OKKJ, Part 1: Karate. Chapter 1 – Definition and Categories of Karate. 1. The Definition of Karate.

Translated from: Takamiyagi Shigeru, in: Okinawa Karate Kobudō Jiten, 2008, p. 77 – 79.

1. The Definition of Karate

Karate is a bujutsu and budō to protect yourself empty-handedly, to train your body, and to refine your mind without using weaponry and tools. This is the traditional, popular, and simple definition.

While karate promotes righteousness, justice, and honor, as symbolized by the saying “there is no first attack in karate,” it has the fundamental character of being a “gentleman’s martial arts,” which advocates that attacking first (sente) is unjust in both spirit and technique. On the other hand, hidden behind its pragmatic character as a “combative martial art” lies the behavioral aesthetic of “eradicating errors for the sake of truth” (=haya kensho, a Buddhist concept. It means to deny wrong ideas and show correct ideas, or to defeat injustice and to reveal justice.)

Karate has the unconditional philosophy of killing with one strike (ichigeki hissatsu) and complete self-protection. Therefore, when learning the techniques, it is necessary to assume a situation that corresponds to actual combat and to prepare for inevitable death. Like this, rigorous technical training of life and death refines the spirit and cultivates the character. In this way, the idea of “art and skill (jutsu)” sublimates into the concept of the “way ().” Because of this “path in which technique creates spirit,” karate has been generally called karate-dō since the Shōwa and postwar era.

Funakoshi Gichin (the founder of Shōtōkan) and Miyagi Chōjun (the founder of Gōjū-ryū) are martial artists (bujin) known to the world as kensei (saints of boxing) of the Taishō (1912-1926) and  Shōwa eras (1926-1989). Both these kensei defined karate as follows.

Funakoshi said,

“You can protect yourself and crush the enemy with empty hands and completely unarmed. In other words, it is a characteristic kenpō of Okinawa called karate.

Miyagi explained,

“What is karate? It is said that, in principle, during peacetimes, without carrying weapons on your body, do your utmost to cherish your life, and in case of emergency, protect yourself. That is, in most cases, to defeat the enemy in a fight man against man. Nevertheless, if facing a confrontation, it is not unusual to use tools at the same time.”

Practitioners of martial art aim to practice the trinity of mental training, self-protection, and health and physical education. In other words, the intention is to manifest the methods of moral discipline, self-defense, and physical education. When this is acquired, the practitioner can be considered to be completed as a martial artist.

Practicing martial arts is directly related to mastering the art of self-defense, but it is also directly linked to health and physical education as well as the practice of mental training. Through training the whole body, karate promotes physical strength, stamina, and explosiveness, and adjusts and strengthens internal organs and nerves and activates their functions. The process of training is nothing but rigorous, but enduring this kind of training develops willpower, nourishes courage, and it develops a spirit that can deal with things in the usual way, no matter when or what it may be, that is, it cultivates presence of mind. By enduring the severity of practice, karate-dō as a martial art is a system of techniques designed to look at yourself firmly and to ultimately realize the “way of human ity.”

Funakoshi Gichin explained the meaning of the character 空 in karate:

Karate is the art of training one’s body using the empty hands [or, to live a righteous life; to behave well; to improve oneself]. The character 空 in karate is based on this. Those who study karate-dō must distant themselves from their obstinacy and wicked thoughts, as if they are reflecting in a polished mirror or as a voice (echo) traveling along an uninhabited valley and must thoroughly investigate the center of emptiness. The character 空 in karate-dō is based on this. Those who learn karate-dō must continually nurture the spirit of humility inside themselves, and must not forget an easygoing attitude to the outside.

Moreover, once we see righteousness established, even ten million people must have the courage to live. Like the green bamboo, they are empty on the inside and straight on the outside, and with a node. The character 空 in karate-dō is based on this, too. If viewing the hue of the universe, everything comes to naught. But 空 is nothing but the entire hue. There are many kinds of martial arts, such as jūjutsu, kenjutsu, sōjutsu, and jōjutsu, but in the end, they are entirely the same as karate-dō. In other words, it is no exaggeration to say that karate-dō is the foundation of all martial arts. ‘All being is emptiness,’ and ‘all emptiness is being’ (=two central sentences of the Buddhist Heart Sutra), The character 空 in karate-dō is based on this, too.”

It can be said that both spirit and technique of karate is well explained by the concepts of empty-handed, free from worthless thoughts, righteousness and courage, form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.

Japanese traditional martial arts (budō) has used religion (Buddhism and Zen) to explain its reasoning. Even martial arts (budō) cannot tell the ultimate truth of things without using Buddhism, and especially Zen.

As regards one theory of “All being is emptiness, and all emptiness is being” (from the Heart Sutra):
“All being is emptiness” means

“Material existence is the truth, but inside of it, a void exists and there is no attachment there.” (Nihon Kokugo Dai-jiten

“All emptiness is being” means

“All phenomena are, in fact, empty, and each of the empty phenomena are the real existence.” (Nihon Kokugo Dai-jiten

The character 空 of karate is literally “emptiness” or “empty-handed,” and practitioners need to practice “empty-handed martial arts” in a mental state free from worthless thoughts. If you have idle thoughts in your mind, you will not be able to understand the reason, nor will you be able to learn the art. It can be said that the pure and simple state of mind is the ultimate goal of training.

Also, it is well known that the te of karate means skill, art, or technique. Therefore, learning karate means reaching the state of no mind (mushin) and to protect yourself without using weaponry and tools, but to cultivate the hands and feet as weapons for self-defense.

In this way, the two characters of karate condensed the mental image of the practitioner and his view of techniques as one united whole. It can be said that by polishing one’s skill and strengthening one’s body, karate represents the oneness of mind, technique, and body, which involves entering a mental state that is detached from the world.

© 2020, Andreas Quast. All rights reserved.

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