanding ‘Mushin’ as a state of being experienced by practitioners of Iaido and that experiencing ‘Mushin’ significantly contributes to the well-being of those who experience it.


...if one is able to thoroughly practice this mind of no-mind, one will not stop on a single thing, and will not lose a single thing. Constantly like being filled with water, it exists in this body and responds in functioning when needed.

Takuan (Wilson, 1986)

This preliminary exploration of the literature is in preparation for a subsequent blended study that will explore ‘Mushin’ as a state of being both as phenomenon and noumenon. Research will include extrapolating a definition of ‘Mushin’ within the context of Japanese culture as well as modern rich narrative descriptions of ‘Mushin’ from non-Japanese practitioners of Iaido and quantitatively captured physiological responses throughout the body and in the brain.

This future study is rooted in the belief that ‘Mushin’ is experienced by western practitioners of Iaido and that ‘Mushin’ is a deeply centering practice which benefits the overall well-being of those who experience it. As a long time practitioner of Iaido I wish to frame this study within modern western educational philosophy, particularly the work of Donald Schon and contemporaries. Importantly, a current western theoretical framework for understanding ‘Mushin’ is needed to further deepen our martial arts practices so that we may recognize, acknowledge and immerse ourselves in martial arts as fundamentally significant ‘wellness’ activities. By ‘wellness’ this study means an overall physical and mental state of health characterized by a commitment to lifelong learning driven by the genuine desire to begin with self-reflection as the basis for continuous self-improvement.

Important questions for the study include:

The context for this subsequent study will be Iaido practitioners in the West. As it is not possible to capture all of the significant literature to inform a subsequent study within the confines of this paper, this overview is meant to prepare the ‘initial’ groundwork to support this future research.

Seeking Understanding

Mushin’ begs understanding: this much speaks first and foremost. Mushin is used quite universally across martial arts and other Japanese traditional arts. It is not enough to translate the term as ‘No mind’ in Western culture. We must seek to understand the term historically and culturally if we are to claim ‘use of it’ in our martial arts training. Furthermore, if we are to make claims for overall wellness and virtue in a ‘spiritual’ sense, the onus is on us to make sense of ‘Mushin’ then and now. This is especially important now because many current western practices of traditional Japanese martial arts may be chiefly focussed on combat application to the neglect of personal transformation. Or these practices may espouse personal transformation through foggy understandings of ‘Mushin’. ‘Mushin’ may be critical in combat application. Essentially, then and more now, ‘Mushin’ is critical in personal transformation. The clearer we are on ‘Mushin’ the more we can embrace it as a transformative practice for overall well being.

Why would we look at ‘Mushin’ through modern lenses as well? Dr. Stuart Kauffman (2007) argued that the Christian description of God has evolved over time to match the cultural and societal voices of the majority. In this way, God has remained relevant for many believers and therefore a God they can believe in. Likewise, ‘Mushin’ in its transfer to modern times and different cultures may indeed need to be viewed through our lens of understanding if it is to remain relevant in our martial arts training. Perhaps the literature and our research will help lead us to understand ‘Mushin’ as universally relevant and not limited to one culture and time. ‘Mushin’ may be, or may need to be, an evolving concept. We are not equating ‘Mushin’ with God, to be clear. The point is to gain a current understanding of Mushin as it is experienced by current western practitioners of Iaido and to deepen that understanding with knowledge of ‘Mushin’ historically, culturally, and currently as educational practice.

To prepare the initial groundwork for this future study, the following themes in the literature are being explored: 1) ‘Mushin’ within Japanese culture; 2) ‘Mushin’ in modern Western martial arts; 3) ‘Reflection in action’ and ‘Flow’; and, 4) The virtue of lifelong learning.

Because of the physical limitations of this assignment, we will look at themes 1) and 2) only. In the future, literature reviews for the remaining two themes will then come together with this paper to compose a complete literature review for a major thesis project.

  1. Mushin’ within Japanese Culture

Mushin’ is embedded in the Japanese concept of ‘do’ or ‘way’ and is a Buddhist term for a transformed state of being. Ludwig (1974) in “The Way of Tea” explained:

The way of tea must first of all be seen within the context of the practice of the master arts or artistic "ways" (Japanese: do, michi; Chinese: tao) as spiritual technique for the attainment of self-transcendence and the realization of the Buddha-mind. These arts (e.g., gado, the way of painting; kado, the way of poetry; kado, the way of flowers; shodo, the way of calligraphy; kendo, the way of swordsmanship; kyudo, the way of archery) involve a structure in which the artist progresses from mastery of rules and techniques, eliminating his own arbitrary will, to a break through or self-transformation into a state called, in Buddhist terms, "nothingness" (mu) or "no-mind-ness" (mushin), in which the enlightened master possesses free artistic creativity in his art and in his life. Thus the artistic ways are parallel to the "religious" way (Butsu-do, the way of the Buddha) in that they are structurally coordinate with the path of Buddhist realization, that is, the movement toward the nirvanic state through the negation of a false sense of "self."(p.33, 34)

