The Unfettered Mind: Writings of the Zen Master to the Sword Master.


The Unfettered Mind: Writings of the Zen Master to the Sword Master.

by Takuan Sōhō;
translated by William Scott Wilson.

(Kodansha, 1987; softcover)

Review by Ben Hamley

In a nutshell:
“Presumably, as a martial artist I do not fight for gain or loss, am not concerned with strength or weakness, and neither advance a step nor retreat a step.” Sort of like Zen and the art of swinging a sword I guess…

The big picture:
Written in the 17th century not long after the climax and close of Japan’s bloody feudal age, this collection of treatises can be subtle as a stiletto or blunt as two short planks, but never fails to convey the wit and deep insight of the author. What else would you expect from a man who was not only a monk, artist, poet and gardener but also the namesake andalleged inventor of a pickle made from giant radishes!

Not just a budo classic but a classic of Japanese literature, translations of The Unfettered Mind are just as likely to turn up on the shelves of wealthy businessmen as to be found in martial arts dojo. And its author is such a part of Japanese culture that he even appears in a popular manga series.

Two of the lectures within were letters to members of prominent samurai clans. They eloquently address issues of martial technique and principle, as well as the proper conduct of mind and body. The other, The Clear Sound of Jewels, concerns the nature of desire and reality, life and death:

Human consciousness and the objective world unite, sundry thoughts are born, and from these many others are born in turn. Pulled by these thoughts, this body of form is received and produced. It is not simply something strange that has rained down from heaven.

Beginning with the single thought that has no beginning, the multifarious things thus come to be. When you go and look carefully for its source, being a single thought with no beginning, you find that it has none at all. Having no origin at all, the birth of the infinite variety of things could be called a mystery.

Well then, you don’t say!

Look out for:

  • “the interval into which not even a hair can enter”.
  • Advice on cultivating “right-mindedness” in The Clear Sound of Jewels.
  • The translator’s foreword and introduction (a little bit of historical context).