Recently my mind has been stirring. I find myself held hostage to a seemingly endless cascade of thoughts on the nature of Karate and Budo. Sometimes my martial musings deal with the mundane– technique, strategy, applications, etc. These are easy enough to deal with…I pick up a pen and paper and give them form, until I can get to the dojo and test out my newly encountered hypotheses. But others are not so easily dismissed. They burrow deep into my gut and I ruminate on them much as a cow does its cud.
Lately I’ve been contemplating the meaning of “Karate.” I’m not referring to the etymology of the actual word (although at some point, that may become germane to this topic), but the reason why I practice. What do we learn from Karate?
Of course there are the obvious answers–kicking, punching, kata, self-defense, self-confidence, self-reliance, discipline, etc. But I am sure there are plenty of people who are self reliant, confident, and disciplined and have never stepped foot in a karate dojo. There are also other arts that teach one how to kick and punch. How does karate differ? I extoll the virtues of this path to anyone who will lend even a near-deaf ear, yet I am left thinking,”what does it truly offer me ?”
This lead me to think about the word “karate” itself. It is commonly known that the word “karate” originally meant “China hand,” but was changed to “empty hand” in an effort by the Japanese to distance “their” art from its Chinese antecedents. Hence, the word “Karate” as we know it now refers to an art practiced without the use of weapons, thus an empty hand. But what if it means more than that? Let’s think about it for a second.
What is one of the major functions served by our hands ? I would say that most often, my hands are used to grab on and hold on to any number of things–perhaps a cup of coffee in the morning, or my iphone when I wish to make a call or check my email. Often I grab the steering wheel in frustration as I battle my way through traffic on my way enroute to work.
What if, all of those hours spent sweating and kiai-ing our way through kihon, kata, and kumite allowed us to truly “empty our hands.” What if, each time you stepped into the embujo (training space of a dojo) you let go of all the unimportant things we tend to hold onto simply because we don’t know how to let go of them or worse yet we refuse to let go of for fear we may not recognize ourselves without the baggage that so often defines us. What if, during a sparring match when you have been beaten to the point of submission and don’t think you can endure another second, you let go of all your preconceived limitations and realize just how strong you truly are.
Personally I know that whenever I am practicing, there is no “space” to think of anything else. It doesn’t matter if I had a great day or a disastrous one. Once I step onto the mat all the days events fade to black and all that remains is my spirit and my “empty hands” ready to accept whatever lessons I may be fortunate enough to receive that day.
The funny thing about our hands, is that they can only hold on to a few things at a time. If our hands are constantly full, it’s had to receive anything new. Think of all the wondrous things we may miss while clenching on to things that may no longer serve a purpose in our lives. Why hold on to a hammer, when a wrench is what you may really need?
So perhaps Karate is supposed to teach us how to stop holding on…how to let go…how to empty are hands so that we can receive anew. That’s what it teaches me!