Hawaii Karate Seinenkai.

Zenko Heshiki is an ordained priest at Daihonzan Chozen-ji/International Zen Dojo in Honolulu, Hawaii. A Shihan of Chozen-ji Ryu Kempo, he has students throughout the world, including Hawaii, North America and South America. The following article, which was published in booklet form by the Chozen-ji, is presented here with Heshiki Sensei's permission. Copyright Zenko Heshiki. All rights reserved.

See also Zenko Heshiki: Zen Priest and Karate Sensei and Hyaku Hachi No Bonno: The Influence of The 108 Defilements and Other Buddhist Concepts on Karate Thought and Practice.


by Zenko Heshiki


After World War II, Karate has come to be known as a competitive sport in the United States. To those few who come to apprehend Karate as a gateway to self-realization through training in this art, it is an emancipating experience. To the majority, unfortunately, the introduction to karate has been the gimmickry of breaking bricks, or as a stereotyped facade of an Oriental mystique. Even though this introduction may have been misleading, Karate nevertheless has become a crossroad between the cultures of the East and West.

The purpose of this book is to offer the serious student of Karate a brief introduction to Karate-do as practiced in the traditional and classical mode. The student thus comes to an understanding of Karate as physical and moves toward spiritual reliance with the practice of zazen. Thus the student immerses into the ultimate nature of this art.

Introduction to Karate-Do

Around the late sixteenth century A.D., during the Sui dynasty of China, Karate was called Te by the Okinawan people. Te means hand. The term Te took the prefix To and thus became To-Te, but it is pronounced as Tode. This prefix (Chinese ideograph) To can also be read as Kara; therefore, this ideographic combination can be read either as Tode or Karate.

Why and when this change took place is not known since there are virtually no written references to the native art of the Okinawans; the scant information that we have is based on oral transmission of the traditions. In the following speculation, however, we can see some very tangible evidence of this change.

The first character of Tode, To, is the symbol of T'ang, the name of the great Chinese dynasty which flourished between 618-906 A.D. and influenced Okinawan and Japanese culture in many ways. In fact, so great was the admiration of the T'ang by Okinawans and Japanese that, in the centuries that followed the demise of this great dynasty, the character To (read as Kara) was used as an adjective meaning "China." Thus, Tode can also imply "hand that came from China." So important and long-lasting was the Chinese influence that Tode did not change into the word Karate until approximately 1894.

Despite the fact that Karate is pronounced the same as Tode in Japanese, the characters are different. The change in characters gave the term a new interpretation. The first character Kara does not reflect homage to the T'ang dynasty; instead it conveys the idea of the void, hence, Karate means "Emptiness Hand."

Many, however, interpreted Karate to mean only "empty hand" or "weaponless hand." It should not be interpreted as such. The particular character, Kara (void or emptiness) does not just imply empty of something or lacking something, hence, "weaponless hand" is wrong.

An analysis of the ancient Chinese ideographic character Kara will show its Buddhist connotative meaning which goes beyond "weaponless hand." Kara, also read as Ku, originates from Sunya, the small ellipsoid known as zero in mathematics. Sunya or Sunyata is the Sanskrit term for void, emptiness, or the absence of duality and conceptualization. Chinese Zen masters transcribed Sunyata in their scriptures as Kara or Ku, which is also the first character of Karate.

All things spring out of Ku, but Ku is not a "thing." It is something like a mirror. Although nothing exists in a mirror, it is possible to reflect everything in it; therefore, Ku is depicted as the wisdom of all existence, represented by the Great Mirror of Wisdom (Dai-En-Kyo-Chi). Ku envelops everything; nothing is opposed to it. Ku neither rejects nor confronts anything, but at the same time is the perfection of existence. A man who masters Ku will be filled with the life and strength of wisdom. The man must turn himself into a puppet in the hands of the Unconscious, or True Self, where the Unconscious precedes the "consciousness." Metaphysically speaking, this is the philosophy of Ku (emptiness). Emptiness does not mean "relativity," or "phenomenality," or "nothingness;" rather, it means the Absolute, or something transcendental. It is not the idea that one aims ultimately to become a mere perfect technician but rather to be able to immerse oneself totally in every motion, whereby one transcends duality. As Master Dogen says:

To study the Buddhist Way is to learn about oneself.
To learn about oneself is to forget oneself.
To forget oneself is to perceive oneself as all things.
To realize this is to cast off the body and mind of self and others.
When you reach this stage you will be detached even from enlightenment but will practice it continually without even thinking about it.

