Karate Information: 
Philosophy, History, Kata & Bunkai
by Dr. Jason Armstrong
 

     -  1. History of Karate and origins of the kanji...
2. The meaning of " Osu "...
3. One explanation of a " Zen " state of mind...
4.  Why is Kata important?
   

 
 

 

1.  A brief History of Karate and Meaning of the Kanji:

Karate is an art which developed in Okinawa, an island south of Japan mainland.  The word karate consists of two kanji (Chinese characters).

                                          

Therefore, a literal meaning may be taken as the art of empty hands (weaponless).  This has some appropriateness as karate developed on the island of Okinawa as an empty handed martial art due to a long-standing law prohibiting weapons. However, the explanation of the meaning of the kanji is deeper than that stated above.
 
Karate was not always written using the two kanji depicted above.  There have been at least two earlier names for the art.  The first of these was Okinawa-te (Okinawa hand).  This name represented the style of martial art which developed in Okinawa over a period of about 1000 years (as reported by Master Funakoshi in Karate-Do Kyohan, 1935 and Karate-Do: My Way of Life, 1956).  Later the name karate came into being using the kanji representing Chinese and hand.

                                            
 
This name resulted from the blending of Okinawa-te and Chinese boxing.  It has been proposed that the best of Chinese martial arts and Okinawa-te were combined to produce a more refined martial art: Karate.
 
As early as 1905, in Okinawa, it had been suggested that the kanji for kara be changed from the character meaning "Chinese" to the character meaning "empty".  This change would reflect that karate, like all traditional martial arts, acts as a vehicle for passage along the Way (the Zen path leading to enlightenment).  The Keio University Karate Club officially substituted the kanji "empty" for the kanji "Chinese" in 1929. This act was then consolidated in 1935 with Funakoshi publishing Karate-Do Kyohan.  Kara was briefly discussed in terms of emptiness and the Way.  For example, "empty of self, being synonymous with the truth of the universe".
 
Emptiness and the Way is a complex subject, one which cannot be written about, but only experienced.  Therefore, I will simply list some Zen verses relating to this topic.
 
 Zen master Yagyu, "Suppose you are shooting and you think about shooting while you are shooting: then the aim of the bow will be inconsistent and unsteady"...  "When the archer forgets the consciousness of shooting, and shoots in a normal frame of mind, as if unoccupied, the bow will be steady."
 
 "Realization of emptiness, therefore, does not mean withdrawal from the world, but
rather the capacity for change, the potential for progress."  A sentence taken from a translation by Thomas Cleary of Shosan's Writings.
 
 "Empty like the hollow bamboo yet straight, pliant and unbreakable..." Funakoshi
 
The Japanese term often used for "empty mind" is mushin.  Be careful when attempting to understand mushin, as Shosan said, "People misunderstand the Zen term 'no thought' and use it to become absent minded dolts.  This is a big mistake.  You should keep a strong mind."
 
Karate is more correctly written as Kara-te-do.  These three kanji are listed below.

 
 
 
2.  The meaning of " Osu "
 
The literal meaning of the expression "Osu!" can be determined from the kanji (Chinese characters) from which the term is derived (see above).  Osae means "to press" and shinobu means "patience" or "steady spirit".  These two symbols are combined in the traditional Japanese martial arts to form Osu, which translates as "persevere while pushing oneself to the absolute limit".  A cursory reading of this definition might tempt one to think that advancement in karate than is therefore equated with the development of extreme physical and mental strength.  However, to stop at this understanding would be to miss the point of karate completely.  Certainly, one can push oneself to the limit in any sport and achieve incredible feats of body and mind.  So how is karate different?  True growth in the martial arts requires moving beyond ego-centred thoughts of personal gain and loss. For this reason, the term "moving Zen" is sometimes used when speaking of martial arts practice.  To illustrate how "pushing oneself to the absolute limit" in moving Zen can lead to spiritual growth, the concept of koan training in zazen (formal seated Zen) is described below.
 
