Like many books I re-read later in life, I find that my understanding of it now is deeper than it was when I was in my early twenties. After studying Buddhism more deeply over the past 5 years, I now find myself better able to understand what Takuan Sōhō was trying to convey to master swordsman and instructor Yagyū Munenori.
The Zen master begins, appropriately enough, with the mind of a beginner. In typical Zen fashion, he doesn't just give us the easy answer, instead leading us on a journey that takes us to the answer.
"The term ignorance means the absence of enlightenment. Which is to say, delusion.
Abiding place means the place where the mind stops.
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 means the mind is being detained by some matter, which may be any matter at all.
To speak in terms of your own martial art, when you first notice the sword that 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.
Although you see the sword that moves to strike you, if your mind is not detained by it and you meet the rhythm of the advancing sword; if you do not think of striking your opponent and no thoughts or judgments remain; if the instant you see the swinging sword your mind is not the least bit detained and you move straight in and wrench the sword away from him; the sword that was going to cut you down will become your own, and, contrarily, will be the sword that cuts down your opponent."
There are surprising connections between martial arts and spirituality, as I've written about before with regard to The Spiritual Combat by Lorenzo Scupoli. One of those connections is that both effective martial arts and effective spirituality require us to find a serene state of mind that isn't easily disturbed by events that occur.
I learned that lesson the hard way: I had my jaw dislocated as a result of an opponent's cartwheel kick because I was wondering what he was doing instead of moving to strike him. Fortunately, the referee helped me pop my jaw back in place, and I continued the match.
In any martial art, letting one's mind be detained is extremely dangerous. There simply isn't time to think about what is happening during combat, and my personal experience is that taking time to think during any part of combat is likely to be extremely detrimental to one's health.
On the other hand, being free of any thoughts that detain us is extremely advantageous. While in battle meditation, with a mind free of any detaining thoughts, one is a far more effective fighter and can take full advantage of an opponent's vulnerabilities.
"In Zen, this is called 'Grabbing the spear and, contrariwise, piercing the man who had come to pierce you.' The spear is a weapon. The heart of this is that the sword you wrest from your adversary becomes the sword that cuts him down. This is what you, in your style, call 'No Sword.'
Whether by strike of the enemy or your own thrust, whether by the man who strikes or the sword that strikes, whether by position or by rhythm, if your mind is diverted in any way, your actions will falter, and this can mean that you will be cut down.
If you place yourself before your opponent, your mind will be taken by him. You should not place your mind within yourself. Bracing the mind in the body is something done only at the inception of training, when one is a beginner.
The mind can be taken by the sword. If you put your mind in the rhythm of the contest, your mind can be taken by that as well. If you place your mind in your own sword, your mind can be taken by your own sword. Your mind stopping at any of these places, you become an empty shell. You surely recall such situations yourself. They can be said to apply to Buddhism.
In Buddhism, we call this stopping of the mind delusion. Thus we say, 'The affliction of abiding in ignorance.'"
The calm mind of a master martial artist, not being detained by any interruptions, is free to simply accomplish the task before it without ever naming the task or thinking critically about how to perform the steps involved.
And this is true in the spiritual combat as well; one with a calm mind not disturbed by worries or by passions or attachments to material possessions is free to fight, not detained by his own distracting thoughts.
In both martial arts and the spiritual combat, the mind of the beginner is often detained by all sorts of things going on around him. It's easy for us to lose focus on the world at large as we put most of our awareness into various people and things around us, and especially when we go back to putting most of our awareness onto ourselves.
"Glancing at something and not stopping the mind is called immovable. This is because when the mind stops at something, as the breast is filled with various judgments, there are various movements within it. When its movements cease, the stopping mind moves, but does not move at all.
If ten men, each with a sword, come at you with swords slashing, if you parry each sword without stopping the mind at each action, and go from one to the next, you will not be lacking in a proper action for every one of the ten.
Although the mind act ten times against ten men, if it does not halt at even one of them and you react to one after another, will proper action be lacking?
But if the mind stops before one of these men, though you parry his striking sword, when the next man comes, the right action will have slipped away.
Considering that the Thousand-Armed Kannon has one thousand arms on its one body, if the mind stops at the one holding a bow, the other nine hundred and ninety-nine will be useless. It is because the mind is not detained at one place that all the arms are useful.
As for Kannon, to what purpose would it have a thousand arms attached to one body? This form is made with the intent of pointing out to men that if their immovable wisdom is let go, even if a body have a thousand arms, every one will be of use."
