Karate a religion or just good healthy physical exercise?

The beginning of Martial arts in the west

Following World War II, American Servicemen, who had been based in Japan, took back the martial arts to the US from where they spread to other parts of the West. The most esciting for many was Karate-do. Its subsequent popularity throughout the world as a sport of choice owed a lot to 'kung fu' movies. Bruce Lee and David Carradine were probably the most influential role models whose mastery and skill excited thousands of young movie-goers enticing them to try the art for themselves. These facts are well known, but there is much about the oriental martial arts that is not so well known, but which should be known and should also be a matter of extreme concern to all people, but in particular Christians.

This paper will examine the origins and nature of one particular form of martial arts; namely karate-do. I will also investigate the ideology of some of the contemporary karate clubs in the Wellington area and compare their expressions of karate with the original pagan ideals of the art. This should help us understand the true nature of this martial art today. It will be necessary to translate some of the terms that we come across in this study.

The meaning of Karate-do

The term just cited, karate-do, is a good example. The word karate is a compound of two transliterated Japanese words kara and te. Kara can either mean 'empty' or 'Chinese.' The acknowledged key figure in the rise of popularity of karate-do in the 20th century is a certain Gichin Funakoshi, a Japanese exponent of karate-do who died in 1957. In his desire to popularise and guide the evolution of modern karate, Funakoshi defined the terms and structure of this martial art. Acknowledging the two possible translations of the word kara, he decided that 'empty' would best convey the true nature of karate-do. A quote at this stage from Funakoshi's book Karate-do. My way of life illustrates why he settled on 'empty'.

"The Kara 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 Karate-do 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 'shiki-soku-ze-ku' and 'Ku-soku-zeshiki' 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 (p. 35)."

Morris, another writer of a popular karate manual, The Karate-do Manual also repeats this historical information about the development of modern karate. He comments that,

"Funakoshi, believing with the Buddhists that emptiness lies at the centre of all matter and all creation, found that the reading 'empty' was significant of more than just the fact that karate was a weaponless art. Reflecting the change from the paramount need for an effective system of combat on the battle field to the desire for personal enlightenment, he later also dropped the suffix 'jutsu' and substituted 'do'(p. 18)."

It is interesting to note Morris's purpose for writing his karate-do manual. He bemoans the fact that not all karate instructors incorporate spiritual values into karate. And he thinks that it is of the utmost importance to stress the spiritual side of karate. Any young karate enthusiast in New Zealand taking up this book will read Morris's purpose for writing it.

"I have written this book because karate-do is my life. It has saved my life. It has changed my life and it has changed me. I cannot believe that my little knowledge may honestly be said to do justice to the demands of the subject. Nevertheless, if even my mistakes provoke thought and discussion then the work has been worthwhile; or in Zen terms; 'it is better to light a candle than to complain of the dark' (p. 12)."

Observing the religious underpinning of this art, this modern translator of karate goes onto say,

"Thus, although the martial arts are many and include such diverse forms as judo, fencing, archery, spear fighting and stick fighting, the ultimate objective of all of them is the same as that of karate. Believing with the Buddhists that it is emptiness, the void, that lies at the heart of all matter and indeed of all creation."

Here he confirms the buddhist underpinnings of karate-do. The word te simply means hand; so that karate means empty hand, but remember the emptiness is not just the absence of a weapon in the hand, but it refers to a buddhist metaphysical interpretation of reality. We will need to say more about this idea. But the word do is also important. In a book by L. Frederic, called A dictionary of the martial arts, do means 'way'. But it doesn't just mean a way of doing something. No it is described as,

"The spiritual path followed by adepts of a discipline, be it martial, religious or artistic (p. 26)."

The derivation of this word is the Chinese Tao. Taoism is another Eastern religion. Tao means 'path' or 'way'. Frederic tells us that,

"Such a concept implies a multiplicity of ways of being and of behaving both morally and socially to reach the ultimate goal of mankind: harmonious integration with the laws of the universe."

But Frederic does go onto say that The Japanese concept of do is different from that of the Chinese,

"in the sense that it contains no religious or superstitious connotation. It is merely a path to be followed by those who truly wish to live the life of free human being."

But he immediately explains what this really means by saying that,

"it is the Do, the Way, which leads to the 'light', to the awakening of the self to its own true nature; a nature identical to that of the universe. The Way, therefore, is a constant search for self perfection, implying the practice of numerous virtues , which must lead the individual to perfect union (Ai) with himself and his environment. The do is a sort of religious education whose sole aim is spiritual harmony with all beings, and mutual accord of self and the universal energy, so it is not surprising to find that the philosophy of the do has become inseparable from that of Zen, representing its 'active' aspect. The do is the symbol of Wisdom, distinct from simple knowledge although not excluding the latter, for 'to believe and to act are one and the same thing.'"

