Confused About Mushin

We cannot stop our thoughts: We do not stop thoughts in Budo - this is not the aim. Concentrically, in Aikido, we do not seek to stop the opponent’s attack either. However, it is common for teachers and authors to talk with such phrases of “stopping” when it comes to mind training. This is because they are without a practice and their position is primarily academically based – a product of the intellect and its dependence upon dichotomy. They are just thinkers on Zen, and thinking on Zen only leads to paradox, or an unreconcilable positing of opposites. Such beings are not true Zen beings; so, they talk about “no mind” or “mushin,” and they think it means, “being thought-free” or “having no thoughts” or “stopping thought.” Consequently, many deshi then go on to task themselves with this impossible task, with what we in Aikido would ultimately call a “Yang-to-Yang Clash,” something that is, as all such clashes are, an unreconciled Will to Power - a fear reaction and the use of force to manipulate our experience of the world.

Let me explain this misunderstanding and point you toward a more correct and helpful direction for understanding “mushin” and the “mind” of Budo:

“Mushin” is made up of two Kanji characters. The first character, “mu” is a negative term or concept, something akin to the English “non,” as in the word “nonsense.” The second character, “shin,” is often translated as “heart/mind” but has notes referring to one’s whole “being.” However, “shin” or “heart/mind” or “being,” are all Buddhist specialized terms, so one has to know what these things meant to past Buddhists before one can understand what “mushin” means. A straight and literal translation of each kanji character, a common maneuver almost always made by the amateur cultural-historian, is always going to lead one astray, very much like one is led astray by understanding “Aikido” by dividing the word into “Ai,” “Ki,” and “Do.” Meaning, “mushin” does not really mean, “no mind.” Rather, “mushin” means, “The ‘shin’ that’s not the ‘shin’ the Buddhists mean when they say ‘shin’.”

So what is the “shin” the Buddhists mean? That’s a complicated question - very complicated. So, I will simplify an answer for the purposes of addressing the problem with stopping one’s thoughts: “Shin” for past Buddhists pertains more to a process than it does to an object. The process the Buddhists are concerned with is our natural human tendency to reify the self via our thought processes. When the Buddhists posit “mushin” they are not saying that we should not have thoughts; they are saying we should not reify the self via our thoughts. So, “mushin” is not “no mind,” but rather “the mind that functions (i.e. has thoughts) but that does not reify the self via the thought process.” Therefore, in zazen, one is not supposed to stop thinking or have no thoughts. One is supposed to have thoughts, because this is what the mind does: However, one is not to reify the self with said thought process. How is this done? By practicing releasing the thoughts one is having. Mushin is an experience of the world brought about by the deconstructing of the egoic-based identity which is itself brought about by the skill of releasing.

Zazen, like Aikido, like all the practices of the Way, is a practice designed to develop skill at releasing. Meaning, there is a concentric relationship between experiencing our thoughts and releasing ourselves from that egoic thought process and facing the opponent’s attack and releasing ourselves from the threat-reaction process (i.e. a manifestation of the egoic thought process). Like this, Aikido is moving Zen, and zazen is Aikido in stillness and silence. Equally concentric, this same releasing skill rests at the heart and possibility of Aikido’s non-contestation strategies, its internal aspects, takemusu aiki, and its own mystic states understanding. While above appears to be a roadmap of sorts that the Aikido practitioner can follow, learning the skill of releasing, however, requires a mentor who already has said skill. It is very difficult, if not impossible for one to learn by oneself the skill of releasing directly within or solely within the environment (Aikido praxis) in which it is required.