My first insight into Zanshin was back in the early 1980’s when Headmaster Abe Shinobu Sensei befriended me in front of the world renowned Budokan in Tokyo, Japan. He taught kendo and swordsmanship at Nihon Taiiku Daigaku from 1958 to 1985. Shizawa Kunio Sensei, who was second in command, became Headmaster in 1986 to 2001, was another of my mentors. Both of my Kendo masters and their assistants enabled me to learn and practice swordsmanship that eventually put me on the path to a better understanding of Zanshin and its fleeting eight directions of awareness. At that time Zanshin was an unknown term for me to fully comprehend but, with the support, advice and training from my masters, I gained a stronger knowledge and perception over the years.
Shizawa Sensei was my go-to everyday teacher when it came to learning and following the strict kendo curriculum with its physical education for my wellbeing. Abe Sensei was in his last year of professorship where he spent more time teaching the senior and grad students how to develop and fine-tune their mindsets. Abe Sensei spent time teaching me many of the old ways of discipline to build my mental being. Through my relentless dedication and practice while aspiring to be the best I could be, the following is how I learned Zanshin and its many avenues. I will now begin to explain for you a simple definition and we will proceed from there.
Zanshin is a Japanese Budo term used by ancient Samurai and expressed in today’s martial arts such as Kendo and Aikido. Zanshin is an intuitive sensation and feeling one has to experience in order to completely understand the true weight of its meaning. This spontaneous mental and physical processing offers a slightly different interpretation for each individual. Any Japanese thumbing through a dictionary would come upon the Budo term “Zanshin” that depicts the kanji pictorial “nokosu kokoro”. This literally translates into “leave your heart/presence behind”. Generations ago the Samurai read Zanshin which they understood as…after cutting down your enemy make sure he does not get up and attack you from behind!
Western translations identify Zanshin as a sustained alertness or lingering focus. Also, it is known as the eight-directions of awareness, perfect intent and total alertness of one’s surroundings and mindset. More interpretations are to be prepared for the unknown, a continued state of spirit, leaving your presence behind and the perfect finish to the perfect storm.
The term Zanshin has been contemplated for generations and continues to be vague in expressing its true depth unless one had personally experienced it. Here are a couple of mental images to help the beginning student or martial arts fan to understand the concept of Zanshin better. Visualize a gymnast who has just completed a routine on the bars and dismounts back to the floor. The gymnast lands perfectly in a standing position with no wavering and scores a perfect 10. This is a form of Zanshin. Next, picture an entertainer up on stage singing a heartfelt song. As the last note echoes through the halls a tranquil silence envelops the audience. During that last moment in the limelight, this is also a form of Zanshin.
Today’s Japanese swordsman understands that Zanshin is made up of several essential segments, such as posturing, perception, engagement, distance, focus and energy. At times these segments all mesh to create the “Perfect Storm”. When everything comes together perfectly, and the techniques fall exactly into place this offers advantage and provides a continued state of mental and physical readiness. The question is…where and how can one go to learn Zanshin?
Nihon Taiiku Daigaku (Ni Tai Dai) is a private martial arts/sports college founded in Tokyo, Japan in 1891. This college has produced generations of renowned kendoists and swordsmen throughout Japan. Geographically, Japan is about the size of California with a population of almost 130 million. Unsurprisingly, there are about sixty thousand high schools located within the 47 prefectures of Japan’s 6,852 islands. Most of these schools naturally have kendo clubs/teams, which compete at local and national levels. As in any national sport, kendo competition becomes fiercer at the high school level. Those young disciplined combatants who represent the spirit of the Samurai come to compete from every village, town, and city throughout Japan.
Naturally many of these high school kendo champions aspire to take their kendo skills to the next level but unfortunately do not make it. For those qualified, Ni Tai Dai offers that next level of education and competition for students who want to pursue careers in kendo and swordsmanship. Ni Tai Dai’s kendo program accepts about one hundred and twenty-five freshmen students each year which join the five hundred plus students already enrolled in the program. Most every kendo student attending Ni Tai Dai has had a bamboo sword placed in their hand by the time they were three years old and have competed in every weekend kendo tournament since then. These kendo students will eventually graduate with a bachelor’s degree to become tomorrows’ best and brightest kendo teachers and first responders such as police and fire.
