One of the most fascinating things about reading a work of fiction written by a martial artist is that you can find tidbits of wisdom tucked in along with the narrative.
In the novel Deshi by John Donohue (2005 St. Martin’s Press, NY), there is a scene where the central character, Connor Burke, and Yamashita Sensei, his mentor in Kendo, attend a Kyudo (Archery) demonstration. After the demonstration, Yamashita Sensei speaks to a group of the Kyudoka:
“Sensei was speaking to the group, but he looked toward the spot where I stood and watched me closely for a moment. ‘There is need for Nyunanshin here. Do you know the phrase?’ He glanced around the room. Heads shook: no. Yamashita looked at me. ‘Professor?’ ‘Soft-heartedness’ I said, sighing inwardly. ‘A receptivity of the mind and spirit to instruction.’ ‘Precisely,’ Yamashita breathed. ‘To be a student is not just a matter of being capable of learning. It is being willing to do so. And acting on the lesson, no matter how difficult.’ ‘Hai,’ I said” (p. 112)The concept of nyunanshin, defined by Burke as “soft-heartedness” can also be translated as “pliable mind.” As is my habit when discussing such concepts in The Reflecting Pool, I would first like to examine the Kanji that comprise the word nyunanshin.
This word is made up of three characters. The first Kanji, “nyuu” can also be read as “juu” (the same character used in the words “Judo” and “Jujutsu”) and means “soft” or “gentle”. The second character, “nan” also has the meaning “soft”. The third character, “shin” can also be read as “kokoro” and means “mind”, “heart” and “feelings”. Put together, we can get the sense of a “doubly soft mind” or “pliable mind”.
In his book Living the Japanese Arts and Ways (2003 Stonebridge Press, Berkeley, CA), H.E. Davey discusses in depth the concept of nyunanshin. He states that:
In order to train effectively, we must be willing to change. A fixed image of oneself or a strong ego can, however, obstruct a willingness to change and grow. The Way lies in continual transformation, and reigi (techniques of respect) helps us to transcend the ego and achieve a humble, open-minded state that makes real growth possible. This state is nyunanshin, or “pliable mind,” and it is an essential component of the Do. Just as stretching is less painful when we “relax into the stretch,” so too is spiritual growth easier when we transcend the ego and open our mind. This is nyunanshin. (p. 185)
Putting Yamashita Sensei’s and Davey’s thoughts together, we can see a desired result and its primary obstacle; the result is being a willingness to learn and acting on the lesson, even though it is very difficult; the obstacle is, as Davey writes, “…a fixed image of oneself or a strong ego.”
Nyunanshin is also directly related to the idea of Shoshin, or “beginner’s mind.” To have Shoshin means that each time we step through the door of the Dojo, we do so as a beginner and as such have a mind that is open and receptive to the lesson being given. In other words we are open and willing to accept what is taught and act on it even though it may not be easy to do so. To be capable of learning is not enough…we must have a need to learn which is not motivated by self-interest or potential reward, but rather driven by the desire to do the best that we can for its own sake.
Davey concludes his discussion of nyunanshin by stating that nyunanshin requires harmony and union “with the Sensei, the training and the Dojo.” He goes on to qualify this by saying that this harmony and union:
…come from first emptying yourself in order to become full. This emptying, which relates to reigi, is an ongoing, lifelong process. Through the disciple that comes from freely choosing to follow the Way and the pliant, open mind of nyunanshin we discover the true meaning and value of the ways as spiritual practice. (p.187)
So the next time that you struggle with an exercise or Kata in the Dojo, ask yourself whether you have a “pliable mind” that is open and willing to change, for just as you change from one level to the next by passing your Shinsa (formal examination) and must now be open to new challenges and new ways of thinking, a “pliable mind” is an essential component of your regular training and without it, progress will be most difficult…if not impossible.
Michael Alexanian (Gennan)
General Manager (Sokatsu Shibucho) and Head Instructor (Shihan)
United States Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu
Michigan Honbu Dojo