Morris (The karate-do manual) plainly teaches that karate is a spiritual way. Even in the foreword, Weiss a 5th dan and editor of 'Official Karate' writes of Morris's book,

"His message is clear. Karate is a way of life, a discipline that requires a spiritual devotion as well as technical skill. It is not a tournament win, a trophy, a championship title, and though we all recognize the attraction of competition to test the effectiveness of techniques, it is not purely sport (p. 11)."

I have quoted these authorities at length to let them explain the true meaning of karate-do. Clearly a karate-do purist does not see karate as merely a sport, or merely physical exercise. No, it is a religious path or way. And the path is described in a combination of buddhist and taost metaphysical ideas or theories. Those familiar with the origins and goal of yoga will recognize that karate-do is described as a meditation technique in very similar terms to yoga.

The influence of Zen

We have mentioned Taoism and Buddhism, but it is specifically Zen Buddhism that stands behind modern karate-do. Zen Buddhism is a school of the form of Buddhism known as Mahayana. Buddhism is a particularly complex religious system and there are many variations to the theme. One subset of Mahayana Buddhism is known as Zen.

Zen - the intuitive school

This school of Mahayana developed in China. Ch'an or Zen was the name given to this so-called 'Intuitive School' of Mahayana Buddhism (Zen being the way the Japanese pronounced ch'an). Salvation into Nirvana in this school was primarily by meditation or contemplation (dhyana). But salvation is actually obtained by sudden insight or awakening. And this involved an inward look into one's own nature, according to Noss ( Man's Religions p. 160). The founder of this school was an Indian scholar called Bodhidharma. At the end of the fifth century he went to China where he taught "only meditation gives direct insight into the Great-Emptiness of the Buddha-Reality." This Buddha-principle was "nothingness" or the "Void." Remember that this was the meaning of Kara according to Funakoshi. Zen can be described as "an attempt to experience (actualize) the unitary character of reality." This is a monistic view of reality - all is one. This experience of enlightenment is called satori in Japanese. Our martial arts dictionary describes it thus,

"An opening of the mind and spirit, resulting either from the accumulation of knowledge and its intuitive understanding or from a sudden experience which

reveals the ultimate Reality of beings and things, as well as their total identity with the self and the universe.....The practice of one of the forms of Budo (the way of combat) should be able to bring about this transformation in those who follow it sincerely (p. 192)."

The Goal of martial arts in this view is the goal of Zen Buddhism.

A form of Zen meditation is called zazen. This meditative technique is seen in Mokuso, a meditation performed after training in karate-do. The purpose is to empty the mind.

The connection?

What is the connection between Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma and karate-do? As the legend has it, Bodhidharma established the Zen school in the Shaolin temple in Honan province in China. He devised a system of training, both physical and mental to strengthen his Zen pupils so that they could practice Zen's ascetic regime. These were perhaps the beginning of the development of kung-fu. Some deny Bodhidharma's involvement in this development, but the fighting monks of Shaolin are an historical reality.

In a very interesting admission, Morris in his book (The Karate-do manual) says of this connection with Zen Buddhism,

"The connection between Zen buddhist monks and the development of the fighting arts causes many a Westerner to raise his eyebrows, it should be realized, however, that Zen is not a religion as we would understand it, in that it has no deity as a central object of worship or devotion; nor is it concerned with such imponderables as Heaven and Hell. Zen imposes no moral preconceptions of 'good' or 'bad'; it stresses the true perception of reality, and the acceptance of life as it is, including, necessarily, its violent aspects (p. 14)."

To claim to be amoral and to claim to stress the "true perception of reality", meaning a buddhist perception that all is one, is a very religious statement indeed. And we will see that the ideology arising from karate-do is consistent with Morris's "true perception of reality." He even says quite openly that it was the philosophy (we would say religion) of Buddha "that formed the moral and spiritual foundations for the acceptance of martial arts by the monks of the Shaolin temple (p. 14)." In about the 11th century, through Chinese influence, the martial arts were introduced to the Japanese island of Onikawa. It was from this Island that Funakoshi and others were to introduce karate-do to the West. Morris goes onto say that a Zen principle in karate (p.28) is mizu no kokoro 'mind (spirit) like water.' Frederic defines this idea as ,

"This expression refers to the perfect calm which the mind or spirit can find, producing a non-aggressive state and a feeling of 'passive' resistance. Whoever possesses mizu-no-kokoro is thus sensitive to all impressions, just as water is sensitive to the slightest breath of wind, and his or her Ki is in harmony with all beings."


