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Dec 16, 2016
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The Philosophy of Karate

About Jennings School of Karate -> The Philosophy of Karate

Some Philosophical Discussions on Karate   (Author Unknown)

Understanding the principles and philosophy of traditional karate is essential for all its participants.  Karate is often sensationalised by some people as a brutal method of fighting.  The purpose, objectives, and goals of karate should not be limited to its physical appearance.  The relationship between a lifetime of martial arts and the necessity of using karate skills in a mature and responsible manner, is the way it has been taught for many centuries.

Unfortunately, sensationalism and commercialisation of martial arts seems to have resulted all too often, in a loss of these concepts.  Karate should not be practised solely as a fighting technique, but more as a way of life.  In order to make effective use of the fundamental techniques and to maximise development of karate athletes, the philosophical aspect of traditional krate as an art of self defence must not only be recognised but must also play a prominent role.

Traditional karate is a martial art and students should train with the appropriate attitude, exemplifying the goals and principles of the martial art.  A strong emphasis should be placed on metaphysical aspects of the art and not only on the physical techniques.  Proper training employs the application of the body and mind in conjunction.

Traditional karate systems emphasise character building aspects as a foremost principle with respect for instructors, colleagues, and opponents alike.  Words such as character, sincerity, effort, etiquette, and self-control summarise the principles taught to students.  This is the true way for a martial art such as karate.

Consequently, a true follower of karate should strive for perfection in both the philosophical and physical aspects of the art.  This will particularly enhance the karate-ka's abilities in the execution of karate techniques in practice, competition, or self-defence.

Karate (empty hand) implies more than is immediately obvious.  In an often-quoted passage Gichin Funakoshi described the state of mind and body to which the karate-ka (karate practitioner) should aspire.  He used the image of a mirror:


 "As a mirror's polished surface reflects whatever stands before it, and a quiet valley carries even small sounds, so must the student of Karate render his mind empty of selfishness and wickedness in an effort to react appropriately to anything he might encounter.  This is the meaning of kara in karate."



As a result, the name karate was chosen to convey the idea of emptiness since students are expected to empty their minds of all thoughts and emotions in pursuit of their budo (martial art way, or way of the warrior).  An incorrect mental attitude would inevitably have an adverse effect on even the most skilled technician, and karate-ka must train to the point of automatic reaction where external considerations will not interfere with their calm mental state of impassivity or emptiness.

This is not to say that karate training is done in a mindless state, but rather is free from inhibiting thoughts of doubt, confusion, or fear.

Analogies to water are also referred to in many martial art readings, such as:

"Smooth water reflects the image of all that is within its range.  If the karate-ka's mind is in such a state, he or she will be able to immediately comprehend his or her opponent's movements and respond appropriately.  However, if the surface is disturbed, the result will be a distortion of the images it reflects with the equivalent results on the karate-ka's mind."

Still another analogy refers to the mind as being like the moon:

"As the moon shines on everything within its range the karate-ka is to be constantly aware of the totality of the opponent and his or her movements.  If clouds were to block the light, a correct appreciation of the opponent's movements would become more difficult to assess and the right approach would escape.  The will must connect mind and body so that the mind does not function in isolation and there can be a physical reaction in unison with the order given by the mind." 

Another link between mental and physical components is defined as focus (kime).  Focus is the art of concentrating all one's physical and mental energies on a specific target in an instant.  The analogy has been drawn of a person trapped in a blazing room being able to produce on demand the strength to knock down the door, a task normally found quite impossible. 

Kime involves a spontaneous concentration of energy, often referred to in the martial arts as "chi" or "ki", which flows from the pelvic region to the extremities and points of contact.  To generate maximum speed, the striking limb is kept relaxed until immediately before impact.  On impact the muscles of the body contract and the student emits a kiai, which is propelled by the muscles of the lower diaphragm.

Psychologically this assists with a total commitment to the technique and the muscular effort involved adds to the power produced.  It should be noted that the kiai need not produce any sound.  The object is to transmit, via the correct use of stance, breathing, and timing, the muscular power of the whole body down a striking limb moving at maximum speed, to focus on a given object.  In conjunction with the mental concentration, this exertion of energy is instantaneous and is collectively withdrawn in the next instant in preparation for another technique.

A vital part of training is the control of breathing.  A karate-ka should learn to breathe properly in order to develop the region of the diaphragm; a significant source of power in karate techniques.  Other breathing exercises are designed to calm and concentrate the mind and make the body more efficient, resilient and controlled.

Karate as an art of self defence goes back a long time, but since the 1950's another aspect of karate has developed:  sport karate.  This relatively new aspect of the activity has been criticised for placing too much emphasis on winning contests and for being detrimental to the practice of fundamental techniques.  There is, for example, a danger of beginning jiyu kumite (free sparring) prematurely without building a solid base of fundamental skills, the result being that a student will be unable to execute a strong and effective technique (the "finishing blow") which should be the primary characteristic of karate.

As with any other form of human activity there is no alternative to learning and practising basic skills and movements step by step.  There is a clear danger than an overwhelming desire to win a contest will be detrimental, as students will focus on end results instead of paying attention to the stages necessary to reach such results.  It is extremely important that sport competition reflects and enhances traditional karate training.

The sport, or competition (shiai) of karate, goes back approximately thirty years, making this aspect a relatively new addition to the karate scene.  The display of prowess in the martial art has traditionally been in the act of self-defence.  Historically, this was only in a life or death situation.  As karate training became more popular and more public, the natural evolution led to a comparison of skills or the "testing of each other" (the definition of shiai).  This of course evolved into what we now know as karate competition.

However, the "testing of each other's skills" was (and still is) recognised by serious karate students as a method of improving skills.  In order to achieve this there should be a high degree of respect between competitors, since the competition is helping to develop their karate. 

We must be careful not to over emphasise the physical prowess and fighting aspects of karate training and not allow the "winning of contests" to become our main goal.

Traditional karate is not a vicious form of fighting but is an activity steeped with tradition, culture, and discipline.  It is best exemplified by this famous quotation by Gichin Funakoshi:

"The ultimate aim of karate lies not in victory nor in defeat but in the perfection of the character of its participants."

With an ever-increasing number of students learning karate, the role of an instructor should be to ensure that these students will embrace traditional karate not only as a sport but also as a way of life.  Physical and philosophical aspects remain integral components of the activity and one should not be given precedence over the other, but should be taught in constant relation.