Friday, January 15, 2010

Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form

Karate Master Gichin Funakoshi, to set apart his Martial Art from Chinese Boxing and Okinawan 'Te', called it Karate. In his book, Karate-do Kyohan, he writes, "because of the frequent confusion with Chinese Boxing, and the fact that the Okinawan martial art may now be considered a Japanese martial art, it is inappropriate, and in a sense degrading, to continue the use of 'Chinese' in the name. For this reason, in spite of many protests, we have abandoned the use of 'Chinese' to replace it with 'Kara'."

Master Funakoshi goes on to write, "The first connotation of 'kara' indicates that karate is a technique that permits one to defend himself with his bare hands and fists without weapons. Second, just as it is the clear mirror that reflects without distortion, or the quiet valley that echoes a sound, so must one who would study Karate-do purge himself of selfish and evil thoughts, for only with a clear mind and conscience can he understand that which he recieves. This is another meaning of the element 'kara' in Karate-do."

And finally, he states, " a fundamental way, the form of the universe is emptiness (kara), and, thus, emptiness is form itself. There are many kinds of martial arts....but at a fundamental level all these arts rest on the same basis as Karate-do. It is no exaggeration to say that the original sense of Karate-do is at one with the basis of all martial arts. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form itself. The 'kara' of Karate-do has this meaning."

Wow! Lots there. Master Funakoshi in using 'kara' helped the Japanese accept Karate-do as their own. Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form is a central concept and part of the Japanese psyche as it comes from Zen Buddhism, more specifically "The Heart Sutra" that is chanted in Zen Buddhist temples every morning.

Dainin Katagiri, my Zen teacher's master, would often state that the teaching of 'emptiness' is quite difficult to understand, but the teaching is very important for us. Katagiri Roshi states that "Emptiness is that which enables us to open our eyes to see directly what being is. If after careful consideration we decide to do something that we believe is the best way, from the beginning to the end we should do our best....We should take full responsibility for the results of what we have done, but the final goal is that we shouldn't be obsessed with the result, whether good or evil or neutral. This is called emptiness. This is the most important meaning of emptiness."

So, Karate-do is about defending yourself with no weapons, but it also about being 'here and now' and giving your full and undivided attention to your tasks...and not be attached to the results, but be responsible. As Nonin Roshi, my teacher, would teach us, our Big Mind is like the sky. It is not bothered by the clouds. It is just sky. It watches.

The kanji for 'kara' and 'ku', another way to say emptiness, are the same. Ku is likened to the sky and often translated as such. Sky is big and reflective. It sees everything, but stays non-attached. It is not bothered by the passing clouds (which is symbolic of our thoughts, emotions and actions).

So, to practice Karate-do for defense of the body is one level of training. The deeper level is to practice it as a form of enlightened action. It is a Zen practice liberating the practitioner from inner suffering, the highest form of self-defense. Master Funakoshi surely knew what he was doing when he used the term 'kara' to name his art form.

Hands palm to palm,


  1. Nice write up. I was talking to a Korean friend about Tao as it is important to Korea (their flag being one representation) - He said how it was impossible to correctly translate Chinese words to any other language. 1) because the words have so many possible meanings, even in Chinese and 2) that the structure of Chinese is so different to the other languages.

    He said the Kara was the same in Karaoke and karate and the suffixes in these words are: Oke orchestra and Te hand. The Kara he said inferred "fake". So Fake-Orchestra Kara-Oke and Fake-Hand Kara-Te.

    I said that fake seems an odd translation. Ok fake orchestra for karaoke but not fake hand for karate. He said well, hidden, missing, absent... there is not exact word.

    Until then I had assumed Kara in Karate to be 'open'. It just goes to show the possible interpretations and how good it is to get it from the horses proverbial.

  2. Thanks Ta-Wan for the info. In psychology we know all behavior must be defined within its context...and so should language...and why it is so easy to get lost and misinterpreted if the words are taken out of context.

    Fake and Empty for Kara is interesting...I can see how these work. Again, thanks for the info. I have learned as well.