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Torakan Karate-Do

Karate Essence - Zanshin


Enriches All

by T.D. McKinnon

Literally translated, Zanshin means ‘left over or remaining heart /spirit/mind’; however, for the dedicated karateka, Zanshin can be said to be the state of total awareness: being still within, while aware of one's surroundings, and being totally prepared for anything.

Table of Contents:

Zanshin the fighting spirit.

The different explanations attempt to describe the meaning of Zanshin.

Zanshin is not the sole property of the martial arts.

Zanshin and the various concepts attached to it within different arts.

Zanshin and its place within Budo Karate.

Zanshin from a personal perspective.

Zanshin also conveys the fighting spirit of the individual after the fight is over. If victorious, there is a forward-looking awareness that does not lose focus by the victory. If by chance the fight is lost there is an indomitable spirit that is evident, with honour and grace, and is never defeated. To encapsulate in a single sentence:

Zanshin can be said to be a state of total, calm, alertness. Before, during and after combat; a physical, mental, and spiritual state of awareness.

I’ve heard many attempts by instructors to translate Zanshin into English for the western student to understand:

· Zanshin: being in the zone, a mental state of focused concentration on the performance of an activity; while dissociating oneself from distracting, irrelevant aspects of one's environment.

· Zanshin: a state of readiness to do again what you have already successfully done.

· Zanshin: to be focused intently on the moment (without emotion)... a state of sustained, committed concentration.

Zanshin is not the exclusive property of Karate, or even the martial arts in general. Zanshin is a necessary characteristic of any credible soldier, police officer, security operative, or martial artist. Also, outside of any fighting formats, the Japanese art of ikebana (flower arranging), Chado (the tea ceremony), and Sumi-e (ink painting) requires Zanshin. Zanshin: a state of being ever ‘present’.

In kyudo, the Japanese martial art of archery, Zanshin is mentioned when referring to the body posture after the loosing of an arrow; the posture is intended to reflect the mental aspect (Zanshin) maintained before, during, and after an action.

In kendo, Zanshin is the continued state of alertness, spirit, mind and body, and readiness to meet the situation; and must be maintained throughout. Zanshin – maintained before, during, and after an action – is one of the essential elements that define a good attack.

In iaido, the practice is calm and quiet, and the most important feature of iaido is the development of Zanshin (a calm, reflective mind) throughout.

In Budo Karate competition, shobu sanbon or shobu ippon, Zanshin is a necessary element for which a technique is to be considered a score; the mental aspect (Zanshin) must be maintained before, during, and after the scoring technique; and not just a show at the end for performance.

Without Zanshin, kata would only be a number of techniques performed in a dramatic arrangement (as seems to be the case for most sport Karate performers), and certainly not like being in the midst of battle as, for instance, performed by Enoeda Keinosuke Sensei (whom I had the good fortune to have as my chief instructor in my formative Karate years).

Along with Kime, every karateka should be displaying a solid understanding of Zanshin ‒ at the very latest ‒ in preparation for that first blackbelt grading. Certainly, no Torakan student could hope to acquire a Shodan grade without it.

The famous samurai, Miyamoto Musashi, reputedly said:

“Both in fighting and in everyday life, you should be determined though calm. Even when your spirit is calm do not let your body relax, and when your body is relaxed do not let your spirit slacken… Zanshin”

From a personal perspective:

Formerly, as the CEO of a high-end, close personal protection company, I was responsible for selecting the ‘close personal protection operatives’. All were martial arts trained, some were former soldiers, and some were former police officers. Most would say that they were obviously engaged for their martial skills. However, their combat ability, certainly a desirable factor, wasn’t the primary dynamic in their engagement. Each successful CPPO applicant possessed that subjective but essential, qualitative characteristic: Zanshin.

Zanshin means always being ready to do what is needed when it is needed. Having Zanshin in your life has many merits but one of the chief benefits would be the tendency to avoid pitfalls. Think about it: is it not better to avoid disasters than, after the fact, figuring out how to survive them?

Having a sense of when something is not quite right may not be a measurable element. However, with Zanshin in your daily experience, you will fortuitously take the only route through a disaster zone that delivers you, hale and hearty, to the other side… That is part of what Zanshin can deliver for you; a more fruitful life experience.

Zanshin is a characteristic that will help and assist anyone who takes on the way of life that we call ‘Karate-Do’.Regardless of what other choices you make in your life i.e. career, family, living environment et cetera, Zanshin enriches all.


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