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Discussion on the SHIKAI (4 poisons of the mind)

On Saturday, 3 July 2021, member of the RKC got together to discuss the SHIKAI, or the 4 poisons of the mind. This concept, although Kendo-related, can be applied to one's life too.

Here is the formal definition from the "Japanese-English Dictionary of Kendo", issued by the All Japan Kendo Federation (AJKF):

"Shikai (n) = The four unfavourable mental conditions: astonishment (surprise), fear, doubt and hesitation. It is important to control the mind in order to suppress these conditions."

kyo-ku-gi-waku (n) = A term which refers to a state of mind characterized by surprise, fear, doubt and hesitation. The mental disturbance which occurs when facing an opponent, or the state where one cannot control the disturbances of one's own mind."

Through our discussions we tried to unbox these 4 "mental conditions". I gave my interpretation of each of these conditions, some of my experiences with them, and my thoughts on how to apply them both in and out of the dojo.

FEAR, was the one that is most cited as it is the most obvious one initially. In my explanation, fear can be both from an external factor (such as fearing my opponent that is in front of me), or an internal one (the fear of getting hurt). Rightly so, your opponents’ skill level might be greater than yours, but the idea is to give it your best shot, irrespective as to how fearful you may be.

More importantly, it is the MANAGEMENT of this fear so that you can still do what you have been training to do. Getting rid of, or totally eliminating the fear is not ideal. I used the example of once going on a tactical gun-fighting course, and the course instructor told us a story of the policemen involved in a gunfight - It's the ones who are no longer fearful of the overhead gun fire that are the ones ready for retirement. It is this fearless, no-care attitude anymore, which will cause them to take risks and even be reckless, which is a danger not only to themselves, but to the others around them.

During Kendo keiko, we have the opportunity to be able to face the fear of standing in front of someone who is equally hell-bent on striking you! The objective, as mentioned, is to be able to work through and "manage" this fear and strike their relevant targets.

As we become more proficient in Kendo, we start to practise inducing fear into our opponents. This can be something like having a very strong kiai (scream or vocalisation of spirit) that exudes a fear-inducing fighting spirit! This skill on its own take years of practise to be able to do effectively!

DOUBT, very often is a subconscious trait that many of us will not notice unless it is pointed out to us. In kendo, this doubt is one’s own ability to perform a technique effectively, or more simply, being able to reach an opponent and strike them! For instance, when attempting to strike the men target from: issoko-itto-no-maai (one-step-to-strike distance), very often there is a slight movement of the let foot towards the right foot (tsugi-ashi) before the movement forward towards the opponent is done. This is a common mistake and is one that is usually caused by one's doubt to be able to cover sufficient distance and strike the target correctly.

Kendo will allow us to address this "doubt" in the dojo, and work on the issue in a tangle way. It's very important to realise that the best way to manage this doubt, is through hard, consistent training.

SURPRISE, or being caught off-guard is usually due to not having experienced a specific wazza, technique or situation. In kendo, the more you do of it (keiko), the less surprised you'll be when you encounter it. On the flip side, doing more kendo gives you the ability to mask your own intention as much as possible, so when you move or strike, your opponent will be surprised and you can take advantage of the situation. It's boils down to doing more of it so as to eliminate the surprise-factor in yourself, and induce more of it in your opponent.

Can this be applied into outside world (outside the dojo). Most definitely! I think that the more we experience life and all its ups and downs, the less surprised we can be. More importantly, it allows us to better plan accordingly so as to soften those ups and downs. Kendo has allowed me to manage that mental state more effectively.

ANXIETY/ HESITATION was the final discussion point. The summary of this point was to be able to manage the "peaks and valleys" or extreme hight and lows of our mental and emotional state, and just be able to perform the task at hand in a controlled manner with little emotional attachment to it. The example I used was that when doing keiko with lesser-experienced members at our dojo, they tend to be very anxious and hesitate to perform a technique. This could be seen (and felt) through their shinai when they are standing in a chudan-no-kame in front of me and their shinai is frantically tapping my shinai (due to anxiety), or is almost-stationary (frozen from fear and hesitate). In these instances, I get them to move steadily again by reminding them of their basic practise strike-routine: I back up a bit to get them at a toma position (outside distance), kiai, step forward and perform a men/kote/do strike with good zanshin (state of alertness), then turn around. Very basic, but an important exercise to remain "cool, calm and collected" so as to help "win" the fight!

The above was a very brief summary of what was discussed in our session. The full recorded 1-hrs session is available to our RKC members upon request.

I had previously written about the SHIKAI in a self-defence context and how it can be applied in a self-defence situation. To read this previous blog, please refer to this link:

Lastly, this is by no means a definitive explanation of the shikai, but rather my personal account and interpretation of it. The onus is on each kendo practitioner to research, apply, tweak and refine their own experience and understanding of it.

Then, in time, when we are able to do so again, let us meet in the dojo and cross swords and apply and refine our practise to understand the shikai.

Until then, stay safe. Stay strong and keep training!

Regards Warren HO (Kendo, 5th Dan)

3 July 2021 participants & their quotes:

"Have a cup of coffee or tea with your demons." - Hemali

"The swordsman should never be without his (principles of the) sword." - Brian

“The 3 C’s – Cool. Calm. Collected.” - Brian

"Before you saw me, you were fine. When you saw me, you started disgracing my family’s kung fu!" -Scott

F.E.A.R. stands for "False Evidence Appearing Real." – Hemali

“It’s a mental war we have within ourselves…!” – Lisa

“I want to RAGE!” – Lisa

“I feel it is applicable in the work environment as well as in the dojo.” – Jason

“Time to fight (and) kick butt! What’s going on?! Oh samosas!” – Scott


The Rivonia Kendo Club (RKC) train the traditional Japanese martial arts of Kendo and Iaido (sword-based martial arts), as well as Jodo(the art of the short staff/stick), that encourages the cultivation of the human character.

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