nowhere is the great diversity of human thought more evident at first glance than in the world of the martial arts. The complex tapestry of human endeavor is intricately mirrored in the martial arts.
In trying to comprehend this, we start by attempting to understand what is meant by "style."
When martial artists are introduced, one of the first questions asked is, "What is your style?" In a
way, it's like asking someone what their religion is, or whether they are conservative or liberal in political persuasion. We tend to want to put people into "boxes" when we think of them, and once we identify
a box for them, we are quick to lock them into it. Unfortunately, putting people into boxes, or hanging labels on them really gets us no closer to truth and understanding than having no knowledge whatsoever. In the
martial arts, the generic descriptive for these boxes is "styles." So, a martial artist might answer the question by saying "My style is Tae Kwon Do, and I am a fourth degree Black Belt. My instructor is
Mr. Lee." If the listener is experienced in the martial arts, he knows that Tae Kwon Do originated in Korea as an amalgam of several traditional Korean foot fighting styles, melded with techniques and concepts
garnished from Korea's neighbors in Asia, to include China, and Japan. Tae Kwon Do practitioners are characteristically superior kickers, and are trained to project indomitable spirit, but are not nearly as
sophisticated in the application and use of hand techniques as they are with foot techniques. Tae Kwon Do practitioners often have extraordinary jumping ability, exceptional endurance, and an abundance of confidence in
their hard earned skills. Of all the martial arts styles, Tae Kwon Do is perhaps the most successful in terms of having established schools and teachers in virtually every major city in the world. Their growth has been
phenomenal, and possibly reflects the early formal support of the home country government.
Virtually every style has its "story." Funakoshi, founding father of Shotokan, was an expert of Okinawan styles
when, through chance circumstance, he was invited to demonstrate his skills on the main island of Japan. The diminutive Funakoshi possessed extraordinary skills and won acclaim, respect, and acceptance throughout Japan.
His great skills came to the attention of the Emperor himself, at whose request, Funakoshi remained in Japan, where he formalized, cultivated, and propagated his art of Shotokan. Today, many proponents view Shotokan as
a Japanese art, rather than an Okinawan art. Interestingly, Funakoshi, who assembled Shotokan from various Okinawan styles, was careful to acknowledge the historical Okinawan link to China during the evolution of the
Okinawan empty hand fighting arts. It was Funakoshi who popularized the term "Karate," or "way of the empty hand" for his newly developed style.
Similar stories can be told of hundreds of arts
evolving in virtually every corner of the world. In the Philippines, there are as many formal styles of stick fighting, or "Arnis," as there are islands in the archipelago. The United States must be reckoned
as the modern day standard bearer for the martial art commonly referred to as boxing; and Greek Pankration, or classical wrestling, continues to draw followers in Europe and in the United States. There is Thai boxing,
as prolific in Thailand as baseball is in America. Thai boxers are trained from youth to master the art of the ring sport which allows hand and foot attacks to virtually every part of the body. They fight in a
"boxing ring" and wear boxing gloves, but that's where the similarity ends. Their reputation for spirit and courage is unequaled, and their skills as fighters are seldom matched. Not infrequently, the main
claim to fame of touring martial artists from other styles is that they ventured into Thailand and defeated a Thai boxer in his own arena. Though many do, very few can legitimately make that claim.
Not to be
overlooked are the several other styles of Korean arts, namely Tang Soo Do and Hap Ki Do. Tang Soo Do is a major style like Tae Kwon Do, without quite the same degree of world coverage. Hap Ki Do, means "the way of
coordinated power." It is an ingenious art by any standard, focusing on pressure points, precision strikes and kicks, joint manipulation, and complex theories of movement. This is in addition to the core hand and
foot techniques integral to the other Korean styles.
Though we touched upon the Okinawan arts briefly when we focused on Funakoshi, it would be remiss not to say more about this island incubator where so
many of the martial arts that exist today took their modern form. Historically, Okinawa has been within the Japanese sphere of influence. Nonetheless, it has always been a stepping stone to the Chinese mainland, and its
cultural heritage manifests close affinity with both Japan and China. Let there be no question that the residents of Okinawa have a special pride and identity rooted in the unique heritage of their tiny island. However,
through most of its history, Okinawa was a colony or possession of Japan, and consequently, is now closely aligned with Japan in language, culture, and attitude.
Historically, the residents were farmers, fishermen,
and merchants. These simple people systematically assimilated the fighting arts of China, Japan, and perhaps even Korea, and through centuries of application, and refinement, produced a system of "styles"
unique to their culture.
When Funakoshi adopted the word Karate, or empty hand, for his art, he surely had the Okinawan heritage in mind. These farmers, merchants, and fisherman, while burdened with perpetual
occupation by their Japanese cousins, were often deprived of civil rights and liberties taken for granted in our own society. To maintain control of the islanders, Japan carefully controlled the dissemination of weapons
and instruments of combat. The Okinawans, ever diligent, ever resourceful, perfected the transmission of power through the human body and into intended targets. Their weaponless power is legendary, and there are many
accounts of Japanese armor being penetrated by the hands or feet of peasant fighters during skirmishes.
