The origin of karate
The development of the martial arts dates back at least three to four thousand years. From the evidence that remains, all major early civilizations, such as those in China, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle and Near East, and the Mediterranean area, for example, appear to have had forms of military arts, and it is not unusual to see evidence of the development of empty handed or unarmed techniques in conjunction with these arts.
Since the human anatomy is fairly uniform, the types of unarmed fighting arts that developed in these different regions, whether by direct influence from other cultures or not, show great similarity. The use of striking with various parts of the hands and feet, with the elbows and knees, the use of pulling, pushing, tripping and throwing to gain advantage, the use of holds and locks, pulling the hair, biting, gouging, breaking, strangling, etc., in the most violent forms of combat, presumably when survival was most at stake, are all in evidence in varying degrees. Which techniques were developed and used in each culture depended as much upon local custom, mores, and etiquette as on the creativity of the participants, and upon whether the use was for actual combat as opposed to sport or physical education.
The martial art of karate-do has its origins in Okinawa. Its earliest evolution is not known but is only guessed to have preceded the very substantial development known to historians to have taken place between the twelfth and nineteenth centuries, especially under considerable influence from China. Karate was introduced into Japan in the early twentieth century. Since the end of World War II there has been a great surge of cultural exchange between Asia and the West. Karate-do is part of that cultural exchange and has made a significant impact on many Americans.
Physical and mental discipline
Karate-do is a physical and mental discipline of self-defense based on courtesy, respect, humility and nonviolence. Though karate emerged from a background of physical combat and continues to offer one of the best-known forms of personal unarmed self-defense, it is practiced for more important reasons. The foundation in rigorous and demanding physical training, together with the environment of strict discipline, is used as a means to self-development. This is guided by the etiquette of showing respect to the instructor, to oneself and to one’s opponent for participating in and providing the opportunity for such growth. When the training is done within this tradition of martial arts as a do (from the Chinese Tao, meaning a “path” or “way”), the emphasis then becomes overcoming one’s own limits rather than overcoming the opponent. The “opponent” then, is one’s own limitations, which must be met with discipline, courage and perseverance. Each training session tests the student’s endurance, patience and ability to meet the challenge of confronting his or her own limits and to grow beyond them. It teaches the student humility while instilling courage and the confidence that with persistence and effort the student can succeed. The training and even the training area, the dojo is regarded as sacred in the sense of being devoted to this most central of human activities educating (educing or bringing forth) the best in each person.
There are discernable but unified aspects or levels in karate that all converge to offer such a path. Mental discipline, physical conditioning and mastering technique lead to the development of expertise in self-defense. This ability can be tested in the controlled environment of sport karate. It is important here to recognize that this aspect or level of karate, which is only decades old, is the least important, though it can be very useful in the larger context of a wholesome approach to the art.
Technique is so important
The fact that karate is called an art is of great significance. It should always be practiced with this in mind. The karate practitioner, or karateka, must work very hard to perfect his or her technique. The demands of this process have a great deal in common with other art forms such as dance. The karateka must learn to execute movement not only with great efficiency, power, speed and balance, but with grace and style. The aesthetics of karate are most obviously manifest in kata (traditional prearranged fight scenarios performed against imaginary opponents), used to develop refinement of movement, power and speed. The karateka is able to control the body and express him or herself through movement much as a painter controls paints and brushes and expresses him or herself through the precision and finesse required in painting. This all requires great concentration.
In free sparring or kumite (literally, free hand), skill in movement must be carried out with the utmost calm and control under pressure in order to react spontaneously and effectively to an opponent’s attack. This brings to bear the meditative aspect of karate training. The very training itself requires and cultivates mental and physical concentration and focus. Concentrating and stilling the mind is also practiced in conjunction with karate training in the form of sitting meditation for a few minutes before and after class. Students are encouraged to make meditation a daily regimen outside the training as well.
It is hoped that through extensive training the student of karate will come to understand and appreciate the aesthetic qualities, and ultimately reach the deepest levels, the philosophy, ethics, and spirit of karate-do. At this deepest level karate-do emphasizes a mind/body unity of natural action and reaction and encourages an attitude of respect for all persons. The martial way is not aimed at violence. A fighting art is not merely fighting or a means to justified self-defense. Excellence of technique is ultimately not what is at stake. Practicing the art points beyond the art. One must not become attached to the vehicle of self-development itself or it can come to inhibit growth rather than promote it.
Karate should be practiced as a means to self-understanding and maturity, rather than as an end in itself. Otherwise, it becomes nothing more than physical exercise or combat technique and may lead to misuse. Although not all schools of karate are the same in what they foster, the true spirit of karate-do manifests itself in such qualities as discipline, honesty, sincerity, respect, humility, open-mindedness, and non-violence. Through proper training, the karate student develops capacities for concentration and self-confidence, which can carry over to and improve all aspects of life. Karate is only one of many paths. Whatever the path, if it genuinely aims at betterment of the individual as a human being, discipline and sincerity are at the core.