You are on page 1of 8

Sharang Tickoo RELS 260

Final Paper
The Actualization of Mushin by the World

Write a critical analysis of the Zen idea of "no mind" as it appears in Zen Action/Zen Person.
Describe the idea as clearly as you can and then raise your own questions about it, either
from the perspective of Buddhist Thought or from your own. Is this a human state that
would be functional in the world at the exalted level that Zen claims? Why or why not?

Although it may seem paradoxical, an integral part of the Zen person's mind is the concept of

the 'no-mind', or mushin. Mushin consists of two distinct characters- mu (no or nothingness) and shin

(mind, spirit, heart). [Kasulis, p. 43] The interpretation of these two characters as 'the negation of the

mind' may be the obvious and reflexive one, but this interpretation of 'no-mind' as 'mindless' is inimical

to understanding the real relationship between mushin and the mind. In actuality, mu-shin could not be

more far removed from mindlessness- it is a concept that describes the frame of mind both at the very

beginning and the very zenith of a great thought. To understand mushin more fully, the conceptual

framework on which it was founded must be elucidated; without background and relativity, even

something as innate as mushin makes no sense.

The older Hindu Buddhist concept of anatman or anatma (no self) refers to the belief that there

is no immutable essence which constitutes a 'person'. As explained by Nagarjuna, if people had some

sort of immutable essence, they would be incapable of changing over time and developing new

paradigms or more nuanced views of life. At the same time, if people have no essence or defining

features, the exaggerated example is made that there is no reason they do not spontaneously turn into

cows and horses. [Kasulis, p. 27] People are therefore defined by some sort of non-essence - some

anatman - which is the sum of the circumstances which shape the decision making process which in

turn drives one's actions. This concept is once more discussed in Taoism: as referred to by Zen Action /

Zen Person, Taoism's 'personal creativity' is analogous to the non-person in anatman in that it too is
Sharang Tickoo RELS 260
Final Paper
The Actualization of Mushin by the World

comprised of the sum of relationships between an individual and the environment around him or her.

In a way, people are like blocks of clay; every relationship we have with the world leaves its mark on

us. There is no 'person' as a concrete subject on its own; without the world to define us, we would

remain uncarved blocks. The Way (Tao) encourages us to engage in 'wu-wei' (non-doing); which

should not be interpreted as 'inaction'. Inaction is often incompatible with the demands and rigors of

the practical world; and has little relation to non-doing which is entirely focused on the relationships

found in the world. Wu-wei is compatible with the world, as stated by Lao Tzû in chapter 43 of Tao Tê

Ching: non-doing consists of being at one with the relationship between the environment and the

person and to 'go with the flow', like a stream. Reactions to obstructive stimuli should not be exertion,

as exertion will only meet resistance, but to gradually change the nature of the relation between the

nonself and the world around it in the way a stream will eventually wear away stone. [Kasulis, p. 36]

Mushin is an extension of the above points- anatma and wu-wei. While we can never free

ourselves completely from the circumstances that surround our experiences, we do not need to have our

experience muddled by these circumstances because they too are void. Mu is the understanding that

nothing has any essence; all is devoid of meaning without something to provide a level of relativity.

When applied to the 'soul', mu results in anatman. When applied to action, the correct course is always

that of 'wu-wei'. While the sound of a bell may come from the voidness within it, without the physical

form of the bell to give it a context and shape the voidness is incapable of producing noise, while

without the voidness, the physical chunk of metal could only clang instead of truly ring. Zen posits a

way of thinking that allows one to be harmonious with the void nature of things; this way of thinking is

'...by thinking about non-thinking... [which one thinks about] without thought.' The example of being

'without thought' as given by Kasulis is one of a man, after a hot day mowing his lawn, rests his head
Sharang Tickoo RELS 260
Final Paper
The Actualization of Mushin by the World

for two seconds on the handlebar of his lawn mower. He is not thinking, nor actively negating

thoughts- he is simply engaged in a state of non-doing. He may later on, in retrospect, make the

distinction that he was looking down at green grass while resting, as opposed to blue sky, but in the

moment, he simply lowers his head because his work has been completed and he is tired. In this state

of mushin, one is not analytical or contemplative, but simply reactive- the work is finished, there is no

reason not to relieve fatigue, thus the demands of the present moment are met and he lowers his head,

taking in that which he perceives but not judging it.

Mushin is therefore a state preceding judgment, in which neither active conceptualization of

something nor active nihilistic denial of these conceptions takes place. From mushin arises these

higher conceptualizations, as one applies retrospective analysis to experience in order to categorize it.

