Karate Originates (in India)

Bodhidarma, whom the Japanese call Daruma, was an Indian patriarch, the twenty-eight in the line of succession from Shakyamuni Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. In 520 A.D., Bodhidarma left India for China and established himself at Shaolin Monastery, which had been founded by the Indian monk Batuo some three decades earlier. Shaolin Monastery is nestled on the barren slopes of Song Mountain in the Henan Province of central China.

History of Bodhi dharma

Bodhidarma left India in order to plant Buddhism in the new soil of Chinese culture. In India, Buddhism had evolved into a complex philosophical system, and the core of its practice was eroding. Bodhidarma sat in silent meditation (zazen) in a cave on Song Mountain for nine years. Through this solitary, ascetic practice, he reached enlightenment. However, he did not feel that the training of the body was to be neglected. While doing zazen, he practiced a series of physical movements, both for exercise and for defense against wild animals.

Bodhidarma passed on his physical training techniques to the monks at Shaolin, who integrated them into their spiritual training. These techniques were also used to defend the monastery against bandits who roamed the desolate Chinese country. As word spread about the effective self-defense techniques used by the monks, it was inevitable that the monastery would be drawn into local politics. At the peak of Shaolin’s fortunes, during the T’and Dynasty some 13 centuries ago, the monastery had several hundred fighting monks and a thousand peasants who tilled several thousand acres of communal farm land that was under the monastery’s control. Shaolin’s fortunes rose and fell during the struggles among various Chinese warlords, reaching the low point in 1928, when the monastery was burned to the ground. The techniques that bodhidarma had developed were formalized into an indigenous martial art called Wushu. This art has withered over the years, being replaced by Kempo, or “temple boxing.” After 1928, the practice of the martial arts was banned, as part of the effort to destroy the temple’s power and influence.

The martial arts were started in China out of Bodhidarma’s search for spiritual enlightenment. It was not long, however, before the secular world became interested in them for very non-spiritual reasons. The martial arts spread beyond the monastery walls, and they became intimately involved with the world of courtly politics and economics.

The very practical nature of Chinese culture and thought had resurrected the Buddhism that Bodhidarma brought from India. Buddhism lost the unworldly, ascetic bent it developed in India. In China, it was practiced widely in temples, which were intimately involved in local activity; Buddhism become perhaps too worldly, and again the core of the practice was being lost. It was necessary that the seed be carried to fresh ground. This was to be Japan.

Shapes as Zen (in Japan)

Buddhism arrived in Japan in the middle of the sixth century from Korea. At that time, there was tremendous rivalry among the various clans competing for the favor of Japanese Emperor. The Soga clan championed the cause of Buddhism, and it successfully influenced the royal family. Towards the end of the sixth century, Prince Shotoku Taishi, an intellectual and philosopher, threw his support to Buddhism. He became a prominent Buddhist scholar, writing commentaries on the sutras, or scriptures.

In the early part of the seventh century, the T’ang Dynasty (618-906) began its ascendancy in China. Shaolin’s influence was at its height under the T’angs. Japanese culture and administration patterned themselves after the T’and Dynasty. The city of Nara, for example, the imperial city of Japan, was built on the model of Ch’and-an in China.

On the political front in Japan, as the clans struggled for influence with the Emperor, his own real power started waning. The Emperor eventually became a figurehead, with the Fujiwara family becoming a real civil power in Japan. With the Emperor weakened and no central system of taxation or administration, Japan fell into an extended feudal period. The Fujiwaras, meanwhile, divided into warring factions, each one allying itself with a military house for support and protection. Eventually, the military class wrested power from the dominant families, and in 1192, Yoritomo was made the first Shogun, or “Generalissimo.”

Quotes and Sayings by Bodhidharma

Buddhism had been planted firmly in the Japanese soil under the patronage of Prince Shotoku Taishi. In Japan, however, it was radically transformed into something unique, namely, Zen. Dogen, a Japanese Buddhist monk, went to China to study and learn the deeper teachings of Buddhism. In China, he went from temple to temple, inquiring and observing the practice. He was unsatisfied with what he saw and heard, and he decided to go back home to Japan. Before returning, he stopped at a temple and observed a very old monk kneeling on the ground, drying mushrooms in the sun.

Dogen was surprised that an old man, a senior monk of the temple, was doing the labour of the junior monks.

“Why are you working in the hot sun doing the job of your younger subordinates when you are a senior monk of the temple? Asked Dogen.

“If I do not do this, if I do not work here and now, who could understand? I am not others. Others are not me. So others cannot have the experience. I must dry these mushrooms here and now, today, at this moment. Now, go away to I may work!”

Dogen was startled and had the experience of enlightenment (satori). He spent a year in the temple, studying with the old monk’s teacher. Dogen received the kesa of transmission from the Master and went home to Japan to introduce his practice of Zen to Japan.