Shinto also has influenced the development of karate, because Shinto is the native religion of the Japanese. Shinto shares with Zen a view of man that he is essentially good and pure. The Shinto influence is seen in the presence of shrines(containing idols) in many karate dojos. The bowing to these shrines, the front wall and other symbols occur in New Zealand karate gyms to this day.

Morris, at the risk of repeating myself, laments the lack of emphasis on the traditional spiritual aspects of karate-do in the West, he urges a reversal of that trend.

"Again one must urge the Western karate-ka to look beyond the practice of technique and seek that calm acceptance of the inevitable which was an integral feature of the samurai's psychological make-up. Karate-do like bushido is not to be confined to the dojo or the battle field; it is for life (p. 34)."

This comment does reveal that karate teachers are not necessarily treating karate and the teaching of it as a philosophical or religious system - at least consciously.

But the gurus of martial arts are pushing the 'spiritual' aspect of karate in their books. To walk into the environment of the dojo is to walk into a culture where these zealous evangelists for Zen, Shinto and Taoism operate.


The word dojo means 'the way place'; "a place". Morris reminds us, it is "where students learn 'the way'." Significantly the name dojo was the name of the original room set apart for worship in a buddhist temple. The dojo is where the karate devotee practises his karate and is the name in universal use for this sacred place. Typically a student entering a dojo, begins his practice with a bow towards the front wall and the sensei (instructor). At the end of the period too, he performs Mokuso (meditation) and bows to the Sensei (Instructor). In some dojo the class recite a dojo kun or oath. A typical oath is,

"To strive for perfection of character. To defend the ways of Truth. To foster the spirit of effort. To honour the principles of etiquette. To guard against impetuous courage."

The students "then turn and bow to the shomen (a sign of respect made upon entering and leaving the dojo) as they depart (Morris p. 36)." The shomen is the front wall in Japan and is a place of honour and a place of religious significance.

Karate's mechanical and esoteric principles

Morris, in his manual, describes karate in terms of mechanical principles and in terms of what he calls "esoteric" principles (P. 42). He says that the word esoteric is to be thought of as synonymous with "spiritual and psychological aspects."


Hara is the first which "can be looked upon as the spiritual (as opposed to the physical) centre of gravity to the body, is the spiritual essence responsible for maintenance of the alert, calm self control...(p.42)."

This metaphysical notion is located below the navel and it is through the hara that mind and body become unified. Naturally to cultivate hara is considered essential, for "basically, hara is an essential factor in ensuring consistent success (p. 42)."

Frederic defines Hara thus,

" Through Hara men and women can communicate with the universal energy, and there Ki is found. 'Deep' breathing (reminding us of yoga methods of meditation) must take place from the Hara, for it is there that all the individual's mental and physical forces emanate. The art of concentrating all mental and physical forces on this point is called Harage. In Buddhism, Hara is called Tanden, the Japanese translation of the Chinese word Dantian, 'cinnabar field', the focal point for adepts of the dao(tao)(p.46)."

G.H.Milne (Wainuiomata)

(Ed. Next Month we will look at other metaphysical principles in karate and examine the results of interviews with karate exponents and sensei (instructors)here in New Zealand.)

Karate a religion or just good healthy physical exercise? (2)

In our first look at karate last month we concluded by discussing some of the pagan metaphysical ideas that are an integral part of karate-do. This month we continue to look at these 'esoteric' principles and will also ask questions of local karate club instructors.


Ki is the spirit of man. The development of ki and hara "are inextricably linked to the practice of deep abdominal breathing. such as that utilized in za-zen (sitting meditation) (Morris. p. 45)." Morris then goes onto describe the meditation technique to develop the ki. The similarity to Hindu yoga is no coincidence. We are dealing with the same fundamental metaphysical paradigm.

Frederic tells us, not surprisingly, "that a similar concept is found in Indian philosophy in the idea of Prana." He also suggests it is the same as the Judaeo-Christian word 'soul.'

The concept of ki, for Frederic, is indispensable.

"It is found at the root.... of all Japanese martial arts. The nature of this universal fundamental energy is such that it penetrates everywhere, uniting all the manifestations of the universe, visible or invisible. It is the creative energy, the divine breath in every being, which appears as active attention, concentration, mental force and can, according to certain writers, be projected outside oneself (p. 122)."

