Karaté - Budo

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Karate Budo
Zen and karate

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.

Read more on the relationship between karate and Zen, Gichin Funakoshi and the bushido in the book "Karate: more than the move"

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