Karate - Budo  
  The key features and principles for understanding karate  


  >> Stage karaté Vincenzo Figuccio 19-21 mai - Belgique english français
Zen and karate
  Styles of karate
  Aims of karate
  Kihon, kata, kumite
  Physical principes
  Aggression and stress
  Kumite in pratice
  Dangerous spots
  Japan, Buddhism & Zen
  Karate and emptiness
  The book
    Shotokan kata
    Shitoryu kata
    Goju-ryu kata
    Takedown & MMA
    Physical training



Karate is often linked to the practice of Zen. Where does this link with Buddhism come from? What is Buddhism and what place does it occupy in Japanese culture?


Japan and beliefs

In contrast to revealed religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam (which are based on the exclusive choice of certain beliefs), the Japanese religious world is a blend of beliefs and practices. The Japanese are unabashed in mixing Shinto, Buddhism, the way of yin and yang, ancestor worship, Confucianism, Christianity and so forth.

Out of 127 million inhabitants, Japan has about 109 million Shintoists, 96 million Buddhists and 10 million people who follow other religions, including 1.5 million Christians and 45,000 Muslims. A Japanese can, therefore, be attached to a Buddhist temple and a Shinto shrine.
Shintoism, which has no founder, no dogma and no moral code, is an ancient belief that honours a number of deities known as kamis. These kamis are aspects of nature such as the wind, thunder, the sun, the moon, the mountains, the sea and a river. They also denote certain exceptional individuals who are considered gods. Shintoism, which is deeply rooted in Japanese society, encourages believers not to break the pact between man and nature. This vision may well explain the environmental sensibility of the Japanese.

Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the 6th century and was originally a type of aristocratic religion primarily associated with the moment of death and ancestor worship. Buddhism in Japan attaches great importance to Zen, which focuses on meditation. The aim of meditation is to achieve a special spiritual state known as “satori”, which makes it possible to appreciate the reality of the world. The mix between Shintoism and Buddhism appeared very early: the Buddhas were perceived as benevolent kamis, and the kamis were treated as avatars of the Buddhas.

Confucianism, which originated in China, was introduced to Japan in the 5th century, where it developed mainly as a political philosophy advocating social harmony, loyalty, obedience and respect for tradition.
In conclusion, the Japanese are not religious fanatics. However, they are keen on ethics, the sacred, rituals and festivals that highlight the important times in their life and which punctuate their calendar.


Buddhism is considered either as a religion or as a philosophy. Its origins are to be found in India, and date back to the 5th century BC. Buddhism followed the awakening of Siddhartha Gautama, who is regarded as the historic Buddha.

Buddhism presents a set of meditative and ethical practices together with psychological, philosophical and cosmological theories addressed from the perspective of enlightenment.

The goal of Buddhism is awakening by extinguishing narcissistic desire and illusion, which are the cause of human suffering. Awakening in Theravada Buddhism is achieved by understanding and performing four “noble truths”:

1. All life involves suffering and disappointment;
2. Suffering stems from craving and attachments;
3. It is possible to put an end to suffering;
4. The path that leads to the end of suffering is the middle way that follows the noble eightfold path.

This means waking up from the nightmare of the successive rebirths of Buddhist belief. The enlightened individual achieves nirvana (enlightenment) and escapes suffering at death: the cycle of rebirth and death is broken.

Awakening in Mahayana Buddhism is connected with wisdom and an awareness of one’s own Buddha-nature.

The four immeasurables correspond to pious feelings or types of behaviour that can be developed indefinitely. They are cultivated in the pursuit of enlightenment, the ultimate liberation and rebirth in the heavenly world of Brahma.

These are positive emotions to be continually developed:
1. Benevolence fostered by the practice of meditation;
2. Compassion: the meeting between benevolence and the suffering of others, cultivated by meditation;
3. Sympathetic joy, which consists of rejoicing in the happiness of others;
4. Tranquillity, which is a state of peace in the face of any circumstances, whether happy or sad.

Reference: http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bouddhisme.



The word “Zen” (chan in Mandarin) means “silent meditation”. Zen is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism, which emphasises meditation based on the sitting position known as zazen. This corresponds to the meditation posture of Siddhartha Gautama when he achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.

The legend about the origins of the Zen tradition goes back to a sermon by the Buddha Shakyamuni during which, without explanation, “he simply picked a flower. No disciple understood the message, except for Mahakashyapa, who smiled at the Buddha. The latter then told him that he had just given him his most precious spiritual treasure”. This is a foreshadowing of the description of the chan Buddhism of Bodhidharma: “no writing, a different education that directly affects the mind to reveal the true nature of the Buddha”.

In the tradition of Mahakashyapa, Bodhidharma, the 28th Indian patriarch, came to China around 520. His doctrine was the starting point for Buddhism in China. His method, inspired by yoga, aimed to achieve good physical shape and a union between the mind and body. The unique aspect of Bodhidharma’s approach was the search for spirituality through practising martial arts.


Zen and Gichin Funakoshi

Gichin Funakoshi undoubtedly contributed to the rapprochement between karate and Zen. He modified the meaning of the kanji kara of karate. Kara no longer meant “from China”, but “empty” in the Buddhist sense: rather than meaning “nothing”, the term signifies a state of mind.

For Funakoshi and his masters, karate is not simply a combat sport or a way of defending oneself. In his opinion, the goal of karate is human fulfilment on a physical and spiritual level. Karate must improve the character and self-control.

In parallel, Funakoshi worked to integrate karate into the budo family, which was heavily influenced by the values of Japanese society. In the family of Japanese martial arts, irrespective of the discipline, one seeks the fulfilment of the personality in harmony with the world and nature.

Zen and Bushido

Bushido means “the way of the warrior”. It is the code of honour of the Samurai influenced over time by three schools of thought: Zen, Shintoism and Confucianism.
This code of honour includes the values of the Samurai: sincerity, kindness, goodness, modesty, humility, a sense of justice and honour, bravery and contempt towards death, compassion, courtesy, respect, righteousness, self-control, loyalty to one’s master, and the honour of one’s name and clan.

In the world of the Japanese military, Zen is presented as a mental training that advocates simplicity, honesty and bravery. Furthermore, the pursuit of perfection and unity between the body and the detached mind, freed from unnecessary passion, can be very useful on the battlefield.

In this conception, martial exercises help to improve physical and mental mastery. The fighter experiences Zen when he is capable of fully participating in the combat in a “detached” fashion. He must be attentive, alert and focused without allowing him or herself to be overwhelmed by thoughts or emotions.
With the development of modern weapons, the role of the Samurai in Japanese society has lost its importance. The bushido has been transformed and sublimated. As a result, we have shifted from the art of war and hard-line jiu-jitsu to judo, aikido, and modern karate… as well as to the art of living.


The relationship between karate and Zen has its roots at different levels:

    1. The influence of Buddhism on Japanese culture and budos;
    2. The influence of Bodhidharma on the martial arts;
    3. The vision of the educational, social and moral role of karate as seen by Gichin Funakoshi and his masters;
    4. The importance not just of physical but also mental training in combat.