Karate and Spirituality

Karate and Spirituality

Morgan Duchesney, Jan.25, 2006: Ottawa, Canada


The practice of Karate has great potential for social good, providing it is taught with noble motives and a spiritual approach. This is so because the ultimate goal of Karate practice is the pursuit of social justice and the refinement of one’s character. It is an art of introspection that can assist people in coping with an outward-focused world. As well, a student who trains seriously and consistently will develop practical self-defense skills and enhanced physical fitness.The major problem facing the proliferation of traditional non-sport Karate is the public perception that the commodification and sportification of Karate and other martial arts for profit is the optimal situation. There are many ‘franchise’ type Karate schools that specialize in preparing children for competition. This practice is a corruption of what Karate was meant to be. Karate is a martial art of self-defense with a highly refined spiritual dimension. Sport Karate is at best a break from serious training.

The main problem in martial arts today is the public perception that the commodification and sportification of Karate and other martial arts for profit is the normal and optimal situation. Commercial schools have cleverly taken advantage of the consumerism and competitiveness that dominates Western society. Karate was originally a martial art of self-defense with no sporting applications.

Modern Karate is basically divided into Karate jutsu (pure self-defense with no rules except survival) and the two varieties of sport Karate: point Karate and full-contact Karate or kickboxing. My main critique of modern Karate mainly concerns point Karate. Most commercial Karate schools offer some Karate jutsu training but they generally concentrate on producing point Karate competitors. Point Karate is at best a break from serious training because, while it does require a high degree of athleticism; its main goal is not dispassionate self-defense against aggression but rather public recognition for the competitor and advertising for their teacher. It may also develop confidence and enhance the competitors’ sense of fair play. Point Karate forbids the participants from even pretending to attack the vital points (eyes, throat, groin etc.) or using holds, throws, takedowns and dislocation techniques. These techniques form the heart of Karate jutsu as it was practiced in Okinawa before 1935, when the mainland Japanese created a system of sporting rules for the Okinawan martial art of Karate. Point Karate poorly prepares students for the savagery of a street attack because it is organized around civility and well-understood rules. It merely requires speed and precision to score points through ‘almost’ hitting pre-determined ‘safe’ targets on an opponent.

To further confuse the matter, point Karate champions often present themselves as ‘kick boxing’ champions. Full-contact Karate is more useful for self-defence than point Karate because the competitors are allowed to use full power punches and kicks. However, it is organized around a dangerously limiting set of rules. Dangerous because what you practice in the school is what you will do in a dark alley where there are no rounds or referees. Kick boxing or full contact Karate is prize fighting for money, a totally different game from point fighting for trophies and medals.

The main rule in the teaching and practice of Karate jutsu is the requirement for control in the practice of dangerous techniques designed solely to control an attacker or ensure survival. In direct contrast to sport Karate, students of self-defense Karate are taught to ‘almost’ strike the vital points and to execute throws, takedowns, dislocations and joint locks. The operators of commercial Karate schools may be aware of the stark difference in mind-set between the recreational athleticism of point Karate and the no-holds-barred ruthlessness of Karate jutsu. However, they consistently fail to publicly differentiate between the two approaches, thereby misleading the public and reinforcing the misconception that Karate is mainly a sport and a business.

My original Karate teacher, Alberto Bernabo, charged only enough to pay the rent at his modest Bell Street North dojo. He refused to discuss black belt promotions until a student was 18 years of age and had trained intensely for at least five years. His tentative agreement meant only that you would then embark on a lengthy period of more exacting scrutiny. In numerous commercial Karate schools, black belts are awarded to immature children and ineffectual adults with only a few years experience. This irresponsible practice generates rich profits but trivializes the meaning of the black belt. Many in the commercial Karate world considered Mr. Bernabo’s training methods to be harsh and extreme because he insisted that black belt candidates learn to withstand the pain and bruising of hard punches and kicks. In the process he produced students who were also capable of executing punishing techniques against determined attackers intent on breaching their defenses. Mr. Bernabo believed there was no point in testing students solely on their tournament performance or the technical excellence of their solitary, unopposed efforts, as is the practice in large commercial schools. He tested my technical level, but also subjected me to grueling endurance tests that tempered my body and spirit and taught me humility. I discovered that earning a black belt is merely the first major step in learning Karate. I have many so-called ‘Masters’ whose mastery of self-promotion dramatically exceeded their martial skills. I believe Karate ought mainly be a precious gift to be something shared by a skilled and patient teacher with a small circle of trusted students. Such an approach facilitates the promotion of the spiritual goal of Karate: the improvement of one’s character through hard training and constant introspection.

Our hyper-competitive and materialistic consumer culture promotes individualism at the expense of the greater common good. While Canada is not yet as individualistic a society as the U.S.; the last few decades of Canadian neoliberalism have pushed us closer to the U.S. model. The phenomenon of competitive sport Karate is a natural outgrowth of the evolution of our individualistic culture. Like corporate capitalism, sport Karate tends to encourage about competition and dominance. Such behavior divides society and limits the possibility of co-operative action among citizens who are constantly encouraged to produce more goods and services, no matter the cost.

When Karate is taught strictly as self-defense in a spiritual environment, students begin to see themselves as members of a co-operative group under the guidance of the teacher. While a traditional rank structure exists, respect between teacher and student is mutual. The traditional school is like a family and the new or challenged student is always the priority. Of course, such a school operates at the level of expenses and all contribute to the payment of rent or other operating expenses. There are no coercive financial obligations or inducements

Karate training may be a useful counterweight to our consumer culture because of its spiritual nature. Meditation and spiritual study is combined with rigorous physical training to help the students ascertain their genuine strengths and failings. This takes time and hard work and many become discouraged. Karate teaches one about patience, restraint and introspection. These concepts become real after the student is forced to grapple with the frustration of constant correction, physical duress, promotion delays, injuries and the difficulty of gaining technical skills. All the students are tempered in the same fire and solid relationships of trust and respect are built. This positive outcome ripples into society as the students interact with others outside the school. In a world of instant gratification, road rage and nihilism, the Karate person can do much to restore balance to social relations by setting a positive example of kindness, fairness and courtesy. Through Karate training a person may gain a measure of acceptance and harmony with the world. The Father of Canadian Karate, Masami Tsuruoka extolled the social benefits of Karate when he wrote of Samurai philosophy, “ Giri to ninjo is a statement that encompasses all concepts of loyalty, dedication, respect etc., through enforcing a sense of obligation. This obligation (giri) becomes a binding ideal dedicated to the betterment of humanity (ninjo), whatever the cost to the individual.” The notion of mutual dedication and personal sacrifice need not be taken to the Samurai extreme to be of use in our society. Each small act of kindness, courage and nobility ripples outward and pushes some bad from the world.

Morgan Duchesney is an Ottawa writer and Karate instructor who has been intensely active in Karate training and research for the last 18 years. He and David Desjardin operate a non-profit Karate school in downtown Ottawa.