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Karate is the Search for Harmony

Master Richard Leasure

Casual observation of karate in practice often leads people to the conclusion that karate training is violent and dangerous. However, the most important benefits of karate practice are not obvious, even to the most sophisticated observer. Development of character and spiritual awareness are the long term and most honored goals of karate training. Ultimately, the student of karate seeks harmony between mind, body, and spirit.

Modern karate training uses the unarmed combat techniques and tactics of the ancient masters to condition the body and focus the mind. After the feudal periods of Japan and China new motivation for studying the ancient arts developed.  The addition of do, meaning way or path became part of the terms for the martial arts. Therefore, karate became Karate-do. This simple addition changed the entire meaning of karate. No longer acceptable as a method of killing and destroying, karate evolved into never-ending search for a New Harmony .

Finding harmony is a major task that requires the student to be ever vigilant in practice and dedication. Students of karate must be aware that the ultimate focus of training is to find spiritual enlightenment. However, the Bible tells us, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” Therefore all students of karate begin their training with a thorough physical program that develops total body strength and introduces the student to his/her limits.

            The physical training aspect of karate originates from the feudal era of unarmed combat in Japan and China . Lords required well-trained and loyal warriors to protect their lands and maintain order over the local population. In addition to armies fighting over disputed rights or property many of the highest ranking and most respected of the fighting men faced the champion of another lord in ritual combat. Such duals were often to the death. The winner takes all. Dedication to one’s lord and unwavering commitment, to the way of the warrior embodied the essence of this loyal servant. As a result, the ideals of honor and commitment are the root of karate training today

            To show respect for the origins and warrior roots of our practice, many karate students participate in tournament competitions. A significant amount of training is necessary for students to adequately face the rigors of ritual combat. Today, the goal of competition serves to test each student’s resolve and to identify weaknesses in conditioning and technique that require further practice. The purpose of competition is not to defeat one’s enemy, but to understand one’s limits and the drive to overcome them. Master Nakayama, a famous student of Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of modern karate, said it best, “Deciding who is the winner and who is the loser is not the ultimate objective. Karate-do is a martial art for the development of character through training, so that the karateka (karate student) can surmount any obstacle, tangible or intangible” (11). Students who train for competition demonstrate superior understanding of physical training and the driving force to seek excellence. Competitors who perform with distinction are motivated by success to achieve new heights in training,

            “Physical discipline builds character,” is the motto at my school. As an internationally certified Master Instructor, I have found that it necessary for each student to explore his/her limits through exhaustive physical conditioning. This is best accomplished by the strict adherence to a program that tests each student’s resolve in a variety of circumstances. Students who learn that limits can be met will learn also that limits can be overcome. The variety of strikes, kicks, blocks, and exercises expose the student’s body to conditions of discomfort that demand fierce discipline to endure. The result is students learn to accept and embrace challenge. Successful challenges produce confidence. The confidence that results from accomplishment is a valuable asset in the dojo (karate training studio) and in daily life.

With the body adequately conditioned, the next focus of karate training is the mind.  The mind serves to bridge the gap between the spirit and the body. Without the mind the body is dead. Without the spirit the mind also dies. Karate masters have found that the techniques designed to exercise the mind also give expression to the spirit. Therefore modern-day karate students will not find harmony without a scrupulous dedication to mental discipline.

One of the best tools for developing superior mental discipline resides in the practice of Kata. Kata are a series of karate movements that are specifically arranged to express and train self-defense applications. Often, advanced Kata are difficult and lengthy. It takes many months for a student to learn each one and countless hours of practice to achieve skill in Kata performance. Master Nakayama reminds us,

Training in Kata is spiritual as well as physical. In his performance of the Kata, the karateka should exhibit boldness and confidence, but also humility, gentleness, and a sense of decorum, thus integrating mind and body in a singular discipline. As Gichin Funakoshi often reminded his students, “The spirit of karate-do is lost without courtesy” (12).

Performance of Kata gives expression to karate. Through Kata the student practices techniques that may, perhaps, cause potential harm to a fellow practitioner, without risk of injury. Individuals who master Kata recognize the power of karate at its most basic roots. Excellence in Kata entails complex focus of strikes, blocks, and kicks into imagined opponents with skill and accuracy. Each movement must rely on the last. Each movement is the foundation for the next. Expression of the Kata provides an outlet for the student to discover unity in the arts and exhibit the harmony found in his/her heart. Mikonosuke Kawaishi, Seventh Degree Black Belt Master and Technical Director of the French Federation of Judo, describes the performance of Kata as the natural expression of the harmony between mind and spirit by saying,

When a demonstrator was in the first place capable of putting himself in “the state of grace” essential to the sincere execution of the Kata – almost as in the delivery of prayer – the effective presentation of the successive forms was nothing more than a question of application and of time. When, on the contrary, he applied himself only to detail without the determination to identify himself with the whole, then the form escaped him and the Kata was no more than a pale reflection without truth or depth, (8).

Modern Masters of karate recognize the potential for deadly misinterpretation of the martial arts. Honorable instructors of karate are careful to instill in their students a strict code of conduct. Practitioners of karate are required to take an oath of moral obligation that limits their actions to pursuits of honor and respect as matters relation to karate practice. It is commonly stated that karate techniques must be reserved for self-defense and relied upon as a last resort. The code of conduct is strict and unforgiving. Practitioners of karate will face the rejection of the martial arts brotherhood for violations of the honor code. Martial arts certification and fellowship associations will excommunicate members who fail to respect the warriors’ ethic. In addition, many uses of karate in aggressive situations are subject to the local criminal code. Law enforcement does not hesitate to prosecute violators who use special training to seek unfair advantage over innocent citizens. Karate students must, rightfully, demonstrate themselves to be upstanding citizens who are a benefit to the community.

Contemporary expression of karate is not to demonstrate violence or harm one’s neighbors. Masters of the martial arts recognize that many ways exist to resolve differences of opinion. Karate practice of today focuses on the development of harmony between mind, body, and spirit. Each day practitioners of the ancient art of karate stand at the beginning of a journey. Excellence in karate training provides a road to travel in the never-ending search for spiritual enlightenment.

Works Cited


The Bible King James Version 1611

Kawaishi, Mikonosuke The Complete Seven Katas of Judo The Overlook Press 1967

Leasure, Richard Leasure Brothers Martial Arts Academy Handbook

Nakayama, Masatoshi Best Karate Kodansha International, Tokyo 1981


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