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Senshin: The Fifth Element of the Karate Spirit

The picture shows the Fuji Yama, which stands for enlightement and wisdom. Therefore, the mountain manifests senshin like Shotokan karate und Budo do.

Senshin (洗心) means the purified spirit and enlightened mind. It is the fifth element of the karate and budo spirit every karateka should cultivate and strive for. In his monthly column Shotokan Essence Thomas D. McKinnon examines how Senshin is related to the other four budo spirit and how one can achieve it.

During the last several months, we have explored a number of concepts. Four of which are elements of the full Mantle. Zanshin, Mushin, Shoshin, and Fudoshin make up four fifths of the seamless, shining armor of the advanced karateka or budoka. 

Zanshin raises your total awareness, enabling you to see everything, not missing anything. Mushin releases you from anxiety. Acting and reacting without emotion allows your training, skills and abilities to function at maximum proficiency. Shoshin frees you from the frustrations that often accompany learning, giving you the sight to see what you may have missed. Fudoshin provides the confidence to stand your ground in the face of overwhelming odds. 

Senshin to Complete the Mantle 

The fifth element, Senshin, has no exact, literal translation. However, in line with the teachings of Ueshiba Morihei, Founder of the Japanese art of Aikidô, Senshin takes on the Budo meaning of the ‘enlightened’ or ‘purified’ mind/heart or spirit. In Chinese Medicine, the heart is the location of the mind, which is probably why the most common translation for Shin is mind or heart. So, concerning the Karateka/Budoka, Senshin might be said to be
‘the state of the enlightened mind’. Senshin completes the five spirits of Budo, or the full Mantle, of the advanced Karateka/Budoka: the Spiritual Warrior.

Senshin transcends and harmonizes the first four elements in a spirit of compassion to reconcile discord and hold all life sacred. Fully embracing Senshin is to become enlightened. 

You can learn as many physical arts as you want, and I’ve studied a few. But unless you take on the full Mantle you will only skate across the surface. The physicality of the arts will only be a sequence of moves. Consequently, in combat, whomsoever is most inspired on the day will be the victor. 

This Mantle I speak of doesn’t just find you when you train, study and learn the physicality of your art. You must actively seek it out. Prior to beginning my traditional Shotokan training, I had been a British Parachute Regiment soldier and so, quite naturally, Zanshin was the first constituent of the Mantle that I cognitively understood. 

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Zanshin (残心): Lingering Mind 

‘Zanshin: being still within, while aware of one’s surroundings and totally prepared, for anything. Zanshin is a state of totally calm alertness; a physical, mental and spiritual state of awareness before, during and after combat.’ 

Intellectually, I understood, quite early in my Karate-do, four of the five elements of the Mantle. However, my cognitive knowing of Mushin, Shoshin and Fudoshin took a little longer to realize. Following a particularly adverse situation, avoiding a potential disaster, I would suddenly realize that I had done so by exhibiting one of the Mantle’s features. 

For instance: while employed in high risk security, it was my habit to size up a situation and plan several, rational, contingencies so that I might not be taken by surprise in an unfolding situation. I was in actual fact limiting my options by overthinking the situation. A completely unexpected situation arose one day, which I came through smoothly, reacting in the most appropriate manner at several twists and turns. I then understood, cognitively, the concept of Mushin: trust and live in the moment. 

Mushin (無心): No Mind 

‘Mushin: not over-thinking things, being open and ready to receive whatever might come. Without the clouds of judgement, driven by emotion, the uncluttered mind deals with life from the moment point.’ 

The element that makes most sense, and is so obvious, took me the longest time to cognitively realize was Shoshin. Again, I tended to overthink and complicate things. All I really needed to do was clear away preconceptions: simplify. 

Shoshin (初心): Beginners’ Mind 

‘Shoshin: beginner’s mind is the quintessential mindset for learning. In the beginner’s mind there is openness, eagerness, a lack of preconceptions. With Shoshin there are many possibilities no matter the level of study.’ 

The fourth element to click into place, for me, was Fudoshin. Your skill levels need to be fairly advanced but, more importantly, your belief in yourself needs to be flawless. It is important to hone your skills to the point where ‘you believe’ they will emerge when and where you need them. You must erase any doubts. 

Fudoshin (不動心): Immovable Mind 

‘Fudoshin: a peaceful state of total determination and unshakable will. It is the state of a spirit that is determined to win. Filled with courage, endurance and self-confidence through self-knowledge, Fudoshin provides you with the resolve to surmount any obstacle.’ 

Finally ‘the enlightened mind’. What does that even mean? I never tried to intellectualize Senshin. ‘The enlightened mind’ sounded a little too airy-fairy. However, once Fudoshin slipped into place, Senshin, the final element, settled upon me like a Mantle. Henceforth, I knew the comforting surety of the full Mantle

Senshin (先心): Purified spirit and Enlightened Attitude 

‘Senshin: the enlightened mind of the advanced karateka/budoka. Holding all life sacred, you strive to protect and be in harmony with all life.’ Seeing the best in humanity, you endeavor to foster compassion even for those who would do you harm. With Senshin, recognizing the universal connectedness of life, you understand how one simple act affects every aspect of life. You see the dilemma and the worth of life with your heart, mind and soul.’ 

Senshin is achievable. However, not only must the mind be enlightened but the spirit must be cleansed too. Only the advanced karateka/budoka – with the enlightened attitude and purified intention – will achieve ‘the full Mantle of the Spiritual Warrior.’ 

Senshin: Enveloped in the Mantle

The high-pitched screech of brakes echoes through the chilly winter’s night. Piling out of two cars, they come in an angry rush. 

