Musings on Mushin: Karate’s Equivalent of Mindfulness

Fun fact:

At the tender age of twenty-three, French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and Catholic philosopher Blaise Pascal claimed to have empirical evidence that the void exists. As the story goes, when René Descartes, notorious denier of “the void”, heard about this he wrote a bold letter stating that the only void that exists is inside the head of Pascal.


As you see, the philosophical controversy over the concept of “emptiness”, the “void”, or “nothingness” is not a new phenomenon –  clearly, the old Frenchies loved arguing about it.

So how about Karate?

What is “emptiness”, “the void” or “nothingness”? What should we know about it, and how does it relate to Karate?

(Hey, don’t look at me! Sure, I’m known to say that “the hole” is the best part of the donut, but that’s just a joke!)

All I know is that in Karate, or Budo in general, this concept of emptiness is applied in something known as “mushin” (actually, this term is shortened from mushin no shin, Zen expression meaning “mind without mind”) and that venerated Karate masters such as Funakoshi and Mabuni often wrote poems pondering the inherent mysticism associated with the void.

“When the spirit of Karate-Do (Bu) is deeply embraced
It becomes the vehicle (described as a boat) in which one is ferried
Across the great void to the ‘world within’ (described as ‘Bu’-island)”

– Mabuni Kenwa (1889 – 1952)

“As a mirror’s polished surface reflects whatever stands before it and a quiet valley carries even small sounds, so must the student of Karate-Do render of their mind empty of selfishness and wickedness in an effort to react appropriately toward anything they might encounter.  This is the meaning of kara or “empty” of Karate-Do.”

– Funakoshi Gichin (1868-1957)


“Empty mind.”

The term in itself, when you think about it, is quite interesting. I mean, if you try to think of “nothing” you will sooner or later inevitably think of something concrete, like a black or white surface. It’s difficult. Because clearly, if something does not exist it’s impossible to think about it. That’s why people have a hard time understanding the void. Which, in turn, is why we call it different stuff: “the void”, “emptiness”, “nothingness” or the number “zero”. Why? Because labels help us grasp this weird concept, and then proceed to think about it.

But, of course, there’s a paradox here:

  • Labels, names and words are limited.
  • …but the void is unlimited.

Putting a name on nothingness is to limit its existence.

So let’s try to dive a bit deeper into the void then.

In this internet-driven world of constant online connection, it is safe to say that our lives are cluttered by noise (of all kind). No question about it. And sure, while the general noise of life can be beautiful, relaxing and certainly inspiring, like the ballads of song or the sound of happiness embodied in laughter, there is also this constant, harmful, noise that eventually becomes the status quo of how we live our lives.

You probably recognize this phenomenon in those moments devoid of audible commotion, as they might suddenly turn into awkward instances of discomfort instead – and that’s when we know we have become addicted to surrounding ourselves with background noise, losing the uniqueness of moments of quiet that provide us with the exceptional clarity, inner balance and present-mindedness which we all crave.

Just the type of mindstate you would want to have in Karate.


When constantly surrounded by the noise of everyday life – from the sound of the alarm in the morning, to the car radio, our iPods and MP3 players, music on our computers, to TVs and so much more – the constant stream of noise and sounds becomes the natural state of life. Almost every waking moment is consumed or accompanied by noise. Thus, strangely enough, the peaceful pace of nature (called “silence”) often and quickly becomes a discomfort for people (most joggers can’t even run in the woods without loud music in their ears – that’s messed up!)

I mean, is it just me, or have we lost something essential to ourselves when moments of quietness are considered socially awkward, even when interacting with friends, family members and/or acquaintances?

Sometimes it seems we have become so entrenched in noise that we forget what it is like to live, work, even sleep or simply exist in the midst of silence.

And this is unfortunate.

Because during moments of silence and nothingness, a purer side of ourselves reemerges.

This could be you.

I truly believe that if we actively try to seek out those few precious moments of emptiness, or nothingness, then our “soul” somehow floats up from the dephts of the clutter and brings us back to our original nature – if only for a moment. That’s when, often without so much as realizing it, we embrace the present moment for all of its worth and abandon the common chaos and noise of everyday life. Then, devoid of the noise of life and “thinking for the sake of thinking,” in this void we somehow regain the peace of mind of living in the moment – the unfamiliarity of living consciously and fully in the present time.