Zazen practice has its own particular technique, called a koan.  A koan is an absurd puzzle.  There is no rational way to "solve" it; it is an impossibility, an impasse for the mind.  Regardless of your determination to provide the zazen master with the "correct" answer to the riddle, your efforts are futile.  Suddenly you are stuck, and the master continues saying to you, "Work hard!  You are not working hard enough."  And the harder you work (i.e. think), the more you are stuck, moving nowhere: you cannot go back, you cannot move forward.  And the master continues hammering you, "Work harder!"  A moment comes when you're not holding anything back, your whole being is involved, and still you are stuck.  It is precisely at this moment, when your whole energy is invested, that you become aware of the absurdity - as never before.  Only at that peak do you "realize" that this problem is absurd-it cannot be "solved" with the mind.
 
And with that realization, the koan is experienced and therefore understood. In karate, kumite serves as the koan.  No matter how hard you train, no matter how much weight you can lift, no matter how fast you are, you may still be defeated.  And the Sensei pushes you, "Work harder".  It is not until you have given everything you have to give and it is still not enough that you "realize" (experience) the absurdity of your ego trying to overcome an opponent.  It is at this moment that the barrier to a deeper source of wisdom is removed.  Now your movements, coming without thoughts, may be fluid and precise.
 
The key point is that, in both zazen and karate, the koan must be experienced rather than intellectualised in order for transformation to occur.  As demonstrated above, the experience cannot occur until one has truly persevered in giving maximum effort.  In “Zen, Pen, and Sword,” Randall G. Hassle explains that Osu may be used as a strong affirmative reply in the dojo even if full understanding is not yet present.  It is similar to the idea of two people riding in a car on an icy road on the edge of a deep canyon.  If you are the passenger, and the driver says, "Are you okay?", you might reply "Osu!", indicating that, while there's nothing you can do to make the situation better or less dangerous at the moment, your spirit is satisfied that the best that can be done at the moment is being done.
 
So, when greeting fellow students or responding to the Sensei in the dojo, saying "Osu!" announces that, even if you do not feel 100 percent today or even if you do not fully understand a training concept, you are present and giving everything you have.  In this way, you are preparing yourself to be receptive to the spiritual growth in which the practice of karate - moving Zen - has to offer. 
 
 
3. One Explanation of a “Zen” state of mind
 
By Sensei Nicholas Lukich
 
There is a Japanese term often used in Karate called mushin, meaning "empty mind."  This term does not strictly imply “no thought”, but rather no attachment to any one thought or emotion. To obtain this state of mind mushin, you must let go your fears, doubts, your ego, and any preconceived thoughts of action, or the mind will not react openly. 
 
There is a famous Zen saying called mizu no kokoro that may help to clarify this term.  This translates as “A mind like water.”  Everyone understands how the water of a pond can be calm and clear.  In this state, it will reflect all around it truthfully, much like a mirror.  In Karate and in life we strive to have a calm mind that reflects everything around us accurately.  Therefore, the mind must be clear like the glass surface of a still pond, reflecting everything accurately and without distortion.  If the mind gets attached to any thoughts, this is analogous to throwing a large stone into the tranquil pond.  The ripples that the stone creates (or thought) will interfere with the smooth surface of the pond making the reflection (mind) distorted. If your mind is cluttered with thoughts, how can it possibly react quickly in stressful situations? Only when the mind is clear and calm will you act instantly without hesitation or fear. 
 
 
 

Like a full circle, the mind must be empty, yet complete.
 
 
4.  Why is Kata Important?
 

Why is Kata Important? Three Points of discussion:

            -Philosophy & Zen
            -Relationship to sports karate?
            -A time chest of Advanced self defense techniques for black belts

 Kata must be the foundation of karate training.  It allows one to share a pool of knowledge which the greatest karate-ka of the past, and present, have used to study the Way.  The kanji (Chinese character) for kata can be interpreted as a pictograph representing a bamboo lattice window.  Sunlight can shine through such a window leaving a pattern which is defined by not only light but also the presence of shade.

