What is the most important training point in budo karate? 武道空手の稽古において一番重要な要素とは如何に？
Before you try to answer to this question, be aware that I placed the word “budo” in front of karate. This means that my question is specifically geared for budo or martial art karate and not sport karate.
OK then we need to define budo and agree to the concept so we can discuss the question. Most likely the readers know that Budo (武道) is a term describing modern Japanese martial arts. Literally translated budo means the “Martial Way”, and may be thought of as the “Way of War”. Budo is a compound of the kanji, bu (武), meaning war battles, military power, or martial arts; and do (道), obviously means path or way. I am sure we all agree with the translation.
Thus, in budo karate, we train to defend our life in a critical condition. Therefore, I am sure that you will agree that the purpose of our training in budo karate is not to learn how to win a point in a kumite competition or to execute a kata in an attractive way to earn a high score in a kata competition.
So, after agreeing to that what do you think is the most important element in karate training? Some people may pick speed, power or distance as the most important. Other people may say bunkai or application. And some old timer may insist on kihon or kata. There are so many other elements that are important such as breathing or concentration, etc. etc. There are so many elements it is quite difficult to pin down the most important. So, what do you think?
Yes, all those listed above are indeed important. I do not disagree with that. But, you may be surprised if I tell you that none of them is the most important element in budo karate. Then what is the most important one? The most important element, as far as budo karate is concerned, by far, is the mind-set. If you do not agree, check the fifth kun of Funakoshi Nijukun (船越二十訓). You will find this kun: 技術より心術 (gijutsu yori shinjutsu). This is a short kun and is often translated as “mentality or spirit” over technique. I am truly impressed that Master Funakoshi put this in the fifth place out of twenty important precepts. It is very obvious he considered it as one of the most important concepts.
I have written a deeper translation of Funakoshi Nijukun a few years ago. It is included in one of the books I published, Shotokan Transcendence. I quote the explanation which I wrote for #5 kun below.
This translation needs further explanation to understand the deep meaning of this kun. Let me explain the meaning of each word and that should help us understand this important kun. Gijutsu (技術) means technique but gi 技 itself means technique and jutsu (術) means art, way, method and means. So, it means technical method or technical way. So, it does not necessarily mean karate techniques. When we say “gijutsu sha” or gijutsu person we mean an engineer and craftsman. Regardless, by gijutsu, he meant the physical karate techniques.
Then what is shinjutsu (心術)? Shin means heart, mind and intelligence. So, we may quickly translate shinjutsu as mind way or intelligent way, however, this translation is not exactly what Funakoshi really wanted it to mean. The Japanese word shin (心) has many meanings and it is a very important word for the Japanese. Shin can mean heart and also center or core (kan 幹). It can even mean stomach or guts (hara 腹). Samurai considered shin and hara to be the center of their samurai spirit or value. This is why they cut the belly when they committed seppuku or harakiri to show that their center is pure. I do not think Funakoshi was thinking of harakiri but he was thinking of the samurai spirit. He was thinking of Gojo no toku 五常の徳 which is the five virtues of Confucian. Those virtues are Jin 仁 (benevolence), Gi 義 (justice), Rei 礼 (courtesy), Chi 智 (wisdom), Shin 信 (trust). I will write about Bushido in the near future and I will include further explanation of Gojo no toku there.
To read the full article at my blog, access the following URL:
Samurai also believed the importance of hara (guts), thus shinjutsu. Some kenjutsu styles such as Jigen ryu (示現流) have dropped almost all of the complex techniques. They teach you to bring your sword over your head and just bring it down. That is it. They also practice hitting the bundled wood sticks repeatedly with a bokken, wooden sword (photo below). Here is a short video of Jigen-ryu demonstration:
In fact, the karate historians suspect that this practice is the fore-father of Karate’s makiwara. Jigen ryu was invented in Satsuma, southern Kyushu island, the nearest island to Okinawa. Some of the Okinawan karate practitioners, such as Sokon Matsumura (松村宗棍), visited the Satsuma clan (Okinawa was occupied by Satsuma Clan in 1609) to learn their kenjutsu, Jigen ryu. It is easy to guess that those Okinawan karateka had learned the practice of hitting the wood sticks with bokken. They brought this practice back to Okinawa and from there they invented the makiwara for the karate training purpose. OK that is enough of this side track story.
