What is Kyokushin karate? To some, it is a way to develop and maintain physical strength and learn effective self-defense techniques. To others, it is much more than that. Kyokushin karate is a way of life that transcends the physical aspects of training. Kyokushin karate is Budō Karate 武道空手.
The philosophy of Budo is evident in the name that Mas Oyama chose for his karate style, Kyokushin 極真, which means "Ultimate Truth". It is also reflected in the Training Hall Oath (Dōjō Kun 道場訓), in Mas Oyama's Eleven Mottos (Zayū no Mei Jūichi Kajō 座右の銘十一個条), and in the Spirit of Osu (Osu no Seishin 押忍の精神).
The essence of Budo Karate cannot readily be depicted by reading a few paragraphs; Budo must be experienced. However, one can get a glimpse of its meaning by looking at the origin of the martial arts and its relationship with Eastern philosophies, and by examining the words "Karate" and "Budo" themselves.
Kyokushin karate, like most martial arts, can trace its origin to Bodhidarma (Daruma 達磨 in Japanese), an Indian prince and Buddhist priest who traveled to the Shaolin temple in China in the early sixth century. There, he developed the Chan, or "Intuitive" school of Mahayana Buddhism. Under the Chan philosophy, enlightenment was sought through meditation, rather than by the practice of rituals or the study of religious texts. According to legend, Bodhidharma sat facing the wall in the Shaolin temple for nine years, until he achieved enlightenment. (Other legends have him sitting and facing a wall in a cave for nine years.) Bodhidharma also developed martial arts as a physical regimen to accompany the mental discipline of the meditation. During the following centuries, the Chan (or Zen 禅 in Japanese) philosophy spread to Okinawa and then to Japan, accompanied with martial arts. Over time, Zen and martial arts became intermingled with each other and deeply ingrained in Japanese society.
The modern definition of the word Karate is "Empty Hand", which is spelled with the following Kanji characters:
空 Kara meaning "Empty"
手 Te meaning "Hand"
However, the "Empty Hand" definition not been in use for much more than 100 years.
Martial arts in Okinawa were originally known simply as Te 手 meaning "Hand" (pronounced Di or De in Okinawan). Different "styles" were distinguished by the locations where they were practiced:
首里手 Shurite in the old capital city of Shuri (pronounced Suidi in Okinawan).
那覇手 Nahate in the Naha area (Nafadi in Okinawan).
泊手 Tomarite in the village of Tomari (Tumaidi in Okinawan).
Because of the influence Chinese kempo, Okinawan martial arts over time became known as "China Hand", spoken as Tote, Todi or Tode, and spelled with the following Kanji characters:
唐 Tō meaning "China", and
手 Te meaning "Hand"
The Kanji character To can also be pronounced as Kara, so the word for "China Hand" was sometimes spoken as Karate.
At some point in time, the Kanji character for Kara meaning "China" 唐 was changed to the character meaning "Empty" 空. (The "Empty" character Kara is also pronounced Ku, as in Kankū 観空.) The earliest known written designation of Karate using the "Empty" character was by the Okinawan master Chomo Hanashiro (1869-1945) in Karate Shōshū Hen 空手誦習編 (also known as Karate Kumite 空手組手), which was first published in 1905.
"Empty Hand" did not immediately gain acceptance, and "China Hand" was still used for the next few decades, especially in Okinawa. Gichin Funakoshi, the Okinawan master who brought karate to Japan and developed what is now known as Shotokan karate (one of the styles from which Kyokushin was derived), used the "China Hand" characters in his first book, Ryūkyū Kempō Tōde 琉球拳法唐手, published in 1922. Funakoshi later used the "Empty Hand" ones in the 1935 book Karatedō Kyōhan 空手道教範. In 1936, the Okinawan karate masters officially adopted the change in the Kara character from "China" 唐 to "Empty" 空.
Gichin Funakoshi believed that "Empty Hand" better described the meaning of Karate:
The Kara 空 that means "Empty" is definitely the more appropriate. For one thing, it symbolizes the obvious fact that this art of self-defense makes use of no weapons, only bare feet and empty hands. Further, students of Karatedo aim not only toward perfecting their chosen art but also toward emptying heart and mind of all earthly desire and vanity. Reading Buddhist scriptures, we come across such statements as "Shikisokuzekū" 色即是空 and "Kūsokuzeshiki" 空即是色 which literally mean "Matter is void" and "All is vanity." The character Ku, which appears in both admonitions and may be pronounced Kara, is in itself truth.