Ni Tai Dai’s kendo curriculum follows the Zen Nihon Kendo Renmei (ZNKR) standardized kendo guidelines, rules and regulations. There are absolutely no deviations or substitutes allowed for these strict rules concerning kendo. The ZNKR is the largest kendo organization supported by millions of Japanese members. Consequently, every kendo student, who attends, Ni Tai Dai, practices all the ZNKR pre-arranged forms and sparring to the point of perfection six days a week in which they are graded and ranked. Often there were sparring sessions towards the end of the training day. Many students would then improvise using their own styles known to their particular area in Japan. These learned local techniques were passed down from fathers, and grandfathers who were past masters.
To my discerning eye different styles stood out. Something as basic as a center stance with sword positioned forward the many variations were obvious. One style had the sword pointed at the opponent’s forearm. Another style had this same sword positioned towards the opponent’s stomach or perhaps fixated on his eyes. Additional styles pointed the tip of the sword to the opponent’s throat. It was, for me, particularly interesting to witness and participate in adapting and emulating an older koryu style one day and then practicing a modern gendai style the next.
Many students from the Tokyo area practiced Muso Shinden-ryu, which is considered an older style or Toyama-ryu, a modern military style. This style, I personally had an affinity for. A student from the Aichi Prefecture would demonstrate the stances of Yagyu Shinkage-ryu, which appeared slightly different from the Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu stances as seen in the Kansai area. Styles such as Omori-ryu practiced in northern Japan and Itto-ryu learned in the south of Japan were compared, practiced and shared. It was enlightening to experience many of the various sword systems practiced throughout Japan.
Back in the Showa era the only information available for me concerning Zanshin was in a thick Sanseido Japanese/English dictionary. As my language skills improved so did my swordsmanship. One day, I asked Abe Sensei to explain Zanshin in a fashion I could understand. He said, “OK, then, close your dictionary, and begin to live the theory of Zanshin. Then, take it upon yourself to practice this theory through practical application and repetition. Repetition is the first avenue to help you understand the ancient, disciplined ways. Happo-giri, or, as known as, the eight cuts are your first step to learn discipline before you can experience Zanshin. Happo-giri’s eight cutting patterns when learned will help you integrate your body into rhythm, timing plus speed needed to execute those sword techniques effectively. Using Happo-giri’s applications will also show you how to maintain a clear mental attitude while executing these age-old techniques. Overtime your thoughts and intentions will meld and work as one. No longer will you over think the situation you will just control and do it.
Abe Sensei then said, “These cutting patterns follow a general foundation for you to build onto. Visualize these cutting patterns with you, as the center of the sphere, with rings positioned encircling you thus creating focal points, guidelines and cutting patterns. This sphere that surrounds you is your circle of influence in eight directions. This means that if anyone comes in contact within your circle of influence they can be cut down. After you have become proficient with various transitions and cutting patterns your rote memory will set in well enough where turning, transitioning, and cutting becomes your second nature. You won’t have to think before you act”.
Tens of thousands of cuts later I could spin like a top while executing vertical, diagonal and horizontal cuts at full speed. The smoother my movements became the less energy I expelled thus conserving my strength. I was slowly beginning to understand how the eight different directions came into play. I also began to understand the simplicity of the angles, which led me to not over think the techniques involved. This simplicity allowed me to practice at a higher level of awareness than I had experienced previously. Now, honed and practiced, my cutting patterns are executed at blinding speed with spot on accuracy. Through practice and repetition my thoughts and intentions were not telegraphing to my opponents anymore. The more practiced and disciplined I became the more I could consistently strike like a machine.
