No, we don’t really have an official sport, but here’s why karate would be it if we did…
Twice in the past three weeks, I listened to Karate-Do: My Way of Life, the short autobiography of Gichin Funakoshi, one of the founders of modern karate (and the Shotokan school).
His was not an easy life: Funakoshi was a sickly child who wasn’t expected to survive. He started karate young (an illicit practice at that time, as Japan was modernizing in the 1870s) and realized he had become stronger and healthier. After planning to be a doctor—but not being allowed into medical school as he refused to cut off his top knot—he eventually chose to be a teacher and devoted almost all of his free time to learning and teaching karate.
Over the course of the book, he demonstrates karate to teachers, admirals, even the emperor, which triggers increasing acceptance and expansion of this martial art. But it was only when he was almost 70—after years of commitment, poverty, and separation from his wife, that he founded his first karate dojo—which his benefactors named “Shotokan”—house of “Shoto,” his pen name when writing poems and to students (we’ll get to the meaning of that soon).
Peppered throughout this autobiography are many anecdotes and reminders of the depth of karate-do (do means way) as a practice and philosophy—one that I have been learning in parallel with my own development of the Gaian Way. I’ll share three.
Karate today means “empty hand” but it didn’t always. It was Funakoshi who changed the meaning. Te means hand. Kara has two meanings, depending on which character is used. Originally the character used meant Tang (or Chinese) as this style of fighting had its roots in a form of Chinese martial arts. But another character pronounced kara means “Empty.” Funakoshi notes at one point that this shift was an important one, not just because karate was becoming indigenized to Japan, or because it reflects the fact that this is primarily a weaponless martial arts (where one’s arms and legs are one’s swords), but it reflects the empty heart and empty mind that are an essential part of Buddhism and of karate.
Here are his words:
“The kara that means “empty” is definitely the more appropriate. For one thing, it symbolizes the obvious fact that this art of self-defense makes use of no weapon, only bare feet and empty hands. Further, students of Karate-do aim not only toward perfecting their chosen art but also toward emptying heart and mind of all earthly desire and vanity.”*
In this time we need to empty out more than ever. With the tremendous societal shifts upon us, we have to stop being wedded to the consumer-way and reduce our earthly desires. Karate as a practice, with the right framing, can help that. Not just because it’s a simple sport and needs little to no equipment and can be practiced anywhere, ** but because the philosophy is embedded directly in the sport—from the tenets reminding practitioners to be humble and to never use this skill offensively, to even how kata (karate forms) are designed to always start with a defensive movement.
Humility is also an essential part of the Gaian Way: understanding that we’re small part of a larger being, not the pinnacle of creation (and not even all that necessary), and that we are utterly dependent on this being that we have been undermining for centuries—that requires deep humility and effort to empty out expectations we’ve grown up with for generations.
On Connecting with Nature
Shoto, Funakoshi’s pen name, means “pine waves,” or the movement of pine needles as the wind moves through them. Here’s why he took that name:
“At such time, if there also happened to be a bit of wind, one could hear the rustle of the pines and feel deep, impenetrable mystery that lies at the root of all life. To me the murmur was a kind of celestial music. Poets all over the world have sung their songs about the brooding mystery that lies within woods and forests, and I was attracted to the bewitching solitude of which they are a symbol…. By the time I had been practicing karate for some years, and as I became more familiar with the art I became more conscious of its spiritual nature. To enjoy my solitude while listening to the wind whistling through the pine was, it seemed to me, an excellent way to achieve the peace of mind that karate demands.”
As a teacher of shinrin-yoku (a more recent Japanese development), this provides yet another glimpse at the depth and breadth of the Japanese cultures’ connection to the land. I knew that at one level already—the Shinto religion has deep ties to the spirits that inhabit rivers, trees, and many other aspects of Gaia—but to discover that a founding father of modern karate named himself Pine Waves, that adds a-whole-nother level.
