Did Takuan Sōhō Write a Famous Quote about Mushin?

Calligraphic 夢語 by Takuan Sōhō (1573-1645), Nomura Art Museum, Kyoto, Kyoto, Japan, 1624

The Beginning: Walking with the Tengu

I was listening to Matthew Krueger's excellent Walking with the Tengu podcast, specifically his discussion of Mushin. During the show he mentioned Bruce Lee and his blockbuster 1973 movie Enter the Dragon, and cited the Wikipedia page on Mushin, or "no mind." The page said (prior to this blog post):

"The legendary Zen master Takuan Sōhō said:[7]

The mind must always be in the state of 'flowing,' for when it stops anywhere that means the flow is interrupted and it is this interruption that is injurious to the well-being of the mind. In the case of the swordsman, it means death.

When the swordsman stands against his opponent, he is not to think of the opponent, nor of himself, nor of his enemy's sword movements. He just stands there with his sword which, forgetful of all technique, is ready only to follow the dictates of the subconscious. The man has effaced himself as the wielder of the sword. When he strikes, it is not the man but the sword in the hand of the man's subconscious that strikes." (emphasis added)

Footnote 7 cites "Soho, Takuan. The Unfettered Mind. Trans. William Scott Wilson. Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd., 1986." as the source of this quote.

Enter the Dragon

When I heard and then read these words, it reminded me of another scene from Enter the Dragon, where Bruce says:

"When the opponent expand, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And, when there is an opportunity, I do not hit - it hits all by itself.” (emphasis added)

The bolded Mushin text and the bolded Enter the Dragon text made me wonder if perhaps Bruce had read the Mushin text. I decided to learn more about it.

The Unfettered Mind

The Mushin text supposedly cites a book by Takuan Sōhō, a Japanese Rinzai Zen Buddhist priest who lived from 1573 to 1645. His book in question is 不動智神妙録, fudōchi shinmyōroku, translated as "The Unfettered Mind" by William Scott Wilson, or "Record of the Mental Sublimity of Immovable Wisdom," described thus by The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism by Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr. (Princeton University Press, Nov 24, 2013):

Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, p 303

He wrote many other works, however, many of which are discussed here.

The most famous, and possibly the only, English translation of this book was completed by William Scott Wilson. He published his translation as The Unfettered Mind in 1986, and a more recent edition appeared in 2012. While there are versions of the plain text online, the two Amazon editions I linked also allow searching for key words from the Mushin text cited by Wikipedia.

My Findings

After searching the various texts available, it turns out that the Mushin text cited by Wikipedia does not appear anywhere in Mr. Wilson's work.

There's nothing even close to it. Yes, The Unfettered Mind talks about Mushin for the swordsman or martial artist, but the attribution is clearly wrong.

As you might expect, there's the usual littany of blog posts, articles, and even other books that include the text verbatim, some with references to Mr. Wilson's book, others just saying the words were written by Takuan Sōhō.

The Reddit Investigation

I even found a Reddit thread where someone else made this discovery in 2016. One respondent claimed that the Mushin text was some version of the following found in The Unfettered Mind:

"To speak in terms of your own martial art, when you first notice the sword that is moving to strike you, if you think of meeting that sword just as it is, your mind will stop at the sword in just that position, your own movements will be undone, and you will be cut down by your opponent. This is what stopping means.

Although you see the sword that moves to strike you, if your mind is not detained by it and you meet the rhythm of the advancing sword; if you do not think of striking your opponent and no thoughts or judgments remain; if the instant you see the swinging sword your mind is not the least bit detained and you move straight in and wrench the sword away from him; the sword that was going to cut you down will become your own, and, contrarily, will be the sword that cuts down your opponent.

In Zen this is called "Grabbing the spear and, contrariwise, piercing the man who had come to pierce you." The spear is a weapon. The heart of this is that the sword you wrest from your adversary becomes the sword that cuts him down. This is what you, in your style, call 'No-Sword.'"

That is not convincing at all. Yes, it talks about Mushin, of course, but there is nothing remotely similar to the quotation in question.

Return of the Dragon 

I did some more searching for the Mushin text, and lo and behold, it led me back to Bruce Lee! On page 84 of Joe Hyams' 1979 book Zen and the Martial Arts, we find this story:

Zen in the Martial Arts, Joe Hyams, p 84

The only difference is the use of the word "unconscious" in place of "subconcious" in the last sentence.

Now, what could be the "worn volume" by the "Zen master and swordsman Takuan"? It's possible it was a Japanese edition of 不動智神妙録, fudōchi shinmyōroku, published prior to the 1986 edition of The Unfettered Mind. (Bruce Lee passed in 1973.) 

However, I am not sure if Bruce Lee could read Japanese. It's possible he could have read a Japanese edition and leveraged the similarities among the two languages. It's also possible that the attribution is completely wrong and Mr. Hyams confused it.


It is not accurate to cite Mr. Wilson's book as the source of the Mushin text in the Wikipedia article, and I submitted a change while writing this post. Instead, it is more accurate to say:

On page 84 of his 1979 book Zen in the Martial Arts, Joe Hyams claimed Bruce Lee read the following quote to him, attributed to the legendary Zen master Takuan Sōhō:[7]

I have no qualms about the content of the quote. I just want the right person to receive credit.

Enjoy attaining your no-mind state!


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