Stories about the origins of karatedo and the lives of its masters are rich in folklore. The ambiguous nature of these oral traditions is a problem for scholars, who are unable to construct a definitive chronology from them, but these stories are the authentic voice of karatedo and express meanings deeper than mere fact. Without a sense of the history and philosophy behind karatedo, students cannot understand what it is.
It is traditional to trace the origins of karatedo to the Indian Buddhist monk Bodhidharma. He is said to have been a member of the Kshatriya or warrior caste who trained in martial arts as a young man before becoming a missionary. After an arduous journey, Bodhidharma arrived in north China in 520 and entered the monastery of the Shaolin Temple (called Shorinji in Japanese).
Bodhidharma's spiritual practices centered around zazen or seated meditation. So strong was his discipline that he is said to have sat gazing at a wall for nine years. Finding the monks of Shaolin too weak and lethargic to endure his regimen, Bodhidharma taught them a set of breathing and conditioning exercises derived from his martial arts training. These exercises formed the basis of Shaolin ch'uan fa (known in Japan as kempo).
Like many things Chinese, kempo was eventually brought to Japan and Okinawa, probably during the T'ang dynasty (618-906). The Ryukyu Islands have a long history of commerce with China, and political oppression by the Japanese helped to create a fertile soil there for the blossoming of karatedo. Government prohibitions of weapons stimulated the development of unarmed fighting skills, and a distinctively Okinawan martial art emerged, known as tode, later called te, okinawate, or karate. The original kanji for kara-te, "china hand," indicate its mainland origins.
Many stories tell of Chinese martial artists coming to Okinawa and Okinawans training in China, the most famous of these being Sakugawa, a resident of the town of Shuri who went to China circa 1724 and returned many years later. Known for his mastery as Karate Sakugawa, he became famous as a teacher and is claimed by many modern systems of karatedo as a progenitor. The formal name of our style, Sakugawa Koshiki Shorinji-Ryu Karatedo, reflects both its orthodox transmission of Sakugawa's techniques and its descent from the original Shaolin system. From Sakugawa, we inherit the kata Kanku Dai and Sakugawa no Kon and the philosophy of the Dojo Kun.
Sakugawa's student "Bushi" Matsumura served as security agent for the Okinawan royal family until his retirement, when he began to conduct karatedo classes at Shuri. Among his students were Anko Itosu and Chomo Hanashiro. Hanashiro instructed Jiro Ogasawara, who brought our system of Shorinji-Ryu to Japan.
Karatedo was practiced largely in secret until its introduction in the public schools of Okinawa by Itosu and his students in 1902. One of these students, Gichin Funakoshi, brought karatedo to Japan in 1922, and since then it has spread throughout the world in many different styles (ryu).
Thomas Cauley, hachidan, received instruction from the Ogasawara family during many tours of military service in Japan and brought the art we now practice to the United States.
Zen philosophy has played an important role in the evolution of karatedo from a brutal fighting system to a method of personal development. This process of spiritual refinement has characterized the transition of many forms of bujutsu (martial arts) to budo (martial ways), and it is reflected by the modern use of a homonymic kanji to write karate as "empty hand." In Karatedo Kyohan, Funakoshi describes the concept of emptiness in terms that evoke Zen attitudes: " . . . Just as it is the clear mirror that reflects without distortion, or the quiet valley that echoes a sound, so must one who would study Karatedo purge himself of selfish or evil thoughts, for only with a clear mind and conscience can he understand that which he receives."
For additional information, see also:
- Ideal Teaching: Japanese Culture and the Training Of The Warrior
by Wayne W. Van Horne, Ph.D.
- The History, Principles and Precepts of Sakugawa Koshiki Shorinji-Ryu Karate-Do
by Wayne W. Van Horne, Ph.D.