Here again we have this all pervading monism, describing reality in anything but Christian terms. The way to utilize this ki can be through ki-ai (the cry which gives life) which is a cry that can immobilize a competitor with its psychic force. Books on karate recount experiences of this event. Again the ability is dependant on certain breathing exercises. These give an altered state of consciousness, which may make occultic power possible by opening up the mind to demonic influence.

New Zealand Karate

Even if it is true that Zen Buddhism, Shinto and Taoism had a strong influence on karate-do, is that influence necessarily still felt and seen, or evidenced in any way, in the New Zealand karate clubs that dot our cities and towns? To answer this question, I decided it would be best to approach instructors in karate and put this question to them.

Kei Shin Kan, Lower Hutt.

Kei Shin Kan, operating in both Lower Hutt and Upper Hutt is one particular karate school or club. The words of its title actually mean 'humility within the heart.' I approached the founder and chief instructor, a fifth dan in karate, Mr Mark Pennel. He had been involved in karate since 1966 and had started this school in 1972. He had also spent some time in Japan. But in answer to my question was karate more than a sport, he replied with an emphatic no. He was eager to point out that, in his view, karate was just another sport and a form of physical training and nothing more.

I questioned him about the terminology used in karate to see how these forms were translated into such a secular, non-philosophical New Zealand approach to karate.

He told me that do (as a part of karate-do) was seldom used in his club. The significance of kara as meaning empty was not something he stressed either. I asked him about the bowing at the beginning and end of training. He explained that this bowing showed respect for the place of training. This bowing, however, involves bowing towards the front wall (shomen) of the room. He explained that it was not bowing to a particular god, but that you could see it in your own way. By this he meant that you could see it as bowing to your own particular god. He later showed me his dojo. Hanging at the front were a NZ and a Japanese flag, the rising sun.

A pagan shrine

But between the flags was a very interesting object indeed - a shrine complete with an idol. This shrine was fixed in the centre at the top of the front wall or shomen. He had explained to me that this was a gift from a Japanese Buddhist friend who had visited and who had trained with him and that it did not have any religious significance. Nevertheless, to the casual observer and to the children beginning karate, the students would be seen bowing towards this object upon the front wall. So even in a karate organization that claims total secularity, the most significant wall of the room contained a religious shrine and god to which the students young and old alike bowed towards, on entering and leaving the dojo.

This struck me as being particularly significant and somehow out of kilter with Mr Pennel's claim that karate was just about physical fitness.

While he had not heard of Zazen, they did practice mokuso, which he described as a period of concentration following training. They did not have a Dojo kun (oath), although he said other karate gyms did.

Esoteric principles.

The concept of hara was used in the context of this karate school. He described it, as the Japanese would see it, as the centre of all. He told me that the belt was significant in karate, because it was meant to press with the knot on the kara and the two ends of the belt always pointed down signifying attachment to nature. He didn't say whether this was expected to be believed by the students and I suspect not.

He explained the idea of ki ai as energy and harmony and he saw this as a natural principle which training could improve and invoke, releasing great energy . He said that it was used for breathing development. He described another form of breathing exercise called Zanchin. The importance of breathing may rest in its ability to coordinate the actions of karate, but it may well at the same time lift a person into a different (altered) state of consciousness similar to yoga or TM.

Instructors were not allowed to teach their personal philosophies in the gym. He said that you can get someone coming along who wants to begin karate because of some crisis in their life, and they may get led into the more traditional aspects of karate, with its association with Zen.

Karate, it seems, is a very demanding activity. If a person is serious about world competition, then he will train 4 hours a day, five days a week. This is a tremendous commitment in time and effort.

I have no reason to believe that this instructor does not mean it when he says he sees karate as purely sport, without any religious connotations. I don't doubt his sincerity. Nevertheless, the presence of the pagan shrine, the ritual bowing, the mokuso, the endeavour to develop ki and ki ai from the kara still connect the religious underpinning of karate with its modern expression.

Sei Ku Kan, Wainuiomata.

I next interviewed Mr Wayne Simmons, a 4th Dan instructor of a karate gym which has been going for 22 years. Children from as young as 4 years of age to adults over 50 train there regularly. The most intensive training was for those who participated in competitions and in preparation; they might train 4 nights a week. This club has had considerable national and international success in karate competitions, boasting one world junior ranking and many other national successes. The instructor did not see karate as a sport only. He explained that people learn karate for a variety of reasons and only a few do so for sporting success. He mentioned fitness, self defense and self-discipline as the primary reasons people came to learn karate. He too denied that there was a spiritual side to karate in most New Zealand clubs, stressing the physical nature of karate.