Also known as mushin.

The power that comes from moments of silence and quiet – those times in nature or alone to ourselves when our minds become blank and free – is unimaginable for most people, as they probably don’t even remember the last time they arrived at a state of mind that allowed them to fully exist in the moment. Those rare moments of silence when we abandon the confines of our thoughts; the constant stream of consciousness and thinking that begins when we wake and pauses when we sleep.

Devoid of the clutter of noise, we are nothing more or less than in existence; we are because we are and the universe is because it is.

So embrace mushin, and try to lose yourself for once.

If only for a moment.

“See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence.

We need silence to be able to touch souls.”

– Mother Teresa


  • Boban ALempijevic
    Mushin. You could not have said it better Jesse-san.
  • Matthew
    Mokuso....... Jesse San, this article makes me want to practice mokuso. Thinking on my own I do not see any other way of approaching "No mind".
  • mario dacanay
    "Silence is the first and last dimension of being human. The strongest most authentic forms of human expression emerge from a person and one will always return to silence when wanting to discover the meaning of all human expressions."
  • Szilard
    To the geek in you Jesse: If you have nothing, you have the empty set only, and then you are in all kind of trouble: from the empty set all the whole numbers can be easily generated (set theory 101), their ordered pairs yield the rationals, and their series the real numbers, and on the ordered pairs of real numbers one can create calculus and the rest of math too. So the saying: "God made the natural numbers; all else is the work of man." would be better as: "God made the Void; all else is the work of man." According to the Bible God created the world, but as you can see that doesn't really matter, what really matters is: who created nothing.
  • Dan
    I think we've all experienced an adrenaline rush in our lives, maybe when in a street fight or just in a really important soccer match. If any of you haven't, you really should. To me, at least, it is living the moment at it's prime. Every cell of your body is dedicated to the here and the now. You don't think of anything else. As a matter of fact, you don't think at all.
  • kairu
    Karate Kata has always been my greatest tool for accessing mushin. The physical repetition of well practiced movements beyond my usual physical ability seams to have allowed my mind to tern off, push through the pain and just keep going. Leaving me in a euphoric state quite similar to runners high. I hope in the future to learn how to harness deep breathing to empty my mind for a more substantial period than I have achieved thus far but I am a very tangential thinker and this goal has proven to be quite difficult. I really wish more Karate and Budo clubs would focus on meditation. I have been to far to many classes where the meditation lasts only a few moments, both in Canada and Japan. Perhaps the growing popularity of Yoga will help some martial arts practitioners pull meditation back into their practices.
  • Theodore Kruczek
    Do you think that there is a relation between the Buddhist concept of nirvana and mushin? Nirvana has a more religious context, but do you think it may have influenced the idea of mushin in Japan like many other Buddhist concepts have?
    • Mushin is close to Chinese wu-wei, a Daoist concept. As Zen has been definitely influenced by Daoism (like a child influencing his step-brother from India), it is likely that this (metaphysical) concept has been transferred. It is also likely that this concept is "genuine Asian" so to say. So "the idea of mushin" seems not to be influenced by Buddhist concepts, but a concept being incorporated into Buddhism itself (thus inevitably merging with the idea of nirvana), thus being incorporated into karate.
    • Cornelius
      Mushin in my opinion is the ekwiwalent of Bhuddist praynaparamita " the wiadomo of emptiness ". It is state which is free from dualistic, conceptual thought. As the Budo saying goes "the Zen and the sword is the same"
  • Irwin Chen
    This is generally referred to as Wuji in Taijiquan. Practice. It's a state of total and absolute 'emptiness' as you discussed and mind/body relaxation. The Wuji Standing Meditation is the beginning (and end) during Taijiquan Practice. The Mind is an integral factor in Internal Boxing as to 9 others, thus cleansing, clearing and relaxing it before practice is a must. Cheers!
  • Pharoyar
    Great document. As an ex-martial arts practitioner and teacher, i've identified this state of mind as soon as they started talking about "mindfulness for teachers in the classroom". So sad that people find the great thinks that martial arts can bring to classroom and to the students well-being, but are too afraid to go the extra step and embrage the teaching of any martial art 100%. Why teaching "mindfullness" to teachers, so that they can pass on to students, if you can teacher Karate-Do or Judo, and give a much better human development to the future citizen?

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