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The Soul of Karate-Do
Initial Move and Posture
by Masatoshi Nakayama, Japan Karate Association


In the early days of karate-do, for some years after 1935 college karate clubs all over Japan held inter-school matches. They were called kokangeiko, 'exchange of courtesies practice' and the participants freely attacked each other with all the karate techniques at their disposal. Their original purpose was to promote friendship between clubs. The matches were to consist of displays of kata, the set patterns of defence and attack, or of practice in attack and counterattack. The latter was ideally a formalized affair. One person attacked, only once. Then his opponent counterattacked, again just once. They continued in strictly controlled alternation. But the young blood of the students ran too hot to be satisfied with such tameness. They could not resist the temptation to use to the fullest the techniques they had learned and the powers they had gained through daily training. There would be five or six contestants from each university in these free-style matches. Giving a brave yell at a signal, the paired opponents began to fight. If a melee developed, it was the responsibility of the judges to step in and part them. The truth is, the judges rarely had time to exercise their responsibility. It was all over in 30 seconds. Some of the contestants had broken teeth or twisted noses. Others had earlobes nearly ripped off or were paralyzed from a kick to the belly. The injured crouching here and there around the dojo--it was a bloody scene. Karate in its early days had no match rules, although there was a gentlemen's agreement to avoid attacking vital organs. Despite the wounded, the custom of holding such "matches" remained popular for some time. I was a student in a karate club in those days. If the custom were to continue, I feared, karate would degenerate into a barbarous and dangerous technique. Yet, defeating an opponent is the common aim of all the martial arts. A person must fight freely in a match, using his techniques, if he is to maintain his skill. If that is so, I thought, then karate is too powerful and too dangerous for match competition.

Karate was developed in Okinawa, where the people were strictly forbidden to own weapons. Its practitioners there usually trained themselves alone through practice centering on kata. They held no matches. Although we can maintain our technique through practice without an opponent, we cannot improve our mental and physical conditioning in preparation for actual battle.

Specifically, we need to learn how to overcome anxiety or how far we should stand from an opponent. Without practice against an opponent, we cannot have the chance to work at our greatest capacity. I was in a quandary. Fighting is dangerous, but fighting is indispensable. Only through it can we maintain the essential skills of our martial art. Even after graduating from college, I still kept hoping to see the development of a true match that would make karate a modern martial art. Once I organized a match with the contestants wearing protective gear, but the special clothing was an obstacle and turned out to be itself the cause of unexpected injuries. I had to keep looking for a solution. That was just before the beginning of World War II.

After the war, Japan abandoned the militarism of the past and made a fresh start as a nation based on pacifism. Even so, the college karate clubs kept holding their wild fighting contests, and the number of injured kept mounting. In the new climate of peace, violence in any form was a hateful thing. If karate remains as it is, I thought, it will be regarded as the embodiment of violence and will eventually fade away. Yet judo and kendo (fencing) were developing as sports. The glorious contests of swimmers and baseball players were brightening the postwar gloom. Young karate practitioners began to hope that karate would become a sport, would have rules for matches.

I thought it was high time we made a sport of karate. I studied the rules of many sports and observed matches. Finally, I developed match rules and styles of fighting that allowed contestants to use karate techniques to the fullest without injuring each other. However, if we put too much emphasis on fighting, we become loose in technique. To prevent that I made a contest of the kata, too. The matches I had worked out, consisting of free-style fighting and kata, were first performed in Tokyo at the All Japan Grand Karate Tournament in October 1957, under the auspices of the Japan Karate Association. They were most impressive--attack and counter-attack with rapid, powerful, well-controlled technique. The kata contestants displayed quick, beautiful movements. Both the fighting and the kata left the audience impressed. Not one contestant was injured in the free-style fighting. The new matches were a great success. That was the beginning of the free-style fighting matches performed today in karate tournaments around the world. Finally a match form close to actual fighting had come to the public.