In short, one who trains seriously in Karate must throw away his small "self" to realize his True Self which is Ku. Even though one of the major aims of the Karate practitioner is to be able to execute every motion accurately, the artist has this stage to break through, that is, transcending duality and throwing away of the small "self" to realize True Self or Ku.

The ultimate techniques of the martial artist must be based on what emanates from Ku. That is why the Zen master Takuan never tired of stressing the doctrine of "emptiness" (Ku - Sunyata) to his student, the sword master Yagyu-Tajima-no-Kami.

Ku is the metaphysics of Mushin-no-Shin (Mind-of-No-Mind) and also what another master, Yamaoka Tesshu, disciplined his students by when he urged them to experience this Zen doctrine by saying "sword-of-no-sword."

From the above explanation of the first character of Ku, we can only interpret Karate as the "Absolute Hand," or the "Hand That Transcends All Duality" instead of "Weaponless Hand."

Let us consider whether Karate is a martial art or not. The term "martial art" is commonly used since there is no other term to translate the Japanese word Budo, which is the exact term. The dictionary translates the martial arts as "war-like arts; training forms of exercise to utilize in war or combat."

Budo in Japanese translates as "Military Way," but Japanese people will understand Budo as the art practiced for centuries, as a tradition and search for the self. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to involve the Japanese tradition, and its development into how the art was apprehended. It is inappropriate to call Karate a martial art. It should be called an "art" or a "way for man." A form that uses techniques and instruments commonly associated in the Western mind with conflict and violence is not easily comprehended by that same mind as art or a means to wisdom. Yet to the Eastern mind this poses no contradiction or incompre-hension whatsoever. There are cultural differences in apprehending art. As Omori Sogen Roshi states in his book Sanzen Nyumon: "Water, although originally constant in taste, becomes varied in taste and nature depending on whether it has been taken by cows or snakes."

Let us quote Mr. Eugene Herrigel, a German philosopher who went to Japan and transcended his understanding of art through the practice of Zen archery.

"Japanese people bring with them three things: a good education, a passionate love for his chosen art, and an uncritical veneration for his teacher. The teacher-pupil relationship has belonged to the basic commitment of life since ancient times, and therefore, presupposes on the part of the teacher a high responsibility which goes far beyond the scope of his professional duties. Nothing is required of the pupil at first than that he should conscientiously copy what the teacher shows him. The pupil follows out his intention with untiring industry although he has no higher aspirations, he bows under the burden with a kind of obtuse devotion, only to discover in the course of the years the forms which he perfectly masters no longer oppress, but liberate. He grows daily more capable of following any inspiration without technical effort. Also, letting inspiration come to him through meticulous observation."

Through the years of practice the trained body will execute every movement with unbroken fluidity. One no longer knows the difference of mind-body. To get that far, for the skill to become spiritual, a concentration of all the physical and psychic forces is needed. This is the general attitude of oriental people approaching any art. They have developed arts such as Karate-do (The Way of Karate), Kendo (The Way of the Sword), Judo (The Way of Gentleness), Kyudo (The Way of Archery), and also flower arrangement, and tea ceremony. It is the aim of every artist to achieve such a state of mind, so that he no longer has to rely on the techniques he has learned, but transcends into the realm of nature and lives completely in tune with the whole of Nature and the truth of the whole.

At this point, it is appropriate to quote Dr. D.T. Suzuki, the great Zen author in the Western world, on nature and how man must live completely in tune with nature. Dr. Suzuki compares two poems, one by a Japanese, and one by a Westerner, to illustrate his point:

"Basho (1644-94), a great Japanese poet of the 17th century, once composed a seventeen-syllable poem known as haiku or hokku. It runs something like this when translated into English:

When I look carefully
I see the nazuna blooming
By the hedge!