After a few more months of intense practice had passed Abe Sensei came to me after a training session, hands me an old, tattered book and says, “Read this and you will better understand the meaning of Zanshin. This book “五輪書 ” was written by a famous Japanese Warrior named, Miyamoto Musashi. If you can understand his words literally you will become more like him. When you have read it twice, we will speak again about Zanshin”. I took the book and began to read and decipher the Japanese kanji. The first pages were the most difficult, but the further I read the less complicated it became. The more I understood the book’s mindset the more it became mine. The more I gained experience in sparring the less I needed to be defensive and began to be offensive. Moreover, I read each and every page multiple times, and each time I become more as one with his techniques.
One morning towards the end of a regular training session I was sparring against a senior student. He and I were going at it in earnest. So much so that anyone nearby could detect the scent of burning bamboo shinai emitting from our fight. In the heat of our battle, my shinai hit its mark and I set up for the next strike and then the next and the next. Upon completion we bowed to each other and stepped out of the ring. Abe Sensei approached me and immediately put his arm around me and said, “Handsome Boy!”
Abe Sensei then said, “It is time for you to understand the feeling of Zanshin in relation to an opponent”. He motioned to a student to come and face off with me. Crossing swords in a center stance I locked eyes with my new opponent. Then Abe Sensei instructed me to turn my head away, either to my left or right, and tilted slightly downward. At this position I could not readily see my opponent’s face but in my peripheral vision I realized that I could recognize and feel even his slightest movements and transitions. I began sparring this way day after day and week after week until I could feel my opponent’s presence without directly looking at him.
When I became proficient sparring in this manner, Abe Sensei then pitted me against two opponents for my next level of mindset and physical awareness. My two opponents were positioned one to my left flank and the other to my right at 10 and 2 o’clock. Without making eye contact I sparred both opponents simultaneously using my peripheral vision. Employing simple striking patterns against two opponents, I executed the techniques that will give me an advantage. At first, I kept thinking of plans of attack but then immediately realized that simple direct techniques worked best. If I were to spar two opponents at once, I had to greatly increase my speed, stamina and shorten my cutting patterns. I practiced at this stage for quite some time further developing my prowess, increased timing and rhythm to enable me to become quick and intimidating.
Another season passed when Abe Sensei said, “It is time to apply all this practiced knowledge into a different point of view to realize Zanshin using a new set of eyes. There are many terms such as, metsuke that translates to observing another’s presence and demeanor. This, I will call “Yama o Miru” (looking at the mountain off in the distance). Remember, when you fought two opponents at once using your peripheral vision? This time I want you to look at your opponent differently using squinted eyes. This will produce a different perspective or viewpoint of your peripheral vision, which I call grey center mass”.
Abe Sensei continued, “Look towards your opponent and then through him with those same squinted eyes as when you looked at the mountain off in the distance. You will see less detail consequently your cutting center mass becomes simplified, and your opponent can’t readily read your thoughts and intentions. Your opponents are easily surprised with the strike, as they do not see it coming. Employing “Yama o Miru” when sparring, you will see openings in your opponent’s demeanor that were not there before”.
Hours upon hours of hard intense practice each day for months developed a stronger understanding of Zanshin with its many directions. Even though I was able to execute movements and techniques within my peripheral vision my blind areas were still beyond my comprehension. Abe Sensei then positioned a third opponent to my rear. I was forced to address all eight directions as three opponents slowly walked around me in a circle just out of my sword’s range. At any given time, ready or not an attack by any of us could be initiated. Over time I begin to learn how to adjust my position without opening myself to an attack from my rear or blind side. I now knew that I could only rely on my own gut feeling and act accordingly. What I discovered within myself was that a large percentage of my strikes hit their true mark, which was a surprise to my opponents and satisfaction for me.
Later that week I returned Abe Sensei’s book. He takes it in hand and tells me he has owned it since 1955. He also said, “Understanding timing and rhythm is essential to the practice for perfection. Perfection comes not without sacrifice as it takes a lifetime of constant practice and study to achieve one’s individual goals. I have been crossing swords for 58 years and still need more time to master my techniques. When studying swordsmanship there are hidden meanings that you must understand to reach a true level of proficiency.”