Takuan Zenji points us to an important truth about our minds: the mind stops moving along the path of right action because we allow it to be moved by many other things.
He explains to us the importance of the example of the thousand-armed Kannon (also known as Guanyin or Avalokiteśvara), advising us that it matters not how much strength or how many weapons we might possess if our minds can be so easily diverted from using them effectively.
This constant diversion from right action by our transient thoughts is one of the fetters which binds our mind, imprisoning us in the cage of the self and blinding us to the path of righteousness.
"When facing a single tree, if you look at a single one of its red leaves, you will not see all the others. When the eye is not set on any one leaf, and you face the tree with nothing at all in the mind, any number of leaves are visible to the eye without limit. But if a single leaf holds the eye, it will be as if the remaining leaves were not there.
One who has understood 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 thousand arms and thousand eyes. The man of half-baked wisdom, wondering how anybody could have a thousand eyes, calls it a lie and gives in to slander. But if now one understands a little better, he 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 he will understand that Buddhism, with this one thing, manifests its principle well.
All religions are like this. I have seen that Shinto especially is like this.
The ordinary man thinks only on the surface. The man who attacks Buddhism is even worse.
This religion, that religion, there are various kinds but at their deepest points they are all settled in one conclusion.
At any rate, when one practices discipline and moves from the beginner's territory to immovable wisdom, he makes a return and falls back to the level of the beginning, the abiding place."
The kind of seeing that is recommended here is the same kind of seeing that is most effective in martial arts. Instead of focusing in on your opponent's feet, or his hands, or his weapon, it is better to take in all of them at once by looking beyond your opponent. If our eyes are fixed on the hands, it will be easy for our opponent to strike us with a foot or a knee.
But if we are calm and empty of thoughts, focused on the whole of the panorama of our vision, then neither the feet nor the hands nor the weapons will escape our attention and we can respond to them quickly and effectively. In the spiritual life, this kind of sight allows us to see beyond the bars of the cage of the self in which we are imprisoned by our own choice.
Once we have seen beyond the cage of the self, the bars built of our own egotistical thoughts, then we can work to free ourselves from it through the disciplines of the mind.
"There is a reason for this.
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.
As he studies various things and is taught the diverse ways of how to take a stance, the manner of grasping his sword and where to put his mind, his mind stops in many places. Now if he wants to strike at an opponent, he is extraordinarily discomforted. Later, as days pass and time piles up, in accordance with his practice, neither the postures of his body nor the ways of grasping the sword are weighed in his mind. His mind simply becomes as it was in the beginning when he knew nothing and had yet to be taught anything at all.
In this one sees the sense of the beginning being the same as the end, as when one counts from one to ten, and the first and last numbers become adjacent.
In other things--musical pitch, for example, when one moves from the beginning lowest pitch to the final highest pitch--the lowest and the highest become adjacent.
We say that the highest and lowest come to resemble each other. Buddhism, when you reach its very depths, is like the man who knows nothing of either the Buddha or the Buddhist Law. It has neither adornment nor anything else that would draw men's attention to it.
The ignorance and afflictions of the beginning, abiding place and the immovable wisdom that comes later become one. The function of the intellect disappears, and one ends in a state of No-Mind-No-Thought. If one reaches the deepest point, arms, legs, and body remember what to do, but the mind does not enter into this at all."
When we are beginners, we naturally do what is effective insofar as we are able. Sometimes this is called "beginner's luck" even in skill-based competitions. And Takuan Zenji is exactly right that as we analyze our techniques, perform them in various steps, and relearn more effective techniques, we lose that natural effectiveness for a time.
Later, after much discipline practice day in and day out, month after month, year after year, those more effective techniques are so much a part of us that we can perform them without conscious thoughts. We can at that point perform them with an unfettered mind. And this is true of the spiritual life as well.
In both cases, we must feel the fetters keenly before we can muster the effort to free ourselves from them. We do not understand the urgency of freeing ourselves from the fetters that chain us in our own minds until we get a visceral sense of precisely how they bind us. This is why the Buddha taught so explicitly about death and hellscapes, to draw our attention to our fetters so that we realize the importance of escaping them.
Both the martial arts instructor and the Zen master have to make sure we know exactly what is holding us back so that we will be motivated to free ourselves from the fetters which bind our minds and trip us up in both physical combat and the spiritual journey.
This is indeed the immovable wisdom that moves us out of and back into the abiding place where we too can become immovable, immune to the rushing thoughts which cannot stop the unfettered mind.
Note: The above is an image of the book cover of the translation of The Unfettered Mind that I used for this post.