Now let me show what the West has to offer in a similar situation. I select Tennyson; the verse is as follows:

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies;
Hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower - but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is."

Dr. Suzuki's comparisons point out the following concepts: One poet, rather than pluck the flower out of the ground, wants to see it, and wants to immerse himself into the nature of the flower. The other, Tennyson, plucks the flower out of the ground wanting to dissect nature, not knowing that this act only separates God and man. Immersion versus dissection - that is the basic difference between the orient and the occident. This is illustrated by such characteristics of Western thought as the split between mind and body, God and man; dualism and conflict, analysis and dissection, as contrasted to the Eastern way of thought, in which such themes are absent or not emphasized as it is in the West.

It is not just a language barrier that renders it difficult to convey the transcendental nature of any oriental art to Zen, but also the gap that exists between views and in the understanding of nature and its values.

A gateway to the realm of Zen requires a medium beyond the capacity of language and the medium is an art. One of the arts is Karate-do.


To grasp the meaning of kata, the true essence of Karate, one must be involved in one of the martial arts. The layman cannot hope to grasp the state of mind of an individual performing a kata. To the untrained observer, kata is only a series of movements that look like a form of a dance. However, these beautiful and graceful movements are in realty far more than just a series of blocks, punches, kicks and stances. One of the major aims of the Karate practitioner is to be able to perform all of the kata accurately; and most of all to be able to immerse himself totally (mind and body) in the movement. As kata performance improves, one becomes aware of more than the physical being.

The student repeats the kata many times in each class, placing emphasis on posture, balance, speed and coordination. Great emphasis is laid on increasing the student's vigor, heart, mind, and soul. The teaching is usually conducted in a group, but the individual's kata performance is continually revised by the instructor. Gradually, the student's character, attitude, and intentions are unmistakably revealed to the instructor. Only then can the instructor help the student to recognize the vanity and false ego which lie within him and that hinder the focusing of his natural energies in his daily life. This can be accomplished only by the constant practice of the seemingly simple moves of kata.

Karate is an art that liberates our natural energies properly; energies that were stored in each of us, but which, in ordinary circumstances, were cramped or distorted. Kata, the true essence of Karate, is the channel through which one immerses the self totally (narikiru) and is able to produce an introspective consciousness shifting from the external focus of attention to the internal one. The execution of the movements in the kata are intended to bring forth the awareness of one's flow of ki (energy) throughout the entire body.

A deep inquiry within the stillness
In the movements of Karate
Is to the deep inquiry within movements
In the stillness of zazen.

Intermediate Movements

The intermediate movements are integrated into the kata as links between the paired units of the basic movements. The integration of the intermediate movements was accomplished over the centuries by the great masters of Okinawan Karate. These masters spent their lives searching for movements that were both physiologically sound and effective as defensive and offensive techniques. When they found those movements that were physically logical, physiologically correct, and offensively and defensively workable, they dovetailed them into kata. The centuries of work by the masters to arrange the rhythmical execution of the kata and to give it a linear, symmetrical direction resulted in the intermediate movements as we known them today.

That the intermediate movements are physiologically sound has been proven by long experience. When practiced correctly, these movements elicit a person's maximum physical capabilities and are never detrimental to the body's physical development. The intermediate movements also act as aids to the execution of the kata. For example, the intermediate movements serve to readjust breathing; gasping for breath and exhaustion during practice are eased by these movements.

