ORIENTAL RELIGION, PHYSIOLOGY AND THE MARTIAL
In this essay, I would like to describe
the main currents in the history of karate in general and then analyze the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of the art.
The relation between kung-fu (ten styles, two schools - northern and southern
Chinese) and karate (translated and developed in Korea, Okinawa and Japan) is that of father and son. The sophisticated and subtle Chinese styles, which emphasize the cultivation of chi or vital force through
dynamic relaxation and breath control, were abridged and simplified by the peasants of the Ryu Kyu islands. They strove to
adapt some of the techniques of kempo and chuan-fa to their needs, for they were forbidden by law to carry any weapons.
There is a considerable lack of historical clarity
regarding the creation and development of kung-fu, the parent style of China.
Nevertheless, it has been obvious from the start that there is a substantial connection or overlap between the domains of
religion and the martial arts. According to legend, the unfathomable Bodhidharma (Daruma Taishi in Japan), founder of Chan
Buddhism (zen style in Japan), traveled from his home in India to the Honan province in China. He found the monks there at
the Shao-lin monastery to be in poor physical condition. Realizing the close interconnection of mind and body because of his
background in Indian yogi techniques (and presumably martial arts as well), Bodhidharma devised a set of exercises called
the I chin ching or muscle change classic.
These exercises were meant to increase the amount
of chi (prana in sanskrit, ki energy in Japan) or the life force taken in daily by the subtle or higher body. This energy
is then centered below the naval in the vicinity of the hara or abdominal center of the higher body. Such exercises deeply
affect the physical body as well, altering the endocrine gland, the sympathetic, autonomic and para-sympathetic nervous system
and lowering the center of gravity to an area below the waist. Also, the prodigious psychosexual energies (kundalini or serpent
force in India, dragon force in China) are brought into play, invigorating the whole body. It is held that such effects can
be achieved because there is a correspondents (not an identity) between the higher body or bodies (the mystical physiology)
and the physical body (the mundane physiology). The chakras or centers of the subtle body are coterminous with the nerve plexus
of the central nervous system. When the students of kung-fu can activate and sink his chi, he is taught to pool it in the
armpits and thighs and then to project it into the striking points. Here is where kung-fu plunges from the heights of the
spirit to the practical level - for a blow dealt employing chi properly will be devastating to an opponent and the strength
of the blow does not seem to matter. The touch of a finger, or wave of an arm can mean death, however these techniques are
seldom seen and harder to prove to a world not wanting to believe in chi (ki)
Karate, however, emphasizes the "hard" aspect
of dynamic tension and muscular vigor rather than the "soft" aspect of kung-fu. The student is expected to get into good physical
condition and many students, having neglected their bodies for years, will get stiff and sore for a time. This is in sharp
contrast with the ideal of Tai-Chi-Chuan, the softest of the soft kung-fu styles, in which the student is told to relax so
that not a single bead of sweat arises on the brow while executing the forms.
Karateka will sweat and then sweat some more. Also, they find that the greatest emphasis is placed upon the proper execution
of basic blocks, strikes and kicks. Drilling in the fundamentals is so important in karate because of the way in which it
strives to put its practitioners into a state of muga or non-interruption of attitude and execution. Muga is a state of expertness
in which there is no hesitation or break between thought and action, there is a smooth flow of motion from one movement to
the next and no sense of: “I AM doing it". The beginner usually enters karate with a lack of self-consciousness; his
movements have ease and naturalness. If someone swings at him, he will instinctively block or step back. But in trying to
learn the basic techniques, he will, as a rule, become very self-conscious. He must think about performing the correct movement
and his natural sense of timing dissipates into a heavy, self-conscious movement. The only way he can regain his naturalness
and spontaneity is to practice until his movements become reflex again (that is when the fundamentals are driven into the
subconscious levels). The katas are the chief means here and meditation helps.
Despite the great differences of approach between
kung-fu and karate, both have the same aim - the development of (or rather the return to) a state of homeostasis or perfect
bAlance between body and mind. The hard schools achieve this through dynamic tension and the development of strength and coordination;
the soft schools achieve this through dynamic relaxation and perfect breath control. The concepts of non-interruption and
focus ("Kiai" in Japan) make use of the principles underlying kung-fu. The focusing of the will, intellect and physical strength
in the kata Sanchin of Isshin Ryu is aimed at bringing about such a state of homeostasis in which one can respond instantly
and without conscious deliberation to any attack.
The ideal of kung-fu is summed up by Cheng and Smith in their book:
"Stand like a bAlance and move actively like a cartwheel. Keep your weight sunk on one side. If it is spread on two
feet, you will be pushed over easily. Coordinating the substantial is the key here. If that is achieved, then you can interpret
To "interpret strength" is to anticipate an opponents
attack and the hard and soft schools each try to accomplish this in there own way. The ideal is to master both the hard and
At the heart of oriental religion there is an
insight into the nature of an absolute which is a living flux of suchness (Tathata in sanskrit) called Sunya or the void.