So, back to the main subject. The samurai believed the importance of hara or guts and shinjutsu (mastery of mind or emotion). After reading the article mentioned above, did you think I had covered the full explanation of shinjutsu? I am sure you agree that I had not. You must have felt that something was somehow missing. Yes, I purposely left out one thing in the explanation. This shinjutsu must include Heijoshin (平常心) to explain why Funakoshi put shinjutus above gijutsu. You may recall that I have already touched on Heijoshin in another article recently but I will explain briefly what this important word means again. Hei (平) means flat and jo (常) means constant. As you know that shin (心) means heart or spirit, all three kanji combined means flat and constant heart. In our daily lives it is difficult for us to keep a peaceful mind as we get surprised, upset, angry, sad or even frightened. So, heijoshin means the ability to keep a peaceful mind. Then, shinjutsu means the technique or training to build or form heijoshin. A sport karate enthusiast may come back and say, “Hey, we also need heijoshin to prepare ourselves for a tournament especially for the big events such as national and world championships. So, why do you specify it to ‘budo’ karate?” It is true that a tournament competitor needs to have a calm and peaceful mind. I respect the tournament competitors for their enthusiasm and dedication to their karate training. If they are nervous, upset or shaky, then they will not be able to perform to best of their ability. Having said that, I am afraid the degree of stress is vastly different between a tournament competitor and budo karate. In budo, we practice on the assumption that our fighting is for life and death. I am sure you will agree facing an assailant with a gun or a knife is quite different from an opponent in kumite even if it is a full contact tournament.
When an enemy with a gun or a knife is facing you, a serious degree of mind control will, naturally be required by anyone. First, you must control your fear. Secondly, you need to be able to make some quick and correct decisions. You must determine quickly if this is the time to fight or to surrender depending on the intention of the assailant. If the assailant simply wants to take your money or even your car, it is definitely wiser to let him have it rather than risking your life to save the material loss. On the other hand, if this person is intending to harm you or a family member, you may have to fight. Especially if he is thinking of killing you, you have no choice but to fight to save yourself or your family members. This is, indeed, a life or death fight and this is exactly when a cool mind is needed the most. Even if you had no fear, you will fail and get killed if you are too excited and become reckless and/or careless. At this critical time you need to be able to execute the techniques as you have practiced so many times in your dojo. It is easy to say this but to be able to do all these things is considerably more difficult than you can imagine. In this situation, your physical techniques may be important but your mind or mental techniques (heijoshin) is needed first. In other words, if you can maintain a cool head your techniques can be average or to an extreme you may not even need the karate techniques. Even if you have little karate or martial art training, if one can punch or kick, you may be able to defend yourself in a critical situation using the cool mind and making the right decisions.
So, how can you develop and maintain heijoshin? Well, this was a core question for the samurai all through the feudal period (from the 13th century to the first half of the 19th century). I am sure they were scared of dying and fighting in a battle. Heijoshin certainly did not come naturally or easily even in the period of samurai and it is certainly more difficult now. If it did not come naturally to the samurai how did they learn or train this mind set? This is an extremely important question and more martial artists should ask. I am afraid this particular and extremely important area is often ignored in the martial arts including karate training.
he samurai children started their training early. The male children at the age of seven would receive a knife from their father. At a genpuku (元服 attaining manhood) ceremony (photo above), held typically at the age of 12 to 16, the male children will learn the etiquette and method of seppuku (切腹 hara-kiri, how to cut the belly). I understand that the female children also had to learn how to use the knife if they had to commit suicide to protect their virginity or honor (they typically cut their neck). They were also forced to watch the other samurai’s seppuku and the execution (decapitation or crucification) of the criminals to get used to seeing the blood and the killing. Of course, the samurai children as young as 3 or 5 years old would start their martial arts training including kenjutsu (剣術 sword), sojutsu (槍術 spear), kyujutsu (弓術 archery), etc. During the civil war period (the 13th – 15th centuries), the samurai children after genpuku would be required to join the fighting group to experience a battle, even just to observe if they were too young to fight.
One practice they relied on was zazen or zen meditation. I will not go deep into this subject in this article, though it is an interesting one. Most of the readers know that this is a special meditation practice typically performed by a certain sect of Buddhist monks. They open their temples for the commoners to practice zazen. Regardless, it is probably very difficult for most of the western readers to find such a temple in the US or Europe. So, though this is a very useful method I will not cover it here. Maybe I will focus on this subject sometime in the future as it is a fascinating practice.
The samurai used to polish their swords periodically. They used to take care of the long swords to kill the others and the short one to kill himself. They did a few other preparations. The samurai parents used to send their male children to the sites where they had the open execution of the prisoners. The young sons had to watch the executions to “get used to” the blood (killing) of a person. As I have mentioned earlier, when the sons reach the age of seven or so, they will receive a knife and typically around 12 years or so, they received a set of katana (a long and a short swords) as a part of genpuku ritual. At the same time, they were taught the method of seppuku and the detailed ritual that comes with a seppuku incident. The high level samurai houses used to have a small room specifically saved for a seppuku ritual. The children are taught about this room and told never to step inside this room other than for the specific purpose of seppuku. So, the samurai faced and learned about a death situation very often, mostly for the purpose of preparing their minds.”
