Kensho: Phase Transformation, III. 3


“The Path of Seeing” – Kensho, Entering Phase 3



8th century Indian Buddhist monk Kamalashila, in his Stages of Meditation, says there is only one way to reach the path of seeing: through the “thorough analysis of the nature of the mind.” This point is not disputed in Zen.



Bodhidharma: First Kensho in China


5th century Indian Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, according to Zen legend, was the first Patriarch of Zen in China.  Chinese monk Hui K’e, was his disciple. Hui K’e pleaded with Bodhidharma to pacify his mind for him.


Bodhidharma said, “Bring me your mind and I will pacify it for you.”


Hui K’e said, “When I search for my mind, I cannot find it.”


Bodhidharma said, “I have pacified your mind for you.” At this Hui K’e was enlightened.


That dialogue represents three stages of practice which unfolded between student and teacher over the course of years. It depicts the sudden result of long preparation.  Because it is terse, naïve aspirants mistakenly think an exchange like this, with a perceptive teacher, can produce instant results. They mistakenly believe the teacher produces the result.


The phase transition boundary to the Path of Seeing is approached by an intense, persistent search for a “self.” If no self can be found in or among any of the parts that make you up, if the searcher is absolutely certain that it is not there to be found, then your “no-self nature” is realized. The first perception of “no self-nature” is called kensho.


This is the second phase transition boundary, from Flow or Mushin, to the realm of profound insight which according to Zen and Zen-budo understanding, begins at kensho and culminates at satori.


The problem with “seeing your nature” is that the metaphor is confusing. The point of seeing your nature is that you don’t have a nature, and the nature you are supposed to search for and “see” is not there. You are to determine, conclusively, that it is not. That is the liberative insight.


Joshu’s teacher said “Mu!” in answer to whether or not a dog has a Buddha nature. That was not to shock Joshu. It was not to refute the value of language. It was not to be mysterious, esoteric, inscrutable or heavy. It was not to halt the Zen boogeyperson of “linear discursive thought.” Joshu’s teacher was giving the right answer to the question. Concise, but correct. As Joshu read and studied the prajna paramita sutras and their presentation of sunyata or emptiness, he would have encountered the negation of self-nature endlessly repeated, from many perspectives. The Heart Sutra, as quoted in the last article in this series, uses “Mu” again and again to make the point that things have “no-self.” Mu is the dog’s Buddha nature. The fact that no thing has a fixed nature, but rather is a dependently originated, designated nexus, which is changing, and is limitless in its range of engagement with its causes, conditions, parts and the perceptions and karma of each of its observers, is the nature a Buddha has. That is what Buddha nature is. That does not mean a dog is a Buddha. It does not mean that a dog is not a dog. It does not mean that a dog will not really bark, bite or be happy to see you.


It means a dog exists with the same fundamental metaphysical relationship to the cosmos that a Buddha does: no intrinsic unchanging self. In light of this, over infinite lives, over infinite eons, this dog will not only have a Buddha nature, it will in some future form of the continuum of his mindstream, see his own Buddha nature.


Or he may be a Buddha now, who you see as a dog. (See the story of Arya Asanga and his encounter with a dying dog, who he discovers is the future Buddha Maitreya.) Buddha nature means we do not have a fixed nature. There is no intrinsic self-existence in things or people. Joshu’s teacher was saying Mu! remember Mu! You have heard it a thousand times but have missed the point.


Now, Joshu, his teacher was saying, investigate what part of Mu you do not understand.


Where to look? The Heart Sutra lists the parts of a person – the list of things negated in the Heart Sutra includes several lists of these components. A doctrinally trained, practiced meditator can recite the Heart Sutra and use the list to consider each component of their body and mind in turn and could search for a “self” in each of them and not find it, or you might say, recognize the no-self in them.


In the Zen tradition the word mind is used for the object of this search. In Zen, as distinct from other traditions which use reason for access to wisdom, the mind is not engaged in rational analysis and search. They will use other techniques. But the phase transition threshold – to the path of seeing, kensho – is said to be the same.


