Tag Archives: Takuan Soho

“In order to be full, we must be empty. If our emptiness is total, we become supremely fulfilled.”

~ Robert Rabbin

Over the past few weeks, I’ve explored to some length meditation on emptiness. Although I’ve dabbled into this question on and off, I was recently inspired by comments on the Heart Sutra by Ken McLeod. I was inspired by the vision that form is emptiness…a fact that I have taken for fact for some time, but within McLeod’s words, I saw a glimpse into something more elusive – the predominance of emptiness above all.

Form is emptiness; emptiness is form. Emptiness is not other than form; form is not other than emptiness. In the same way, feeling, concept, mental formation, and consciousness are emptiness.

~ Ken McLeod

This observation coincided with the lessons from the aikido mat, where I was struggling (and continue to struggle) with reducing, if not seeking to eliminate, an over-intellectualization of my practice. Non-attachment, detachment from all, complete relaxation – all practices aimed at reaching no-mind, no space, nothingness – just being.  Takuan Soho said it best, when he articulated it as follows:

“The effort not to stop the mind in just one place – this is discipline. Not stopping the mind is object and essence. Put it nowhere and it will be everywhere. Even in moving the mind outside the body, if it is sent in one direction, it will be lacking in nine others. If the mind is not restricted to just one direction, it will be in all ten.”

~ Takuan Soho

Put the mind nowhere and it will be everywhere. So the following thought came to me: what if “nowhere” was “nothingness”? What if the stillness, silence, needlessness in emptiness was “nowhere”. Rather than think of “nowhere” in the material sense, I wondered how my practice could evolve if I re-defined “nowhere” as “nothingness”, “emptiness”?

What if practice led us to notice that all happens within this stillness and silence – within nothingness and “nowhere”. What if practice led us to see all our thoughts, mental secretions and consciousness as products that float and are carried by emptiness, nothingness?

What if practice led us to observe all of our words as existing within an eternal, endless silence and emptiness?

What if practice led us to become fully mindful or our actions and movements occurring within eternal, infinite space and time – boundless, timeless emptiness, nothingness?

What if practice brought us to an awareness of everything, all things, all moments, all, existing within infinite, empty, nothingness.

What if practice brought us to an observation that love happens within this space – O’Sensei’s definition of love – a definition not dependent on external conditions, matter or time?

“What is absolute love? Love without an object is absolute love. Love means unity of perception and action.”

~ Kenjiro Yoshigasaki

Over the past few weeks, I have begun to visualize emptiness, nothingness, and have found two sources that have been interesting to say the least, and insightful in creating a sense of the emptiness and nothingness that is our existence.

The first is the Power of Ten video. Although dating back from years now, this classic video revealed the extent to which our universe, internal and external, is, for all intents and purposes, eternal, infinite, endless. It also demonstrated in the most sobering way that most if not all of it is emptiness – nothingness, “nowhereness”.

A second source was a website entitled Cosmic View – the universe in 40 jumps. Although similar to the Power of Ten video in message and method of presentation, one notable exception was when it introduced the nature of our self at the most smallest.  Of particular note: -6 was the most revealing to me – which presented the space between the nitrogen and oxygen molecules that compose the air we breathe. In short – what is the space, the emptiness, the nothingness between the molecules?

This space, this nothingness, this emptiness is the same space that fills the atoms which compose our very being and world; the same space that fills the gap between the endless galaxies and solar systems that is our eternal universe.

With these images as guides, meditating on emptiness then becomes meditating on the eternal, the endless, the boundless infinite space and time that is the “nowhereness”, the nothingness of all reality.  Meditating on infinite nothingness brings one’s practice to a point where the self and all meld; where space becomes boundless, within which all form can manifest and no longer manifest; where time is irrelevant for nothingness is timeless and permanent.

Knowing emptiness is to know that which is within our self, and within all other things. Knowing nowhere is to know all that is possible – past, present and future. Knowing nothing is knowing ‘no-thing’ – knowing that which is eternal, infinite and timeless – within which all is, and is not.

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

~ Socrates



During a more introspective interlude in his life, the great Japanese swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, was communing in the mountains with his friend, the legendary Zen priest Takuan Soho.

As they were meditating by a mountain stream, a poisonous viper happened upon them.  The viper, calmly accepting Takuan as part of the natural surroundings, slithered across his lap and moved on.  When it encountered Musashi, the snake felt the power of Musashi’s fearsome character, and fled into the bushes.

Musashi was greatly troubled by this encounter.  Takuan, sensing something amiss, questioned Musashi about his feelings.  Musashi confessed that the fear he evoked in others disturbed him.  He was feared, yes, but the menace he exuded also made him stick out like a sore thumb.

He aspired to be like Takuan, whose ordinary calmness allowed him to blend into his surroundings. Takuan did not fear, nor was he feared.  He existed in a state of extraordinary ordinariness known as heijoshin. It was heijoshin that Musashi aspired to, and focused his future training on achieving this state of constant calm.

Hei jo shin consists of three kanji characters.  Hei means calm or peace.  Jo means constant or steady, and shin means mind.  Put together, heijoshin refers to a mind in its normal, peaceful state.  The peaceful, undisturbed mind provides the proper medium for clarity in thought:

The undisturbed mind is like a calm body of water reflecting the brilliance of the moon.

~ Yagyu Jubei.

