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Mu-shin: Mind and “No-Mind”

A student once asked me, “Japanese martial arts books sometimes describe a state called mu-shin, or ‘no-mind’. If I were thinking of nothing, how could I handle an attacker who was thinking very hard about beating or killing me? I mean, with nothing in mind, wouldn’t I just be an easy target?”

I told him that we in the Western world are often victims of awkward translations. These bad interpretations come from the inability to import directly an Asian cultural concept into our American or European languages. Mu-shin no shin as “mind of no-mind” is a nonsensical mistranslation that has floated around in the zen and martial arts world for a long time.

One of the purposes of do form martial training (zen karate, zen archery, etc.) is learning the ability to suspend analytical mechanical thought. We are so in the moment that we do not think about thinking. Meditative mind training encourages non-discriminative reflective-quality responsive perception. In this state, edges defining doer, action done, and results blend into a single experience. The word zen in Japanese is ch’an in Chinese, which comes from the Sanskrit dhyana, which means a state in which discriminating comparative mental work is suspended, permitting another type of mental state to emerge.

This non-discriminating mental state is called mu-shin in Japanese, from Chinese wu-hsin, which was translated from Sanskrit acitta. It means letting go of consciously directed mechanical thinking. Literally translated into English, mu-shin comes out “lack of thinking”.

Unfortunately for those who only read English,”no-thinking” comes across as “no thought occurring”. This is not the real meaning, though. In Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese, and Japanese languages, there are special words for different functions of mind, but in English we are stuck with the one word “mind”. In Sanskrit, mind functions include:

  • Citta — emotional and connotative “significance-finding” functions of mind
  • Hrdaya — the heart as the seat of soul or divine knowledge
  • Manas — abstract intellectual functioning of the mind associated with rational thought processes
  • Vijnana — sensory and perceptive activity of the mind

Shin in Japanese is a translation of Sanskrit citta, implying a blend of intellect and emotion. Sometimes this is called “heart-mind”. Therefore, a-citta or mu-shin is “absence of emotional judgments based on attraction-or-aversion”. It means not making choices based on accepting or rejecting by mechanical thinking. This is very different from the poorly translated “no thinking going on”.

Such understanding is critically important if you are going on to make a lifetime study of To-Shin Do. Worlds of meaning are found in the names of our martial art’s fighting lessons.

For example, munen muso no kamae is a combat-ready posture from our Kuki-Shinden Ryu stick fighting art. Literally “no-mind no-thought”, munen muso is a concept transmitted through esoteric Buddhist teachings in Sanskrit as asphanaka samadhi. Munen muso then implies our body and mind comfortably observing a state of no “me-vs-them”, premeditated, or distracting thought. What kind of thinking or feeling do you believe would be best when facing danger, based on what you now know about this name? Can you imagine being so intently focused as to leave behind mechanical “grind it out” thinking?

Obviously, this more accurate cultural translation makes it clear we are not advocating “mindlessness” when under attack. The experienced warrior’s mu-shin is a letting go of preconceived values, judgments, hopes, and fears that would only get in the way of just-right action in the heat of battle.

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