Most karateka (karate practitioner) will attest to the notion that once they first entered the dojo (training hall), traditional western values that we hold regarding the body and ourselves are immediately challenged. The concept and ideals of "self" allow the body to be utilised as an object through which Karate traditions can flourish. Likewise, the practice community that karateka become involved in is also vastly different to what is experienced in more "traditional" western past times. It is these three domains that assist in emphasising the philosophical differences between the martial arts and the more traditional forms of leisure and sport such as running, football and swimming. The purpose of this paper is to examine the differences between eastern martial arts and traditional western sports. Initially, the view of the body in the martial arts will be investigated and compared to that of western sports. Further analysis will look at the notion of self and the importance of practice communities within the martial arts world as compared to traditional sport.
A major aspect where the martial arts present a different view of the body is in regard to technique improvisation. In almost all of the traditional sports of today, it is possible and accepted that the athlete makes certain improvisations to basic skills -enabling movements to become seemingly easier and more coherent with their body.. That is, the athletes are free to a certain degree to adapt various sporting techniques of their chosen sport to their body or their "game style". For example, the traditional and accepted series of technical aspects that comprise "bowling" in cricket are accepted by every player. However, all bowlers exhibit minor differences in their delivery actions. These differences are not necessarily wrong, but they are used to help bowlers become comfortable and ultimately, more effective in their actions (12: p72). The same example can be used for sporting activities such as kicking a football, serving in tennis and shooting in basketball.
However, the same cannot be said for the martial arts. Karate today is very similar to the way it was hundreds of years ago - not only in traditions and etiquette, but in technique as well. In his writing "Traditional Karate, Fundamental Techniques", Higaonna (7: p16) presents evidence as to the history of the martial arts. He submits that the characteristics of fundamental blocking techniques of karate had been printed on two small Babylonian works of art dating back to 2000 B.C. Since the "birth" of karate as we know it in Okinawa in 1917, the theories and methods of striking, restraining and killing have been passed on down through the generations to the teachers of today (16: p11), with very little or no change at all.
The fundamental basis from which these theories evolve is from the katas, or "...a pattern of movements which contains a series of logical and practical attacking and blocking techniques". (7: p15). These Katas have been created by previous masters (karateka who have achieved the ranking of 5th degree black belt) after many years of training, research and actual combat experience. (7: p15). Every time the karateka practises a kata, they are replicating a pattern that dates back to China over sixteen hundred years ago - and one which has endured minimal change since. (7: p15). Yet, today’s masters occasionally modify the katas to incorporate new knowledge, but this is only done after years of training and thought. For example, Shihan Watanabe of Goju-Ryu Karate Mission International (one particular style of karate), recently modified the first kata in the system - Gekesai Shodan. Originally, Gekesai Shodan (literally translated to basic form number 1.) finished approximately one and a half metres behind its starting position. The undesired effect with this was that being the first kata, it was the one practiced the most, and if repeated ten or fifteen times in a row, students began hitting the wall behind them and colliding into other students. Noticing this, and after many years of personal experimentation and thought, Shihan Watanabe adapted the kata so it began and finished in exactly the same place. Variations in technique have been minimal and would be virtually undetectable even to the versed student.. Importantly, these changes are not an example of "individualism". The "master" alters the kata in order to benefit the entire karate community and to enrich the system of which he is an authority. Changes are not introduced to enrich the master’s own ego or act as a self-monument. Western sport often experiences individualism as coaches and athletes develop techniques for their own good. A prime example of this would be the introduction of the "Fosbury Flop" in high jump. In 1968, Dick Fosbury introduced the "Fosbury Flop" method of high jumping (5: p205). This change was for Fosbury’s own performance benefit and eventually made him one of the most well known athletes of all time (5: p205). In western sport, Fosbury will be forever proclaimed as the inventor of this technique - eastern martial arts does not boast any individuals as "ground breakers". However, the kata’s are occasionally adapted, giving rise to the notions of "body" (physical) and "self" (mental).
The concept of Shu-Ha-Ri is derived from the "mental" or "self" notion. (4: pp45-46). The fundamental Shu philosophy implies that it is taboo for a practicing karateka to make permanent, physical changes to the karate system until the level of Shihan (5th degree black and "Master" of his style of karate) is achieved. Once Shu is achieved, the karateka moves into the Ha stage where the student now uses their own original thoughts to assimilate new techniques from their foundation of knowledge. (4: p45.).
At Ha, the karateka understands basic stepping, shifting principles as well as punches, kicks and blocks. Having spent some years acquiring fundamental skills, the karateka is now encouraged to explore different ways in which to apply this existing knowledge. The student is still not permitted to alter the fundamental framework of the karate style - including the katas (4: p45). Finally, Ri occurs when the student has achieved complete mastery of the particular style of karate. (4: p46.). They are now known as Shihan, a level which can take at least 20 years of constant training to achieve (13: p28). For this reason, most karateka never progress beyond Shu. As stressed earlier, only at the level of Shihan can one modify the basic karate system. Even at this level, modifications are still rarely made - if ever.