The word the translator uses in the Hui K’e exchange above, to describe his passing the phase transition boundary, is “enlightened.” This word is used with a range of definitions in Zen – often without distinguishing the entry point to the third phase, kensho, from the culmination of the third phase, satori, also called nirvana or Buddhahood. This is a source (and sometimes a result) of confusion.


If the words in this dialogue – “Pacify my mind for me…” etc. – were exchanged between unprepared people, they would be meaningless. For Hui K’e, searching desperately for his mind as instructed, finding nothing on which to pin the word “mind”, having exhausted every possibility, having looked everywhere, having reached the end of his rope, these words from his teacher meant everything.


Having searched for his mind believing it was a fixed thing, with a fixed set of characteristics, i.e. with a nature of its own, his mind became turbulent. Suddenly seeing it as empty – i.e. without a permanent, rigid form, without rigid boundaries, without a rigid nature, without an inner pilot-homunculus, without a little owner-operator in there anywhere, finding it empty of self-nature – in a breathtaking, transformative moment of deliverance, the intense pressure of concentration is suddenly released, long mental habits drop away, the scale of his perspective goes from personal to universal, and he suddenly finds vivid, all-encompassing peace.


The process in this story matches the others used in Zen and in Zen-budo.



Musashi’s Description


Musashi Miyamoto highlights the importance of “Mushin,” No-Mind – a flow state, in which an experienced practitioner of martial arts can respond spontaneously to the changing dynamics of a combative encounter, and turn them to advantage, without consciously thinking about them. In his instruction on sword mastery, in the concluding chapter titled “Emptiness”, Musashi describes passing through the phase transition boundary into kensho. He says:


“When the clouds of delusion clear away, there is true Emptiness.” He says: “Taking emptiness as the way, see the way as emptiness.”


The word he uses for “the way” is “Tao” – “Do” in Japanese, as in “Karate-Do”.


He is presenting content-free consciousness as ‘enlightenment’ or as ‘seeing emptiness.’ This is precisely the Zen view. It is sourced from Lao Tzu, with his emphasis on the inherent value and dynamic potential of vacuity, and is a Taoist understanding of the Buddhist concept of emptiness. The Japanese title Roshi, for an accomplished Zen master, is pronounced the same way in Japanese as Lao Tzu – the name of the legendary founding sage of Taoism.


The descriptions of the ideal condition of mind for sword masters mirror the insight moments of the Zen adepts. Musashi’s description of emptiness and of enlightenment has characteristics which are different from the Indo-Tibetan sources’ description of the terms “emptiness” and “enlightenment” which have precise definitions – anathema in the Zen tradition.


Without the definitions it is possible to overlook Musashi’s omission of the vast range of achievements required for complete liberation in all Mahayana Buddhism. Chief among them is a heart full of love and a messianic personal resolve to acquire the skills to work effectively for the happiness and salvation of all living beings. That omission is how you know that Musashi was talking about a combination of Taoist and Zen emptiness – spatial and temporal vacuity and contentless consciousness, in action.


He is describing an extremely high level of achievement. He defeated 60 opponents in face to face single combat with three-foot steel blades, often lethal, and was the undisputed master of his art. His description of his insight, his profound mental and technical mastery of swordsmanship cuts through the standard technical presentation like a hot knife through tofu. It is great.


He is not talking about total liberation from suffering forever. He did not devote his life to that.


An analogy: If you are a surgical resident you will need hands on experience to really know what you are doing. No one questions that. You cannot just hear about it, read the books or watch your teachers work. But you do need to read the books, know the principles and techniques, and observe experts in action before you begin. It is obvious that you cannot do top quality surgery as a result of nothing more than sitting quietly and getting intuitive insights from your pre-existing inner surgeon about how to do it, and then whip out your scalpel and, using beginner’s mind, deftly “just do it.”


Reaching the peak of human potential is not less challenging or technically demanding then surgery. The consequences of pretending to know what you are doing without actually being trained are disastrous. Generations of monks who turned to the “immediate experience” of Zen turned to it after years of theoretical training and experience in practical skills, in the presence of experts. They were well-prepared for their direct experience.