Abe Sensei continued, “Perfection is crossing swords with an opponent without having to make a conscious decision on what move or technique to execute next. Your innate abilities become evident and make for your survival. Next, listen to my story of survival made up of the essential segments of Zanshin. Pay close attention and listen very carefully because I am about to relate to you my story regarding Zanshin in action. Now that you understand the book and have practiced Happo-giri it will be easier for you to put yourself into my story and imagine yourself there”.
Abe Sensei began his story he said, “Visualize two warring clans with a common border. Both clans have encampments on each side of the border in rough terrain. Next, imagine you are in the midst of these two warring groups in what is considered no-man’s land. The sun is beginning to set as you stealthily move through this enemy area back towards your own encampment. You stop just for a moment to relieve yourself and begin to hear the rustling of leaves behind you whereupon immediately three members from the other clan rush you.
During this surprise attack your instincts are to run which you do until your mind can mentally assess how many and where they are positioned. Surging forward at full speed you take about a half dozen steps and visualize there are only three swords drawn. By your last step you are completely aware of your surroundings. The spirit of the warrior in you kicks in as you take command of the situation.
You have now created enough distance to initiate a counterattack. Drawing your sword from its sheath you turn to your rear now facing the three warriors with your own sword positioned above your head and moving towards them. They immediately stop their attack, as they did not anticipate this counter assault. Their feet slipping and sliding in the mud on the rain-soaked ground they grind to a halt ending up in askew stances.
The fastest attacker was the least prepared as his sword was not in an attack mode. The closer he slid towards you the wider his eyes became as your blade cleaves downward into his now sword raised arm and shoulder. His severed arm still grasping his sword continues airborne past you as his body follows close behind. The instant your sword finishes its first cut and without hesitation it seeks its next attacker as if it was a pulsating divining rod attracted to water.
The second attacker was just a couple of paces behind the first one and farther to the left. He was slightly more prepared as he advanced with his sword bobbing up and down in unison with his gait. Witnessing his comrade’s demise, he had lost his focus, which instantly created an opportunity for you to move in closer than he anticipated.
As his sword surges upward, you thrust your blade into his chest between his raised arm and pectoral muscle. This slowed him down immensely and he came to an immediate stop with your blade still imbedded in his upper chest. Continuing, you start extracting the sword from its human sheath as your eyes quickly search out the last attacker who is so near at only two spear lengths away. He is now mid-step of his hasty retreat his sword frantically wavering back and forth.
At this stage you realize you cannot lunge since you also would slip on the bloodied ground. Instead, without thought or hesitation you take several quick short paces towards him setting up your own attack. You have begun to sense his weakness and the closer you advance the weaker his demeanor appears. His attempted strike is immediately parried by you creating an opening in which your blade severs his thumb from his sword wielding hand. Before his digit hits the ground, your blade is again in action bearing down on his neck as you both glare into each other’s eyes. He bends backwards to avoid the pressure of your blade as it penetrates his neck, severing an artery. He then slumps to the ground as you move away viewing the three attackers lying in their blood impregnating the dirt. You scan the immediate area for others ready and if need be…poised to kill three more!
When you sense there are no more you take a deep breath, relax and immediately feel the cool rush of the wind on your face glad to be alive. You relish this moment basking in nature, but reality brings you back to the present standing above three groaning bodies. You are grateful that their screams did not bring others to their aid as you quickly walk back towards the safety of your encampment”.
Abe Sensei then said, “Did you visualize yourself in the midst of it all running and posturing, setting up for your attack, strong mindset and focus, plus who to attack first or last? All the basic elements of Zanshin such as, posturing, perception, engagement, distance, focus and connecting energy are evident and present in this scenario. Go back in your mind relive my story tracing every step, technique, transition and follow through. Practice these techniques again and again until you can better recognize Zanshin in action using your eight directions of awareness”.
As a side note: I want to emphasize that this is how I was introduced to Zanshin.