A Controversy

There is more than one controversial idea in True Karate Dō.

I do not seek to be controversial. But there are some unexamined assumptions which have misled people, and which should be challenged.  

In True Karate Dō I make the case that Mushin, “no mind”, is a state of flow.  Mushin was elaborately described by samurai era Zen priest and military advisor Takuan Soho; the idea has been central to the doctrine and technique of Japanese Zen-influenced budo through the centuries. We are the inheritors of that tradition, to some degree. 

Mushin as Flow

Mushin is regarded by many in the tradition as an enlightened state – a breakthrough to a condition of profound, direct, liberative insight into reality – even, as implicit in Musashi and elsewhere – a state of enlightenment.  A state of flow, in contrast, is not. Flow is a temporary condition, what athletes refer to as being “in the zone”, or as musicians said, “in the groove.” When the period of exertion is over they exit the state of flow.

As I describe in detail in True Karate Dō, a flow state provides a sense of freedom in action, a sense of effortless high performance.  

Flow is not Enlightenment

The flow state was named and described by research psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi beginning in the 1970’s. It has been well researched. It is accessed by high performers in every field – sports, music, martial arts and many others. It is not enlightenment. It is not a permanent liberation from suffering. It is a temporary state, with limited scope. It is exhilarating, and it is essential for high performance.

In True Karate Dō I analyze this state, and show how to cultivate it. I examine the Zen influenced approach to martial arts combatives in it’s own terms, and in light of other Buddhist traditions. I use case studies of the superhuman performance of the greatest warriors, ancient and modern. And I cite their own reflections on what they did, how they did it, and what it meant.  I won’t recap the argument here.  

The Mystique was Appealing

What I do not say in the book that this viewpoint is controversial. I just make the case in order to give all practitioners an authentic and comprehensible way to access and use this state, and to see through the mystique of ultimacy that has grown up around it.  

I began to write and publish my research on mushin as flow in 2019. Since then, I have been quoted many times. People read what I published on this, (a series of articles which are the foundation of a section of True Karate Dō), and assumed that what I was saying was something everybody knows, a truism, a long-established fact.  

Examine the Path you are on

They reposted my words and my citations verbatim, repeated my conclusion, and left it at that, not realizing that this was, to some, a very troubling view.  

People who may disagree with me are invited to examine my facts and inferences and decide if there is merit in them. I look forward to the dialog. But the examination of facts and arguments is not possible merely on the basis of the truncated representations that repeat my conclusion without support. That off-hand approach understates the utility of mushin and the difficulty of its mastery.

It is gratifying that people found my argument persuasive. But this subject needs to be handled with care.

Penetrating the claims of the liberative potential of martial arts has been a central matter throughout my career. The claim, and the aspiration to it’s fulfillment, drives the practice of many sincere people. We should do our best to be certain that our objectives are clear, and that the methods we use to achieve them are working.

What I have said about the limitations of Zen budo does not diminish the great achievements that can come from Zen budo, and the tradition’s unique emphasis on the cultivation of a deep and stable flow state.  

Follow the Path Wholeheartedly

In True Karate Dō I make the case that mushin cannot be the ultimate fulfillment of human potential. It can only form a foundation – necessary but not sufficient – for deeper practice. That deeper practice requires a commitment to moral and ethical conduct, and the use of precise mind/body training techniques. 


Post by Jeff Brooks, Copyright © 2023, Jeffrey Brooks, author of True Karate Dō, instructor, Yamabayashi Ryu, Mountain Karate, Saluda, NC 

山林流 – Yamabayashi Ryu (Mountain Forest Stream) photo by Pine Watt

Book publicity photo by Pinnacle Mountain Press

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