In China and India, Buddhist practice came to be secondary to philosophical system or to ethical and political norms. Dogen, as a result of his experience, and continuing in the line of succession from Shakyamuni Buddha, founded Zen based on two basic principles:

  • Direct, Personal Experience
  • Practice of zazen (seated meditation)

What Dogen did was to strip away all the philosophical, intellectual and external super-structures of Buddhism that has been destroying the core, namely, the practice. The practice, that is zazen, now became the only thing. Everything else was secondary.

The quiet, spare simplicity of Zen appealed greatly to many elements in the Japanese character, and it quickly took root and interacted in many profound ways with Japanese history and culture. Zen became a way for the warrior, the aristocrat and the scholar. It stressed, among other things, a unity with nature. The Zen influence led to a very prolific period in Japanese landscape painting. No aspect of Japanese art and culture escaped the Zen influence. The most striking example, which remains today, is the Dai Butsu, the huge statue of Aminda at Kamakura.

Sensei Subodha Dhiman at Dai Butsu Kamakura (Japan)

During the feudal period in Japan, the samurai, or warrior class, rose to positions of great influence and respect. Particularly during the Kamakura period in the thirteenth century, the samurai absorbed much of their stoic attitude. The samurai reached their peak of power and influence in the Tokugawa period of the seventeenth century. In the hierarchy of social standing of the time, warriors were paramount, followed by peasants, artisans and, finally, merchants or traders. Under Tokugawa Ieyasu, the samurai cultivated intellect as well as physical skill and power in swordsmanship. The samurai combined kendo (way of the sword) with the butsudo (way of the Buddha) of Dogen; these two came into one, becoming bushido (way of the warrior). The samurai value system, incorporating Zen and a fighting spirit, is the foundation of Karate’s value system.

We have seen so far that the precursors of the martial arts came not from a martial tradition, but from a monk’s quest for spiritual perfection. The Buddhist tradition went from India to China and to Japan, via Korea; along the way it was transformed, becoming Zen in the ground of Japanese culture. Along this way, the physical techniques and exercise of Bodhidarma were transformed also. The world looked on these powerful and effective techniques as useful and desirable, apart from any spiritual training. The initial and fundamental unity of Zen and the martial arts came to be broken, as it is in the twentieth century. In the samurai class, however, the Zen and martial art traditions were unified into a single way of being.

‘Karate’ Develops (in Okinawa)

Parallel to these developments in Japan, martial arts techniques were being developed, for extremely practical reasons, in the Ryukyu Islands, on Okinawa. The islanders, having been forbidden to carry weapons by the ruling Japanese, secretly developed and practiced self-defense techniques. These became known as Okinawa-te (hand techniques of Okinawa). In 1722, Sakugawa, who had studied kempo and stick-fighting techniques in China, systematized and developed the indigenous techniques to the point where the art became known as Karate-no-Sakugawa (Chinese hand techniques of Sakugawa). This was the first use of the word “Karate.”

In 1879, the Okinawa Island was annexed by Japan. In 1916, a group of Okinawan masters, led by the renowned Gichin Funakoshi, gave the first official public demonstration of Karate outside of Okinawa, in Kyoto, Japan. Master Funakoshi, an artist and philosopher, changed the character for kara from one meaning “Chinese,” to one which means “empty.” Karate then came to mean “empty hand”. This very significant change reflected his personal feeling for the deeper meaning of the art.

Karate (Path to the Present)

Karate and Zen were inseparable elements of Bodhidarma’s search for spiritual perfection. The two were one, hence the historical basis for the old saying, “Ken Zen Ichi Nyo!” As the spirituality of the monastery mingled with the marketplace and the political arena, it was perhaps inevitable that the techniques be separated from the core of spiritual training and practice.

Renbukai Students getting ready to face challenges of life

Today, martial arts are growing in popularity throughout the world. The face of Karate today displays a variety of styles, teaching methods, goals and physical techniques. This variety ensures the vitality of the martial arts. However, Seido Karate seeks to find the original face of the martial art, to take the founding tradition and apply and enrich it in a twentieth century context. Through the practice of Seido Karate, every student should seek to discover what Dogen understood when he questioned the elderly Chinese monk.

Hirohito, the emperor of Japan, witnessed a Karate demonstration and was very impressed. He recommended that the leaders of Karate come to Japan and teach this martial art. A schoolteacher named Ginchin Funakoshi, a student of Yasatsune Itosu, along with some other recognized leaders of Karate, moved to Tokyo to spread Karate. It was Funakoshi who made the most immediate impact, and he is considered to be the father of modern Japanese Karate. His school was called “The Shotokan”, and that name was soon adopted as the name of a new Karate style.