The example is given of a major league baseball player's state of mind when batting. [Kasulis, p. 57]

There is no conscious thought of hitting the ball- the player simply instinctively reacts to the

relationship of the ball coming in this direction and the possibility of applying force in that direction.

Indeed, when consciously thinking of attempting to hit the ball, the task becomes much more difficult-

in this case, the mushin is more adept at dealing with the rigors of reality than any analytical state.

When asked how he scores a home run, the player will go back to the experience and apply a series of

filters to it in an attempt to convey an experience with a limited vocabulary. The batter could rattle off

a checklist- shoulder down, turn into the swing, stand just so- but in the actual moment of hitting the

ball, all these thoughts leave the mind. That is not to say that the mind is inactive- it just doesn't

actively do anything. As stated in Zen Person / Zen Action, 'The goal of Zen training is to break down

our dependence on categories that interfere with the directness and immediacy of experience, but this

does not mean that thought stops altogether.' [Kasulis, p. 58] Thus engaged in wu-wei, the batter's mind
Sharang Tickoo RELS 260
Final Paper
The Actualization of Mushin by the World

simply reacts to the experience without thought and by returning to this indeterminate state, one can

master that which is determinate; in the same way that examining a carved block of clay can give

insight as to the forces that act upon it. By understanding everything around the ineffable void, we

become able to understand nonbeing and the shape of the void.

In this manner, the Zen state of mushin is an attempt to live all aspects of life in this without-

thinking state; to exist in a state of pure experiences responded to by reactions which take into account

the relationships between aforementioned pure experiences. As it is impossible to simply understand

mu, in the same way that one cannot fathom a void in the shape of the inside of a bell, mushin allows

for an understanding and peace to be reached with the world by only perceiving the relationships in it;

in this way an understanding of one's own 'no-mind' can be reached. The world around us, and the

physical bodies we inhabit in it, is our iron casting. Our mushin is the void which is simultaneously

defined by the casing and provides meaning to it.

The question remains whether or not this exalted Zen state of mushin is compatible with the rest

of society, or whether the state of mushin is reserved only for monks isolated in a monastic life. At first

glance, not only is the name of mushin confusing and paradoxical, but so is its ability to fit into the

world at large. 'Pure' responses, free of conditioning, would seem to lack the filters that we put upon

ourselves so as to appropriately respond to situations. Indeed, concepts similar to mushin have been

presented as out of sync with the 'real world'; a nonobjectifying, nondifferentiating insight known as

prajna was posited by Nagarjuna as useful in understanding the relationships binding together the

world, but at the same time he claimed it was not practical in handling these affairs immediately.

[Kasulis, p. 25] The similar German concept of Heidegger's Gelassenheit (releasement), a 'thinking

without willing [the process of thinking]' is established as a method of thinking separate from analytical
Sharang Tickoo RELS 260
Final Paper
The Actualization of Mushin by the World

thinking, and is reduced to merely one method through which consciousness is established alongside

analytical thinking; and is implied to be deficient. [Kasulis, p. 48] The Zen state of No-mind,

however, is not a type of consciousness that is somehow parallel to scientific inquiry- mushin exists

before the state of scientific inquiry, at the level of observation rather than hypothesis. Mushin is not,

contrary to Heidegger's views, at the same level of cognition as active thought. To be without-thought

is more essential than, and not reliant upon, actively thinking. For example, to maintain the example of

scientific inquiry, the difference between mushin and active thought is the difference between a

scientist simply observing a phenomenon and a scientist drawing conclusions based on prior

experiences. An example of the first is a scientist noting that a piece of wood and a boulder fall at the

same rate, an example of the second is a scientist hypothesizing that all objects fall at the same rate

regardless of weight. The first one, the mushin scientist, would not be surprised to see a piece of paper

fall more slowly than a stone; while the second would be fettered by his thought-out hypothesis and,

clinging to that, fail to predict the effects of different relationships- in this case, the relationship

between air friction and the feather- upon an outcome.

Indeed, unlike prajna or gelassenheit, I would say that mushin necessitates interaction with the

world. The exalted state of mushin can only be reached in accord with the world; one must understand

oneself as the empty space molded by the world as the mu. Without a relation with the world, there is

no way to understand the self in the same way the voidness in a bell is unfathomable. At the same time,

mushin enables a transcendence of simple historical circumstance and physical form, allowing for a

blending of mu-being and being in order to function on a higher level. Without mu, once again, the bell

would not ring, but would simply exist as a lump of metal, capable only of clanging as opposed to

ringing across '… the distant mountains across the valley, beyond the tops of the cedars, back to the
Sharang Tickoo RELS 260
Final Paper
The Actualization of Mushin by the World

very foundations of the hermitage. It seems as if the bell had rung itself...' [Kasulis, p. 34] So while it

can be said that mushin is only functional in a world that gives it relativity, can it be said that mushin is

equally functional as the non-mu state? To answer this, we return to the analogy of the bell- what

makes mushin so functional is the fact that the bell seems almost capable of ringing itself. While

Heidegger made the mistake of putting mushin on the same plane as active thinking, the very nature of

mushin as the precursor of thought allows for it to give rise to these thoughts as an appropriate reaction

to the relations the world imposes upon the mu within; it can thus be said that the mushin is the

progenitor of any functional state in which we engage ourselves.

