Title: The Unfettered Mind
Writings from a Zen Master to a Master Swordsman
Publisher's site: Shambala Publications
Amazon link: The Unfettered Mind
Price £15.99
ISBN #: 978-1590309865
Date: 2012
Author/s Takuan Sōhō


Shambala recently published a new version of William Scott Wilson's (WSW) translation of A Book of Five Rings; legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi's seminal work on fight tactics. If you consider physicality and spirituality to be two elements of a well-rounded martial artist, then this book, aims to enrich the latter.

It's particularly enigmatic because it comprises three essays on spirituality and control of one's mind, written to master swordsmen by Zen master Takuan Sōhō in the 1600s. But if you think that these are essays on how to eliminate their murderous instincts, you would be wrong - in fact the essays expound on how to control your mind in order to become a better swordsman! You would be right to question the justification that a Zen master could offer up for such words, and as with his other translations, WSW provides both context and exposition at some length at the start of the book. For me, his introductions are as valuable as the works they preface, and in this case, he attempts to explain the seemingly irreconcilable - that a master in a religion of peace should be helping to train killers. It can be partly explained by the fact that Sōhō was politically minded; even going so far as to be exiled for his opposition to the Shogun in defense of the Emperor.

The Unfettered mind comprises three essays, which provide a combination of fatherly advice, Buddhist wisdom, tactical thoughts, and outright religiosity. You may agree or disagree with the tactics in Musashi's Book of Five Rings, but there isn't particularly anything morally objectionable in it, whereas  the Unfettered mind is full of broad sweeping statements on loyalty, obeisance, duty to the state, and much more. In many ways, it provides a deep insight into the mind of the Japanese during the 15th and 16th centuries, and explains why to this day, they appear to be such a duty-bound people, who place such emphasis upon loyalty to one's superiors.

As a westerner, I find the notion of unquestioning loyalty to a person, simply because he was born to a position of power quite sickening, but it infuses every word of these essays, so for anyone hoping to understand the mentality that produced the Budo code, and the Samurai, this is an excellent starting place, as it's a contemporary exposition of the values of an influential monk living at the time.

For me, the first essay was the hardest to read, but also in some ways the most insightful as it dealt specifically with the issue of "right-mindedness", which is a concept deeply entwined with suppression of the ego, clarity of purpose, and taking your mind away from any single objective during a fight, and simply allowing it to take in the entire situation, being both everywhere and nowhere - free to move as the situation demands. This was clearly Sōhō's way of explaining the concept of mushin no shin, "Mind of no mind", a mental state that most educated martial artist's aspire to and never truly reach.

The second essay deals specifically with ego and motivation, and it is much more conversational than the first, and it's this one that is most saturated with Sōhō's views on duty, religion, and one's place in the nature of society. Although the goals of this essay - to create a person free of vanity and selfishness - are laudable,  Sōhō's political and religious sycophancy really  deter me from taking him seriously.

The final essay is written a somewhat odd manner, whereby Sōhō writes a paragraph, then follows up with ten more paragraphs clarifying every word and full stop of the previous paragraph. It's a rather convoluted style, and I wondered why he didn't simply write lucidly in the original paragraphs. This section is almost all potted wisdom and mystical stories, with a strong intermingling of Buddhist spirituality. For those times when you simply HAVE to offer an ancient story to pad out a philosophical or tactical point, this section is most likely to provide it!

Overall, I found The unfettered mind to be one of the least enjoyable martial arts books I've ever read. It was pompous, made wildly erroneous  generalizations about the nature of  existence, steeped in childish religious beliefs, and infused by a distasteful "die for your emperor" mentality.

However, for all of that, it also provided me the most authentic and valuable glimpses into the mindset of a Japanese  person living in the seventeenth century, and for that alone, I consider it valuable, if not essential reading for anyone hoping to understand the big picture about the history of martial arts, and the philosophies that produced it.

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