Appropriation of Aphorisms etc.

Japanese calligraphy sometimes uses four-character idiomatic phrases (yojijukugo 四字熟語). These are compound phrases consisting of four kanji used for idiomatic expressions the meaning of which are usually not directly inferred from the individual characters used.

A few examples appropriated into postwar Okinawa karate are:

  • ichigo ichie 一期一会 (one life, one encounter). It means “Every encounter is a once-in-a-lifetime encounter.” ORIGIN: Japanese tea ceremony.
  • onko chishin 温故知新 (warm up old, know new). It means “developing new ideas based on study of the past.” ORIGIN: The Analects of Confucius.
  • kishu busshin 鬼手佛心 (devil hand, Buddha heart). It means “Killing evil by doing evil, but with the best of intentions.” ORIGIN: Medical science / surgery.

Another is hossu ishabyō 法水瀉瓶 (method water, pour jar). It means to convey teachings correctly from master to disciple without leaking, just like transferring water from one jar to another jar without spilling a single drop.
Hossu equates a pure method with water, and ishabyō is transferring water from one bottle to another. It shows that the method remains unchanged even if transmitted from one person to another, and that the water inside remains unchanged even if the container changes.

More figurativley, and from the perspective of the receiver, it can also be interpreted as “to receive another person’s heart as it is, like transferring water from one vessel to another,” or “Imitate the person you want to be,” or “If you get close to a good person, you will unconsciously become a good person as well.”

The same idea can be seen in the framed calligraphy of the Zen phrase Ikki sui sha ikki 一器水瀉一器 hanging in the dōjō of the late Nakazato Jōen of Shorinji-ryū. Nakazato seems to have adopted it for his school to mean “inheriting the kata unchanged, as they have been taught,” emphasizing the bequeather.

In short, it is another example of the appropriation of aphorisms, techniques, and ideas from other specialist fields into the dōjō culture, architecture, and the moral corpus of postwar Okinawa karate.

© 2023, Andreas Quast. All rights reserved.

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