Hand-to-hand fighting is one of the severest types of combat mankind will engage in. This has been constant throughout history and across all cultural boundaries. In fact, the experience is so demanding that it has prompted man to engage in esoteric rituals to protect himself both spiritually and physically. James Frazer wrote about this practice in his timeless classic, The Golden Bough: “Once more, warriors are conceived by the savages to move, so to say, in an atmosphere of spiritual danger which constrains them to practice a variety of superstitious observances quite different in their nature from those rational precautions which, as a matter of course, they adopt against foes of flesh and blood. The general effect of these observances is to place the warrior, both before and after victory, in the same state of seclusion or spiritual quarantine in which, for his own safety, primitive man puts his human gods and other dangerous characters” (Frazer, Golden Bough, 244).
The process described by Frazier has led to the intertwining of esoteric practices within the martial arts, a practice common in both eastern and western traditions. Though the Christian knight and Japanese samurai came from differing societies, the esoteric rituals they engaged in prior to combat achieved the same purpose: spiritual reinforcement. Not only did they gain mental strength, but they were also transformed into more formidable opponents because the warrior who has no fear of death will undertake challenges the uninitiated would never consider. It was from such a mindset, and the disciplined required attaining it, that other benefits dealing with one’s character and self-realization arose from martial arts training.
The acquisition of character development through martial arts training is found the world over, yet the one country most noted for it is Japan. Japanese society evolved from a hunting and agricultural lifestyle, and by the Heian period (794-1184), Japan had become divided into warring clans, two of the strongest being the Taira and Minamoto. It was during this turbulent period that the bushi, or samurai as they known today, grew.
With the bushi’s rise came systematic teachings of weapons fighting based on the spear, sword and halberd. During the Kamakura era (1185-1367), these teachings were consolidated into ryu-ha, or martial traditions, which became the standard method of transmitting Bujutsu.
For the samurai, regular Bujutsu (Martial Arts) training was a prerequisite to survival on the battlefield. In conjunction with Bujutsu was Budo, or the Martial Way, a process by which one’s Bujutsu training transcended physical technique, becoming a path of self-realization and spiritual development. The suffix Bu refers to martial and, when used in conjunction with jutsu or art, it denotes martial art. But when Bu (martial) is used in conjunction with do- way, the term denotes martial way, a practice that transcends combative themes that strives for self-enlightenment. This relationship was inseparable during classical times, but as Japan entered the modern world, the Budo-Bujutsu relationship changed.
With the long standing peace of the Tokugawa era prevailing martial attitudes deviated from their traditional courses, a process accentuated by government concerns over the Samurai’s restless spirit, and a proliferation of firearms on the battlefield. By the late seventeenth century many warriors found themselves unemployed, which raised the question of how to sustain their fighting skills, while channeling their martial prowess in a positive manner.
Born out of the harsh realities of war, Ken-jutsu had, by the sixteenth century, evolved into a system of sword fighting second to none on the world’s battlefields. Yet, during the Tokugawa period, the sword became an instrument used for means other than combat. As such, Ken-jutsu (sword art) gave rise to Kendo (sword way) a discipline through which the samurai could engage in a martial activity while at the same time, refrain from committing acts of wanton violence. Kendo’s training was orientated not for war, but for the moral equivalent to war, or, as Michael L. Raposa observed, “If an ascetic discipline can be conceived not simply as an alternative to military training but, rather, as itself constituting a form of military activity, then its power to excite emotions and motivate the will is enhanced. Here, what is added to the ascetic practice is the idea of war. On this view, spiritual practice is always already a martial discipline; at the same time, the idea of war is itself transformed, as the concept of enemy and strategies for fighting must be reformulated.” (Raposa, Meditation and the Martial Arts, 121) This change in training philosophy helped bring forth what is known today as the classical Budo, or the martial ways.