The Breakthrough to Kensho in Zen and Budo Require Total Effort


A Zen student called Hsiang-yen met with his teacher Kuei-shan Ling-yu (771-853), who gave him a koan to work on. He worked on it for a long time but he was unable to understand. He had enough.  It was too much for him. He quit. He left the monastery.


He wandered away and walked until he found himself at a sacred site. It was the shrine which marked the grave of the Sixth Patriarch of Chinese Zen, Hui-neng. He stayed there. He became a groundskeeper, sweeping away the fallen leaves that accumulated on the paths of the temple.


Day in and day out Hsiang-yen swept. He thought about nothing but sweeping. One day while he was sweeping his broom launched a pebble into a bamboo grove next to the shrine. The pebble smacked into a piece of hollow bamboo and went “Clunk!”.


The “clunk!” shocked him. His mind went blank. He said,


“One clunk! I have forgotten everything!”


He wrote:


Last year’s emptiness was not true emptiness,

this year even the wind can get through.”


Hsiang-yen, according to the Zen tradition, was “enlightened.”


This is the way Japanese Rinzai Zen and Zen-budo understand the relationship of long, dedicated practice to sudden transformation – the second phase transition boundary crossing. The content of the practice is not standard. For Zen and Zen budo the cessation of mental content itself is liberative. It is considered liberative because the cessation of perceptible cognitive activity is taken to be the immediate experience of “emptiness.”


This is transferred from seated meditation practice in the zendo to budo practice in the dojo and on the battlefield:



Takuan’s Description


In a letter written by 16th century Japanese Zen master Takuan Soho to his disciple, sword master Munenori Yagyu, called “The Mysterious Record of Immoveable Wisdom” there is a section called “The Affliction of Abiding in Ignorance.”  The title refers to the central matter in all these Zen and Zen-budo examples – removing the mental afflictions which disturb our mind, distort our view, and trap us in an unenlightened state.


In his advice Takuan applies the Zen understanding of liberation to sword fighting. He says:


“In the practice of Buddhism, there are said to be fifty-two stages, and within these fifty-two, the place where the mind stops at one thing is called the abiding place. Abiding signifies stopping, and stopping the mind is being detained in some matter, which may be any matter at all.


To speak in terms of your own martial art, when you first notice that the sword is moving to strike you, if you think of meeting that sword just as it is, your mind will stop at the sword in just that position, your own movements will be undone, and you will be cut down by your opponent. This is what stopping means.


– translated by Thomas Cleary


The “52 stages” is a reference to the Gandavyuha Chapter of the Kegon Kyo. It is a description of the vast path to enlightenment along which the seeker proceeds without stopping, to reach the ultimate goal.  The title of this chapter in English is “Entry into the Realm of Reality.” The “realm of reality” is a name for nirvana. Todaiji temple, the old center of Kegon Buddhism, has a strong tantric element, including the veneration of the “Nio” fierce deities – the same pantheon which is central to ritual life at the Shaolin Temple in Henan, China. Shaolin was the legendary site of Bodhidharma’s Buddhist mission to China, and in fact was a fortified citadel for centuries. Its military reputation was formidable, and its military contribution to the Yuan empire led emperor Kublai Khan to designate it the head temple for all of Buddhism in China.



With this introductory line Takuan makes a connection to the Buddhist warrior tradition, indicating to his military client that his Buddhist teaching is lofty and complete and has a formidable martial legacy.


Then he moves to technique: Takuan knows that danger in battle comes when changing conditions outpace your ability to adapt and respond to them. In fact, there is no way you can simply respond to your enemy’s actions and prevail. Martial artists and warriors need to take the initiative and get ahead of their opponent’s action cycle, in order to win. Anyone with experience knows you cannot do that if your mind is “abiding” i.e. getting stuck, anywhere, in the fleeting permutations of combat, which change by the time you respond.


To “stop” even for an instant is to be destroyed. How can you get out ahead of your opponent’s action cycle?


That is the question Takuan is answering. He is using Zen analysis of mind and phenomena to prescribe the remedy for this perennial tactical problem.