OK but you may say, “We are living in the 21st century so we cannot have such experiences”. You are correct, but does this mean there is no method for us to gain the heijoshin mind other than just wishing? No, do not be discouraged. In fact, there is a method and it is easy enough that anyone can practice it. I am happy to share it with you here.
Before I go into explaining the method of training, I need to give you a brief historical background first to set the stage. After the battle of Sekigahara (関ケ原の合戦) in 1600, the civil war period ended and the peaceful period (no major battles) of some 250 years started. This “peaceful” or without the battles period for the samurai lasted during the 17th, 18th and into the first half of the 19th centuries. During the war period of the 16th century, battles and killing were very common. Therefore, it was natural that the samurai were accustomed to seeing death all around them. On the other hand, when the peaceful period lasted more than two centuries, it became less and less common for the samurai to see the people getting killed and to get involved in a fight to kill someone. Though there were some seppuku (hara-kiri) incidents once in a while, but surprisingly many samurai never had to draw their swords even once (to fight) throughout their life time.
Now during the peaceful period that they lived in became similar to the modern day environment. It may be, ironically, more dangerous in the 21st century USA than the 18th century Japan. Despite the “peaceful” society, the samurai still had to carry their swords all day. If they are ordered to kill someone or themselves, they had to follow the order without any protest or objection. That was the samurai code and almost everyone followed it to the letter without questioning. Though the situation of the samurai looks similar to that of the modern day soldiers, it differs greatly as the samurai had to follow the order without asking why and refusing or even failing an order meant death to himself.
Dying is probably the scariest thing or the biggest disturbance to your mental condition. Just imagine the situation if your doctor tells you, after a physical examination, that you have a terminal cancer. Can you maintain a calm mind? Most of us cannot. Even for a samurai, I am sure it was a scary thing for many of them to face death right in front of them especially when they found that they had to do hara kiri. Theoretically, a seppuku (hara kiri) could happen to any of the samurai if they fail in their daily duty.
Therefore, they had to do something to overcome this fear of facing death even if they had no more battles. Of course, most of them practiced kenjutsu and other bujutsu (martial arts) to build the budo and samurai spirit. They did zen meditation and all other special ceremony (genpuku) and samurai customs, but most of these methods do not apply to the modern day people including the Japanese people.
What can we do to avert or overcome this fear? This is the main subject that I want to share in this article and present an idea as a model that can be practiced fairly easily by any of us.
So, what else did they do? Believe it or not, it was a simple thing they did. Many of them recited daily that it could be his last day and promised to die with honor if death was necessary. They did this first thing in the morning when they prayed in front of the in house shrine (kamidana 神棚) or temple (butsudan 仏壇) before they ate breakfast. This practice is based on the same concept of reciting Dojo kun (道場訓, photo left) after every training. I also understand that many Christian people recite the Lord’s Prayer daily. I am sure other religions have the similar practices of reciting something important. I do not know if reciting “Today may be my last day” will help you to develop heijoshin, but this is what I have picked up many years ago. We will see if this will help me at the critical moment which may or may not be dramatic. But one thing I am 100% sure of is that my last day will come one day, but I just do not know when. No matter what situation I may be in at that moment, I want to be ready. I say this because I believe the way I finish my last day and that very moment will determine if I died as a samurai or not.
I suspect that some people may object to my statement. They may say, “The title of this article is ‘the most important training point’ but your reciting does not happen in your dojo training. So, you are not giving us an idea that we can use in our dojo, or are you?” This question is fair. I recite this in my bed (as I do not have a Kamidana in my house) when I wake up or when I look at my face in the mirror right before I wash my face in the morning. It is true that it does not happen strictly in a dojo. Having said that, this does not mean this is not happening in my karate training. Do you remember the 8th kun from Nijukun? Funakoshi wrote, “Dojo nomino karate to omouna (道場のみの空手と思うな)”. In this kun he told us that karate training must not happen only in our dojo. In other words, he wanted us to expand our training to the life outside of the dojo. He did not mean that you have to do kata in your living room (though that is a good thing to do if you have a space for it). He was talking about how you walk, sit, drive, etc. The ways of all other physical actions must be conducted in a budo way. As this is a very important subject I wrote about this in my third book, Shotokan Transcendence (available from Amazon books). The titles are Jidosha Dojo (Automobile Dojo) and The Art of Perfect Shaving. In addition, Funakoshi was also referring to our mental training during our normal daily activities. I am not sure if he was thinking about reciting “today may be my last day” but I am sure he would have approved as this helps the budo mind.
So, this is the answer to the big question of how do I develop or strengthen my budo spirit. I do not know if this will work for you or even for myself. I cannot tell you this until the very moment of my last day. However, one thing I can tell you now is that I have the feeling of great peace right now and I am not afraid of dying. We need to see if I can keep this feeling at the critical moment. If I can then you can say I had a heijoshin. So, if you agree that overcoming of this critical fear is the most important aspect of budo karate, please try my method. You have nothing to lose from trying this.