THE DYNAMIC RELATION BETWEEN OMOTE AND URA
All of a sudden, the blade, hidden inside the saya, glitters in the air and sinks into the flesh. What was ura, now is omote.
The sides of the tsuba overturn: the omote retreats (now it faces the hand of the samurai) and the ura prevail. The social image that the tsuba gave to the world now recedes. What does it come to light instead?
The omote of the samurai gives place to his ura. His social identity and his self-concept fade out. What was secret is now lightning, what was silent, is now thunder. What does it come to light now?
A good help to focus on the relationship between omote and ura comes from Friedrich Nietzsche, who studied and knew Zen Buddhism. In Beyond Good and Evil he wrote: «Whatever is profound loves masks (...). Every profound spirit needs a mask: even more, around every profound spirit, a mask is continually growing» (a famous and misconceived quote). Ura is the depth and omote is its mask. Omote and ura do not have an extrinsic linking but an internal relation: if this last dissolves, omote loses a part of itself, and so does ura. The Nietzschean mask should not be understood like a facade, a disguise, or a camouflage, but as the wavy surface of the sea depth. That every profound spirit needs a mask means that the surface is necessitated by the depth. Omote is necessitated by ura.
The omote side of katana, tsuka, and tsuba gives us good information on the samurai social status inside the vertical power structure of feudal Japan. The omote side of a samurai was his social awareness, his personal identity as a member of a powerful or powerless family or clan, as a loyal bushi (warrior) of a particular daimyō (feudal lord), as a man with a story and a certain age (a relevant factor in Japan).
In combat, be it a battlefield fight or a private confrontation, this omote side has to disappear. The samurai should attain the state of mushin, "the state of no-mindedness", "mind without mind", “empty mind”. Mushin is not a mental state: it's a deeper level of consciousness at the core of Zen Buddhism practice. It's attained after years of training that was a fundamental practice for the past samurai as is today for many martial art masters.
What is mushin?
Wrong question. This is the typical Western-style question that has no answer in the Japanese culture.
Moreover, mushin cannot be grasped by the intellect or by the mind in its ordinary level of consciousness. It would be like asking a two-dimensional figure to move into a three-dimensional space.
Mushin is a condition that has to be achieved only; as often happens in these cases, it can be connotated negatively: mushin is the level of consciousness of a mind that has erased every discursive thought, expectation, hope, judgment, and attachment; that is free from emotions and desires, that feels no anger and fear, no doubts and worries; that has fully overcome the egoic horizon. It's an "empty mind": mu is "emptiness" and this last is - also - the absence of ego or limited self.
This state is not an unconscious condition or a state of mental relaxation: on the contrary, it implies a sort of openness to everything (perceptions are not selected and restricted by egoic expectations), an enhanced mental clarity, a full presence in the here and in the now.