Mushin (without heart, without mind) means: (1) complete cutting off of the thought-streams5 (2) freedom from unnecessary thoughts while engaged in some activity. There are those who disregard the first as some sort of exaggeration, but it is clear that Daikaku and Bukko meant it literally. Westerners who identify consciousness with thought, which is only a movement in it, tend to think that absence of thought would be something like deep sleep or a total annihilation – there would be nothing left at all.
Zen teachers are not much concerned with this objection on the intellectual plane; they are concerned with it on the emotional plane, when it seems to a student on the brink that mushin would be a great death. All the koans are designed to wrap thought and feeling into one bundle, which is then thrown out.
Something remains, provisionally described in terms of immensity of space, bright like the blue sky. Students who are convinced of the importance of intellectual approval in these things, will not easily find grounds for it in Zen. From the Zen point of view, intellectual assent to the possibility of mushin experience, before the experience is actually had, is never firm; the basis of practice has to be faith in the teacher and in the tradition.
Still, intellectual people are bothered by the fact that the true nature is said to be always known, to be knowledge itself, and yet to be unknown. There is an example from another tradition (an intellectual one) which shows how something may be experienced but not consciously identified till everything else is removed. Ask someone to describe a landscape he is looking at, and he specifies the things in it. He is told, ‘Something left out!’ He describes smaller details. Still it is ‘Something lacking!’ He goes into the minutest details, but finally gives up. Now he is asked to close the eyes to a mere slit, and describe what he sees. He says, ‘Only light.’
He is told, ‘Didn’t you see light when you were looking at the landscape? By that light you saw everything, and in fact all you saw was light. But you never included light among the things you described. Now look again.’
‘Oh, thatV he says. ‘Yes, it is so.’
This is only an analogy and cannot be pressed too far. But it serves for one point, which is that what is provisionally called consciousness, or the true nature, is independent of thought. When thinking disappears there is not nothing, but awareness of something which was in a way known all along; there is recognition in the form, ‘Oh, thatV (not of course a verbalized thought). The first experience of it may not last very long, but it changes the basis on which life is lived; some teachers call it a glimpse beyond life and death.
Mushin means literally without thought. It has the second sense of being free from unnecessary thoughts when engaged in things of the world, so that there are actions but no inner reactions. Some Japanese teachers compare this form of mushin to a sneeze; you do not make up your mind to sneeze, you just sneeze. Though theoretically you could check it, you do not do so but just sneeze. You do not think, I am sneezing; you just sneeze. Western people hearing this often want to say, ‘Do you just build a house without thinking? Don’t you consider where to put it, what materials to buy, whether the rainy season is about to begin?’
Mushin in the second sense does not mean no thoughts, it means no inner reverberation of thought. The location of the house and material and season are considered, but there is no anxiety, no ambition, and once the due consideration is over, they are forgotten. An early Chinese incident exemplifies this aspect of mushin. One of the ancient worthies, a great scholar, had a distant cousin’s boy staying with him, who contracted a fever. The scholar knew the treatment and applied it. He got up three times during the night to see that the treatment was taking its proper course, but between these visits he slept soundly. On another occasion his own son was staying with a relative a good distance away. A traveller who had just come from there told him that when he left, the son had a fever. The scholar was unable to sieep all night, though he could do nothing.
In the first case he was active but there was no ‘extra’ thinking; in the second case, though he could do nothing, there was. The first was mushin, and the second was not.
To aim at mushin is a paradox, because the aim itself would be ushin or ‘with-thought’. As the questioner says in the ‘Zazenron’, surely it would be like trying to wash off blood with blood, to get rid of thought by thought. Daikaku says that it is in a way like thinking, but this is a right thought which cuts thought. Mushin is not annihilation of awareness, though it cuts off thought5 it is compared to a vast clear sky with no cloud in it. From the point of view of Zen, deep sleep and similar states are not mushin } the darkness is just as much ‘thought’ as any other thought.
As with some other knotty points in Zen training, this one can be partly cleared up by a physical parallel. There are people who are continuously moving their bodies, in habitual tension 5 in a sense they feel that unless they are moving, they do not exist. Some are identified with speech; they keep up an incessant flow of talk, whether anyone is listening or not and irrespective of whether they have anything to say or not. Others constantly busy themselves over trivial self-imposed tasks} keeping occupied against what Kipling called ‘the edge of nothing’. Even in necessary activities, these people make many unnecessary movements. They have no love for what they are doing} their love is for movement itself.
It is quite difficult in such cases to give them an idea of what relaxation means. Even in sleep such people are not relaxed. They try to lie still in imitation of relaxation, but their bodies and nerves are tense. They may keep silent, but their brains are boiling with unuttered words. They perform loosening-up exercises, but in stiff jerks. Some of them seek temporary relaxation through alcohol or other poisons, but it is no use to them because the tension returns the next day, and the body condition has worsened.
A teacher has various means of overcoming habitual tension and agitation. Relevant to Zen training are: making them temporarily impossible, and wearing them away. They are made temporarily impossible by tiring the pupil out} while he can still make a comment on how tired he is, he is not yet really tired, but when he becomes silent, when he can no longer make his favourite body twitches, the teacher lets him rest. Then for a time there is relaxation. Afterwards the teacher tells him to think and feel back to that experience, and use it as a standard when doing his relaxation exercises.
This is done in the Zen training weeks which are mostly meditation sitting with little or even no sleep, depending on the temple. After the third or fourth day the inner agitations quieten down, and the sleepy feeling also dies down. On the eighth day the participants do not drop exhausted into sleep; some of the young monks wrestle in the Sumo pushing style.
The other method is to get a tense man to lie still for long periods. For a good time he is internally full of impulses to keep shifting, but if these are not expressed they gradually die away.
In both these methods the pupil becomes aware for the first time how much effort it costs to continue the body movements. Once he has a sense of that effort, he can easily drop it. Before he realizes it, the effort is to keep still: afterwards he realizes that it was the movements that were an effort, and he can drop them without effort.
In the same way thinking meaningless thoughts is at first felt as natural, indeed as existence and consciousness themselves. To drop the casual thoughts requires an effort, or rather, it seems to require an effort. Afterwards the casual thoughts are realized to have been merely mental twitches, and Zen students feel the relief of mushin.
Like relaxation, mushin has the two meanings. If we say ‘Do it in relaxation’ we do not mean without any effort at all, but we mean without unnecessary effort. Relaxation also means complete abandonment of effort, in a lying position. In the same way, to do a thing in mushin means doing it without casual thoughts about profit or loss, or what sort of figure one is cutting, and so on. But mushin also means, and more properly, a state alert and aware of itself but without a thought. Coming out of this state, he becomes aware of the cosmic life and his actions are in harmony with it.