Hawaii Karate Seinenkai

The following article appeared in Issue #5, Winter 1995 of Furyu: The Budo Journal. Copyright Charles C. Goodin. All rights reserved.


An Interview With Zenko Heshiki:
Zen Priest and Karate Sensei

By Charles C. Goodin

Heshiki Sensei sits zazen at the Chozen-ji Temple in Honolulu.

All students of Karate are familiar with the expression "Ken Zen Ichinyo" or "Karate (literally fist) and Zen as One." Young children and adults alike are taught it in dojo throughout the world but how many truly understand its meaning? And even more importantly, how many put it into practice in their daily lives? I visited Zenko Heshiki at the Daihonzan Chozen-ji Temple/International Zen Dojo nestled high up in the lush Kalihi Valley on the island of Oahu to gain insights into these questions.

Heshiki sensei is an ordained Zen priest in the Chozen-ji order as well as a seventh dan kyoshi in Matsubayashi Ryu, one of the three major forms of Okinawan Shorin Ryu. He was born in Okinawa in 1938 during the turbulent years preceding the war. His grandfather, Zensei, was also a karate sensei and student of Hanashiro Chomo, a student of Matsumura Sokon. As it was customary for the king of that time to assign the prefix of the first name for male descendants of the royal families, all the men in Heshiki sensei's family were given first names beginning with the character zen which can be translated as "good." In 1951 Heshiki and his family moved to Argentina, where there is a large Japanese/Okinawan population. This explains why he is fluent in Spanish.

Later Heshiki moved to New York where he began his study of Matsubayashi Ryu. Over the years he made frequent trips to Okinawa to study directly under Nagamine Shoshin, the founder of Matsubayashi Ryu. He also returned to Argentina and Uruguay at the request of students to teach karate. He recalls an incident concerning native Indians in Uruguay who lived near the border of Brazil and were so poor that they could not even afford a single pair of shoes. And yet they would spend their hard-earned savings to purchase a karate gi and train with Heshiki. What was it that caused them to do this? Heshiki explained that rigorous karate training gave them a glimpse of their true selves. This made a lasting impression on him.

While in New York, Heshiki devoted himself wholeheartedly to the study and practice of Matsubayashi Ryu. His dojo prospered and at one time he had over 40 active black belts and over 200 students. He related to me that during those years he had 16 Karate gi and went through four of them each day! Karate literally occupied his mornings, noons and nights.

It was not uncommon in New York for so many students to show up for class that they could not all fit into his dojo. He would often send them out for a three mile run in the park to weed out those who lacked determination. Only the students who made it were allowed into the dojo. Then the real karate training began! Many students pushed themselves so hard that they collapsed from sheer exhaustion.

I asked Heshiki sensei to explain why his training sessions were so rigorous. "First, rigorous training is the only way to make the student realize how to become free within the confinement of the kata," he explained. "Kata is by definition a very limited action. The movements are carefully arranged and must be precisely executed. There can be no deviation. And yet the ultimate aim is to find freedom within this confinement. Rigorous training brings the student to a point which challenges and completely overwhelms his physical ability.

A 1968 photograph of Heshiki (bottom center) taken during a three-month training visit to Okinawa.

"Standing drenched in sweat and totally exhausted, he must realize that his physical efforts alone are of no value. He must find a way to go beyond that point and transcend his limitations. It is here that the ego must drop. Then instead of merely executing the movements, the student learns to emanate them in a more natural and relaxed manner with a non-egotistical state of mind."

Heshiki composed a poem several years ago to express the feeling that evokes wabi, an austere balance and composure which derives from such training:

Midnight road
Just holding on to
My shredded, wet gi
Only the sound of
Geta carries me home.

No matter how strong and determined a student might be, there comes a point in training when he can go no further unless his mind and body drops away. This state is called kufu and in many ways is like a spiritual birth pang. Most students will simply give up when they reach this point but a few will awaken to a new naturalness and fluidity of movement. They will, in essence, understand how to move without unnecessary physical tension or thinking. Heshiki's training sessions are specifically designed to lead a student to this point of confrontation with his physical and mental limitations.

Zen has always been an integral aspect of Heshiki sensei's life and teaching. Nagamine sensei, who is now in his late 80s, has stressed that Zen training is the cornerstone of Matsubayashi Ryu. He enjoyed a long relationship with Omori Sogen Rotaishi, the founder of Daihonzan Chozen-ji and himself a renowned budoka. Omori Rotaishi, who passed away last year, visited Okinawa on many occasions to teach Zen at Nagamine Sensei's dojo.

In 1978, Nagamine visited Hawaii and traveled to the Daihonzan Chozen-ji/International Zen Dojo in Kalihi Valley, which was established by Omori Rotaishi and headed by Tenshin Tanouye Rotaishi. There he asked Tanouye Rotaishi for his assistance in imparting Zen to students of Matsubayashi Ryu in the United States. Tanouye Rotaishi in response asked for Nagamine's assistance in perpetuating karate.