Takuan’s emphasis is on the paramount importance of an “empty” mind. Takuan said:


“No-mind is the same as right mind. It neither hardens nor remains static. It is called no-mind when the mind has neither discrimination nor a single thought, but moves unimpeded through the whole body and extends through the entire self… The no-mind is placed nowhere. Yet it is not like wood or stone… When this no-mind has been well-developed the mind does not come to rest on one thing nor does it miss anything….”


Compare this “no-mind” with the high flow states of Musashi, which push against the boundary crossed by the kensho insights of Joshu, Hsiang-yen and his friend the pebble, Sakiyama’s double tap kensho, and the others.


This insight, this open condition of mind, unattached to fixed forms, plans and properties, this liberation from “abiding” or getting stuck, is what Takuan is describing and recommending to his warrior disciple and patron.


From a practical combatives standpoint, this is an accurate diagnosis and prescription. However, Takuan makes the claim that this is not only effective for maximum performance, but that it is an ‘enlightened’ state of mind – the consummate human achievement, as a result of which the practitioner is completely ‘liberated.’


Can this be?


We have seen people push against this boundary.  We have seen that a sudden shock, applied at the perfect moment, to the consummately prepared practitioner, catalyzes the change. Like an avalanche – a vast stable shelf of snow that moves when one last snowflake falls.


Is this possible from martial arts? That is the claim. That is certainly different from “just doing it” or being an innocent beginner with no concepts. If it is possible at all it will require total preparation for the decisive moment. But what constitutes proper preparation?


The story below first appeared in Chinese Zen tradition about 1000 CE.



A Monk Burns His Books


A monk, a scholar of the Diamond Cutter Sutra. The Vajracchedika Prajna Paramita Sutra, was walking down a hot dusty road. He had been walking for days. He was carrying a huge box on his back. It was filled with his books, scrolls, sutras and commentaries. All the contents of his library that he could carry, for study and reference, to refresh his knowledge of the truth.


Now he was hot and tired. His back was bent under his load.


He was traveling to the capital. There he would join in a great debate. The emperor would be there. There the masters of the sutras would meet. He would challenge them. They would challenge him.  Testing the depth of his knowledge, its range, his certainty under pressure. If he could prevail, he would be elevated into the ranks of the greatest scholars of the age. He had prepared his entire life for this. He knew what he would need to do.


But now, on the road, he was hot and sore. And very tired.


Soon, to his delight, he saw a little tea shop tucked into a bend in the road. He entered the shady courtyard and set his burden down next to a small, square table. A little granny came out to greet him with a smile and cool drink. She saw he wore the shoes and clothes of a scholar.


He took the cup of water with two hands and drank it down. Then he ordered a cup of tea. “I need to refresh my mind,” he told her.


She smiled and nodded and began to go to get the tea, when she stopped abruptly and turned toward him.


Sir, I see you are a scholar?

Yes, I am he said.

What do you study?

The Diamond Sutra – the Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra, he said.

Ah, I see, said the old woman… Before I get your tea, can I ask you a question?

Of course, grandmother.

The Diamond Sutra says that the mind of the past is gone and ungraspable.

Yes, that’s right, said the scholar.

And the Diamond Sutra says that the mind of the future does not yet exist, so it is also ungraspable.

Yes, that’s right, he said.

And the sutra says that the present mind cannot be grasped, is that right?

Yes, you really know the sutra well, he smiled kindly toward the simple, old woman.


She was motionless as she asked: Then sir, which mind is it that you would like to refresh?


With this he was completely stunned. He was speechless. He could not answer her.


In his shock the world stood still and opened wide as he searched the universe for an answer. Then a dew of relief. Then the whole world became quite clear to him. And a freedom he had never experienced before permeated his heart and shattered the prison of his mind, as the world became brilliant, pervaded with clear light, completely.


The plain, serene face of the tea lady disappeared, as she went off to get his tea.


They say that after this he burnt his books. He drank his tea, gave up his life of scholarship and pursued the path of Zen.