It is nothing, pure emptiness transcending even our concept of nothing - it is "nothing" because human language cannot express
it. Since it is nothing, it cannot be grasped, imagined, perceived or conceived; it
can only be intuited in an insight into emptiness, in which the void becomes aware of itself.
Two points require emphasis:
(1) The importance of cultivating the twin characters of emptiness (of thought or desire) and openness (to sensual
and other stimuli)
(2) When these are attained, one can no longer say "I AM an Isshin Ryu man" or "I AM a Tae Kwon Do man". In the end
the students experience the "formless form" or "The art of fitting in" as James Lee put it - "when you have 'no' form, you
can use all forms. When you have 'no' style, you can fit all styles". This is not necessarily the notion that every karateka
should become like an island unto himself and devise a "chop-suey" electic style. It is the idea that if his karate has done
him any good, he will no longer desire to make arbitrary distinctions or even to judge between right and wrong, except when
such judgment is called for.
THE TRUE MEANING OF THE MIZU GAMI
(WATER GODDESS) Mizu Gami
SYMBOL----------HALF FEMALE, HALF DRAGON
FEMALE----------REPRESENTS QUIET CHARACTER
STARS AND GRAY BACKGROUND--------REPRESENTS NIGHT, CALM AND QUIET, THAT KARATE IS TO BE USED AS DEFENSE
ROUGH SEAS------TROUBLED TIMES, POTENTIAL DANGER
DRAGON----------ORIENTAL LEGEND THAT THE DRAGON IS A GOD, AND RISES FROM THE SEA TO THE SKY
RIGHT HAND------REPRESENTS STRENGTH IF EVIL PREVAILS
ORANGE CIRCLE---THE FIRE SPIT AT MASTER SHIMABUKU IN HIS VISION
THREE STARS-----THE THREE MASTERS WHO TAUGHT KARATE TO MASTER SHIMABUKU.
(MENTAL, SPIRITUAL, PHYSICAL)
ISSHIN----------ONE HEART, GOD MIND, BODY MIND UNIFICATION
The Isshin Ryu symbol ( Mizu Gami - Water Goddess) represents a vision that
Master Shimabuku had while formulating the Isshin Ryu style.
On January 15, 1954 the Okinawan karate Master Tatsuo (Dragon Boy) Shimabuku was working very hard creating Isshin Ryu karate
(One Heart style or God Mind style) and growing tired Master Shimabuku
fell asleep. He dreamed that a man came into his dojo and challenged him. He declined the challenge saying that he was a gentleman
and did not fight unless necessary. Then a figure appeared over the man, that of a dragon. The dragon spit fire all around
the Master. As the ring of fire drew closer a figure appeared over Master Shimabuku, and put out the fire. The figure was
that of the Mizu Gami (Water Goddess).
Master Shimabuku felt this “vision” depicted the “mold”
that he wanted to fashion Isshin Ryu after. There is some symbolism in the visual representation of the Mizu Gami.
The three stars are his three instructors, Masters Kiyan, Motobu
and Miyagi or the three states of being
(MENTAL, SPIRITUAL, PHYSICAL). The dragon is the dragon that spit the fire at Master Shimabuku. (It is interesting to note that Master
Shimabuku’s first name “Tatsuo” means “Dragon”). The left hand on the figure is raised in the
universal sign of peace, and the right hand is held clenched in readiness. The visible half is a woman to symbolize peace
and kindness, while the hidden portion is that of a sea serpent. This tells us that although we are strong enough to prevail
when necessary, we should keep our strength hidden and show a soft, kindly face to the world. The gray dome of stars represent
night, calm and quiet, that karate is to be used for defense - blue or gray is
a traditional oriental symbol for sunya, the void.
Therefore the individual should strive for a strong body and peace of mind
through the practice of Isshin Ryu karate. This symbol is the character representing the best of Isshin Ryu as formed by Master
Tatsuo Shimabuku, the founder of the Isshin Ryu karate style.
Master Tatsuo Shimabuku
Founder of Isshin Ryu Karate
Isshin Ryu Karate was founded by one of the greatest karate masters, Tatsuo
Shimabuku, and is derived from several of the older, classical styles.
Sensei Tatsuo Shimabuku, began learning karate at the age of 14 and devoted
the rest of his life to its study and teaching. For 26 years he studied the other styles, Shuri-Te, Shorinryu and Gojuryu,
each one under the master of its style.