Most incredible is the ingenuity of these humble people who, barred from using the legitimate weapons of combat
for maintaining their sovereignty, eventually looked to the ordinary tools and implements of their humble lives to create new styles of fighting, and new approaches to armed combat unique to their circumstances. Their
fisherman's oar became the match of the samurai's sword. The nunchaku, everpresent in today's martial arts movies, was adopted from an implement used to beat the grains of rice from their shells. The sai, which can
loosely be described as a trident, capable of being held one in each hand, was adopted from farm tools used to plow the earth. The Japanese were to learn much from these islanders, and today, much of what is identified
as Japanese Karate, has its roots in the cleverness of Okinawan peasants.
When digging further into the origins of styles, one ultimately ends up in China. One way or another, China is the great shaper of all Asian
martial arts. There are many legends about the origin of modern martial arts in China. One such legend is the account of Bhodiharma crossing the Himalayas, bringing the teachings of Buddha into China. When teaching
disciples, he found they had difficulty concentrating, and to solve the problem, he initiated them into physical exercises which would later evolve into Kung Fu or Wu Shu. It was his spiritual descendants who became
famous in legend as the Shao Lin monks.
Realistically, one does not find the origin of Chinese martial arts in as recent a historical event as Bhodiharma's crossing the Himalayas. China's history is filled with epic
conflicts leaving virtually no parts of the country unscathed. Recognizing the human carnage brought on by such historical episodes, it only makes sense to conclude that throughout Chinese history, there was ample
opportunity for all to become exposed to the fighting arts. With refinement, continuous utilization, and systemization, primitive theories of conflict became formal styles of martial arts.
Today, there are countless
variations of Chinese martial arts. Historically, practitioners from each town or village began to develop similarities in movement which eventually became styles. Even different regions of the country began to manifest
broad differences in martial approaches. Transmission from teacher to student followed any number of avenues. Some arts were taught in the temple. Some were passed on in the market place. Others were passed from father
to son, or from father to daughter. There are legends attesting to the existence of all these approaches.
Whatever the country, whatever the history, and whatever the style, in time, the masters discovered properties
of human potential that were hitherto unknown. They perfected their arts, then hid their secrets. With hundreds of years of practice and contemplation, some of these arts began to take on outer worldly characteristics.
The secrets of movement, and energy, once understood, gave new insights into the life process. Legends began to spread of mystics, holy men, and sorcerers. Truth to be known, the arts do lead to a final destination.
Those who have made it are not quick to share their insights with the undeserving. Accordingly, even today, the greatest masters (and there are still some around) remain hidden by curtains of commonality. From the deep
Orient, to the streets of New York, you can find them sweeping parks, turning the soil, or working as laborers on a road crew. They are one with their art, and they are their art. There is no motivation to propagate
their art to the public, nor incentive that the public could offer to make that happen.
These are the guardians of the heritage. They protect it from the unknowing, and undeserving.
Funakoshi holds a unique position in the martial arts. He is the modern master, who single handedly
brought martial arts into the modern age, and ultimately out of the Orient. He is unique among masters in that he was highly skilled as a martial artist (he was the personal student and protégé of
two of Okinawa's finest masters, Itosu and Azato), and was a recognized scholar.
Compare "The Code of Isshinryu Karate" (Appendix I, page 1. I have included it below for your
convenience) to Funakoshi's own "Eight Important Phrases of Karate.":
The Code of Isshinryu Karate
1. A person's heart is the same as heaven and earth.
2. The blood circulating is similar to the moon and sun.
3. The manner of drinking and spitting is either hard or soft.
4. A person's unbalance is the same as a weight.
5. The body should be able to change directions at any time.
6. The time to strike is when the opportunity presents itself.
7. The eye must see all sides.
8. The ear must listen in all directions.
Eight Important Phrases of Karate
1. The mind is the same with heaven and earth.
2. The circulatory rhythm of the body is similar to the sun and the moon.
3. The Law includes hardness and softness.
4. Act in accordance with time and change.
5. Techniques will occur when a void is found.
6. The Ma requires advancing and retreating, separating and meeting.
7. The eyes do not miss even the slightest change.
8. The ears listen well in all directions.
Other quotations from Funakoshi:
"True Karate-do 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."
"The secret principle of martial arts is not vanquishing the attacker but resolving to avoid an encounter before its occurrence. To become the object of an attack is an indication that there was an
opening in one's guard, and the important thing is to be on guard at all times."
"When delivering the one blow against the attacker, the importance of using one's whole strength and
being especially accurate cannot be overemphasized. In the event that this one blow is ineffective, the attacker will become more violent, a point not to be forgotten. The importance of using one's
whole strength and putting one's heart and soul in this one attempt has been stressed, but it is also important to do so only after reaching a rational conclusion that there is no other way out."
"There is no first strike in Karate."
"Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.
When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal;
If ignorant both of your enemy and of yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in peril."
"For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the highest skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the highest skill."
"When birds of prey are attacking, they fly in low without extending their wings. When wild beasts are about to attack, they crouch low with their ears close to their heads. Similarly, when a sage is
about to act, he always appears slightly dull."
"The word "bu" of Budo (martial arts) is written with the Chinese character for "stop" within a
character signifying two crossed halberds meaning to stop conflict. Since karate is a budo, this meaning should be deeply considered, and the fists should not be used heedlessly."
To search for the old is to understand the new.
The old, the new
This is a matter of time.
In all things man must have a clear mind.
Who will pass it on straight and well?
(Poem by Master Funakoshi)