This “Yin-Yang” essence in kata is noted in such opposites as fast/slow, hard/soft & still/movement. For example, at the end of given combination in kata one should pause before moving to the next direction to create zanshin and a Yin/Yang event (i.e. often kata are rushed, and practitioners do not pause long enough before changing directions – the pause creates the moment and contrast to movement and speed). In my time in Japan a number of older masters (including master Sotokawa 8th Dan Shito-ryu, Master Uetake 7th Dan Shito-ryu, Matser Iba, 8th Dan Shito-ryu) would emphasize a slow count of 1-2-3 before changing to the next direction, or set of moves.

 Each kata represents an archived library of self defense techniques. Often the application of each motion within kata is not well understood within many Japanese karate dojos unless the effort has been made to dive into the Okinawan and Chinese roots. One should aim to understand and practice at least one bunkai motion for each action in a kata (probably no one can know all and be proficient in all bunkai variants). Most of the original applications do not involve the basic kicks and punches which are often given as an interpretation, but rather grabs, breaks, pressure points and close in fighting. The elaborate nature of these actions (symbolized by individual kata motions) are challenging even for Dan ranks to know, practice and execute proficiently. Once a bunkai is understood it should be drilled with partners (like we often drill kumite combinations) at high speed, and in repetition.

 Kata demands techniques executed with precision and power.  It trains the body to strike from different stances and different orientations, as is always the case in kumite.  Kata trains one to move quickly, to use precise and stable stances for the execution of solid techniques.  Without this ability one will be unable to control an opponent during battle. Furthermore, if one cannot execute precise and powerful technique in kata, it will definitely not happen in the heat and chaos of kumite.

Visualization of the opponent for each move is one method of kata development that can be done as a drill. It helps bring a kata to life accentuating "kime", "penetration" and "zanshin". This is one of many training approaches to develop kata, however one must always remember that when kata is performed in a non-training sense (i.e. its final form) it should embrace “Mushin”. “Mushin”, a high goal of all martial artists, allows the mind to be open to all possibilities in the fighting engagement with no hesitation, or change of thought pattern prior to execution.

 As one approaches black belt, kata must begin to feel like it is a true expression of oneself, presenting all inner and outer attributes.  Therefore, when kata is performed, the presence of “Ki” and spirit can be felt which demands the attention of onlookers. 

 As kata is practiced year after year, some of the more difficult techniques and subtleties begin to emerge in one's fighting.  This acts as a source of continual growth for advanced karate-ka.  The integration of techniques acquired from kata into one's fighting provides a challenge that will easily fill a lifetime (for example the ashi barai take downs in such kata as Seipai or Tekki Shodan are directly applicable to modern Sports Karate and street fighting).  It requires both a combination of physical mastery and the possession of a calm mind amidst the storm of battle. In seminars we often deliberately make a point that kata has direct translations to "Sports Karate"and using  examples of strategy, and sometimes technique variants, aids students in understanding this relationship. Of course not all kata bunkai can be transferred to sports karate, just selected parts or variants. However, taking students down this path often helps them understand the need to think about kata for their longer term karate and fighting growth.

 It is not important how many kata you know but how well you understand and do the ones you do know. Over time, you should be able to recognize most traditional kata even if you cannot perform them

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“About the author: Jason Armstrong, Ph.D., 5th Dan

Sensei Jason Armstrong has a 5th degree black, and has been training for more than 20 years which has included living in Japan with a master. His training began in Australia, and then moved to the USA in 1991. In 1995 he began regular travel to Japan and spent time living in Japan for karate. While in Japan he worked in the corporate environment and ultimately became the CEO of a company in Tokyo. He holds a Ph.D. in human physiology. Today he has founded Applied Zen which operates in the USA, and, Australia passing on Japanese karate through dojo(s), and via a video e-learning site (www.DownloadKarate.com). Additionally, his organization provides corporate seminars on the integration of Budo Strategy, the “Art of War”, and Zen into the corporate world and business.”

 
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