The Classical Budo
The classical Budo are martial disciplines, technically related to the classical Bujutsu but whose philosophy emphasizes character development over the pursuit of martial prowess. While the Bujutsu strive for combative effectiveness, discipline, and moral character, the classical Budo stress moral character, discipline and aesthetics. The process of separating these two endeavors was far from uniform, as the terms Budo and Bujutsu continued to be used in a utilitarian manner. However, by the late eighteenth century, the classical Budo had manifested distinct practices which, while drawn from Bujutsu, encompassed their own training doctrines. A few of these systems are Kendo (way of the sword) derived from Kenjutsu (Sword art), Iaido (way of drawing the Sword) from Iaijutsu (Art of drawing the sword) and Kyudo (Way of Archery) from Kyujutsu (Art of Archery). Likewise Zen precepts became intertwined in classical Budo training. The classical budo were designed so that through dedicated practice, the practitioner will achieve Satori, (enlightenment) a concept borrowed from Zen Buddhist teachings. Moreover Budo, as with Zen, stressed that the highest level of achievement occurred when one met a situation with a clear mind and then physically responded free of all technical barriers. D.T. Suzuki clarified the Zen- Budo relationship, noting that
When the sword is in the hands of a technician-swordsman skilled in its use, it is no more than an instrument with no mind of its own. What it does is done mechanically, and there is no myoyo discernible in it. But when the sword is held by the swordsman whose spiritual attainment is such that he holds it as though not holding it, it is identified with the man himself, it acquires a soul, it moves with all the subtleties which have been imbedded in him as a swordsman. The man emptied of all thoughts, all emotions originating from fear, all sense of insecurity, all desire to win, is not conscious of using the sword; both man and sword turn into instruments in the hands, as it were, of the unconscious, and it is this unconscious that achieves wonders of creativity. It is here that swordplay becomes an art.” (Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture, 146)
With the 250 year peace of the Tokugawa period the classical Budo’s technical prowess began diminishing. Kendo was one of the first systems affected since broken terrain was no longer encountered during practice, a result of training being largely conducted inside. As combative effectiveness yielded to character development, other system’s deficiencies became noticeable. E.J. Harrison a long time Judoka, who first made his way to Yokohama in 1897, documented this in Kyu-do when he wrote the following:
Without attempting to enter into a technical description of how the bow is used in Japan, I am safe in saying that there is a right way and a wrong way of holding it, fitting the arrow, drawing and releasing it. And in this context I can still remember the real distress experienced by the burly proprietor on those occasions, not infrequent, when some of my foreign companions and I fitted the arrow on the wrong side of the bow and held the bow in the incorrect position. One of these companions, a fellow-journalist on a local foreign paper, now, alas, no more, was an incorrigible offender in this respect. What added to the enormity of his offences was that in spite of these-so to speak-arch heresies, he always got nearer to the bull’s-eye than the Japanese habitués who never drew a bow without having conscientiously indulged in a number of preliminary flourishes such as baring their good right arms by throwing back their ample sleeves over their shoulders, raising the bow with a spasmodic gesture, and so forth. It was really heartrending to note the persistency with which they missed after all this elaborate ceremonial: but I think I am right in saying that they themselves would far rather have missed, and the proprietor would far rather have had them miss in proper form than score by such irregular practices as those indulged in by my friend who, with a cigar between his teeth, the bow held horizontally instead of perpendicularly, and the arrow on the wrong side, would wing his shafts into the very centre of the target with a monotonous frequency which afforded him unalloyed satisfaction and the unhappy and orthodox proprietor ineffable disgust. (Harrison, Fighting Spirit, 25)
And yet, despite the technical deficiencies involved, the classical disciplines still exhibited martial artistry when used by astute warriors. The story of the forty-seven ronin, whose vendetta in 1703 avenged their lord’s death, affirms this as does the efficiency of jujutsu systems evolving after the eighteenth century. Therefore, while the classical Budo may not have been functional on pre-Tokugawa battlefields, their practice during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did afford a reasonable means of self-defense. And in keeping with tradition, the classical warrior’s spirit was carried over into Budo, thereby allowing its practitioners to develop a quasi-martial ethos in their training.