Master Shimabuku took the best of each style, improved it and founded Isshin
Ryu. From Sensei Motobu, Master of Shuri-Te, he took the kumite; from Sensei Kiyan, Master of Shorinryu, he took the Kata
and added improvements; from Sensei Miyagi, Master of Gojuryu, he took Sanchin, the basis of all Okinawan karate.
Isshin Ryu, with roots going back 500 years, is a postwar development, modernized
to meet the needs of today’s world. It was founded in the 50’3 and has been taught ever since to American Marines
stationed n Okinawa.
Shimabuku’s reputation throughout
Okinawa had reached its peak when world War II struck the island. A business man as well as a karate instructor, the Sensei’s
small manufacturing plant was completely demolished and he was bankrupt almost from the war’s outset. He did his best
to avoid the conscription to the Japanese army by escaping to the countryside where he worked as a farmer. As the situation
grew more and more desperate for the Japanese and as the need to press the Okinawans into service became urgent, he was forced
As his reputation in karate spread among the Japanese, many soldiers began
a thorough search as they wanted to study karate under him. The officers who finally caught up with him agreed to keep the
secret of his whereabouts if he would teach them karate; it was in this manor that Master Shimabuku survived the war.
After the war, his business ruined and little chance of earning a living by teaching karate on the war ravaged island, Master Shimabuku returned to farming
and practiced karate privately for his own spiritual repose and physical exercise. Throughout Okinawa he was recognized as
the island’s leading practitioner of Shorinryu and Gojuryu Karate.
In the early nineteen fifties, the Sensei began to consider the idea of combining
the various styles into one standard system. He could foresee the problems that were developing out of the differences among
the styles; he sagely concluded that a unification or synthesis of styles would enhance the growth of karate.
He consulted with the aged masters on the island, and with the heads of the
leading schools. At first there was general agreement, but later his idea met with resistance as the leaders of the various
schools began to fear loss of identity and position, Sensei Shimabuku decided to go ahead on his own; thus Isshin Ryu Karate
was born. On May 30 , 1975, Master Shimabuku passed away, leaving a legacy to the world of
karate, and to all the future Isshin Ryu students.
Master Angi Uezu
Grand Master Angi Uezu
is the son-in-law of the founder, Soki Tatsuo Shimabuku, and the Sensei of Master George Iberl. He leads the Isshinryu style
and is the head of the Okinawan Isshinryu Kobudo Karate Association.
Grand Master Uezu has recognized Sensei Bill Shank as a Ku Dan in
the Isshinryu style.
Harry B. Acklin - Shichi Dan
A retired deputy sheriff in the Detective Bureau of the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s
Department, Sensei Acklin has tried to maintain a low profile in Isshin Ryu. He writes:
“I have the deepest
respect and appreciation for Master Tatsuo Shimabuku and his teachings, and I have tried to pass them on as true as I could.
I have visited the Master three times in Okinawa. On August 10, 1974, Mr. Long
and I, along with several Isshin Ryu students, visited the Master for the last time prior to his untimely death. I am thankful
for that visit.
At this time I do not have my own dojo and act only as a consultant for my
students who have their own dojos.”
The ex-Army paratrooper started Isshin Ryu as an exercise. His desire to perfect
himself in the Shimabuku System led to years of study. For a year, Angi Uezu lived in Acklin’s home and helped instruct
in Acklin’s dojo. Here basics and katas were stressed, with emphasis on execution, as Master Shimabuku had taught them.
Master George Iberl - Ju Dan
Master George Iberl from
Dillsburg, PA is recognized as a premier practitioner of the Isshinryu karate style. He has promoted Sensei Bill Shank to
the Nana dan, Hachi dan and Ku dan
KIYAN (SHORIN RYU)
Born about 1870 - died about 1945. Chotoku, Kiyan was the master of shorin ryu karate (Shuri-te) which was originated about 1500. He gave Isshin Ryu karate: seisan, naihanchi,
wansu, ku san ku, and good kumite. The fists were straight and flexible. Naihanchi is considered to be the backbone of shorin
CHOJUN, MIYAGI (GOJU RYU)
Born about 1888 - died about 1953. Chojun, Miyagi was the master of goju ryu
karate (naha-te). He gave Isshin Ryu karate: sanchin and seiunchin. The style originated around 1600 and the principles behind
the style were firm and tight postures in the movements. The body is 100% tight in sanchin and 50% tight in seiunchin kata.
Sanchin kata is considered the backbone of goju ryu karate.
Born about 1871 - died about 1944. Choki, Motobu was a master of shorin-ryu,
tomari-te and Shuri-te. His contributions to Isshin Ryu karate were chinto kata and good kumite.
TAIRA (KOBUDO - WEAPONS)
Born about 1897 - died about 1970. Shinken, Taira was a weapons specialist
(kobudo / kobujitsu) and taught bo, sai and tonfa kata and kumite to Master Shimabuku.