First published in Black Belt Magazine May 2011
An Archer, when practicing in solitude, uses all of his skill, when shooting for the entertainment of house guests he uses three quarters of his skill, when shooting for a prize in a tournament he uses half his skill.
The Eastern martial arts have long been associated with spiritual and mystical traditions. The legendary founder of Shaolin Kung fu, a Buddhist monk known as Bodhidharma, was also the founder of Zen. Shaolin’s counterpart, the Wu Tang School, is based on Taoist principles. Japanese martial arts are likewise closely associated with both Zen philosophy and elements of Japan’s Shinto beliefs.
The question is why would men, whose profession is injuring and killing other men in combat, place so much importance on religion?
A clue to the answer lies in the origins of these beliefs. Much of what we in the West understand as Eastern philosophy comes from the Mahāyāna branch of Buddhism that had incorporated many of the principles of the yogic philosophy of India. Included was a wide range of exercises aimed at training the mind and body. [i] Many of these exercises would fall under the modern heading of sports psychology, methods of using psychology to optimize physical training and performance results.
When Mahāyāna Buddhism spread to China, it was influenced by, and in turn influenced China’s indigenous Taoist beliefs. This mingling resulted in a hybrid of Buddhism called Chan in China and Zen in Japan. The term Chan itself is derived from the Sanskrit dhyāna, which means “meditation”.
We can assume that professional fighters were pragmatic and that Asian martial arts masters were drawn to the ways of Zen and Tao for their practical use of mind and body exercises known as meditation. This would explain why so many martial arts are described as moving meditation or moving Zen. Among the exercises found in Eastern philosophy there must be some that provided real advantages in combat, if not, the warrior would pay the ultimate price.
In previous articles, we have seen that meditative or ‘internal’ exercises can indeed improve a warrior’s stability, balance, focus, and perception. [ii] These enhanced abilities would certainly increase the odds of survival in combat. However, there is another skill that ancient warriors wrote about that surpassed all others. Wu Shin, also called Mushin in Japanese, translates roughly as “unintentional’ but its esoteric meaning is known among Zen practitioners as ‘No-Mind’.
No-Mind is a mental state into which masters of martial artists are said to enter during combat. It is described as a state in which ego and emotions are absent and whereby the warrior reacts intuitively and moves instinctively. Hence its nominal translation as ‘unintentional’ – there is no ego to intend to do anything, instead one merely flows with the present moment.
If all this sounds a little mystical, there is a simple scientific explanation.
The part of the brain that controls movement is called the cerebellum. It controls all of the body’s muscular movement and is responsible for such complex activities as playing music, dance, and athletics. It is one of the oldest and most highly developed parts of the brain. Conversely, the frontal cortex is a relatively new part of the brain and the place in which the ego, one’s personality, resides.
Zen techniques for suppressing the ego’s role in combat makes sense in that one is simply employing the best tool for the job. Imagine a scenario in which a racecar driver would have to radio in to management for permission to perform every turn, acceleration, or brake. By the time that the message is sent, and permission relayed, the circumstances of the race would have changed such that any action taken would be too late. The driver would have no chance of winning a race. In combat, for the cerebellum to relay its decisions through the ego residing in the frontal cortex would make any action likewise too late to succeed in defeating an opponent. [iii]
This is the lesson in the Japanese proverb quoted above. An archer shooting alone has no one around to engage his ego and so is able to shoot the bow naturally relying only on his training and instincts. When friends are present, there is a conscious or subconscious desire to impress one’s friends. This involvement of the ego interferes with your natural abilities and already your skill will be diminished. When shooting for a prize, the competitive desire to win is an even greater hindrance and your skills are halved.
So how does one keep one’s ego from ruining the show? Zen philosophy teaches to assume an attitude of non-attachment, inner calm and quite observation, but for the martial artist one of the best ways to develop the ‘feel’ of No-Mind is through the method of performing forms in a spontaneous manner.
Free Form is an advanced stage of forms training that is not widely practiced. There is no prearranged choreography and so one must improvise the movements as one goes along. This is the same as musicians improvising solos during a jam session and dancers moving spontaneously to the rhythms of the music.
An early reference to a style of Free Form dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-905 A.D.) and one of the semi-mythical founders of Tai Chi, a hermit by the name of Hsa Suan-Ming. His training method consisted of learning thirty-seven movements and combining them without a standard sequence. He spontaneously strung together the individual movements into a continuous whole giving this style the name Long Fist because of its duration, (not to be confused with modern Long Fist based on the extension of the arms). Another legendary founder, Tang dynasty Tai Chi master Li Tao Tze, practiced a similar free form method he called “The stage before the universe was created”. These styles have been lost to history but we can recreate their basic methods by drawing on what is known about these techniques from various sources.
Free form is best practiced without spectators since the presence of others will cause a self-consciousness that will interfere with the natural expression of the form. A secluded spot outdoors is ideal, where natural sensations add to the experience.
1. Begin by assuming the standing meditation posture known as Holding the Jug. Focus the eyes slightly on the line of the horizon or a distant object such as hill or large tree, but also maintain awareness of objects within the peripheral field.
2. Use deep abdominal breathing and relaxation exercises to calm the mind. Mentally check your posture several times to insure balance. This stage should last approximately ten to fifteen minutes.