Spaced a couple of meters apart, one hand out, palm facing them, one hand on a holstered Glock 19 pistol-grip, we stand our ground. Two against many, but they stop. 

‘Hands off the guns!’ yells one, nervously. Hands under coats, their weapons are hidden but evident. Undisciplined, noisy, cursing and issuing threats, they mill together like fish in a barrel. They are gangsters, bullies… 

We are professionals, and they know it. I pitch my voice to be heard over the din… ‘Get back in your vehicles and drive away!’ I don’t threaten, but the warning is implicit. 

They hesitate… and one of them says, “What! Are you nuts! We outnumber you better than four to one… Do you think you’re invincible or something?!” When my response is a small, enigmatic smile his expression is priceless. But then, still verbally abusing us, they back off. Continuing to yell abuse from the cars, they speed off, as a police siren pierces the night air 

Our clients are safe… for tonight anyway. 

I have no doubt that – recognizing we were highly trained professionals unaffected by bullying and bluster – they knew that, had they pushed the envelope, some of them would have died. We were not invincible; simply, uncluttered by emotion (Mushin). Calm, alert, aware (Zanshin). Focused completely, confidently, in the moment (Fudoshin). No… not invincible, but securely enveloped in the Mantle.

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Shoshin?! The State of Mind for Studying Anything

Shoshin belongs to the basic concepts of budo. But most students of Shotokan karate do do not know what it is and how to achieve it. By Thomas D. McKinnon

‘Shoshin’, (初心), translates to ‘Beginner’s mind’.  To quote the Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki:

‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.  A true beginner’s mind is open and willing to consider all pieces of information, like a child discovering something for the first time.’

Shoshin: The Quintessential Mindset for Learning

Shoshin, simply the best way to approach any learning experience: an attitude of openness, eagerness and lack of preconception. Even when studying at an advanced level just do it as a beginner would.  Listen without commenting, regardless of how much you think you know of the subject.  Observe as if you know nothing, learn as a child learns, and get excited about a new discovery.  Shoshin, like all of the concepts you discover on your journey of Karate-do, will help you to lead a more rewarding life.  Shoshin is the quintessential mindset for learning.  

One of the things that we (karateka) do, prior to and on completion of training, is the ritual mokusoMokuso means to “silent thinking”. However, in the dojo it has further connotations: to meditate or contemplate quietly, thus separating your karate training from the outside world.  I give this guiding instruction to beginners for mokuso:

‘Empty your mind… Concentrate on your breathing, think of nothing but slowly filling and emptying your lungs (using diaphragmatic breathing) whilst emptying your mind.’

The picture shows mokuso, which is a vital step towards Shoshin.
Mokuso is a vital step towards Shoshin

Shoshin: Make Room for Learning

By emptying your mind you are making room for learning, or absorbing, like a child or a complete beginner.  Shoshin is a concept far less literal than it is metaphorical, not to be confused with simply forgetting everything.  As we develop knowledge and expertise the tendency is to narrow our focus, filtering out the things we think we already know, concentrating on details we consider we don’t know.  The danger here is that we may block out information that disagrees with what, we consider, we already know. Unconsciously we sifting out any conflicting ideas in favor of information which confirms our previous experience or philosophical standpoint. 

Entering the dojo for the very first time students, from varying demographics – age, sex, socio-economic, body composition, up-bringing, life skills and experience – begin with shoshin… more or less. 

Female beginners learn quicker than their male counterparts

I know that, in these enlightened times, it is considered politically incorrect to mention the difference between the sexes in regard to anything.  However, for the purpose of clarifying the concept of shoshin, please excuse this political faux pas.  Firstly, I will clarify the statement: ‘Every student begins with shoshin… more or less.’  I will generalize here when I say, male beginner karateka and female beginner karateka start at slightly varying states of shoshin because of their differing life-experiences. 

In my experience, the male beginner generally already has some set, physical responses when hearing the words punch and kick. Fighting is a concept to which they are more likely to have had a modicum of experience.  I’m not saying that this is a good thing or a bad thing, just that it amounts to a difference in the natural state of shoshin of the male and female karateka as they begin training.

Having taught and observed the martial arts for the best part of half a century, I feel qualified in making that last sweeping statement. In addition to that, the following broad avowal: Female beginner karateka, generally, learn quicker to execute techniques more accurately than their male counterparts.  I believe this occurrence to be due to the degree of shoshin they begin with.  The male’s prior familiarity usually means that they have some incorrect habits to first unlearn.  

The picture shows shoshin, which can be trained. Meditation helps to get rid of prejudices and preconceptions.
Shoshin can be trained. Meditation helps to get rid of prejudices and preconceptions.

Shohin Is a Treasured State of Mind

However, swings and roundabouts…  Arguably, one of the single most important concepts to grasp in Shotokan Karate is kime!  The following paragraph is one of the descriptive explanations I use when introducing kime!

‘I believe that kime, like ki, is akin to tapping into the universal energy in little bite sized pieces.  If you have never accessed kime… I have found that, at the point where it is appropriate to punctuate your technique with kime, you should explosively inflict your intent.  And I describe that feeling as, almost, like getting angry for a nanosecond at that point of intended impact.’

In my experience, the male beginner karateka gets his head around that concept quicker. That, I believe, may have something to do with hormones.  However, all that being said, by the time that Shodan is achieved we largely have a level playing field. As adults we may have a tendency to allow our prior knowledge to block us from seeing things anew.  Shoshin, like all those esoteric concepts we utilize in Karate-do, is a state of being that is difficult to articulate to anyone who has not taken this path of Karate-do.  Once understood, however, shoshin is a treasured state of mind for studying anything.