Shu can be defined as "conserving a tradition". (4: p45). Beginners in the art of karate enter the dojo knowing nothing - they are simply required to follow the example of their Sensei. In conserving a tradition, the karateka’s body is essentially used as an object which displays the traditions and past history of karate - it is used as a mechanism through which patented and accepted movements can flourish (such as the Katas). With all students, these movements are performed under the strict supervision of the Sensei or Shihan who ensures that the traditional methods of practicing karate are continued. (6: p195). Historically, there were no karate text books - fighting system knowledge was passed down through the generations via the katas. The body was simply seen as a medium through which karate technique could be exhibited. This belief still holds true today, with "fighting tactics...handed down from the founder (of Goju-Ryu Karate), Chojun Miyagi, to successive masters in unwritten format, through personal tuition". (10: p45).
Many texts are produced focusing on techniques with western sports. There is an abundance of books on western sports such as tennis, football and basketball, and it is even possible to teach yourself how to bowl a "flipper" in cricket through text (12: p93). Yet, it is impossible to learn how to correctly perform fifteen katas (that normally take approximately 20 years to master!) through reading a book. Also, the ethics of karate can not be emphasised through text - they must be embraced and experienced through hard training at the dojo.
Clarke (4: pp45-46) has managed to translate Shu-Ha-Ri very well. It is a philosophy which encompasses the beliefs of both "self" and "body". They must act in unison - without the mental ideal of "self" (namely Shu), the body would have no tangible purpose. With the translation of Shu-Ha-Ri, the hyphens are very important. This suggests that each of the three terms is connected, that is, one leads to another. Mastery of the Shu principle leads to the beginning of Ha. Similarly, once Ha is mastered, the student now enters the stage of Ri.
The continual practicing of Shu and the "traditional" and restrictive patterns is a tedious one - especially as beginners become more senior and move up through the ranks of their class. This is one of the great challenges of karate, and one which teaches a lot about ourselves. Here, the concept of self-knowledge becomes even more significant.
There is no doubt that karate teaches us a great deal about self knowledge, and possibly more than traditional Western sports. Western sports come from a game basis, the objective being very obvious - in football the aim is to kick goals, in tennis it is to win points. The same cannot be said for karate. Although an obvious aim of karate is to learn how to fight, it’s mission runs much deeper. The martial arts serve to "promote the development of good moral character more than most or any other activities". (2: p22). Urban (17: p11) agrees, stressing that "...combative training is not the soul purpose, as is often the case in the West; it is a beginning rather than an end".
The karateka develops moral character over many years of combative training with progression from white belt (beginner) to black belt (Shodan) taking up to four or five years. (17: p40). The effort a student can put into their training by participating up to four nights per week, for years and years is immense, with the rewards little. It is this physical training which leads to the development of "self". The week in, week out training is where the karateka really learn about themselves. It is only after many years of training that the karateka can look back and recognise that they have indeed developed qualities within themselves that can attributed to long term practice. These qualities include dedication, commitment, sincerity, development of morals, humility, lack of concern for self and heightened concern for others. (15: p1). The abstraction of "self" is promoted in the martial arts through the concept of "self-enlightenment". "Self enlightenment" is the essence of the martial arts and can only be achieved through years and years of physical and later, mental training. "Self enlightenment" declares that a truly enlightened karateka is not just concerned with conquering an opponent, but with coming to terms with oneself and the universe." (14: p8).
As has been revealed, the ideas of body and self are inextricably linked. The karateka’s body is used as a way to achieving self knowledge and enlightenment. Watanabe (13: p28) syncopates this well when he states:
"...knowing yourself is the key in (karate). You must find yourself through your...training of karate. When you have experienced ten years of training, you will see your opponents clearly. After twenty years of training you will understand all kinds of people (even yourself)".
In this quote, Shihan Watanabe talks about "finding yourself". Within karate, finding yourself is in reference to finding a stage of "enlightenment". Naidu (11: p107) suggests that enlightenment involves finding the truth, and that good or bad action designs our future. Karateka must come to terms with themselves and fully understand their capabilities both physically and mentally. A karateka who has searched successfully to find himself is one who is at complete peace with the world and himself. At this stage, the karateka is now immune from negative feelings and emotions. (11: p102). This spiritual aspect is one which is not encountered in western sport.
Karate is primarily concerned with the development of good character and morals within its students. Years of training can help develop this, but the people with whom the karateka train is just as important. The karate class is made up of students of varying ages and development, each striving toward the goal of practicing karate to the best of his/her ability. Through the practice of karate, all students will discover the values of morals. If the karate community is a conscientious one, their morals will be embraced by other karateka. This follows Back and Kim (2: p21) as they propose that "morality cannot be learned theoretically. Instead, a person learns to be moral by being around good people and being taught to act like them." This is true in the case of the senior students and black belts, as in good dojo’s, it is their responsibility to promote morality and "drill new students". (17: p38).