Years earlier in New York, Heshiki told his students that he had a dream about a dojo in the mountains of Hawaii where karate and Zen would be practiced as one. This was even before the Chozen-ji's Kalihi temple complex was constructed. He relocated to Hawaii in 1977 and a short time later began to study Zen under Tanouye Rotaishi. Two years ago he was ordained as a Zen priest of the Daihonzan Chozen-ji where he is also the head karate sensei. Budo and Zen have truly merged in Heshiki's life.

Standing on a low hill overlooking the main training hall at the temple, Heshiki explained the meanings of several of the words and expressions too often misunderstood or taken for granted in many budo dojo. I must admit that my abilities as a writer were pushed to (and probably past) their limits in properly documenting what Heshiki told me that day and in subsequent meetings. I am not trying to be overly humble by saying this. As an attorney and writer I am trained to tackle and make sense of difficult problems. When it comes to budo and Zen, however, intellectual abilities alone are insufficient and perhaps a hindrance.

Budo. According to Heshiki Sensei, the term budo is often mistranslated or trivialized as "martial art." The character bu is formed by the characters for stop and spear. Heshiki said this means to stop all forms of conflict -- external as well as internal. The character do is the same as the Tao or the Way, and means much more than a simple method or technique. Thus, budo is the Way of stopping conflict. Many people unfortunately view the term martial art in the opposite light, with the emphasis on fighting skills.

Heshiki demonstrates the opening movement from the kata Kusanku. The photograph was taken in New York City in 1976.

Dojo. As we looked down at the main temple dojo from our vantage point, Heshiki asked me what I thought dojo meant. The term "training hall" came to mind. Fortunately he answered his own question before I could embarrass myself. The dojo is the place of enlightenment, the place of the do or Tao or Way, the place where the mind and body are cultivated and come together. It is a sacrilege to think of the dojo as a mere gym or place of training.

Karate. Heshiki shudders when he hears people translating the term karate as "empty hand" (I was guilty of this myself in the last issue). In the sixteenth century, he explained, Okinawans referred to the art as Te, which means hand. It later took the prefix To which was the symbol for the Chinese T'ang dynasty, which flourished between 618 to 906 A.D., and greatly influenced the Okinawan and Japanese cultures. It thus became to-te but was pronounced as tode. Before the present century, tode generally connoted the "hand that came from China."

Many Japanese characters can be pronounced in more than one way. Thus, the ideographic combination Tode can also be read as "karate." Anyone reading the characters, however, would recognize that the character for to or kara referred to China. So important and long lasting was the Chinese influence that tode did not change into the word karate until approximately 1894.

At some time after that, the character for kara was changed to a different Chinese ideographic character which is also pronounced kara and can also be read as ku. The character ku originates from sunya, the small circle called zero in modern mathematics. Sunya or sunyata is the Sanskrit term for void, emptiness, or the absence of duality and conceptualization. Nothing exists in ku but all things spring out of it. It is something like a mirror. Although nothing exists in a mirror, it is possible to reflect everything in it.

Ku does not mean "relativity" or "nothingness," rather it means the "absolute" or something of a transcendental nature. Thus, the term karate should properly be translated as "the hand that emanates from the void" rather than "empty or weaponless hand."

Ken Zen ichinyo. As mentioned earlier, the expression Ken Zen ichinyo roughly translates as "karate (or fist) and Zen as One." Heshiki explained that far too many budoka merely give lip service to these words. "Saying `ken Zen ichinyo' does not make it so, nor does sitting quietly for a few minutes before training constitute the practice of Zen.

"You've never heard anyone asking for a little more hydrogen with their oxygen, have you?" he observed, trying to give me a concrete example. "Sounds funny, doesn't it? Water is water. No one thinks of it as two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. The same is true of karate and Zen and yet people think of them as separate things. They are not. Karate and Zen are one. They are inseparable."

At the Daihonzan Chozen-ji/International Zen Dojo, budo students sit zazen for a period of up to an hour and a half before each training session. Many sit zazen at other times as well. Zen, to Heshiki, is a 24-hour activity. It is practiced while walking, while working, while eating, even while sleeping. It is more than a state of mind -- it is a way of life.

After attending a thirty minute zazen sitting with Heshiki Sensei, I walked with him to the dojo to participate in one of his training sessions. He holds karate classes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights. There were three other students there that night. Two were black belts in Goju-ryu. Their sensei had taught for many years at the Daihonzan Chozen-ji/International Zen Dojo but passed away two years ago. The third student was a resident at the temple.

In order to perpetuate the Okinawan culture and Zen, Heshiki has recently begun to teach karate at the Hawaii Okinawa Center in Waipio, Hawaii. His classes are held on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings.

On January 9, 1993, karate sensei Zenko Heshiki was ordained as a Zen priest.

Kata. After basic warm-ups, hara bo training (which I will describe shortly), and blocking practice, we performed the first few Matsubayashi Ryu kata. There are only eighteen kata in Matsubayashi Ryu, many of which are common to other forms of karate. They require a lifetime of study to perfect. Heshiki's personal favorite kata is Chinto.

