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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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What is Mushin? And How to Achieve It?

Mushin belongs to the central concepts of budo. In this article we present you what it is and how to achieve it. By Thomas D. McKinnon

What is Mushin?

Mushin: the term is a shortened form of, ‘Mushin no shin’ (無心の心). This Zen expression means, basically, ‘mind without mind’. It refers to the state of ‘no-mindness’. Or the state of mind that is not fixed, not cluttered by thoughts or emotion. Therefore nothing will get in the way of the self as it acts and reacts according to its training and exactitude’s. In combat or in any part of life where much preparation has been undertaken.

What is Mushin in Practice?

Mushin is achieved when a karateka’s mind is free of random thoughts, free of anger, free of fear, and particularly free of ego. It applies during combat, and or other facets of life. When mushin is achieved during combat there is an absence of loose or rambling thoughts. It leaves the practitioner free to act and react without hesitation. He reacts according to all of the study and training that has brought the karateka to this point. Relying on, not what you think should be your next move, but on what your trained, instinctive, subconscious reaction directs you to do.

The Zen Foundation of Shotokan

This Zen mind state is just one of the esoteric accoutrements which complement the consummate, experienced and well-practiced martial artist. Legendary Zen master Takuan Sōhō is reputed to have said,

“The mind must always be in the state of flow, 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 could mean death. When the swordsman faces an opponent, he is not to think of himself, his opponent, or of his enemy’s sword movements. He just stands with his sword which, forgetful of all technique, is ready only to follow the dictates of the subconscious. The swordsman deletes his rational mind from the situation 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.”

This documentary about Kendoka Naoki Eiga shows in excellently his way to mushin.

No Doubt, but Belief!

Belief is the ally of the highly trained karateka, soldier, police officer, or high-risk security operative. Belief is the supporter of mushin, and will have your back. Doubt, on the other hand, the enemy of mushin that could cause your downfall. It will save your life in the worst case scenario. However, make sure you have put in enough time, training and dedication to dispel any doubts. Because doubt can destroy your mushin. In that worst case scenario mentioned, doubt is the backstabber that could get you killed.

Kata and Mushin

Although it is difficult for the inexperienced, inept or novice kata judge or instructor to identify. Mushin can be and must be demonstrated during the performance of kata. Without it, kata becomes just a sequence of moves strung together in a kind of karate dance. When practicing kata, practice mushin also.

Keinosuke Enoeda was a master of mushin.

Similar to many of the esoteric concepts utilised by the martial arts, it is by no means exclusive to them. Mushin, in Japanese, or wuxin, in Chinese, could be termed as a light, Zen meditative state. All arts can recognize and utilize it: painters, actors, singers, dancers, sculptors, poets, writers, and much, much more.

Mushin Means to Trust Yourself and Let it Flow

So, for the advanced karateka, all of the training, all of the drills, and all of the countless repetitions of all the various computations of combinations that the karateka has performed over the months, years and decades are like money in the bank. The more you put in the less you have to worry about. All you have to do is ‘trust’ that you have enough in the bank.

Operating on that level you must be confident that you have done more than enough to be ready for anything that might occur. Having complete trust in your skill-set, you do not have to think about exactly what it is that you will do. You just have to know that you will react to whatever occurs, in the most appropriate way, at that moment of necessity. That is mushin.

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What is Zanshin? – The State of A Fighting Mind

The picture shows karateka in full zanshin expecting the next attack or counter.

Zanshin belongs to the central concepts of budo and Shotokan karate. In this article give you a detailed account about the fighting state of mind. By Thomas D. McKinnon

What does Zanshin mean?

Literally translated, zanshin means ‘left over or remaining heart /spirit/mind’. However, for the dedicated karateka, it means the state of total awareness. Being still within, while aware of one’s surroundings, and being totally prepared for anything.

