Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Karate No Shugyo Wa Issho

It will take all of your life to learn karate.

Funakoshi Gichin was an Okinawan Master who brought the styles of Karate he practiced, Shōrei-ryū and Shōrin-ryū to the Japanese islands in the early 1920's. In 1939 he opened the Shotokan, or House of Pine Waves, and began teaching a new style of Karate. No longer would he teach the China Hand, from that point forward, he changed the meaning of the word. And every subsequent generation would learn that Kara-Te meant "Empty Hand."

Master Funakoshi left behind a text to guide the students who would come after him. His Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate or niju kun are simple lessons designed to help the student grow within and to understand the philosophy behind the teachings of the empty hand.

I. Do not forget that karate-do begins and ends with a bow.
III. Karate stands on the side of justice.
VI. The mind must be set free.
X. Apply the way of karate to all things. Therein lies its beauty.
XX. Be constantly mindful, dilligent, and resourceful in your pursuit of the way.

Each lesson contained within the niju kun offers us a glimpse into the mind of one of martial art's greatest lost masters. When written, Master Funakoshi began each of the twenty principles with the character for the number one, in order to emphasize that no one of these principles is greater or more important than another.
According to the Master's teaching, number seven, "Calamity springs from carelessness," was just as important as number eighteen, "Perform kata exactly; actual combat is another matter." Every rule is the first rule. Each of us should read, study, and come to understand why Master Funakoshi chose these twenty rules as the legacy of his teaching.

The ninth precept is this, "Karate no shugyo wa issho." It will take all of your life to learn karate. In his book, Perfection of Character, Master Teruyuki Okazaki, a student of Master Funakoshi, gives us insight into the instruction behind this rule.

"The danger with rankings in Karate...is that we can easily end up thinking that acheiving the ranking...means that we no longer have anything to learn. The pursuit of these artificial goals can distract us from the real goal, which is to perfect our character, and which will take us until our dying day. The belts, rankings, and rewards do motivate people in the short-term, and that is why we use them; however, Master Funakoshi gave us the dojo kun and niju kun to remind us that karate is about perfecting character, and not about competition and rankings.

When one really understands this principle, he or she will have much more patience with the process of learning karate. Many students enter karate with the mentality that within six months or a year or two, they can become experts. They work very hard, and yet when within that time period they find themselves still struggling, they often become dis-illusioned and quit. This is quite sad.


Karate, like humankind itself, is a foreign element in the material world: it is a transplant from the world of spirit. For spirit to take root and flourish in the material world, it takes great discipline, great courage, and great wisdom practiced and developed over a lifetime. If you will understand the principle, you will have the proper mindset and perspective, you will not be easily discouraged, and you will certainly grow and develop."

In the Hagakure, the reader is given a description of the stages of a lifetime of training to become a master swordsman. At the lowest levels, even though one trains, there are no positive results and one holds oneself and others in low esteem. In the middle stage, one at least see one's shortcomings and can aslo recognize them in others. In the upper stage, one takes pride in accomplishments, rejoicing in praise from others and also feeling sorrow when others fail. One holds others in high esteem and, for many, this is the final stage.

But there is another.

If a student chooses to walk the higher path, he finally comes to see that there is no final stage. All thoughts of having come far enough vanish, and the student comes to truly know himself. He lives his life without desire for worldly successes and feels no need for pride, nor does he feel a need to humble himself. Then it tells us this.

"Lord Yagyu said he did not know the way to defeat others, but he knew the way to gain victory over himself-it was to become better today than yesterday, and better tomorrow than today-working in this manner, day by day, all one's life."

This is what is meant by Karate no shugyo wa issho. Every day. Walking the path. And knowing that there are no beginnings nor endings on the path. We may pass a test. We may fail a test. But the path continues forever beneath our feet.

It will take all your life to learn karate. Because the empty hand is not a weapon for violence. It is a Way. And all the Ways are unending.

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