Heshiki sensei became very poetic when speaking about the importance and beauty of kata. Properly performed, kata unifies the mind and body -- they are all consumed by the kata. He asked me how many movements there are in the first kata, Fukyugata Ichi, which was developed by Nagamine Sensei. I knew the answer to be about 21. He smiled and said, "Only one. From the moment of standing ready, there is only the first movement. Every ounce of your being must be concentrated into that one movement. There can be no thought of anything else. If this is properly done, the second movement will pull you into it and so on."

When kata is performed correctly it conveys a sense of bi or beauty. One can sense this when watching a skilled karateka. His movements will also make your mind and body feel united. I asked Heshiki how many people he had observed with this quality during his life. He smiled and said "not many." I held up my right hand with my fingers extended and asked "This many?" He said "Your hand is too big."

We only practiced Fukyugata Ichi and Ni, Pinan Shodan and Pinan Nidan that night. Heshiki, who is in his late 50s, trained along with us. By the middle of class I was drenched with sweat and nearly passed out. I do not think he even broke a sweat. And again, I must emphasize that he was not merely directing the class -- he was training and demonstrating techniques all along.

Heshiki Sensei explained that all karate movements must come from the hara. I naturally had heard this many times over the years in karate and other forms of budo but seeing him drove home the point. Most beginning karateka make their arms, legs and other parts of their body hard while their hara is soft. In contrast, he is relaxed everywhere except his hara. He constantly maintains pressure on his tanden, the spot a couple of inches below the navel. This is not only done during zazen and karate training_it is done 24 hours a day. "When you eat it is karate," he says. "When you walk it is karate. When you work_karate. Everything in your life is karate. And everything in karate must come from the hara."

Heshiki developed a device for strengthening the hara called a hara bo, an approximately two and a half foot, metal shaft which is bound in rubber at the handle end. The other end of the shaft is attached to a short cylindrical metal head. The entire apparatus weighs about seventeen pounds. Thinking about it later, the hara bo reminded me of a heavy sledge hammer. At the time, all I could think was that it was incredibly heavy and difficult to wield.

Various striking and swinging exercises coordinated with breathing and kiai are performed with the hara bo. The student will quickly grow tired if physical strength alone is used. The exercises are much less strenuous, however, if the hara is properly used. The same is true during kata and other karate training. The proper use of the hara will ultimately make the movements effortless.

Makiwara. Makiwara -- a striking board which stands vertically about four to five feet in height -- is also an essential part of Heshiki's training, so much so that he affectionately refers to it as a sensei. According to Heshiki, the makiwara is unique to Okinawa. Striking instruments and punching bags were also used in other countries but none were similar to the makiwara.

Two makiwara constructed by Heshiki are anchored to heavy cement slabs to the right of the front entrance of the main dojo. The purpose of makiwara is not to develop large or calloused knuckles but rather to attain proper focus and timing and to strengthen the bones, joints and muscles from the inside out.

Heshiki (left, standing), at a convention and seminar by Matsubayashi Ryu dojo at Long Island, New York. Nagamine Shoshin, the founder of the ryu, is seated in front.

Okinawan Culture. Heshiki is very proud of and knowledgeable about his Okinawan heritage and culture. "By its very definition," he says, "Culture must be a living thing -- something which cultivates the best of the human spirit. Empty rituals and celebrations do not represent a culture." Matsubayashi Ryu and the living tradition it represents is one of the highest aspects of the Okinawan culture, according to Heshiki.

Heshiki also performs the traditional Okinawan dance called Kagiyade Fu. Two of his senior students told me that they originally began training under him in order to learn this dance. After a few lessons, Heshiki advised them that they had to learn to use the bo first before they could properly handle the fan. Then they discovered that they needed to study karate first in order to develop a proper foundation for the bo. It may require a lifetime of study but their dream is to one day be able to perform the Kagiyade Fu.

It must be said that Heshiki currently has very few Karate students -- and he appears to be perfectly happy that way. In this age where some dojo measure their students in the hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands, he counts his students one by one. My sensei, William Rabacal of the Aiea Matsubayashi Ryu Karate Dojo, related a conversation he once had with Heshiki. Rabacal had been mentioning how it is difficult today to have even three or four dedicated students. Heshiki snapped back, "Three or four? You're too greedy. If you can find just one in your life you're lucky!"

Final Thoughts. Too often we take for granted the words and expressions used to describe the art we practice. Words such as "budo," "dojo," and "karate" convey deep, spiritual messages which differ greatly from the popular meanings they have gained. Sometimes it takes someone like Heshiki Sensei to wake us up and reexamine the things we mistakenly take for granted.

Is Zenko Heshiki a karate sensei who is also a Zen priest or a Zen priest who is also a karate sensei? I could find no dividing line, no separation between the two. He truly has dedicated his life to living the maxim of "Ken Zen Ichinyo."

The author is grateful to Heshiki sensei and the Daihonzan Chozen-ji/International Zen Dojo for permitting me to visit and allowing this interview.


Contact Charles C. Goodin


Copyright © Charles C. Goodin. All rights reserved.

Hawaii Karate Seinenkai