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Friday, October 16, 2009

The Unfettered Mind

The Unfettered Mind 不動智神妙録

The Unfettered Mind
by Takuan Soho
Kodansha International
Translated by William Scott Wilson
ISBN: 4-7700-2947-0

William Scott Wilson has made a name for himself translating the martial-philosophy classics of 16th-century Japan. He is best known for his version of Hagakure, also available in this Kodansha series, which reached new heights for product placement in Jim Jarmusch’s film Ghost Dog.

Not only did Kodansha’s handsome red-on-black binding feature in Forrest Whitaker’s samurai/hitman hands, but extensive quotations from Wilson’s lyrical text are a key framing device throughout - making it the literate person's Kill Bill.

While Hagakure is little more than a quirky compendium of samurai etiquette, The Unfettered Mind provides a coherent series of insights into the timeless Zen Buddhist principles that underlie the samurai ethic.

The monk Takuan Soho (1573-1645) was a polymath, as adept at calligraphy, painting and cooking as he was at advising the Shogun on political affairs. While not a swordsman, he understood the art of the sword equally well: as with all arts, it involves the dissolution of the notion of self, unfettering the mind from the ego so as to be able to perform any action effortlessly and smoothly.

This book contains the letters he wrote to his protégé, Yagyu Muneyoshi, one of the greatest swordsmen of his time (see his own work, The Life-Giving Sword). Their influence on the samurai’s book is obvious.

Takuan tackles the great mysteries of life such as the mind and spirit with down-to-earth analogies involving plenty of fruit (that’s the gardener side of him coming out there). He is even comfortable to explain ghosts as an equally real part of the continuum of existence.

Swordplay is the pivot for his discussion, because it is such a clear interplay of life and death. Even those with no interests in the martial will find a distillation of wisdom here that can be applied to everyday life. While there are moments of obscurity that even Wilson cannot retrieve, overall his fluid prose helps elucidate Takuan’s masterpiece and keep it relevant for our age and culture.

Richard Donovan

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