The physical logic of the intermediate movements is apparent when they are compared to other forms of physical endeavor, such as dance and sports. One of the most important functions of the intermediate movements is that of "positional coincidence"; they cause the final position of the kata to coincide with the initial position. The kata begins at one point and ends at the same point so that symmetry of position, as well as movement, is upheld. This positional coincidence for the beginning and end of kata is stressed in both Shuri-te and Tomari-te. It can also be observed in Okinawan folk dances, and the greatest Okinawan folk musicians accept this theory of positional coincidence. Needless to say, the Okinawan folk dance is different in function from Karate, but both of them have many common characteristics in the movement of the hands and feet. The theory of positional coincidence is also supported by the principles of physical training. Well-balanced movements in symmetry are essential to any exercise or sport. Along with the physical reasons for the integration of the intermediate movements into kata, the masters developed these movements because their rhythm helps one to be in a state of zanshin. Zanshin is a state of mind where one is able to proceed from the end of one movement to the next movement freely. It literally means being absolutely attentive to the next move right after the previous move. In zanshin the mind focuses completely on the body's movements. To be distracted by another's moves in a fighting situation is to lose zanshin; to stop one's mind from flowing from move to move while practicing is to lose zanshin.

The fighting postures make the movements of the kata flow. This flow aids the mind to concentrate fully on the movements to such an extent that the person "becomes the movement." Being at one with the movement so that no outside force can interrupt this oneness is the state of zanshin.

It is most remarkable and admirable that a system as refined and complex as kata could be developed by the ancients. The rhythmic, symmetrical combination of physically logical and supremely powerful movements with zanshin has made a system that for all intents and purposes is classic, transcending the ages. The system of kata with all its facets is still workable today, and serves to enhance the character and dignity of those who practice it.

All of the kata can be logically interpreted and analyzed if one keeps in mind the original premise that the intermediate movements are fighting postures or ready stances that serve as conjunctive movements. Misinterpretation of the significance of the kata results if one replaces the simple and non-spectacular formal exercises with showy free-style sparring.

Recommendations for Study

The following are important recommendations and mottoes under which Karate-do should be learned and practiced.

  1. Develop Karate-do on the basis of its history and tradition.

  2. Study and practice kata strictly and correctly. (In order to focus all possible strength into each movement of the kata, constant repetition is required. The body must be thoroughly trained, and this takes many years. Even after many years, kata practice is never finished, for there is always something new to be learned about executing a movement).

  3. Study and practice kumite (formalized and free-fighting), not primarily for tournament purposes, but to acquire ma-ai; to develop the martial art sense of reading the opponent's movements, and to develop kiai and stamina, which cannot be fully attained through the practice of kata alone.

    Fully utilize such methods as rope-skipping, exercise with barbells, dumbbells, chishi (an ancient form of dumbbell), sashi (iron hand-grip), etc. to develop the muscles and physical power.

  4. Study the use of makiwara from every possible angle in order to develop atemi, or concentrated destructive power. This force is manifested in such demonstrations as the breaking of boards, tiles, or bricks with the hands or feet.

  5. Zazen should be practiced as an integral part of karate shugyo.

In conclusion, let us remember that in some cases, it is permissible to revise the ancient arts to make them more popular and modern. However, it is also dangerous and unwise to reject old things just because they are old. Karate was created by our ancestors and throughout its long history from generation to generation, it has conquered many difficulties and survived with its essential spirit intact. Karate, like all things classical, has the potential to meet the demands of various ages and to produce something new out of itself without rejecting those basic elements upon which it was founded. The formal training methods of the great masters of the past must be observed because Karate was meant to be pursued as a martial art, not a sport where the goal is defeating an opponent or winning points. Karate has an ancient heritage, full of wisdom. Let us follow the way of Karate as shown to us by the masters.

The way of Karate can be followed by anyone -- man, woman, or child -- and through Karate training we can attain the highest ideals of beauty and strength. The fusing of mind and body in Karate is indescribably beautiful and spiritual.

Every serious practitioner should be able to identify from the following Waka, which gives an austere feeling of the precepts of Zen, Wabi and Sabi:

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

How to Hold the Fist Properly

Before the Karate student begins training on the makiwara, the correct way to hold the fist in striking must first be learned. Follow the diagrams below to property hold the fist:

making a fist


The makiwara is a striking board which stands vertically about four or five feet in height. The front surface of the board is flat, whereas the back of it is curved. The makiwara base is four inches thick, tapering to three-quarters of an inch at its top. This form gives it a sufficient amount of flexibility. It is made of a hard wood, such as oak.