The story is Zen apologetics. Agree with the premise or not, this story and its message are at odds with its current interpretations and the practice of many contemporary exponents of Zen. It does not reject the utility of knowledge and study. It views them as a formative stage, a stage of preparation to pass through, to master, and go beyond. In this story the Diamond Sutra master passes the phase transformation boundary to the third phase. As the story hints, this is the beginning of his advanced training. Not the end.


It is a reiteration of the three-stage path from novice practitioner to mastery to liberation.


The path of the Zen master in east Asian lore maps to the path of the master of Japanese Zen-budo.



Yagyu Munenori’s Three Phase System


The way I narrated the Diamond Sutra master’s exchange and kensho were my interpretation of his experience. I did not know him. I do not know his mind. I have some familiarity with the lore, literature and practice in these traditions.


His liberation is presented as a kensho. With this understanding of liberation in Zen we can take a look at the claims of Zen-budo as a path leading to liberation, in this tradition.


As I mentioned, a classic presentation of Japanese Zen-budo in the 17th century is Zen monk Takuan Soho’s Zen instruction to sword master Yagyu Munenori. Munenori was the teacher of the Tokugawa shogun Iyemitsu, the military ruler of Japan.

Above I referenced Takuan’s Zen-budo advice to Yagyu. Here is what Yagyu did with it:


Yagyu’s theory of the path to the mastery of swordsmanship, written as a private document for his family and students, is divided into three parts, which map onto the three-part typology I am showing in this series of articles.


As expressed in his section titles, the three stages are:


  1. “The Killing Sword” which deals with the use of force;
  2. “The Life-Giving Sword” which focuses on preventing conflict.
  3. Yagyu’s final chapter is called “No Sword” reflecting the approach of his Zen teacher Takuan Soho and his near-contemporary Musashi Miyamoto,


The final chapter “No Sword” expresses the idea of action without volition, beyond calculation or perceptions which would halt the mind or harness the actions of the swordsman. At this third stage the swordsman is not separate from the gestalt in any way – the action, attack, defense, opponent and the sword itself are all functioning as a single undivided event. He is an active manifestation of no-self nature, in this view.


This echoes the view of the Mind Only tenet school of Buddhism, associated with Bodhidharma’s introduction of the Lankavatara Sutra to China. This school emphasizes the unity of subject, object and action – warrior, opponent and technique, for example – arising from a single karma, existing as a unity, each component entailing the others.


These three stages are presented by Yagyu as ascending stages of mastery. They represent high attainments. They are considered within the tradition to indicate the path to total mastery. As expressed, they map the path to the high flow state of mastery and possibly to kensho. They do not lead to liberation. They remain within the boundaries of this world. The warrior will carry his karma with him beyond the boundary of death.



John Boyd’s “Independent Action”


USAF Col. John Boyd was the most accomplished fighter pilot, fighter aircraft designer, and most influential military theorist of the modern era. His insights on the nature of time, space and mind in combat match Takuan’s and Yagyu’s.


Boyd’s theoretical work has directly influenced the warfighting doctrines of militaries around the world. It informs the primary combat doctrine of the US Marines.


He was faced with the same tactical problems in the arena of fighter aviation as the samurai faced in sword fighting. He solved them in the same way, although he expressed them differently.


On of Boyd’s insights is known by the acronym “OODA,” which describes the sequence of a combatant’s perception, thought and behavior in the battlespace. Boyd noticed that under pressure combatants – pilots, fighters, competitors in any space – will enter into continuous cycles of engagement in which they Observe, Orient, Decide and Act, again and again.


The sequence is fast. At high levels of performance, it occurs faster than will or cognition. This is only achievable by intensive preparation through training.


“Harry Hillaker, chief designer of the F-16, said of Boyd’s OODA theory:


“Time is the dominant parameter. The pilot who goes through the OODA cycle in the shortest time prevails because his opponent is caught responding to situations that have already changed….”


… The key to survival and autonomy is the ability to adapt to change, not perfect adaptation to existing circumstances. Indeed, Boyd noted that radical uncertainty is a necessary precondition of physical and mental vitality: all new opportunities and ideas spring from some mismatch between reality and ideas about it …”


This description applies to sword fight or kumite.


