An oddity among the humble nature of the tea ceremony is the appreciation of valuable teaware and utensils. In fact, it’s an integral part of the process for the guest to inspect and give words of praise for the utensils chosen by the host for the tea gathering. In tea class, we practice this process (called haiken, lit. “see or look at”) each time we do our chosen preparation of the day.
It was during one such inspection in class recently I was introduced to the idea of mushin. One of my classmates chose a tea scoop with mushin as its “poetic name” (usually given by its maker), and sensei asked me if I knew what it meant. This was not meant to call me out, but rather to make sure I understood. as the only non-Japanese person in class.
“No,” I replied. Though I could puzzle out the literal meaning with my elementary Japanese, I knew she wasn’t asking me if I understood the word. She wanted me to understand the concept.
“It means ‘no heart’ (kokoro ga nai), but in this case ‘heart’ is used to symbolize the mind.” From there, we discussed the Zen concept of Emptiness–a state of unlimited potential–and how an empty mind represents the height of possibility.
She then asked me if I had any idea how I might translate this into English. The best I could come up with was “mindlessness”, but I knew that wasn’t it. Another student suggested “mindfulness”, but that didn’t quite feel right either.
I resolved to look into it more when I got home, and so I did. Grab a cup of tea because this is going to be an adventure.
Here’s what I’ve learned.
Naturally, the hunt began with Wikipedia.
It surprised me to find Wikipedia had an entry on mushin. It was sparse, but informative and a great starting point. Here’s how Wikipedia interprets the concept:
Mushin in Japanese and Wuxin in Chinese (無心 “no mind”) is a mental state. Zen and Daoist meditators are said to reach this state, as well as artists and trained martial artists. They also practice this mental state during everyday activities.Source: Wikipedia
Wikipedia goes on to describe mushin as being “a mind not fixed or occupied by thought or emotion and thus open to everything”. This felt like a pretty good place to start, but also somehow very understated. I knew I needed more.
Here, Wikipedia came in handy again–by introducing me to Takuan Sōhō.
Takuan is an interesting character. Born in 1573 as the son of farmers, at age 8 he began his religious studies and two years later formally entered into the Pure Land sect of Buddhism. By the time he was 36, he was already abbot of a temple and, after being banished for protesting against political interference in the appointment of Buddhist leaders, later returned to become a valued advisor for Tokugawa Iemitsu. Iemitus then built an entire temple for Takuan (Tōkaiji Temple in Edo) so he could keep his favored advisor close.
The temple is still standing today in Tokyo.
Takuan was a prolific writer and advisor to many other noteworthy figures of the time, including numerous daimyō (feudal, land-owning lords serving under the shōgun) and swordmasters in addition to the shōgun Tokugawa Iemitsu, who was the third in the family after the legendary Tokugawa Ieyasu and Iemitsu’s father, Hidetada.
According to Wikipedia, Takuan’s published works include six full volumes and 100 poems. Of all his published work, the one that concerns us the most regarding mushin is his treatise entitled “The Unfettered Mind”.
The Unfettered Mind
The Unfettered Mind is actually a compilation comprised of three essays: “The Mysterious Record of Immovable Wisdom”, “The Clear Sound of Jewels”, and “Annals of the Sword Taia”. The first and third are letters addressed to the swordmasters of two different schools, and the second is an essay according to Takuan’s thoughts on the subject of right-mindedness and other things less relevant to this discussion.
I want to save most of the substance of these essays for another post, both because I’m still reading and digesting the essays but also because the subject is deep. So, for now I’ll discuss the first essay as it pertains to mushin.
The Immovable Mind
Takuan starts off talking a good bit about the immovable mind. As a concept, it felt strange to have the notion of an immovable mind inside larger concept of an “unfettered” (released from restraint or inhibition) mind. I quickly came to understand Takuan’s definition of the immovable mind as a mind that is immovable in its wisdom, but not in its location.
What that means is the mind never gets hung up on any one thing. An example to illustrate the point (emphasis mine):
Glancing at something and not stopping the mind is called immovable. This is because when the mind stops at something, as the breast is filled with various judgments, there are various movements within it. When its movements cease, the stopping mind moves, but does not move at all.
If ten men, each with a sword, come at you with swords slashing, if you parry each sword without stopping the mind at each action, and go from one to the next, you will not be lacking in a proper action for every one of the ten.
Although the mind act (sic) ten times against ten men, if it does not halt at even one of them and you react to one after another, will proper action be lacking?
Let’s unpack this.