The word Budo is derived from the words:
武 Bu meaning "Martial" or "Combat"
道 Dō meaning "Way"
Budo, the "Martial Way", is a Japanese term for arts that use peaceful combat as a means of perfecting the self. The word Dō 道 comes from the Chinese word Tao and the philosophy of Taoism. Do does not mean the "way" or method of learning something, such as the learning the techniques of karate, but rather it is the path of life whereby what is learned is transcended into wisdom. Do and Zen are complementary. Zen 禅 seeks self-perfection through passive means, such as meditation. Do seeks self-perfection through active means, such as the training itself. In fact, the practice of kata is sometimes referred to as Dōzen 道禅, or "Moving Meditation". That which is gained through Budo is much more than just the techniques and applications of the martial arts, and it transforms all aspects of life.
Karate and Budo are sometimes combined as Karatedō 空手道, or the "Empty Hand Way".
The word Dōjō 道場, or training hall, literally means the "Way Place", and it is also the name of the room used for meditation in a Buddhist temple. A karate dojo is not a gym, even though the training is physically demanding and a lot of sweat is shed in a Kyokushin dojo. It is a sacred a place of learning, and as such, it is treated with respect. Karateka (karate practitioners) bow before entering or leaving the dojo. Shoes are not worn in the dojo not only to keep the dojo clean, but to keep the "outside world" out. Mokuso 黙想 (meditation) is sometimes done before training to clear the mind and depart from the "outside world", and after training to clear the mind again in order to return to the "outside world".
A karate uniform is called a Dōgi 道衣 (or Gi for short), and the word literally means "Way Clothes". Just as a dojo is not a gym, a karate dogi is not just clothes in which to train. A dogi is what a karateka wears on the path toward self-perfection. It should always be kept clean and in good repair. According to Mas Oyama, "to repair a torn uniform is no disgrace, but to wear a torn or dirty one is." However, the Obi 帯 (belt) should never be washed. Over time, it becomes frayed and stained with the sweat and blood of hard training. An old, worn and stained obi reflects the karateka's unique experience of training, which should not be washed away.
Budo developed from Bushidō 武士道 (the "Way of the Warrior"), the code of moral conduct and way of life of the Samurai. At the time, the extent of a warrior's skills and ability often determined whether he lived or died. According to the karate master Gogen Yamaguchi:
Budo did not originate in a peaceful atmosphere. It was necessary to protect one's life at the time, and to learn how to use Budo as a weapon and achieve one's responsibility as a warrior. It was the warrior's duty to develop spirit. ... It was necessary to obtain a technique to protect oneself, and one had to have a strong spirit to correspond to that. When one could overcome a conception of death, there was an improvement of a human being as a Samurai. When it was developed, karatedo was used in place of weapons and studied that way, so that the spirit of the Samurai was needed at the beginning of its conception to learn karate.
For the most part, this is not the situation today (although some martial arts can be used effectively for self-defense). Yamaguchi continues:
Now there are rules, but the techniques and elements have not changed... Now, karate is the battle against one's self and a means of the Way of one's life, not to defeat others or to die. This solitary fight is to know one's own spirit and the desire to the naught that is superior to the limitation of the body.
Mas Oyama fully understood the nature of Kyokushin Karate as Budo Karate, a path toward self-perfection though the practice of the martial art:
Karate is the most Zen-like of all the Martial Arts. It has abandoned the sword. This means that it transcends the idea of winning and losing to become a way of thinking and living for the sake of other people in accordance with the way of Heaven. Its meanings, therefore, reach the profoundest levels of human thought.
For a long time, I have emphasized that karate is Budo, and if the Budo is removed from karate, it is nothing more than sport karate, show karate or even fashion karate – the idea of training merely to be fashionable.
Karate that has discarded Budo has no substance. It is nothing more than a barbaric method of fighting or a promotional tool for the purpose of profit. No matter how popular it becomes, it is meaningless.