Likewise, Pilgrim (1977) wrote on the fundamental importance of the ‘way’ arts in the religious or spiritual character of the Japanese, “...the Way arts... are a crucial aspect of the religious life and values of Japan. Ideally, they are-in and through the artistic/aesthetic process and sensibility-vehicles for spiritual transformation.” (p. 285, 286) Toyo Izutsu also held the view of ‘do’ as a means to spiritual enlightenment (as cited in Pilgrim, 1977, p. 286). Pilgrim (1977) further explained Mushin as representing “...the unintending, unconscious, nonattached, spontaneous mind.” (p. 290) D.T. Suzuki also wrote:

Mere technical knowledge of an art is not enough to make a man really its master, he ought to have delved deeply into the inner spirit of it. This spirit is grasped only when his mind is in complete harmony with the principle of life itself, that is, when he attains to a certain state of mind known as Mushin, "no-mind." (as cited in Pilgrim, 1977, p.290)

The modern day Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro stressed the primary importance of ‘Mushin’ to Japanese culture and perhaps epistemological understanding when he wrote, “No-mind (mushin) can be considered the axis of the Oriental spirit..." (as cited in Feenberg, 1999, p. 29). Also, "It is not in affirming the self that we become creators but in thinking and acting by becoming the thing. Our true self is an intrinsically perfect expression of the world" (as cited in Feenberg, 1999, p. 29, 30). Feenberg (1999) wrote that “The "falling away" of body and mind in Zen Buddhism is thus the mode of experience characteristic of Japan.” (p. 30) The falling away of body and mind comes about from highly ritualized practice, with roots in earlier eastern philosophies. This area within the literature is best saved for our third theme, ‘Reflection in action’ and/or ‘flow.’

  1. Mushin in Western Martial Arts and a deeper insight into theme 1)

There appears to be very little direct literature on this topic but what is available is extremely relevant and interesting. John P. Keenan’s (1989) starting article validated theme 1) of our literature review: “The ethos of the East Asian martial arts evolved in a context of Zen Buddhism and took on the contours of Buddhist teachings.” (p. 286) Specifically, Keenan (1989) wrote “The introduction of Zen into Kamakura Japan wedded Zen to the martial arts of the samurai class. This then is the ethos of traditional Eastern martial arts and derives from the broad Mahâyâna context of Buddhist doctrine.” (p. 286) However, his position was that “...martial arts in the West are almost always divorced from this Mahâyâna context, even when practitioners are convinced they are engaged not only in technique but also in disciplined Buddhist insight. I argue that the spiritual ethos surrounding martial arts practice is in fact a warmed-over Taoism, quite different from Mahâyâna Buddhism.” (p. 286)

Keenan (1989) argued we should not associate ‘Mushin’ with a spiritual awakening in the Buddhist sense because we do not engage in the full practices necessary for true spiritual enlightenment. Keenan (1989) wanted his readers to see that ‘Mushin’in Japan and the West is more Taoist in that practitioners of martial arts (and sports he argues) often are able to remove themselves from discursive thought – clearly a move in a right direction – but not a true awakening of the Buddha within each of us. This may be a critical position for the research project. Are we or are we not engaged in a transformative process as it may have occurred in the Zen Buddhist sense of traditional warrior Japan? If not, is this Taoist sense of the absence of discursive thought a transformative process, or at least a process which plays a fundamental role in wellness and lifelong learning? Ultimately, we want to answer these latter questions through our research.

Stewart McFarlane (1990) responded to Keenan on many levels. A powerful counter argument – one that fits well with our emerging theoretical models and also brings deeper insight into theme 1) – is the idea that Buddhism is not ‘ultimatist’ or ‘normative’: “Buddhist scholars cannot claim the same privilege as Bodhidharma and reject merit-making or popular, "culturally specific" activities as illegitimate or un-Buddhist.” (McFarlane, 1990, p. 405). Further to advancing our theoretical framework is this important claim:

Keenan correctly points out that the concepts of no-mind, Buddha nature, and emptiness are best interpreted metaphorically rather than literally. In my view, most texts and commentators understood this. Consequently they employ a range of images and metaphors to express fundamental Buddhist insights about the conditional and relational nature of existence, and about human spiritual potential. (McFarlane, 1990, p. 405)