3. Stop the internal flow of thoughts by focusing on the external sensations. All six senses should be receiving sensum. Feel the sun on your face and the wind through your hair. Hear the sound of rustling leaves and chirping birds. See the multitude of shapes and colors, light and shadow. Smell the trees and grass. Taste the dampness in the air. Feel the earth beneath your feet and the pull of gravity on your body. In this way the ego’s thoughts are drowned out by the external sensations of nature; the mind becomes a mirror of its surroundings.
4. Eventually you will begin to feel a swaying or rocking motion. Allow the rocking motion to move you into whatever movement seems natural at the time. Progress from one technique to another slowly at first, but gradually gaining speed. One’s attention should be divided between feeling oneself in one’s body, as well as having an awareness of the surrounding environment. While the mind enjoys the sensation of movement and the surrounding nature, the body moves of its own accord.
Sensations characteristic of correct functioning include a feeling of effortlessness and strength. When moving the feeling is similar to swimming; light, fluid, floating.
This stage may last several minutes or longer and is determined by the player. Eventually the body will slow and stop of its own accord. Then the practice will have been completed.
When the state of Wu Shin is attained, the body is able to act and react on its own without the need of your attention, and in effect, your ego. The body does everything automatically; your mind/ego only goes along for the ride, no need to plan and think, you only watch. A similar reflex occurs when you instinctively catch a glass that is falling off the table or when you jump at the sound of a loud noise. Practicing Free Form trains your reflexes to respond to a more complex and varied set of circumstances, such as reacting to a combination technique or multiple attackers.
A mistake often made in martial arts is to strive for the state of `No Mind’ without having developed and trained in the basics properly. It is not enough to simply empty your mind and then expect everything to fall into place. In the beginning, like all forms of learning, you must apply your mind and attention with great effort until you have mastered the skill physically. Only after years of practice does the mind/ego become a hindrance and training is aimed at stopping its interference.
Every martial artist regardless of experience should augment his of her regular training by taking time to go out into nature and simply go with the flow. By doing so you will learn the meaning of No-Mind and dance the Wu Shin.
More on this fascinating subject from wikipedia below
Mushin (無心; Chinese wúxīn; English translation “no-mindedness”) is a mental state into which very highly trained martial artists are said to enter during combat. The term is shortened from mushin no shin (無心の心), a Zen expression meaning mind of no mind. That is, a mind not fixed or occupied by thought or emotion and thus open to everything. For the origin of the mushin concept, see Muga-mushin.
Mushin is achieved when a person feels no anger, fear or ego during combat. There is an absence of discursive thought and judgment, so the person is totally free to act and react towards an opponent without hesitation. At this point, a person relies not on what they think should be the next move, but what is felt intuitively. It is not a state of relaxed, near-sleepfulness, however. The mind could be said to be working at a very high speed, but with no intentions, plans or direction.
A martial artist would likely have to train for many years to be capable of mushin. This allows time for combinations of movements and exchanges of techniques to be practised repetitively many thousands of times, until they can be performed spontaneously, without conscious thought. If he is capable of truly listening to his teacher, however, he could attain this level in only a few years. Some masters believe that mushin is the state where a person finally understands the uselessness of techniques and becomes truly free to move. In fact, that person will no longer even consider themselves as “fighters” but merely living beings moving through space
The legendary Zen master Takuan Sōhō said:
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. In the case of the swordsman, it means death. When the swordsman stands against his opponent, he is not to think of the opponent, nor of himself, nor of his enemy’s sword movements. He just stands there with his sword which, forgetful of all technique, is ready only to follow the dictates of the subconscious. The man has effaced himself as the wielder of the sword. When he strikes, it is not the man but the sword in the hand of the man’s subconscious that strikes.
However, mushin is not just a state of mind that can be achieved during combat. Many martial artists, particularly those practising Japanese martial arts such as aikido or iaijutsu, train to achieve this state of mind during kata so that a flawless execution of moves is accomplished — that they may be achieved during combat or at any other time. Once mushin is attained through the practicing or studying of martial arts (although it can be accomplished through other arts or practices that refine the mind and body), the objective is to then attain this same level of complete awareness in other aspects of the practitioner’s life.
Mushin is very closely related to another state of mind known as heijoshin,, wherein a complete balance and harmony is attained in one’s life through mental discipline. Musashi Miyamoto, the great swordsman, alluded to these mental states briefly, and his conversations with Jattaro were often repeated in Japanese folklore as lessons to be learned for the practice of one’s life. Mushin and heijoshin are closely related to the teachings of Buddhism, specifically Zen teachings, and indeed the more mental aspects and attributes draw heavily from these philosophies.
[i] Zen (Chinese “Ch’an”) is from of Mahayana Buddhism noted for its proximity with Yoga. “This phenomenon merits special attention since yogic roots are to be found in the Zen Buddhist school of meditation.” Zen Buddhism: A History (India and China) By Heinrich Dumoulin, James W. Heisig, Paul F. Knitter World Wisdom, Incorporated, Sept 2005
[ii] See: The Dragon’s Gaze, Why you should Not Focus in Combat, a Scientific Explanation, Black Belt Magazine April 2009, and: The Real Sixth Sense, Balance in the Martial Arts, Black Belt Magazine October 2002
[iii] “Zen training may succeed because it gives control of the body directly to the part of the brain that smoothly coordinates muscle movement, the cerebellum. Operating below the level of consciousness the cerebellum appears to contain programs for moving many parts of the body in coordination’. Murphy, Michael, The Future of the Body, Explorations Into the Further Evolution of Human Nature, Putnam Books, New York, 1993.