Perhaps 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
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
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
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
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
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
Eight Important Phrases of
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
8. The ears listen well in all
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
If ignorant both of your enemy and of
yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in
"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
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
(Poem by Master Funakoshi)