Many people believe the true essence of martial arts is forever untraceable.  This is argumentative, but lost documentation relevant to its history has certainly limited the mapping of its origin with any sort of ease.  Despite rumors that martial arts originated in China, some information available, although limited, lends evidence that the art existed long before China.  It appears that marital arts has been around as long as man has.  Ancient paintings on tomb ceilings and carvings on temple walls show us that fighting arts have existed for thousands of years.2

The art known specifically as Karate appears to have taken shape with the influence of a Buddhist monk who crossed the Chinese frontier around 525 AD (approximately).  Bodhidharma entered a land already exposed to Theravada and Mahayana doctrines, the major schools of Buddhist philosophy.  By 1968, most of East Asia revered Bodhidharma as the spiritual father of Zen Buddhism and the founder of a weaponless fighting art that was a precursor of modern day karate.1

There were five fighting techniques historically noted that may have contributed to modern day Karate: Egyptian Bare Handed Fighting, as depicted on the walls of the pyramids; Roman Gladiatorial Combat; Japanese Sumo Wrestling; Indian and Persian Foot Fighting; and a genus of weaponless fighting found in Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.  Bruce Haines says in one of his studies, “Even though there is no apparent link between the five techniques, Karate contains elements of all of them.”1

For five centuries the Ryukyu Islands was a tributary kingdom of China and weapons were forbidden.  The prohibition of weapons continued thereafter, when the Shimazu Clan of Satsuma Providence (Kyushu) took control, in 1609.  Much of martial arts training throughout history has been studied in secret and it is arguable why that is, but many speculate that martial arts thrived in secrecy in the more oppressive regions, since it was the natives’ only means of protecting themselves.  Other, more practical reasoning argues the secrecy as a means of keeping the enemy from studying your strengths and weaknesses and thus, defeating you. Perhaps it was a combination of the two. “Karate was introduced to Japan from Okinawa (Ryukyu Islands) to the south.”4  For Japan, Karate became an organized sport some time after 1872, when Okinawa became a prefecture of Japan. An Okinawan native, Master Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957), was invited in 1922 by the Japanese Ministry of Education to demonstrate Karate in Tokyo, further popularizing the art throughout Japan.  Master Funakoshi is known as the founder of modern day Karate.  However, prior to Master Funakoshi’s avocation and popularization of the art, he studied under Master Itosu Anko (1832 -1916), who had been developing the art of Karate in the Okinawan region.  Despite the attempted secrecy of martial arts, regardless of style, the arts have continued to thrive and eventually grew into the worldwide phenomena that we know today.4

In the west karate is widely viewed as a sport, absent of any spiritual philosophy.  Traditional Karate has always emphasized a spiritual focus, coupled by mental and physical discipline.  This is what is meant by Karate-Dō.  Master Gichin Funakoshi taught, “True Karate-Dō is this: that in daily life, one’s mind and body be trained and developed in a spirit of humility; and that in critical times, one be devoted utterly to the cause of justice.”3

Founder of Modern Day Karate

The prefix kara means “empty” and te means “hand.”  Thus Karate means empty hand and connotes the use of  techniques that permits one to defend himself with his bare hands and fists without weapons. Dō means “the way,” referencing the path to enlightenment.  Budō is oftentimes used in place of Karate-Dō. Although, Budō simply means “martial way.” It does not define or represent any particular style of the martial way. Budō also reflects heavily on the mind and spirit selves, in addition to the body. For Budō and it is this way for Buddhist philosophy as well, the ego is the only challenger to our art, life and spiritual beingness.  Simply put, Budō is an approach to finding the greater part of ourselves through the practice of martial arts and Karate-Dō is one interpretation for applying this philosophy.

Karate-Dō is so much more than the physical act of kicking and punching.  Within in the physicality and mental discipline the seeker/karateka begins to discover something greater.  Karate-Dō, in the abstract, expresses  universal harmony and natural order between the body and everything external of it.  Martial Arts is an experiential science.  The body emulates angles and, or positions that act as a conductor for the absorption of energy of higher conscious to manifest an extraordinary power in the physical realm (sacred geometry). Karate-Dō, a unique expression of science and spirituality was developed and refined by countless masters to awaken the light in the dark, exposing the practitioner to the essence of the Dō (unity of mind, body and spirit). This divine relationship between mind, body and spirit introduces the seeker/karateka that has transcended the body to an interdimensional awareness that expands and becomes clearer with growth of the internal self. “Just as it is the clear mirror that reflects without distortion, so must one who would study Karate-Dō purge himself of selfish and evil thoughts, for only with clear mind and conscience can he understand that which he receives.”3

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References

  1. Bruce Haines, Karate’s History and Traditions (1968)
  2. Lauana Metil & Jace Townsend, The Story of Karate, From Buddhism to Bruce Lee (1995)
  3. Gichin Funakoshi, Karate-Do Kyohan (The Master Text), translated by Tsutomu Ohshima.
  4. Kodansha (Encyclopedia of Japan) Ref. DS 805 V.1

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