Boyd, in two written works: “Patterns of Conflict” and “Destruction and Creation,” uses the term “independent action” to describe the pilots optimal mind state. He seems to use this to mean what Takuan meant by “unfettered mind” and “immovable mind.”  It resembles the high meditative achievement known by the technical term “pliancy” (prasrabhi in Sanskrit) – a kind of unobstructed freedom of movement in mind and body. Sogyal Rinpoche used the phrase “riding your mind” like riding a horse you have tamed and trained well, to describe pliancy.


Since the problems of combatives presented in medieval Japan and modern high-tech warfare are in many ways identical, it is no surprise that the solutions are as well. In both cases these are solutions that reflect deep insight into practical applications of deeper metaphysical truths – not religious insights per se. The deeper metaphysical truths – deeper than what we ordinarily notice – is that things change rapidly and continually, that individuals cannot act unilaterally but only within a constellation of causes and effects which are continually transforming and making fresh demands, that the mind gets stuck as the world moves on, and that events naturally outpace perception. Takuan noticed and Boyd noticed, and we can notice it too.


(For more on this unexpected correspondence see my article From Buddha to OODA.)


These insights and experiences all fall within the realm of Flow or Mushin. They are consistent with the insights produced through the Japanese Zen-budo experience, framed in the Rinzai Zen worldview. These are at the high end of the experience of Flow but the experiences Boyd, Takuan, and Munenori are describing remain contingent conditions of mind and body. They are temporary. They do not offer permanent liberation from suffering or confusion, certainly not for all beings. They do not address this matter.


Where do you find that higher level of experience? Where is the gateway to the realm beyond Mushin or Flow, beyond Kensho to Satori?  Brilliant martial artists claim you can pass through this gateway through the practice of martial arts. Modern martial artists – in books, on websites, in their videos – talk about self-realization, true nature, true reality and so on. What are they talking about? Do they know? Are they holding this ideal out before their students as an incentive to practice, in just the way they use it themselves? Can this promise be fulfilled through the practice of martial arts?


As I probed the depth of the Japanese Zen-budo material for answers I investigated how I could follow its recommended path to liberation. I did not let the kettle cool. I have practiced for hours daily, every day, all my life. As I proceeded I found deep training, good insights, good friends, deepening mastery of technique, and at the same time encountered limits to liberation through martial arts practice which do not appear in the lore and literature, ancient or modern, of martial arts.


Science works extremely well within its realm of applicability. Society appreciates this and devotes resources, talent and attention to it. Science can tell us lots about mechanisms and nothing about meaning. Scientists must exclude the essence of human experience to work in their field, but as they focus on problems they can solve, many become convinced they can apply scientism to everything.


Zen-budo borrowed some ideas and techniques from Buddhism, selecting ones that enabled the development of precise and powerful mental focus and high states of flow. These found a realm of applicability in the cultures of east Asia, including martial cultures, as they have in the modern world. This selective appropriation of some tools excluded many others, some of which are more potent, more valuable and more difficult to use than the one’s which were adopted by martial artists.


I mentioned that Indian scholar Kamalashila in his Stages of Meditation said the one way to reach the path of seeing is through the “thorough analysis of the nature of the mind.” Difficult, arduous, essential, rarely done. He says it is necessary to reach kensho. Nowhere does he say that it is sufficient for liberation, nirvana or satori.


In the thermodynamic model, the ice melted, the water flowed, it became turbulent, began to boil, and now at kensho the steam is breaking free.


In the next section I will present the implications of this for practice.





Post Copyright © 2020 by Jeffrey M. Brooks, author of The Good Fight – The Virtues and Value of the Martial Arts

Jeff Brooks is a 40-year practitioner of karate; for 20 years he was a writer for high profile public figures in business, government, media and the arts; after that he turned to crime, working as a police detective, federal investigator, and law enforcement instructor in multiple disciplines. He is the author of several books and hundreds of published articles on martial arts. 


Featured Image Photo by Evgeny Tchebotarev, from Pexels

Todaiji Nio figure image CC-BY-SA 4.0 photo by Gilles Desjardins

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