What would Takuan Soho tell Mark Cavendish?

A letter by Takuan Soho(1573-1645) to Mark Cavendish, pro tour cyclist, winner 15 Tour de France stages

Although you see the rider that moves to pass you, if your mind is not detained by him and you meet the rhythm of the advancing bike; if you do not think of blocking your opponent and no thoughts or judgements remain; if the instant you see the moving bike your mind is not the least bit detained and you move straight in and wrench the lead from him; the line that he was going to use will become your own, and, contrarily, will be the line that defeats your opponent.

Adapted from the letter by Takuan SohoThe Mysterious Record of Immovable Wisdom” to Yagyu Munenori, head of the Yagyu Shinkage school of swordsmanship.

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No-Form, No thought, No Mind

When we study a new art form we are given forms of movement and told to repeat them endlessly. Our teachers are vigilant and correct our form when we stray but a hair’s breadth.

In Search of Simplicity

As we advance we are given ever more complicated forms to practice, yet we see our teachers break their own rules, seeming to do exactly what we are berated for.

I see shades of Form and No-Form argument in the following passage from Takuan Soho.

The mind that becomes fixed and stops in one place does not function freely. Similarly, the wheels of a cart go around because they are not held rigidly in place. If they were to stick tight, they would not go around. The mind is also something that does not function if it becomes attached to a single situation. – Takuan Soho

One must know the correct form intimately, from the subtle angle of a finger to the large movements of the torso, before we can perceive where to lesson our grip on that form.

You cannot throw the pieces of a cart in a pile and expect to use it as a cart. It must follow the form…but not too rigidly or it becomes a model of a cart—not the real thing itself.

It is the same when we practice any art form, we copy the masters endlessly, searching for those subtitles that belay their importance, hidden many times by large flourishing strokes of the brush or pen.

In the martial arts the form alone is not effective in actual combat.

When one has reached maturity in the art, one will have a formless form. It is like ice dissolving in water. When one has no form, one can be all forms; when one has no style, he can fit in with any style. – Bruce Lee

In a passage from his novel “Musashi“, Eiji Yoshikawa wrote:

Yoshino told Musashi he was rigid and would lose any battle in that state. She cut open her lute to show him how it could produce such varying sounds with only four strings.

It had a central wooden piece that was held in place but not firmly.

“If the cross piece were as taut and unbending as you are, one stroke of the pick would break a string, perhaps even the sounding  board itself.”


Takuan Soho’s writing is infused with wit and multiple levels of meaning. In the following passage he discusses the ‘Mind of No-Mind’ motif.

The mind that thinks about removing what is within it will by the very act be occupied. If one will not think about it, the mind will remove these thoughts by itself and of itself become No-Mind.

If one always approaches the mind in this way, at a later date it will suddenly come to this condition by itself. If one tries to achieve this suddenly, it will never get there.

An old poem says:

To think, “I will not think”—
This, too, is something in one’s thoughts.
Simply do not think
About not thinking at all.

You have got to love that!

“N” is for No-Form, No-Thought, No-Mind

What is Immovable Wisdom?

As with many terms used in Zen and the martial arts, Immovable wisdom is often misinterpreted to have a mind that does not move, when it is almost the exact opposite; it does not stop, or is not stopped. This state is sometimes described in Japanese as Fudoshin, Immovable Mind, and many physical tests for it have been developed for Aikido (and other disciplines) examinations.

Fudoshin - Wallpapers on the web

Early in their study students will misinterpret this “test” and will become hard like wood or stone…and fail. Instead they must learn not to allow their mind to be moved, or caught, by the examiner. The mind must become like still water; not “caught” by the hook as it passes through.

…the mind that does not stop at all is called Immovable Wisdom. – Takuan Soho

Takuan Soho, in a letter to the Samurai Yagyū Munenori, wrote of  “Immovable Wisdom” and how a person near enlightenment was capable of controlling a thousand arms, their mind not stopping at any particular one. He goes on to say that …one who understands this is no different from the Kannon with a thousand arms and a thousand eyes.

…the ordinary man simply believes that it is blessed because of its 1000 arms. The man of half-baked wisdom, wondering how anybody could have 1000 eyes, calls it a lie and gives in to slander. But if one understands a little better, they will have a respectful belief based on principle and will not need the simple faith of the ordinary man, or the slander of the other, and they will understand that Buddhism, with this one thing manifests its principle well.

he goes on…

All religions are like this… The ordinary man thinks only on the surface, the man who attacks… is even worse. This religion, that religion, there are various kinds but at their deepest points they are settled in the one conclusion.

“I” is for Immovable Wisdom

What is the Beginner’s Mind?