It also conveys the fighting spirit of the individual after the fight. If victorious, the fighter needs a forward-looking awareness and should not lose focus by the victory. If by chance the fighter loses, he will carry an indomitable spirit with honor and grace. Then no real defeat of the character takes place. To encapsulate in a single sentence:

‘Zanshin can be said to be a state of total, calm, alertness. Before, during and after combat a physical, mental and spiritual state of awareness.

Our friends from WaKu Karate in Tokyo give in this video a hint about the concept.

Some Western Interpretations

I’ve heard many attempts by instructors to translate the concept into English for the western student to understand:

  • being in the zone, a mental state of focused concentration on the performance of an activity; while dissociating oneself from distracting, irrelevant aspects of one’s environment.
  • a state of readiness to do again what you have already successfully done.
  • to focus intently on the moment (without emotion)… a state of sustained, committed concentration.

Other Arts also Require Zanshin

Zanshin is not the exclusive property of karate, or even the martial arts in general. It is a necessary characteristic of any credible soldier, police officer, security operative or martial artist. Also, outside of any fighting formats, the Japanese art of ikebana (flower arranging), chado (the tea ceremony) and Sumi-e (ink painting) requires zanshin: a state of being ever ‘present’.

In kyudo, the Japanese martial art of archery, it refers to the body posture after the loosing of an arrow. The posture reflects the mental aspect (zanshin) maintained before, during, and after an action.

In kendo, the concept describes the continued state of alertness, spirit, mind and body, and readiness to meet the situation maintained throughout the whole situation. Zanshin – maintained before, during, and after an action – is one of the essential elements that define a good attack.

In iaido, the practice is calm and quiet, and the most important feature of iaido is the development of zanshin (a calm, reflective mind) throughout.

Zanshin in Shotokan Karate

In Budo karate competition, shobu sanbon or shobu ippon, to score with a technique requires zanshin. Fighters must maintain the mental aspect before, during, and after the scoring technique and not just a show at the end for performance.

Our author Thomas D. McKinnon exactly knows what zanshin means. He was soldier in the British Army and operated a high-level security company.
Our author Thomas D. McKinnon

Without zanshin, kata would appear only as a number of techniques performed in a dramatic arrangement (as seems to be the case for most sport karate performers). Enoeda Keinosuke Sensei (whom I had the good fortune to have as my chief instructor in my formative karate years), for instance, performed kata like the midst of battle.

Certainly, as well as kime, one of the aspects that a Shotokan karateka should be displaying, at the very latest, in preparation for shodan (that first blackbelt grading) is a solid understanding of zanshin.

Being Aware: The Foundation of Fighting Spirit

The famous samurai, Miyamoto Musashi, reputedly said:

“Both in fighting and in everyday life, you should be determined though calm. Even when your spirit is calm do not let your body relax, and when your body is relaxed do not let your spirit slacken… Zanshin.

Toshiro Mifune as Miyamoto Musashi depicts zanshin at its best.

From a personal perspective: Formerly, as the CEO of a high-end, close personal protection company, I was responsible for selecting the personal protection operatives. All trained martial arts, some were former soldiers, and some were former police officers. Most would say that we obviously engaged them for their martial skills. However, their combat ability, certainly a desirable factor, wasn’t the primary dynamic in their engagement. Each successful CPPO applicant possessed that subjective but essential, qualitative characteristic: zanshin.

Zanshin in Everyday-Life

Zanshin means always being ready to do what is needed when it is needed. Having it in your life has many merits but one of the chief benefits would be the tendency to avoid pitfalls. Think about it: is it not better to avoid disasters than, after the fact, figuring out how to survive them?

Having a sense of when something is not quite right may not be a measurable element.

However, with zanshin in your daily experience, you will fortuitously take the only route through a disaster zone that delivers you, hale and hearty, to the other side. That is part of what it can deliver for you: a more fruitful life experience.

Zanshin is a characteristic that will help and assist anyone who takes on the way of life that we call ‘Karate-do’. Regardless of what other choices you make in your life i.e. career, family, living environment et cetera, zanshin enriches all.