The Mysteriousness of the Mind-Sword

(Excerpts from "The Sword, Taia and the Mysteries of Strategy" in IMMOVABLE WISDOM: THE ART OF ZEN STRATEGY, The Teachings of Takuan Soho, compiled and translated by Nobuko Hirose).

[Note: This is one of my favorite treatises on Zen. It was composed as a "teaching letter" by a famous Zen Master to Munenori Yagyu, the Shogun's teacher of swordsmanship. It is not bland, but nor is it excessive. It mingles the notions of satori and mastery of kendo, or better yet it shows them to be one and the same. It is suggestive, mysterious, evocative but also direct and to the point. There is real flavor and bite to these words, especially in Nobuko Hirose's excellent now-out-of-print English translation. Since readers of this blog don't do much hitting each other with swords, I've limited myself to transcribing some of the parts that deal most specifically with how to "strive to attain satori." But it is more than worthwhile to get hold of the book so you can study the whole essay, as well as all the other pages in it.]

What is the true-self? This is the self which has existed since before the time of the division of Heaven and Earth, and from before the birth of parents. This is the self which exists before everything is born and which does not die. It is the self of eternity and immortality. Man, the birds, beasts and plants all possess this self within them. The universe is filled with this permanent self; in other words it is Bussho (Buddha-nature). This self has no shadow, no form, no life, and no death. It is not the mortal self which we can see with the naked eye. It is only seen by the Buddha-eye and the Dharma-eye. We, as ordinary people, cannot see the true self. Only one who awakens to Buddha-nature and realizes the true-self can see it, and he is a person of kensho-jobutsu (one who sees into his Buddha-nature and reaches Nirvana.)


One seeks this true-self constantly with desperation, like parents who have lost their children, and with an unflagging will. At last one will be able to see the true-self at the point where everything has been exhausted. Just see straight, without trying to understand with knowledge, beyond the place where heaven and earth are one and when Yin-Yang have not yet come about; that is, the world beyond description and thought before parents were born. Then the time will come to be able to see the true-self, to experience enlightenment.

It is the essence of Buddhism and the importance of strategy to devote oneself to seeing the true-self (kensho). The mystery of sword strategy and the essence of Zen are ultimately one.


If you wish to attain this you must strive consciously while walking and resting, while sitting and lying in bed, while talking and keeping silent, while eating rice and drinking tea . . . Do not neglect kufu (striving to attain satori), be aware of rapid changes and penetrate into the innermost heart of things -- thus you should see straight.

Do not neglect kufu . . . that is, one should try to be at one with the thing, the place and the time, which are constantly changing, without becoming attached to other thoughts. Waste not a second, penetrate into the innermost question of "Who am I originally?" and have the insight of the true-self.


As time goes by you can attain the mysterious principle by your own work, just as you suddenly see a light in the pitch dark night. Then you will attain the wisdom attained without a teacher and you will actualize the mystic and wondrous function of musa (inherent acts). The wisdom attained without a teacher's instruction means the acquisition of original wisdom, which even a Master cannot transmit.


As all the acts of ordinary people are actualized with intention and are thus all intentional acts (usa), people suffer, but the mystic and wondrous function of musa (inherent acts) rises from original wisdom. It is the natural and tranquil world. This is why it is called the mystic and wondrous function . . . We name this mystic and wondrous function of musa the sword of Taia.

It is perfectly complete in each man . . . It is Mind itself. Mind is not born with your birth nor does it perish with your death. It has no birth and no death. It is true nature. Heaven cannot cover it, nor can earth hold it. Fire cannot burn it, nor water make it wet, nor wind blow through it. Nothing in the world affects the sword.

For a man who awakens to true nature there is nothing to prevent him from seeing through everything between heaven and earth. Even a devil cannot use his supernatural power on him, because such a man can see into the depths of the devil's mind.


The true Dharma of Nenge Misho (raising a flower and smiling) of Zen is hard to realize and to attain. The ultimate stage is not attained by knowledge, nor known by presumption. Even Buddhas hold their tongues about this secret. Therefore there is no way of explaining this principle in words. If I dare say this figuratively the state of realization of Shakyamuni and Kasyapa is indistinguishable from that of pouring one bowl of water into another bowl of water. That is, their realization is equal and is one at the moment of raising a flower and smiling (Nenge Misho).


One should not act with delusory perception and the mind of discrimination. It is no use. Cast them away and see by separating yourself from the mind of discrimination. This voiding strategy cannot be transmitted with words, nor is it taught by technique, such as how to be in the right position, how to strike -- the secret of Kyoge Betsuden is not transmissible from the teacher. You have to find out and realize the secret for yourself. When you have realized this you are absolutely free from everything . . . Victory or defeat is not in your consciousness. The world is then simple, clear, great and profound.


If you wish to learn this mystery of the sword Taia, fire your wish constantly with kufu (striving to attain satori) after kufu.

- ZEN MASTER TAKUAN SOHO (translated by Nobuko Hirose)


  1. William Scott Wilson's translation of this essay/letter is also excellent. Published originally by Kodansha 1986 in The Unfettered Mind and still widely available.