Yamaoka Tesshu lived from 1836 until 1888 and was one of the most influential martial arts masters to help shape the future of Japan, as well as, prepare the martial arts for inclusion into modern society. Like many martial arts masters Tesshu wrote Doka, way poems, which comprised his philosophy about life and the martial arts. He was extremely talented, being a Zen artist, a statesman, a writer of poems, and practitioner of the martial arts.
He trained in Shinkage Ryu and Ono Ha Itto Ryu before establishing his own system of swordsmanship which was known as Muto Ryu. Muto means ‘no sword’ for the greatest expression of the true martial arts is when the weapon and all forms of violence can be transcended, and if not transcended, then used as the means to establish peace.
Tesshu wrote, “If your mind is not projected into your hands, even ten thousand techniques will be useless.’ This coincides with another great Samurai maxim which goes, “If your mind is correct, then your technique will be correct.” Many people have a hard time understand what is meant by mind, especially in regard to the great principle called Mushin, no mind.
First it might be best to truly understand the meaning of Mushin before seeking to understand what ‘mind’ is projected which makes techniques right. Mushin does not mean no mind in the sense of lack of awareness and involvement, but rather the lack of extraneous thoughts which could interfere with proper movement and reaction.
In example, if a person is driving a car, and they notice another car pulling up to an intersection where it is suppose to stop, if the person is operating on true perception, in Mushin, then if the car runs the stop sign, they will be able to react and stop their car before an accident. However, if a person’s mind goes through a series of extraneous thoughts, such as; first perception of seeing the car, then noting ‘that is a red car’, ‘that is a sports car’, ‘that is a beautiful person driving the car’, ‘I wonder who it is’. Then if the car runs the stop sign, the driver’s mind must first empty itself of the extraneous and unnecessary thoughts before action can be taken, by that time the wreck has already happened.
In self defense the application of Mushin is obvious. If a person sees a potential attacker, and using Mushin stays in the level of pure perception, then if the aggressor moves to attack, they can deal with it automatically. But if the person sees the potential attacker and then begins a change of thoughts, such as; ‘that’s a punk’, ‘look at that hair cut’, ‘the person ought to get a job and get off the street’, ‘what kind of parents would raise a person like that’, etc. Then when the assailant attacks, the mind will have to go back into perception, and in the time it takes to do that, the attacker has already won the fight.
Thus Mushin deals with what is unnecessary ‘in’ the mind. It deals with not allowing the mind to become full of itself. It is a process that allows the mind to remain focused on what it is perceiving, without commentary. Mushin also allows concentration on necessary mental processes, so a student doing homework, or a businessperson working on the job, which does require thought, is able to stay truly focused on the task at hand, and not start thinking about food, fun, or other non-essential things, which could hinder the work being done.
What then is ‘mind’ as referred to by Tesshu and the Samurai maxim? In Japanese, it is known as Shin or Kokoro. Shin/Kokoro can be translated; mind, spirit, heart, will, feeling, intention, thought, or core. Usually mind or heart is used, and in reference to the true nature and intention of human spirit. It refers to the core of the human being. It is believed that if the core of the individual’s personality is not truly involved in an action taken by the human being, then that action is doomed to failure. But if the person’s Shin/Kokoro is projected into action, then success is ascertained and nothing is impossible.
Shin/Kokoro then is the core of the human being, that must be involved in any successful action taken by the individual. Essentially, it is believed by many, that our true self is this ‘mind’ and that the body is part of the illusion of life. Thus to develop mind is to develop the true self, that is immortal. A person who spends his/her life developing only technique and a physique, is developing only the ephemeral aspect of human life. The application of Shin/Kokoro is the conscious direction of Ki into physical action.
Ultimately, Tesshu felt that swordsmanship was mostly spiritual. This is an attitude which is echoed by all truly great martial artists about all the martial arts, as can be exemplified by Morihei Ueshiba, Gichin Funakoshi, and many others. All of the great systems of ancient martial arts always emphasized the spiritual nature of martial arts training. From the writings of systems such as; Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu, Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, Kashima Shinto Ryu, Kito Ryu, Muto Ryu, Maniwa Nen Ryu, and others, the spiritual emphasis of the martial arts can be verified.
Techniques, according to such great martial artists as Bokuden, are folly, when not practiced with proper Shin/Kokoro. To become obsessed with technique is to allow the mind to be lead astray, according to a Waka (poem) in the writing Bokuden Ikunsho. When a person is obsessed with technique, they are only concerned with the physical movement and the meaning of the movement in a practical application. While sometimes this leads to effective technique, generally it leads to theoretical, armchair warriors who cannot effectively apply their knowledge in actual combat.
When a person focuses their ‘mind’ into the techniques, the techniques themselves become secondary, as the training itself becomes a spiritual discipline of movement. When Shin/Kokoro is projected, so too is the vital internal energy called Ki. Ki is the spirit or energy and refers to the underlying divine force of creation. Through Ho, the law or principle of the universe, the Ki is manifested into form, and only man has the ‘mind’ to personally direct his own personal spiritual energy. The ancient martial artists realized this and hence directed their martial arts training into this spiritual realm. The way to look at it is simply this, the presence of Shin/Kokoro is the spirit flowing through the mind into physical action.
Muto Ryu is one of the derivatives of Itto Ryu, the great system of Ito Ittosai Kageshima. Ito taught that all techniques essentially can be educed from one technique. It is said that he spend the majority of his time working on Kirioroshi, the cutting drop, which is basically just the movement of the sword from Jodan, the upper level, through Chudan, the middle level, and ending in Gedan, the lower level.
If one works assiduously, then it is possible to extrapolate all the different permutations of the applications of the weapon. Practicing the Kirioroshi becomes the Kihon upon which all the Kata, both singularly and with a partner, are based on. Through the practice of Kata, situations are explored, allowing the astute Kenjutsuka, sword art practitioner, to find the use of each of the potential movements understood in the way of the weapon.
Because this method of training is not based on memorized techniques, but practicing a free flowing method of technical skill, it is said that it develops invincible ability. This is supposedly true, in that Ito Ittosai Kageshima, was reported to have gone undefeated after realizing the principle and founding his own system. But if one is to believe the writings of the masters of the many systems which followed this concept of training, the true reason for invincibility in martial arts skill, is when the physical is transcended, the mind is emptied, and the spirit flows through the techniques.
This is Shin/Kokoro. This is mindfulness. When Shin/Kokoro, ‘mind’, is present, then the practice of technique becomes right. Beginning students work hand and worry about whether they are doing techniques the ‘right way’. But if the training is full of mind, then the techniques cannot help but be right. This is also true of application. People who train in the martial arts always wonder how they will know what to do if they are attacked. Many wonder if they will be able to ‘remember’ how to perform a technique. But the only way the martial arts actually work is when memory is forgotten and pure perception is allowed to function.
They only work when the power of the ‘mind’ is allowed to perceive and respond with true strength. This is the Shin, Kokoro, the heart of the warrior. This is the secret of effective martial arts.