Karate presents very specific virtues to its students, and such virtues can only be found whilst practicing karate. Macintyre, (9: p188) agrees when he states "...there are goods internal to the practice of chess (or in this case Karate) which cannot be had in any way but by playing chess (or practicing karate) or some other game of that specific kind." Importantly, junior students within karate take many years to fully understand the values that are promoted by karate, this is quite often not until the Ha stage is reached. They are unable to fully comprehend the significance of "enlightenment" and finding "love and peace". Hence, those who lack the relevant experience are incompetent therefore as judges of internal goods specific to karate like good character, morality, peace and so on. (9: p189).
A measure of the karateka’s worth is critically assessed by his peers. Being able to continue to practise karate through injury and hardship shows courage and commitment - and this is one aspect that is respected within the karate community. Nietzsche (cited in 2: p22) suggests that a person’s moral character is to be judged by what he does, not by what he says. It can be said that western sports do promote commitment to some extent. Commitment in football may be for a season or two, whereas in karate, commitment is life long. Karate is organised to achieve similar goods to western sports, but the way this occurs is unique to the martial arts. (3: p72). For this reason, a karateka’s longevity of training and substantial commitment is held in the utmost regard by other members of the karate community.
The karate community only consists of practicing karateka. It is quite rare for this community to consist of people who practiced karate once, but not any more, or people who have never practiced the art. For this reason, an "esoteric language" exists within the karate community. By esoteric (private) language, Wittgenstein (cited in 1: p29) means one that cannot be understood by anyone other than the speaker, or in this case, other karateka. The words of this language are supposed to refer to what can only be known to the person speaking and other members of the karate community who can understand him/her. This private language within the karate community enables karateka to confer and understand how each other feels when they describe a performance. Importantly, students can understand what each other is going through at various stages of their karate training, and can empathise with and support them. (1: p29). Only other members of the community are able to comprehend what it’s like to feel so exhausted you want to vomit and so badly injured you cannot walk. Here, the karate community must be considered "one entity", as each person is striving towards a common group value - hopefully to practise karate forever and attain self enlightenment.
Karate is a very complex and enigmatic activity, with the concepts of "body", "self" and "community" all being combined to form the essence of karate. In fact, "the essence of karate is the spirit...the unity of body and soul". (8: p13). Through the use of their body, the karateka is able to pursue an understanding of themselves and enhance their self knowledge. The karate community believes that good morals and character are fundamental aspects of a good karateka. The karate community as a whole is in "a never ending quest for perfection...of developing the spirit and the body to defeat your opponent - one’s self." (8: p213).
The difference between the martial arts and western "sports" is just that - the martial arts contains the "art" element. Karate is a martial art "...a concept (and) a new way of life to the western world" (17: p1). It’s origins date back to before Christ where travelling monks were required to defend themselves against "robbers" (11: pvii). No western sports have a history such as this, nor do they contain such a deep and philosophical view of their practice. Western sports revolve around a game basis - winning and losing, scoring and missing, whereas karate is more concerned about dedication, commitment, perseverance and spiritual growth. The following excerpt from Deena Naidu’s book, Discovering Martial Arts neatly shows the differences in values between the martial arts and western sports.
If they (the karate student) are fortunate, they will meet a teacher who leads them into a deeper understanding of the Noble Art. This journey will take them along three paths... Skill on the physical path can be achieved by anyone in a short period of time with dedication and perseverance. Skill on the mental path requires a great deal of self-discipline and self-control, and this can only be achieved by a small number of determined people. Skill on the spiritual path takes the form of a growing realisation that all life is one...(these paths) first appear to be separate from each other, but which finally are experienced as one. (11: p1)
Western sport is never portrayed in this way. The distance a player can kick the ball is more important than his spiritual growth. A football coach may be heard screaming to his players "...get out there and kill ‘em!" and "...its a war out there!" The difference being, "true martial arts teachers teach for peace, not for war." (11: p15). The martial arts can be more than just an activity that is practiced twice a week for enjoyment, whereas western "sports" can not.
Contrary to western sports, karate’s true and traditional purpose is to travel along the path through the physical (Shu), mental and spiritual until enlightenment is reached. Here, the initial violent and brutal nature of karate is eventually used for good. Naidu (11: p16) says:
When truth is realised,
Peace is enjoyed,
Love is experienced,
Right action is accepted,
And non-violence is believed.
Eastern karate is vastly different to any of the traditional western sports. The concept of the body as an outlet for traditional technique is not common in western sports as we are encouraged "to be ourselves" and improvise. Moreover, the concept of self is one that can be exemplified through karate. Using our body to perform the movements of karate helps improve our concept of self and hopefully lead to self enlightenment - a phenomenon that has failed to be considered in Western sports. The Karate community helps promote the importance of self through daily training and its expectations on other karateka.
Further, the community understands each other’s projects and assists the participants to achieve them. There is never any antagonism between students as they fight for a place on the "team" like in traditional sports. The martial arts community is one big team. Essentially, karate is not a sport, but is a way of life...
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