Using the makiwara to strike with fists, open knife hands, feet and elbows, the student gains firmly fixed limbs, flexibility of joints and proper focusing of all blows. The striking of the makiwara is not to create big knuckles at the end of the metacarpal bones, but to transform properly the centrifugal force into rectilinear motion with the fullest momentum.

striking the makiwara

How to Make a Makiwara


Wood: Oak, 4" x 4" x calculated length

Taper the makiwara to three inches wide by three-quarters inch thick. Notice the direction of the grain.

4" x 4" Angle Iron, L - shape

angle iron

three quarters inch hole, two inches from the edge to the center of hole

*one bolt (five inches x three-quarters inch) with nut & washer of same size


  1. Dig a hold in the ground three feet wide and one foot deep.

  2. Bury angle iron as shown with makiwara inserted; make sure the makiwara fits tightly into the angle iron by tightening the nut N before the whole structure is buried.

  3. Notice the tilt of the makiwara toward the front (three inches from point C to angle iron).

  4. Mix cement with sand at the ratio of 3:1. Add stones in between portions of the mix.

Shuri-Te and Hana-Te

Because of the secrecy in which te had to be practiced, there exists no evidence to indicate any clear-cut classification of the various styles and types of Karate during its formative years in the 18th century. Gradually, however, Karate was divided into two main groups or types: Shorin-ryu or Shuri-te, and Shorei-ryu or Naha-te. Shorin-ryu developed around Shuri and Tomari, while Shorei-ryu came out of the vicinity of Naha.

The late Gichin Funakoshi, in his book Karate-do Kyohan, expressed the belief that the characteristics of the two Okinawan Karate styles showed that they developed out of different physical requirements. Funakoshi said that Shuri-te or Shorin-ryu was quick and fast in its movements, thus making it preferable for men of small stature whose aim was mastery of quick action. Naha-te or Shorei-ryu, on the other hand, he recommended for heavier, larger persons.

However, differences in stature and personality are not regarded as important in Karate. Rather, the essence of Karate lies in the process by which individuals make the utmost effort in an attempt to create limitless power through true wisdom. The martial arts originated from the instinct of self-preservation, and ultimately aim at building a well-balanced person of sound mind and body through continuous practice. It is here that the spirit of Karate-do lies.

The differences between Shuri-te and Naha-te lies in the basic movements and methods of breathing. The basic approach in Shuri-te stems from training forms linked to natural movements. For instance, the movement of the feet is in a straight line when a step is taken forward or backward. Speed and proper timing is essential in the training for kicking, punching, or striking. Breathing is controlled naturally during training. No artificial breath training is necessary for a mastery of Shuri-te.

Naha-te is characterized by steady and rooted movements. Unlike movements in Shuri-te, the feet travel rather slowly on the crescent-shaped line. In Naha-te kata there is a rhythmical, but artificial way of breathing in accordance with each of the movements. Compared to the movements in Shuri-te, Naha-te seems to lack swiftness in kata practice. The two schools, however, share the common factor of observing only natural stances.

Naha-te is divided into two styles: Goju-ryu and Uechi-ryu. Shuri-te is divided into three styles: two are called Shorin-ryu and a third is called Matsubayashi-ryu. Matsubayashi-ryu is also called Shorin-ryu. Students are often confused because the terms are used interchangeably. The fact is that both are correct, since there can be a reading of the kanji (characters) taken from the Japanese language, as well as a reading from Chinese. Thus, the character meaning "pine tree" can be read as matsu or as sho, and the reading of "forest" can be either hayashi (there is a phonetic change from "h" to "b") or rin.

As an old Okinawan folk song relates, "Even though we take different roads to ascend the wooded mountain, each of us can achieve our goal and appreciate the moon when we reach the top." So may we achieve the same purpose in studying Karate-do whichever way we choose. The goal does not vary between the styles. In the depth of their philosophy, they share a common meaning.

one punch -- Universal Mind

"One punch . . . Universal Mind"

Copyright © Zenko Heshiki. All rights reserved.

Hawaii Karate Seinenkai.