McFarlane (1990) explained the most basic meanings for ‘Mushin’ or ‘no-mind’ are more about the “...absence of workings of the mind...” (p. 406) He also spends considerable time emphasizing and showing the complexity of the mixings of East Asian philosophies and religions within the Japanese understanding of ‘Mushin’. This allows the door to remain well open for ‘Mushin’ in the West to be a further enmeshing of belief systems and helps guide us towards understanding the term as one that has been brought into a culture (Japan) that has mastered the synthesis of other cultural practices. ‘Mushin’ is not simply Zen Buddhism rather it is Zen Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Shintoism, to name a few of the cultural pieces which have influenced its meaning in traditional Japan. Since this is the case, one cannot refute the worth of glimpses into the non-discriminate mind as part of the transformative process we may describe as ‘Mushin’. ‘Mushin’ was never statically defined as a one fit entity only for those who can reach the penultimate level. McFarlane’s response reveals the hermeneutic and phenomenological nature of ‘Mushin’.

Summary or Emerging Theoretical Frameworks for theme 1)

Zen Buddhism – a religious/philosophical perspective - seems to have clearly influenced the term ‘Mushin’ as it has applied to traditional Japanese culture. Pilgrim (1977) noted the shift toward deeper Zen Buddhist influences in Japanese culture as one from “...discovery of essences in things more directly to the quality of mind/spirit of the artist himself.” (p. 289) ‘Mushin’ is one part of this shift to inner reflection. Hermeneutic and phenomenological approaches seem relevant as emerging theoretical frameworks for this study. ‘Mushin’ is not only Zen Buddhist but many philosophical systems enmeshed together. In pursuing ‘Mushin’ from its historical and cultural perspective – which includes defining the concept as a reflective practice – we are at once involved in a what Willis (2007) described as a “hermeneutic circle”. (p. 106) This circle will be enriched and updated through the narrative descriptions of current Western practitioners of Iaido – a phenomenological approach. The author is interested in what a cognitive approach might also show us when in the ‘Mushin’ state of being. Dr. Karl Friday (1997) aptly cautioned us to not interpret martial understanding as a “...mystical discovery of truths pre-existing but buried within the self, or some magical bursting forth of the learner’s inner being.” (p. 101)

Next Steps in the Literature Review

Mushin’s deeply rooted and complex ties within Japanese culture set the foundation for moving forward in the research. Why? This research project now has an introductory understanding of ‘Mushin’ within the traditional context of Japan. With this understanding we can now bring a comparative context to modern Western understandings of ‘Mushin’. ‘Mushin’ then is seen as a transformative state of being. Is it seen in the same way now? Is Mushin then the same thing now here in Western martial arts? Are we engaged meaningfully in the ‘do’ arts as described above? What meaning do we currently attach to ‘Mushin’ in the context of our martial ways?

In the next literature review we will look at ‘Mushin’ as a reflective practice in Western terms, including ‘Reflection in action’ and ‘Flow’. Finally, we will see what is written about martial arts training and the virtue of lifelong learning. Together, the four phases in this review may be visualized graphically as a funnel with the largest, widest section at the top representing 1) Mushin within Japanese Culture. As we move down deeper into the funnel the literature becomes sparser, thus pointing us towards the need to connect these pieces as the author will attempt to do in the overall research project. In connecting the pieces we then help define ‘Mushin’ and in doing so perhaps reveal great advantages to being involved in a ‘way’ art like Iaido.


Feenberg, A. (1999). Experience and Culture: Nishida's Path "To the Things Themselves". Philosophy East and West, Vol. 49, No. 1. , 28-44.

Friday, K. F. (1997). Legacies of the Sword: The Kashima-Shinryu and Samurai Martial Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.

Kauffman, S. (2007, 12 26). Google video. Retrieved 02 15, 2008, from Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0:

Keenan, J. P. (1989). Spontaneity in Western Martial Arts - A Yogacara Critique of Mushin (No-Mind)-. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies , 285-298.

Ludwig, T. M. (1974). The Way of Tea: A religio-Aesthetic Mode of Life. History of Religions, Vol. 14, No. 1. , 28-50.

McFarlane, S. (1990). Mushin, Morals, and Martial Arts - A Discussion of Keenan's Yogacara Critique -. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies , 397-420.

Pilgrim, R. B. (1977). The Artistic Way and the Religio-Aesthetic Tradition in Japan. Philosophy East and West, Vol. 27, No. 3. , 285-305.

Willis, J. W. (2007). Foundations of Qualitative Research: Interpretive and Critical Approaches. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, Inc.

Wilson, W. S. (1986). The Unfettered Mind: Takuan Soho. Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd.

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TIN Mar 2008