Zen Teaching of How to be Mindful — “Non-Abiding Mind”

The best and only way to maintain awareness in the present.

Photo by Krys Amon on Unsplash

Takuan Sōhō — The sword master of the sword masters

Takuan Sōhō (1573–1645) was a Zen master who taught sword masters how to do swordplay from a Zen perspective. He recently became more famous as a teacher of a well-known Samurai, Miyamoto Musashi (1584–1645), in the popular manga “Vagabond” by Inoue Takehiko, a cartoonist who published the mega-hit manga Slum Dunk. However, according to historians, it is doubtful if Takuan actually met Musashi. On the other hand, Takuan’s close connection to Yagyū Munenori (1571–1646), who was a sword teacher of the third Shogun of the Tokugawa era, Iemitsu, is generally recognized as a historical fact.

A book attributed to Takuan, Fudōchi Shinmyōroku (The Record of Miraculous Teaching of Immovable Wisdom) has been translated into English by several people. In writing, Takuan emphasizes the Zen idea of the “non-abiding mind” as the key to being a successful sword master. This idea is indeed one of the core teachings of Mahāyāna Buddhism, as described in many writings such as The Diamond Sutra, The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch Huineng, and others. However, Takuan, when asked by Munenori, talked about the non-abiding mind for practical use, and how to achieve the art of swordsmanship. According to him,

As soon as the mind ‘stops’ with an object of whatever nature — be it the opponent’s sword or your own, the man himself bent on striking or the sword in his hands, the mode or the measure of the move — you cease to be master of yourself and are sure to fall a victim of the enemy’s sword. When you set yourself against him, your mind will be carried away by him (Zen and Japanese Culture, p. 95)

Re-interpreting Takuan’s Buddhist idea from the modern psychological perspective

Rephrasing this passage using “popular” terminology from the modern world, it means “we lose mindful awareness in the present whenever we attach to any mental representation.” We shouldn’t focus on looking at the opponent’s hands, his sword (I was often taught by my kendō teacher that I need to instead focus on the opponent’s feet, but that doesn’t work as well for Takuan), the expectation to win, the fear of death, or even anything the mind can abide by, because it will cause the loss of awareness.

Even a very short time period of losing awareness would be crucial for a Samurai, deciding whether they live or die. In this modern world, unless we are a soldier and are fighting on the front line of a battlefield, we may not be able to feel what Takuan is trying to say here. Unlike animals that have natural enemies that can attack them from behind at any moment, the majority of human beings in the modern world have lost the sharp sensation to be immediately prepared in response to external challenges (and internal challenges like psychological conflicts) happening from moment to moment. Despite this fact, people enjoy “peaceful” lives and think that texting while walking won’t cause serious damage, so they keep doing this type of “ignorant” behavior.

Photo by Tore F on Unsplash

“Ignorant” in the Buddhist Context

I used the expression “ignorant” here because Takuan identifies the abiding mind, which is the moment of losing awareness, as an equal state of mind to being ignorant. By ignorant, Takuan meant the soteriological problem of Buddhism in general, as it is the fundamental cause of duḥkha, dissatisfaction (I prefer to use dissatisfaction, rather than a general translation of duḥkha “suffering,” even though it depends on the context how to use different interpretations). According to Takuan:

Ignorance” (avidyā) means the absence of enlightenment, that is, delusion. The “abiding stage” means “the point where the mind stops to abide.” In Buddhist training we speak of fifty-two stages, of which one is a stage where the mind attaches itself to any object it encounters. This attaching is known as tomaru, “stopping” or “abiding.” The mind stops with one object instead of flowing from one object to another (Zen and Japanese Culture, p. 95)

The original Japanese in Takuan’s text that was translated as “ignorance” above is “無明 mumyō,” which literally means “no-light-ment,” i.e., darkness, as opposed to the concept “en-light-ment.” Sanskrit avidyā also has the meaning of “no-seeing,” the state of darkness. Therefore, it is the fundamental cause of duḥkha in the context of the four noble truths, even though it is a different interpretation from the general view that regards “attachment” or “greed” as a cause of “suffering.”

The theory of 12 links of dependent origination, a more detailed psychological explanation of the four noble truths, sets ignorance as the first cause of saṃsāra (a cycle of birth and death). The truth is that everything is impermanent, and so the mind is also. Thus there is neither mind that abides nor “place” for the mind to abide by, to begin with. It is an illusionary experience to regard that “our mind” abides by some-“thing.” Ignorance of such truth leads us to saṃsāra, and this idea supports the above argument that ignorance is the fundamental cause of dissatisfaction.

Again, practically speaking, it may not be critical to text while walking, but we will lose our awareness of everything else when we are absorbed by an iPhone screen or other device. In contrast, if we only don’t abide by the screen, we can be aware of the act of texting, the beautiful sky, the sound of birds chirping, varieties of colors of flowers, and so on. In modern cognitive psychology, the mental state of focusing on one thing and forgetting others is called “selective attention,” but we should perform “bare attention” instead. Takuan says,

When I look at a tree, perceive one of the leaves is red, and my mind stops with this leaf. When this happens, I see just one leaf and fail to take cognizance of the innumerable other leaves of the tree. If instead of this I look at the tree without any preconceived ideas, I shall see all the leaves (Zen and Japanese Culture, p. 98–99)

Photo by Alex Ramon on Unsplash

Ok. It sounds great. But isn’t it too ideal? We don’t need to reach the highest state a Zen master realizes, do we? Maybe. But we should remember the fact that we are losing lots of things in daily life by losing awareness. Besides, even in the modern world, texting while driving can possibly cause a critical consequence. Also, any single tiny mistake when we say, do, or think something wrong due to a momentary loss of awareness may change our lives completely.

How can we maintain awareness in the present?

It may sound difficult to maintain this type of awareness all the time, but this is actually not the case. Indeed, the non-abiding mind is the most comfortable, relaxing state of mind with the least tension caused by unnecessary “in-tention” and conflict. This is because, according to Takuan (or Mahāyāna Buddhism in general), our original nature IS awareness itself. Therefore, non-abiding mind = awareness = nature of our mind is naturally there whenever an “unnatural” mental act, abiding mind, is not executed.

If we have any intention to trying to be aware, it never happens, as the intentional act itself abides in the mind itself. If we try to achieve the state of non-abiding mind, we will never be able to do it, as awareness is not some-“thing” we can obtain. It is like the act of trying to catch a rainbow.

Suzuki, Daisetz Teitarō. Zen and Japanese Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019.




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Eiji Suhara PhD

Eiji Suhara PhD

College Teacher, Philosopher, Religious Studies Scholar, Martial Artists, and Drummer. “Practicing” various types of meditation for long years.

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