The beginner is blissfully unaware of the pitfalls of this form or that; and so their mind does not stop and they move in a natural way. Unfortunately this beginner’s mind slips from our grasp no matter how much we try to hold on to it and may take years of diligent practice achieve, and for many it is never achieved again.

This could be why many people flitter from one thing to another; at first enthralled by their own extraordinary ability and then blaming one teacher after another for its loss.

When one practices discipline and moves from the beginner’s territory to immovable wisdom, one makes a return and falls back to the level of the beginner. -Takuan Soho

When you study an art, be it martial or otherwise, you are taught diverse ways to move and act; how to hold the sword, racket, bat, or paint brush, and where to put your mind and therefore it stops in many places. Then when you move you are extraordinarily discomforted. After many months and years of training and practice one’s posture or the clinical manner of holding this or that do not weigh heavily on your mind and the mind no longer stops and becomes as it was at the beginning; when you knew nothing and had yet to be taught.

The beginning therefore is the same as the end and is also known as the state of No-Thought-No-Mind. More on that on another day.

Again, we can speak with reference to your own martial art. As the beginner knows nothing about either his body posture or the positioning of his sword, neither does his mind stop anywhere within him. If a man strikes at him with the sword, he simply meets the attack without anything in mind. -Takuan Soho

The mind does not stop he simply meets the attack without anything in mind

“B” is for the Beginner’s Mind

A is for “A Fettered Mind”

Hiroshima Dome:

We’re all fettered by something, not least of which is our biological “gilded cage”.

Anyone who has had more than a passing interest in either the martial arts or zen would recognise that “A Fettered Mind” stems from Takuan Soho’s book The Unfettered Mind – Writings of the Zen Master to the Sword Master. But things for me are always more organic than just lifting a title from someone else’s imagination.

It was somewhere in the 2000’s that my writing focused switched from technical articles, mostly related to Spatial Science (my day job) and the martial arts experience particularly Aikido and Ki, towards more creative writing. My grandfather was an officer in the Second Australian Infantry Forces and served in a non-combat role in Europe,ack home in Australia, and later in East Asia. My mother was born after he enlisted but by the time the war had ended five years later he had not been home to see her. Rather than return home to his family though he chose to volunteer for the British Commonwealth Occupational Force (BCOF) in Japan. Most of this I discovered shortly after his death.

Why would a man I knew to be good and kind abandon his family?

It was a question I had failed to answer through research so I decided that I would literally solve it myself. At first this project wa entitled “Tex” the name he was known by, having been born in the small town of Texas, Queensland, Australia. Late one evening while researching the novel Takuan’s “The Unfetered Mind” fell onto my writing desk from the bookshelf.

“Now that is one saying I can’t use to describe you Tex,” I said into the darkness.

I browsed straight to my project and entitled it “A Fettered Mind”.

A is for “A Fettered Mind”

I have uploaded the short story Hanami, which is based on my grandfather Tex’s service with he peace keeping forces in Japan.

No-Mind: Do not think about not thinking at all

Thoughts have a power all of their own. Any thought we hold too tightly, or keep too close to our hearts, can have a detrimental effect on our lives.  A thought can become an obsession. For example, a thought that our partner is having an affair develops in our mind, and we filter all of their actions through it, searching for evidence however small. This small thought could develop into an obsession and jealousy and mistrust begins to taint every moment of our lives. Eventually we will see things that are not actually there and over time this will strangle the relationship like weeds in an untended garden.

We should strive to regularly empty our minds lest a thought achieves a foothold that cannot be overcome. Takuan Soho (1573-1645), a Japanese Zen Master and Philosopher from the 1600’s, provided similar advice to his contemporaries whether they were the Shogun, Master Swordsmen, fellow monks or lay members of his community. In a translation of his writings The Unfettered Mind by William Scott Wilson, he said:

If your mind leans in the direction of these thoughts, though you listen, you will not hear; and though you look, you will not see. This is because there is something in your mind. What is there is thought. If you are able to remove this thing…your mind will become No-Mind, it will function when needed, and it will be appropriate to its use.

Unfortunately achieving this state of No-Mind is difficult if not practised regularly. We must make this state, even for a heartbeat, part of our daily lives. But again Takuan warns that this too is a thought: “…the mind that thinks about removing what is in it will, by the very act, be occupied.” He wrote a short poem to help us, and four hundred years later it rings as true as the day he wrote it:

To think, “I will not think.”-

This, too, is something in one’s thoughts.

Simply do not think

about not thinking at all.

Kaligrafia_08

Kaligrafia

Takuan Soho (1573-1645) was a prelate of the Rinsai Sect of Zen, well remembered for his strength of character and acerbic wit; and he was also a gardener, poet, tea master, prolific author and a pivital figure in Zen painting and calligraphy (William Scott Wilson – The Unfettered Mind, 1986).