Saturday, October 2, 2010

13th Century Karate

The name “Karate” originally written 唐手 ("Chinese hand") in Okinawa could also be pronounced “Tode”. It was changed to 空手 ("empty hand") at the beginning of the 20th
century. 

The main reason for this change was the willingness on the part of most Okinawan Masters, to see Karate become part of Japanese mainstream culture. Gichin Funakoshi, main artisan of the introduction of Karate in Japan, and a student of Zen, writes in one of his books that the change was to remind the Heart Sutra saying : “Form is emptiness, Emptiness is form”.

In the following 13th century text, translated from Japanese by Trevor Leggett in his book “The Warrior Koans”, “Karate” is mentioned both in relation to Zen and Martial Arts. This is an interesting indication that “Karate” was known by Japanese people in a Martial Arts context way before the introduction of the Okinawan Art on Mainland Japan.

A Koan is a paradoxical riddle given to Disciples of certain Zen sects to meditate upon.

Kamakura Koan No. 44 : Wielding the spear with empty hands


Nanjio Masatomo, a SoJutsu Master of the Spear, went to Kenchoji to sit in meditation, and afterwards spoke with priest Gio about using a spear on horseback. 

Gio said, 'Your Honour is indeed an expert in So Jutsu. But until you understand the method of using the spear with empty hands, you will not grasp the ultimate secret of the way.'

The Teacher added, 'No spear in the hands, no hands on the spear.'

The Spear Master did not get it!

The Teacher said further, 'If you don't understand, your art of the Spear is a little affair of the hands alone.'


In December of 1256 Fukuzumi Hideomi, a government official, was given the koan 'wielding the spear with empty hands'. He wrestled furiously with it to no avail. One evening, exhausted, he crept into a little grotto near the meditation hall, and sat there in meditation, repeating again and again “Kara-Te, Kara-Te (empty hands, empty hands)”.

Another monk heard Hideomi repeating 'Kara-te, Kara-te', and thought he was saying 'Kane-dase, Kane-dase (give some money, give some money)'. He thought it was a robber and raised the alarm. The Jikijitsu (head-priest in charge of the meditation hall) made a quick search around the dojo and found Hideomi.

Hideomi was indeed very ill with tuberculosis, and absorbed as he was with the koan, he had forgotten to eat for several days. He was extremely weak and actually on the brink of death. The Jikijitsu hit him on the head saying, 'Let not this heart be set on any place' and he gave a big Katzu shout.

Hideomi nodded, and quietly died.

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