Whereas zanshin refers to awareness, and mushin is a mind free of thoughts and preconceptions, heijoshin provides the stable vessel in which all these other states can co-exist.  These states are complementary, and refer to different facets of the same stone.  Heijoshin, through calmness, enables the other states of mind.

Anger and excitement are states that are not normal to everyday life.  Heijoshin maintains that the mind be free of these feelings in order to be truly effective.  All those whose livelihoods put them in situations of duress train to be in a state of heijoshin.  Whether it is a paramedic treating an accident victim or Captain Chesley Sullenberger calmly nursing his stricken plane down to a safe landing on the Hudson River, heijoshin was achieved through countless hours of training.

It is with this intent that martial atists need to approach their training.  Like many things in life, training for heijoshin is a circular process that needs to be joined in mid-cycle.  Heijoshin leads to better training, and better training leads to heijoshin.

And when the moment of truth arrives, the martial artist can meet it with a mind at peace.

“If one puts his mind in the action of his opponent’s body, his mind will be taken by the action of his opponent’s body. If he puts his mind in his opponent’s sword, his mind will be taken by that sword. If he puts his mind in thoughts of his opponent’s intention to strike him, his mind will be taken by thoughts of his opponent’s intention to strike him. If he puts his mind in his own sword, his mind will be taken by his own sword. If he puts his mind in his own intention of not being struck, his mind will be taken by his intention of not being struck. If he puts his mind in the other man’s stance, his mind will be taken by the other man’s stance. What this means is that there is no place to put the mind.”
-The Mysterious Record of Unmovable Wisdom
The Unfettered Mind, Takuan Sōhō

In the fifteenth century, a three-part treatise on Buddhist philosophy and martial arts was written by Takuan Sōhō, a Japanese monk of the Rinzai sect. The treatise was written as correspondence to Yagyū Munenori, inheritor to the Yagyū Shinkage-ryū school of swordsmanship. Given the relationship between Aikido and swordmanship, Takuan Sōhō’s work was a logical place to explore the possibly inspirations for Aikido,. More specifically, it was a place to seek guidance on how to deal with my own failings in grasping the first principle of “keeping one point”. Although the treatise is over 500 years old, it arguably provides valuable insights that can guide today’s Aikidoka in the pursuit of mastery and harmony.

The opening words above speak directly to the first of the five principles of Ryurei Aikido – keeping one point. We learn early on that if we get one principle, we get them all. As such, no single principle should dominate the others. Any of them is a door to the way of Aikido. Nonetheless, the first principle has been, at least for me, and I fathom to guess for others, an elusive principle to grasp and internalize in its truest sense.

Putting the mind at one point is, like all principles, both a mental and physical challenge. But putting the mind to one point has been, for me, like asking my mind to tell itself to sit down. As such, if it does not want to listen or cooperate…well…it can make for a long and sometimes frustrating session. Takuan Sōhō’s opening words emphasizes that letting the mind attach to anything such as thoughts and movements for example, will result in it being taken by that same thing – hence why the importance of keeping the mind at one point.

This is exactly how I perceived the principle for some time, and after some serious practice coercing and manipulating my mind to go the one point, I started to finally feel what it might take to keep the mind at one point. After all, the principle appears to be relatively straight forward – n’est ce pas?

Of course not. And Takuan Sōhō shines a light on why when he writes:

“If you consider putting your mind below your navel and not letting it wander, your mind will be taken by the mind that thinks of this plan. You will have no ability to move ahead and will exceptionally unfree”.

Unfree! Indeed, my mind was not feeling as free as I was thinking it should – so where do I put my mind now? Do I put it back to the attacker? Do I find myself a new Hara and put it there? Do I take up macramé? Then it struck me: what if I put my mind to the one point and forget about it – wait, that sounds exactly like something Sensei told me on repeated occasions. Ahhh…maybe that’s what he meant!

And so I reflected on all this and decided: what if I use “keeping one point” to simply remind the mind (or “re-mind” the mind) to go where it naturally needs and wants to go, where it is fully present and not distracted and scattered by the stimulus of the world. To assist, I attempted to apply to the first principle a Buddhist tenet I had studied for a few years: non-attachment (if it sounds like “detach from all”, you might be right). My practice of the first principle has consequently become the following: re-mind the mind to go to the one point then let the mind go free, not in a scattered way, but rather like the ripples across a quiet pond after a pebble falls in – fully detached from when the pebble went “plop”.

All this said, I also questioned why we choose the hara as the “one point”? For me, it is due to the critical importance of balance and centering in aikido, like in life in general, which makes the hara the natural place to begin – and to return to. So by re-minding myself constantly to go to the hara, at one point (yes, pun intended) I might find myself mindful enough to perform tankan or other Aikido movements with some refinement, or at the least perform daily tasks such as tying my shoes with a bit more mindfulness.

As for the 500 year-old teaching, Takuan Sōhō did speak quite clearly to the challenge of freeing the mind when he wrote:

“Well, then, where does one put his mind?” … “If you don’t put it anywhere, it will go to all parts of your body and extend throughout its entirety. In this way, when it enters your hand, it will realize the hand’s function. When it enters your foot, it will realize the foot’s function. When it enters your eye, it will realize the eye’s function.”

So don’t put the mind anywhere – and you may be one step closer to keeping one point. Just don’t get attached to not putting your mind anywhere…