Unfortunately, karate in the US is rarely practiced outdoors—and in fact, even in Funakoshi’s story, the only mention of outdoor practice was during World War II, when so many about-to-be-drafted boys wanted to learn the art that there was only room outside the dojo to practice. But as one who loves practicing kata on the beach and under the pine trees in a favorite nearby park, these go together incredibly well, being a moving nature meditation, with one nurturing the love of the other and vice versa.
On Being Prepared for the Transition
Here is another powerful quotation:
“Deep within the shadows of human culture lurk seeds of destruction, just as rain and thunder follow in the wake of fair weather. History is the story of the rise and fall of nations. Change is the order of heaven and earth; the sword and the pen are as inseparable as the two wheels of a cart. Thus, a man must encompass both fields if he is to be considered a man of accomplishment. If he is overly complacent, trusting that the fair weather will last forever, he will one day be caught off guard by terrible floods and storms. So it is essential for all of us to prepare each day for any unexpected emergency.”
What more needs saying than this? It is fine to live in and enjoy the peaceful moment we may inhabit, but to imagine that this will last—when we know how rapidly the ecological systems that society relies on are breaking down—is foolish. Physically preparing, as well as preparing one’s family, community, and broader society, is essential and a key philosophical alignment with the Gaian Way.
But Funakoshi’s story also reminds the reader that societal disruptions are nothing new (only the current scale is perhaps novel). Funakoshi was born into a kingdom that would be annexed by Japan. He lived through the great earthquake and resulting fires in Tokyo in 1923 and the devastation of World War II, which took the lives of many of his students, and destroyed his dojo (in air raids). Being able to master the inevitable changes and internal turmoil is what karate (and the Gaian Way) offer. In fact, Shoshin Nagamine, another karate master, said, criticizing western over-focus on karate’s fighting techniques instead of the philosophy, “Karate may be considered as the conflict within oneself or as a life-long marathon which can be won only through self-discipline, hard training and one’s own creative efforts.” I see that in my own dojo, where every class starts with the kata, Sanchin (or the “three conflicts”), representing the conflict between body, mind, and breath—and the value of bringing them into alignment.
In Funakoshi’s Shōtōkan, the nijū kun were 20 precepts he shared with his students. Most important are this triumvirate:
- “One: Apply the way of karate to all things. Therein lies its beauty.”
- “One: Karate is like boiling water; without heat, it returns to its tepid state.”
- “One: Be constantly mindful, diligent, and resourceful, in your pursuit of the Way.”***
All of these apply as much to the Gaian Way as they do to karate. Apply an understanding of Gaia, our connection to and dependence on Gi, to every action and choice we make—to all of reality. Herein lies its beauty.
Be mindful in your pursuit of the way—and more so, sustain it with passion, with heat. Following the way—whether karate-do or the Gaian Way—without energy will not sustain its power—whether its power to transform oneself, one’s community, or one’s culture, and especially will not sustain its power to transform humanity’s relationship with Gaia. And if we don’t do that, well, there in lurk the seeds of our destruction.
*Funakoshi spends a lot of time on vanity, retelling a story where the narrator discovers “vanity is only obstacle to life.” He even tells of his karate teachers who invite their students to practice with any other teachers. Many suffer from “petty jealousy,” or in the social change community from a modern form: competition with other changemakers for limited resources and end up competing instead of collaborating. That is an important reminder as we strive to bring about a new sustainable future.
**As Funakoshi wrote: “Nor is there any need for a specially made uniform. Even a dojo is unnecessary: a person can practice karate in his own yard.” Of course, in truth, lots of practitioners invest in expensive gis, their own weapons, and if sparring, equipment for that. But the basic practice of kata can be done with nothing other than the most basic of clothing. And it can be practiced nearly anywhere as well—in a school, community center, one’s living room, in a backyard, even in a prison cell.
***Funakoshi numbered all twenty principles as one—conveying that they are equally important.