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Zen and karate
Karate is often linked to the practice of Zen. Where does this link with Buddhism come from? What is Buddhism and what place does it occupy in Japanese culture?
Japan and beliefs
In contrast to revealed religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam (which are based on the exclusive choice of certain beliefs), the Japanese religious world is a blend of beliefs and practices. The Japanese are unabashed in mixing Shinto, Buddhism, the way of yin and yang, ancestor worship, Confucianism, Christianity and so forth.
Out of 127 million inhabitants, Japan has about 109 million Shintoists, 96 million Buddhists and 10 million people who follow other religions, including 1.5 million Christians and 45,000 Muslims. A Japanese can, therefore, be attached to a Buddhist temple and a Shinto shrine.
Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the 6th century and was originally a type of aristocratic religion primarily associated with the moment of death and ancestor worship. Buddhism in Japan attaches great importance to Zen, which focuses on meditation. The aim of meditation is to achieve a special spiritual state known as “satori”, which makes it possible to appreciate the reality of the world. The mix between Shintoism and Buddhism appeared very early: the Buddhas were perceived as benevolent kamis, and the kamis were treated as avatars of the Buddhas.
Confucianism, which originated in China, was introduced to Japan in the 5th century, where it developed mainly as a political philosophy advocating social harmony, loyalty, obedience and respect for tradition.
Buddhism is considered either as a religion or as a philosophy. Its origins are to be found in India, and date back to the 5th century BC. Buddhism followed the awakening of Siddhartha Gautama, who is regarded as the historic Buddha.
Buddhism presents a set of meditative and ethical practices together with psychological, philosophical and cosmological theories addressed from the perspective of enlightenment.
The goal of Buddhism is awakening by extinguishing narcissistic desire and illusion, which are the cause of human suffering. Awakening in Theravada Buddhism is achieved by understanding and performing four “noble truths”:
1. All life involves suffering and disappointment;
This means waking up from the nightmare of the successive rebirths of Buddhist belief. The enlightened individual achieves nirvana (enlightenment) and escapes suffering at death: the cycle of rebirth and death is broken.
Awakening in Mahayana Buddhism is connected with wisdom and an awareness of one’s own Buddha-nature.
The four immeasurables correspond to pious feelings or types of behaviour that can be developed indefinitely. They are cultivated in the pursuit of enlightenment, the ultimate liberation and rebirth in the heavenly world of Brahma.
These are positive emotions to be continually developed:
The word “Zen” (chan in Mandarin) means “silent meditation”. Zen is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism, which emphasises meditation based on the sitting position known as zazen. This corresponds to the meditation posture of Siddhartha Gautama when he achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.
The legend about the origins of the Zen tradition goes back to a sermon by the Buddha Shakyamuni during which, without explanation, “he simply picked a flower. No disciple understood the message, except for Mahakashyapa, who smiled at the Buddha. The latter then told him that he had just given him his most precious spiritual treasure”. This is a foreshadowing of the description of the chan Buddhism of Bodhidharma: “no writing, a different education that directly affects the mind to reveal the true nature of the Buddha”.
In the tradition of Mahakashyapa, Bodhidharma, the 28th Indian patriarch, came to China around 520. His doctrine was the starting point for Buddhism in China. His method, inspired by yoga, aimed to achieve good physical shape and a union between the mind and body. The unique aspect of Bodhidharma’s approach was the search for spirituality through practising martial arts.
Zen and Gichin Funakoshi
Gichin Funakoshi undoubtedly contributed to the rapprochement between karate and Zen. He modified the meaning of the kanji kara of karate. Kara no longer meant “from China”, but “empty” in the Buddhist sense: rather than meaning “nothing”, the term signifies a state of mind.
For Funakoshi and his masters, karate is not simply a combat sport or a way of defending oneself. In his opinion, the goal of karate is human fulfilment on a physical and spiritual level. Karate must improve the character and self-control.
In parallel, Funakoshi worked to integrate karate into the budo family, which was heavily influenced by the values of Japanese society. In the family of Japanese martial arts, irrespective of the discipline, one seeks the fulfilment of the personality in harmony with the world and nature.
Zen and Bushido
Bushido means “the way of the warrior”. It is the code of honour of the Samurai influenced over time by three schools of thought: Zen, Shintoism and Confucianism.
In the world of the Japanese military, Zen is presented as a mental training that advocates simplicity, honesty and bravery. Furthermore, the pursuit of perfection and unity between the body and the detached mind, freed from unnecessary passion, can be very useful on the battlefield.
In this conception, martial exercises help to improve physical and mental mastery. The fighter experiences Zen when he is capable of fully participating in the combat in a “detached” fashion. He must be attentive, alert and focused without allowing him or herself to be overwhelmed by thoughts or emotions.
The relationship between karate and Zen has its roots at different levels:
Copyright - S. Murgo