The Sword and Zen

The Sword and Zen

According to Takuan Soho

In my last blog, I discussed the concept of “ken zen ichi nyo,” or “the sword and Zen are one.” While this sentence is not entirely accurate in the historical sense, it does have some validity as an analysis of the type of thinking required to survive a sword combat.


“The Mysterious Record of Immovable Wisdom” is a work by the very influential Zen master Takuan Soho, in which he uses the mentality of sword combat as an analogy for the Zen mindset. He chose this particular analogy because the work was written for a student of his who was a famous sword instructor. In all likelihood, if he had been writing to a musician he would have used music as an analogy just as readily.

According to Takuan, the swordsman must never allow his mind to become “stuck” on some detail of the combat, such as the opponent's guard position or the look in his eyes or even the swordsman's own plans and strategies. If your mind gets “stuck,” a skilled opponent will seize on your lack of flexibility in the moment, and will cut you down while you are distracted by your “stuck” thoughts.


Thus, the secret to high-level competence in a sword combat is the same as the mindset of Zen- a fluid, adaptive type of thinking that never gets “stuck,” but continuously and spontaneously responds in the most appropriate way to every circumstance. The history of Japanese swordsmanship doesn't fully support the idea that swordsmanship and Zen are one- but according to Takuan, the nature of swordsmanship itself does.