Karate the New Budo
In Japan the Classical Budo and Bujutsu’s appeal began dwindling during the early Meiji period (1868-1912), a time when these traditions were deemed inadequate to confront international threats. This lack of interest was accelerated by popular opinion which, stemming from a growing infatuation with western ideas, considered the classical fighting arts outdated and anarchistic. Thus, as the Japanese mindset changed, its new values gave rise to the Gendai or modern Budo systems, disciplines practiced by the commoner. Though some modern Budo evolved from classical disciplines others, such as karate, were introduced to Japan and then modified to meet the modern Budo’s criteria.
The modern Budo’s philosophies contrasted with their predecessors. Where as classical Budo stressed character development, discipline and aesthetics, modern Budo’s goals were not so well defined. Many styles stressed discipline and character-development, but entwined within this were other ideologies that varied from style to style, particularly so in karate.
Karate (Tode-jutsu) was officially recognized by the Dai Nippon Butoku-kai as a Budo tradition in 1933. With this recognition its name became karate-do, or ‘way’ of the empty-hand, meaning that its practice transcended all combative realms. The definition of ‘Do’ however, varied among its practitioners as did its use. Some defined the ‘way’ in a sports-based fashion believing that only through competition could one develop a healthy body and mind. Others, like Funakoshi, interpreted karate -do’ as a path of self-realization, comparable to a Zen koan, where the greatest opponent was one’s self, not their fellow man.
Despite these ambiguities, both doctrines embraced the belief that through dedicated and austere training, one could forge character and develop an intense self-realization. Thus Karate’s martial ethos was employed for something other than combat, a development which allowed the fighting art to become a moral equivalent to war and gave its practitioners a means to expunge destructive emotions; thoughts that might otherwise prove harmful to someone, or society at large. This is in spite of the Butoku-kai’s militaristic agenda.
Karate and the Attainment of Zen
Modern theories often promote karate as evolving from Zen-Buddhism. Although karate embraces philosophical doctrines its association with Zen-Buddhism is a modern occurrence, taking place in the twentieth century. Additionally, when examining the relationship between Zen and karate, the difference between Zen consciousness and Zen Buddhism should be established to ascertain that karate is a secular practice.
Zen consciousness is an original, creative state, free of distractions. It is an experience peculiar to each person, and while attainable through karate, this does not mean that it was induced by Buddhist teachings. Nor is Zen consciousness exclusive to the martial arts and Japanese culture, rather it can be attained through other rituals, such as dance, prayer and calligraphy. Thus, what the dancer calls unity of body and mind the karate-ka describes as Zen.
Zen Buddhist philosophies were transmitted to China around 525 A.D. by the Indian monk Bodhidharma. A brusque man, also known as “the blue eyed barbarian,’ Bodhidharma and his origins remain a mystery. He could have been of the Indian Brahmin or Warrior caste, or he may have come from Persia. After arriving in China, Bodhidharma was asked by Emperor Liang, a Buddhist:
“What merit have I gained through my good works?”
“None,” replied Bodhidharma.”
“What is the essence of Buddhism?”
“Vast emptiness, nothing holy,” replied Bodhidharma.
“Who addresses me in such a manner?” demanded Liang, infuriated with the monk’s brusqueness.