As you can see, I solved my quandary and succeeded in creating the karate match. I'm still afraid of one thing however. As karate matches become popular, karate practitioners become too absorbed in winning. It is easy to think that gaining a point matters most, and matches are likely to lose the quickness of action characteristic of karate. In that case, karate matches would degenerate into mere exchanges of blows. Moreover, I cannot say whether the idea of free-fighting styles matches the soul of karate as taught by Master Funakoshi Gichin, the founder of karate-do. For as you will later see, the soul of his karate requires quite a high standard of ethics.

Art of Virtuous Men  Master Funakoshi often recited an old Okinawan saying: "Karate is the art of virtuous men." Needless to say, for students of karate to thoughtlessly boast of their power or to display their technique in scuffles goes against the soul of karate-do. The meaning of karate-do goes beyond victory in a contest of mastery or self-defence techniques. Unlike common sports, karate-do has a soul of its own. To be a true master is to understand the soul of karate-do as a martial Way. Karate-do has grown popular these days, and its soul is apt to pass from our minds. Here I would discuss the soul of karate, returning to the roots of that martial Way. It is said that karate has no initial move (sente). That is an admonition to practitioners not to launch the initial attack and concurrently a strict prohibition against thoughtlessly using the techniques of karate. The masters of karate, especially Master Funakoshi, strictly admonished their pupils with those words again and again. In fact, it is not going too far to say that they represent the soul of karate-do.

In karate, the power of the whole body is focused on one part, such as a fist or foot, so that immense destructive power is loosed in a moment; hence the warning: Regard your fists and feet as swords. In a match the attacker's fist or foot is in principle aimed at a target a few centimeters, an inch or so, from the opponent's body in order not to injure the opponent.

Out of consideration of such destructive power, come the words: There is no initial move in karate. That spirit is embodied in the kata, the patterns forming the core of karate-do practice. Karate has two forms of practice: kata and kumite (mock fighting). The kata are patterns of combined defence and attack that assume four or eight enemies right, left, in front and in back. As far as I know, there are 40 or 50 kinds of kata. Each begins with defence (uke). You may argue that since karate was born as an art of self-defence, it is natural that it has no initial move. That is certainly true, but if you immediately conclude from the words, "There is no initial move in karate," that you can freely counterattack, you have not yet fully grasped the soul of karate-do. The underlying meaning of those words is much deeper.

In addition to refraining from attacking first, practitioners of karate are required not to create an atmosphere that will lead to trouble. They also must not visit places where trouble is likely to happen. To observe those prohibitions, the practitioner must cultivate a gentle attitude toward others and a modest heart. That is the spirit underlying the words, "There is no initial move in karate". And that spirit is the soul of karate-do. One master says: "Karate is based on attempts to avoid an trouble, so as not to be hit by others and not to hit others." Another says: "Harmoniously avoid trouble, and abhor violence. Otherwise, you will lose trust and will perish."

At the bottom of the soul of karate-do lies the wish for harmony among people. Such harmony is based on courtesy, and it is said that the Japanese Martial Ways begin with courtesy and end with courtesy. Such is the case with karate-do. Master Funakoshi collected the kata of his forerunners then systematized them into 15 kinds of kata for practice. One, called Kanku, symbolizes the wish for harmony, the soul of karate-do. Unlike any other pattern, it begins with an action unrelated to defence and attack. The hands are put together, palms outward, and the practitioner looks at the sky through the triangular hole formed by his thumbs and fingers. It expresses self-identification with nature, tranquility, and the wish for harmony. The practitioner of karate must always have a modest heart, a gentle attitude, and a wish for harmony. Karate is truly the art of virtuous men.

Karate and Void  "There is no initial move in karate" is one saying. "There is no posture (kamae) in karate" is another. The former represents karate-do's ethical aspect. The latter summarizes the proper attitude in training or actual fighting. Both sayings are integral elements of the soul of karate-do. When we say, "There is no posture in karate," we basically mean this: you should not stiffen your body; you should always relax yourself to be ready for any attack from any direction. When the gale blows, the stiff oak resists and breaks, the flexible willow bends and survives.