If I’m being attacked by ten men, I can view them each as individual people, with individual actions, and individual swords. If I do not focus on any of them and instead follow the idea of mushin, I will act appropriately against each and every one of them.
By contrast, if I stop the mind on any one of the ten men with ten swords, when the next man comes the opportunity for “proper action” will slip away and I may be cut down.
Mushin and Martial Arts
This may sound a bit like some Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon style Asian mysticism, but I’ve had some experience with this myself since I began studying hapkido, a Korean martial art focused on practical self-defense.
In my school, we occasionally train ourselves to handle multiple attackers using an exercise called ronduri. In ronduri, one person has to defend themselves against a group of attackers, usually 2-4 other students. The primary objective of the defender isn’t to defeat their opponents (though techniques can be applied to that effect), but rather to act appropriately to deflect and maybe escape or incapacitate without being defeated themselves.
When I do this exercise, I find the times I struggle the most are the times when I focus on applying techniques properly or worrying about the next attacker. The single time I felt the most successful was the time I moved with purpose but without thought, acting and reacting according to the movements of my assailants.
I know this to be the case, because after that particular class, a black belt commented on the nature of my body and form’s movement and flow during the exercise. I didn’t realize it at the time I was practicing, but that experience is a glimpse of what it must be like to practice mushin in martial arts at all times.
Mushin and Tea Ceremony
It may seem tenuous at best to try and make a connection between swordfighting and tea, but it turns out it’s not unusual at all. The Way of Tea–called sadō (茶道, lit. “tea way” or “tea path”) in Japanese–is actually one of a few “arts” or “paths” practiced by monks and warriors alike in medieval Japan:
- Shodō (書道) – Calligraphy (“Way of the Brush”)
- Kadō (花道) – Flower Arranging (“Way of the Flower”)
- Kōdō (香道) – Incense (“Way of Fragrance/Incense”)
- Budō (武道) – Martial Arts (“Way of War”)
- Kyūdō (弓道) – Archery (“Way of Archery”)
These “Ways” and others like them were pursued as paths to personal and spiritual realization and fulfillment.
Viewed in this light, it’s no wonder a humble tea scoop can come to possess the poetic name of mushin and take on the likeliness of a sword.
You see, tea ceremony, while ultimately being an opportunity for a host and guests to share in a social affair centered around the preparation of food and drink, is actually governed by a strict set of rules and forms. The host, as they perform any one of the 16 basic temae (preparations), is actually moving through a pre-defined series of forms put together for efficient and graceful movement.
These forms–called kata in martial arts parlance–are the same type of forms Westerners are used to seeing in depicitions of Eastern martial arts. (Think of the lone martial artist moving through a series of punches and kicks on a mountain top and you’ll know what kata are.)
Applying Takuan’s concept of “unfettered mind” to these forms, it becomes apparent that the student of tea should view each preparation as would a warrior facing an opponent with sword in hand–without stopping, moving appropriately as each step requires, and then yielding to the next.
Just Heat Water, Prepare Tea, and Drink
Sen no Rikyū is famous for saying tea ceremony is nothing but to “just heat water, prepare tea, and drink”. As any student of tea will tell you, this is the understatement of the century.
In the book Wind in the Pines, author Dennis Hirota writes:
“Just” here implies acts free of all instrumentaility and worldly distraction. To beginning students of chanoyu, however, “just heat water and prepare tea” will seem hardly appropriate as a description of their study.Dennis Hirota – Wind in the Pines, p. 22
…every aspect of the meal and indeed of the entire gathering, seem minute and inexhaustible.
…Thus, simplicity is upheld as an ideal of tea–“just heat water”–but it is a simplicity attained only after lengthy study.
I’ll write about the nature of practice in an upcoming piece, but for now, it’s enough to say that mushin as an ideal state of being while pursuing and practicing the Way of Tea is something attained only after a lifetime of study–if at all.
Rikyū himself would likely have said he never mastered it, even at the end of his life.
Living With No-Mind-No-Thought
If you’re anything like me, you might be thinking: “Okay, Mr. Monk, taking on ten men with swords and making tea sounds great and all, but how am I supposed to bring this into my daily life?”
The answer is, I don’t know. I sometimes get stuck on what to make for breakfast, to say nothing of the other complexities of life.
That said, I plan to explore this further. I still have the second and third essays to read, and I also intend to go back and revisit a book I read in 2017 called The Practicing Mind, which is a short but valuable book on “developing focus and discipline” through–you guessed it–mushin (though I didn’t know that’s what it was called at the time).
Thanks for reading. Until next time, happy drinking.
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