“Not known,” answered Bodhidharma. (Buddhist Society, Buddhist Wisdom, 72-73)
His initial teachings rejected, Bodhidharma retreated to the Shaolin Monastery where he taught fellow monks Buddhism. Much later, after his death, Bodhidharma’s teachings served as the foundation upon which Zen Buddhism would be built. Vietnamese Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh observed about the transformation of Indian thoughts into Chinese beliefs that “There are important differences between the Indian mentality and the Chinese mentality that gave birth in China to the form of Buddhism called Zen. The Chinese are very practical people. Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism reflect this. The declaration made by Bodhidharma on his arrival in China has become the foundation of the Zen Buddhist tradition, because this tradition corresponds so well to the pragmatic nature of the Chinese” (Nhat Hanh, Zen Keys, 103). From China, Zen Buddhism spread to Korea and then to Japan where it split between the two sects of Soto and Rinzai, with Rinzai gaining popularity among the Samurai class. Zen’s pragmatic nature appealed strongly to warriors who viewed life with a steady measure.
Zen Buddhism was first introduced to Okinawa during the thirteenth century when a Japanese priest named Zenkan was shipwrecked on the island. He constructed a small temple at Urasoe near Shuri, named the Gokuraku-ji, and by the fifteenth century, several more Buddhist temples had been established. Nevertheless the religion didn’t flourish and the seventeenth century saw a sharp decline due to a lack of public interest and the Satsuma who suppressed the its practice on Okinawa. Shoshin Nagamine wrote that, “Zen philosophy had a profound impact on the development of martial arts on mainland Japan. However, in the old Ryukyu Kingdom it had little if any impact on local self-defense disciplines because of Satsuma’s prohibition on such practices. For example, shingitai (mind, technique, and body) is the ideal training precept for martial arts, but, in the case of pre-Meiji Okinawans, little emphasis was placed on such spiritual practices (shin) because of harsh political restrictions. To recognize this historical phenomenon is to understand how and why such overemphasis was placed on physical conditioning and practical application. By the time of the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-25) periods, karate training, a discipline void of the spiritual element, came to reflect this physical orientation. Most, if not all, teachers of karate placed more emphasis on kakedameshi (fighting) than they ever did on the inward journey.” (Nagamine, Okinawa’s Great Masters, p.121) Thus, Nagamine’s statement, while debunking the myth of Zen Buddhism’s being karate’s progenitor, raises the question of how Zen relates to karate.
Often explained in mystical terms, Zen is a state of consciousness intrinsic to the human body, brought forth by neuromuscular responses that accompany meditation and ritualized patterns of movement. William H. McNeill stated about this process:
The primary seat of bodily response to rhythmic movement is apparently situated in the sympathetic and para-sympathetic nervous systems. These nerve complexes are involved in all emotions; but exact paths of emotional excitation by the sympathetic nervous system and of compensatory restoration of bodily homeostasis by the para-sympathetic nervous system are not understood. Various hormones excreted by the pituitary gland and by other organs of the body play a role: so do the hypothalamus, the amygdala, and the right side of the cerebral cortex. Only after filtering through these levels of the brain does excitation derived from rhythmic muscular movement and voicing reach the left side of the brain, where our verbal skills are situated.
With such a pathway of response to rhythmic muscular movement, it is no wonder that our words fumble when seeking to describe what happens within us when we dance or march. (McNeill, Keeping Together in Time, 6)
Therefore, while each karate-ka can attain Zen through kata practice, the experience will vary from one individual to another. Nadel and Strauss observed about a similar transition found in dance: “If we look at meditation as a form of deep and continuous concentration or focus on a single sound, image or idea, the dancer, like the religious person, can approach a meditative state both in class and performance. This state is similar in all the arts and is like the flowing current felt in most situations of deep focused concentration” (Nadel-Straus, The Dance Experience, 141).
As a result of what Nadel-Straus describe as the Dance Experience, when one considers the deeper realms of kata practice, it is easily seen why Zen Buddhism and karate are often equated as one and the same by many westerners, particular so when both traditions often employ similar, if not the same, rhythmic patterns of breathing. .