But even if there is no physical posture, you may think a certain mental posture necessary. You cannot relax your attention. That is why in karate-do it is said: there is posture but no posture. Practitioners assume a mental posture but not a physical posture. Actually, that is not the highest stage of the art. At the highest stage, practitioners of karate should in actual fighting have posture of neither body nor mind. Herein lies the deep meaning of "There is no posture in karate". It is this highest stage, the essence common to the Martial Ways of Japan, that I would next explain.

In the 17th century, the Zen priest Takuan gave Yagyu Munenori a treatise which had great influence on the ideological side of the Martial Ways of Japan. It is popularly called "Fudochi Shinmyo Floku" and in it, Takuan wrote:

"If you place your mind on the movements of your opponent, your mind is absorbed by the movements of your opponent. If your mind is on the sword of your opponent, your mind is absorbed by the sword of your opponent. If your mind is on cutting your opponent, your mind is absorbed by cutting your opponent. If your mind is on your sword, your mind is absorbed by your sword. If your mind is on not being cut, your mind is absorbed by not being cut...

" Where, then, should the mind be! You should put your mind nowhere. Then your mind is diffused throughout your body, stretched out, totally unfettered. If your arms are important, it serves your arms. If your legs are important, it serves your legs. If your eyes are important, it serves your eyes. It works freely in the body wherever necessary.

"If you concentrate on one place, your mind, absorbed by that place, is useless. If you are worried about where to place your mind, your mind is absorbed by that worry. Ku should throw off worry and reason. Let your mind go over your entire body, and never fix your mind on a certain place. Then your mind must accurately serve in response to the needs of each part of your body."

In short, the Zen priest says that the mind, if placed nowhere, is everywhere. The concept reflects Buddhism's abhorrence, especially in the Zen Sect, of attachment and bonds. Such antipathy is based on the concept of "void" in Mahayana Buddhism. In Buddhism the English "void" or "emptiness" translates the Japanese word ku, derived from the Sanskrit sunyata. Its original meaning is to be lacking in or to be wanting in. Mahayana Buddhism arose in opposition to the rigid doctrine of traditional Buddhism and made the bold assertion that we should not be trapped by the difference between good and evil, or enlightenment and illusion. That assertion seems to destroy ethical value, but Mahayana Buddhism claims that it strengthens ethical value. When we reach the stage wherein we adhere to nothing, our actions are naturally good. The basic idea of Mahayana Buddhism, Ku, is different from nothingness and is difficult to understand. It cannot be explained in a few words, but perhaps a specific example will help you understand void and one of its aspects--denial of confrontation.

When we first learn how to drive a car, we find it very difficult and take every precaution. But once we have thoroughly mastered driving, we can be quite at ease while we drive and still not break the rules. We aren't very conscious of our driving technique. Mahayana Buddhism aims at attaining the stage of enlightenment without worrying about the difference between good and evil, or enlightenment and illusion.

That, too, is the highest stage of actual fighting in karatedo. There we do not have posture of mind. In the martial arts, when we have attained the highest stage after long years of training, we return to the first stage. In the first stage, where we do not know any posture or technique,we do not fix our minds anywhere. When attacked, we simply respond unconsciously, without strategy. But as we come to understand posture, the use of technique, and fighting tactics through our study of technique, we occupy our minds with all sorts of things. The mind is divided into attack or counterattack and loses its freedom. After a long period of further practice, we can move unconsciously, freely, and properly.
That is the highest stage of karatedo, the true meaning of "there is no posture of mind". That stage can be reached only after hard and painstaking training, but it has nothing to do with physical strength. In the West, physical strength counts for much in the martial arts. Men of a certain age must quit. Karate-do, however, emphasizes technique based on the practice of kata. We can continue to practice this martial art for a lifetime, no matter how much our physical strength declines. The more we practice, the more gracefully we can move. Finally, we attain the highest stage, where there is posture in neither mind nor body.