Indeed, the state of mushin, as mentioned above, does not necessitate a reduction in action;

merely a shift in our paradigm. The novice batter will think of form, stance, swing speed, et cetera; as

a result of trying to balance all of these categorizations of 'a good swing', chances are he will fumble

some or all of them. The expert player will simply do these things without thinking; for he understands

the relationship between himself and the ball: he does not hit the ball, he simply understands his role in

the relationship of force flowing from bat to ball, and as a result, he is aware of form, stance, and swing

speed as merely parts of a related holistic experience. This is Zen; the act of simply existing without

being fettered by the categories we make for ourselves. Of note is that both the master and the novice

in the example of the major leaguer are going through the same procedure and taking into account the

same considerations; the expert player is simply not slowed or chained by these considerations of form,

stance, and swing speed. For the expert, active thinking simply provides a framework or series of

filters with which to modify the swing to deal with physical circumstance. However, it is the peaceful

region of non-action from which any calculation originates; if the player must think about how to react

to a curveball it will most likely be too late. A direct result of the mushin observing the pitcher and
Sharang Tickoo RELS 260
Final Paper
The Actualization of Mushin by the World

then spontaneously reacting in the most effective manner possible might go through a process of

thoughts but this is not out of a need to think about how to react, but simply because it is the most

effective method available. In order to maintain the pure experience of mushin, thoughts may arise in

order to '…eliminate the obstruction, but one does so only until one can again abandon reflective

conceptualization and return to immediacy.' [Kasulis, p. 60]

While the concept of thought being a pure experience seems once again paradoxical- 'pure

experience' being a mental activity devoid of bifurcations, catogorizations, or reflection- Nishida

contends that '...from the standpoint of the theory of pure experience, we are unable to ever go outside

of the scope of pure experience.' This is because thoughts and distinctions only arise out of a break in

one's expectations of pure experience; the thoughts are a response to this break. In the moment that we

think of this break, we are fully experiencing it. Our choice to think about our pure experience, to

focus our attentions on it, is just as natural and spontaneous a response as our eyes' choice to perceive

that which we let our gaze rest upon. Even the most abstract of thoughts is, at the moment of the

thought, being presently experienced by the mushin. This is why it was so important to establish the

distinction between mushin and 'mindless'; mindlessness involves no experiences. Mushin does not ask

or expect us to become automata, unthinking of our surroundings. It simply asks us to understand and

accept the world around us without thought; and while the nature of the subject and object of the

relationships in the world may change, the relationship- one of mushin, of acceptance- remains the

same, as illustrated by the dissolution of mushin and yoshin: 'One is not limited in the range or variety

of experience, however. Although the relationship remains the same, A and B can be quite different

depending on the situation.' [Kasulis, p. 132].

Thus, mushin is shown to be adaptable to all aspects of the world; while it may be an exalted
Sharang Tickoo RELS 260
Final Paper
The Actualization of Mushin by the World

state, it works just fine in a mundane universe. A perfectly mercurial state, comprised only of

reactions, is always capable of dealing with the demands of the world. The Zen master, when hungry,

will eat; the inherent pragmatism of mushin makes it ideal for any real-world interaction. By reacting

to a protean and amorphous experience moment by moment, we avoid becoming overcome by the

cumulative pressure of our daily lives. If necessary, we react spontaneously to difficulty with thought,

the keenest of humankind's natural weapons, in the same way a dog reacts to a threat with a growl.

Mushin allows us to revert to the state of ecstasy we experienced as children- the empty mind of the

novice, unaware of nuance and therefore unburdened by it- while at the same time bringing to it a level

of competency and mastery not possessed by the naïve. Mushin, then, is not only an exalted human

state capable of functioning in the world. A Zen state is achieved when all activities can be carried out

with the same ease and lack of thought as tying one's shoelaces. I would say that mushin is the crystal-

clear, empty-minded natural state we enter once we have mastered a task; superior in every way to

being fettered by excessive consciousness.

Specific pages refer to the following book-

Kasulis, Thomas P. Zen Action, Zen Person. Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1985. Print.