Achieving Zen consciousness through kata is one of the highest levels of Karate-do training, for this is when the exponent attains a profound self realization, which ultimately leads to Satoi (enlightenment). Consequently, repetition of this experience enhances a person’s character as William James explains in his The Varieties of Religious Experience stating that “Mystical states, strictly so-called, are never merely interruptive. Some memory of their content always remains, and a profound sense of their importance. They modify the inner life of the subject between the times of their recurrence” (James, Varieties of Religious Experience, 416). Hence, through kata we begin to experience Zen consciousness outside of our training and in doing so embrace life with a creative focus, free of destructive thoughts.
Although neighbors in a small community, the strongest indicators of Zen Buddhism’s influence on karate are after its transmission to Japan. There the relationship was established by Karate-ka who sought to invest their fighting art with a deeper philosophical base. This often entailed borrowing ideas and philosophies from the classical Budo and Bujutsu, as well as from Zen Buddhism.
Legendary karate master, Gichin Funakoshi, was a frequent visitor to the Engaku-ji Temple in Kamakura, which was one of the oldest Rinzai Zen temples in Japan. Rinzai Zen, which appealed to the warrior class, is noted for stressing expediency, intuition and preparedness for death in its teachings. Funakoshi embraced these tenets and stressed the value of Zen in karate when he wrote, “The kara that means ‘empty’ is definitely the more appropriate. For one thing, it symbolizes the obvious fact that this art of self-defense makes no use of weapons, only bare feet and empty hands. Further, students of Karate-do aim not only toward perfecting their chosen art but also toward emptying heart and mind of all earthly desire and vanity. Reading Buddhist scriptures, we come across such statements as ‘Shiki-soku-ze-ku’ and ‘Ku-soku-zeshiki,’ which literally mena, ‘matter is void’ and ‘all is vanity.’ The character ku, which appears in both admonitions and may also be pronounced kara, is in itself truth.” (Ibid. p.35) Funakoshi went on to state that the Zen state can be attained through the practice of all martial arts, not merely one: “Thus, although the martial arts are many and include such diverse forms as judo, fencing, archery, spear fighting and stick fighting, the ultimate objective of all of them is the same as that of karate. Believing with the Buddhists that it is emptiness, the void, that lies at the heart of all matter and of all creation, I have steadfastly persisted in the use of that particular character in my naming of the martial art to which I have given my life.” (Funakoshi, Karate-Do My Way of Life, 35)
Funakoshi was not the only person to incorporate Zen-Buddhist philosophies into Karate. Shoshin Nagamine was well known for the incorporation of Zazen (Zen Meditation) into his teachings. Nagamine, whose search for enlightenment grew out of the devastation wrought upon Okinawa during World War II, was influenced by the works of Miyamoto Musashi and Tesshu Yamaoka. Similarly, Nagamine’s study of Zen Buddhism led him to consider Zen consciousness and karate as one in the same, a realization which helped him transcend physical technique and see karate as a means to promote world peace.
Nagamine’s incorporation of Zazen into karate is not a singular incident and can be found in Japan, Okinawa and the West. Zazen, sitting mediation, can be used to enhance one’ focus, but its practice is often dependent upon the karate-ka and their religious views, for while Zazen may be endorsed in Japan, its acceptance in Western cultures varies owing to pre-existing religious beliefs. Yet Zazen does not make karate a religion, nor does it make Zen consciousness a religion for as D.T. Suzuki explained, “Is Zen a religion? It is not a religion in the sense that the term is popularly understood; for Zen has no God to worship, no ceremonial rites to observe, no future abode to which the dead are destined, and, last of all, Zen has no soul whose welfare is to be looked after by someone else and whose immortality is a matter of intense concern with some people. Zen is free from all these dogmatic and ‘religious’ encumbrances” (Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture, 9).
Thus, Zen consciousness is a tool the karate-ka uses to develop skill, increase perception and build character. Its attainment is not easy because of the cathartic process involved. Nevertheless, that is karate-do, the instant when we break through our self-imposed barriers and win the battles inside of us
Copyright 2012 by Michael Rosenbaum.