Bowing did occur, when the trainees and the instructor bowed towards each other in the beginning and end of the training period. The students bowed facing the front wall (shomen), though. Originally people bowed to the photo of the instructor on the wall, but now it was just to the structure. Significantly he described the bowing as indicating a mark of respect to the 'style or system of karate'. This is an interesting concept. Can we imagine a rugby team bowing to the system of rugby union as a mark of respect. We would surely recognize a religious element in such powerful symbolism. The front wall also had two photographs on it and the NZ and Japanese flags.

Mokuso after training was practised, but it was just a time to relax for a brief time and no instruction was given on whether to empty your mind or not.

This club whose founder and present head is Japanese and based in Japan did not have a dojo kun or oath.

The concept of hara is not introduced into training, but the idea of ki and ki ai is taught. Mr Simmons explains ki as drawing inner strength and that as you try to use it it becomes more natural. He described other sports using ki. The grunt of the tennis player or the weightlifter was the same thing, in his view.

The full term karate-do is used, but its reference to 'way' is just traditional and doesn't, for him, carry other baggage with it.

He gave examples of how the practice of karate can help concentration and in self defense. He says he doesn't find people are interested in karate as a way of life or philosophy.

All of this was encouraging, but again the total picture gives a different dimension to the sketch I was given. While there was no shrine on the wall in this case, the bowing to show respect to the system or style of karate is a profoundly religious idea. With the actions of your body, you are acknowledging deference to an activity whose roots lie in Eastern mysticism and in particular, Zen Buddhism, Taoism and Shintoism. If it is just bowing to karate as a sport or as self defense or self-discipline, that too is suggesting the personification of the activity of karate and elevating it to the status of an idol.

The literature that was lying on the table at the dojo gave a brief account of the history of the particular karate style. The Zen Buddhism of the founder is openly acknowledged as having an influence in the development of the style, where reference is made to the meaning of the style's name sei ku kan. It literally means "Training hall under the clear blue sky." Mr Simmons noted that by 'clear' was meant 'tranquil'. The identification of this name with the buddhist metaphysic is obvious.

The various kata or set exercises described in the club book included names like 'peace of mind' and 'Power of the Universe.'

The use of ki and mokuso, were also an important part of the style.

While it appears that much of the religious background is suppressed, according to Mr Simmons, the links to me were obvious. The Wainuiomata version of karate-do is still not divorced from its Japanese religious origins. The proximity remains.

A serious karate devotee can purchase or borrow books on the subject and thereby be able to imbibe the 'spiritual' side of karate. Again I have no reason to doubt that Mr Simmons is genuine in his rejection of any idea that his karate has a spiritual component. But equally the symbolism of bowing to the style or concept of karate, the roots of that particular style, and the use of the metaphysical language and the obvious indebtedness to its Japanese origins, point to a distinctly religious 'sport.'

Kyokushin, Wellington and Lower Hutt

The third instructor I spoke to was a women, Morag McBride. She is a part-time instructor for another style of karate named Kyokushin. This was founded by a certain Mas(Masutatsu) Oyama of Japan (Originally a Korean) and was once the largest karate style in the world. Morris in discussing this style says of it,

"Kyokushinkai attempts to retain the features of a true budo (martial way) form, stressing both the need for a realistic approach to combat and the necessity of mastering the self, in spiritual terms." (p.20).

The style is now more fragmented, but still a major player in the New Zealand scene, particularly in the Wellington area.

Again the origins seem to be cloaked in Zen Buddhism. The dojo-kun or oath is often recited at the end of a training session as a reminder. It reads thus.

"We'll train our hearts and bodies for a firm unshaking spirit.

We'll pursue the true meaning of the martial way so that in time our senses may be alert.

With true vigour we'll seek to cultivate a spirit of self-denial,

We'll observe the rules of courtesy, respect our superiors and refrain from violence.

We'll follow our honour and conscience (In the original it is buddhas and gods and is sometimes translated as 'religious principles.'), and never forget the virtue of humility.

We'll look upwards to wisdom and strength, not seeking other desires,

All our lives, through the discipline of karate,

we'll seek to fulfill the true meaning of the Kyokushin Way."

An extended analysis of this and its intended meaning by the author, the founder Oyama, would be fruitful, but is perhaps not necessary.

This oath expresses religious sentiments obviously enough. To train 'hearts' is speaking of the moral nature of man. The 'true meaning of the martial way', if understood as intended, is the way of Zen Buddhism. Cultivating a 'spirit of self denial, following honour and never forgetting the virtue of humility' are further claims to striving for a level of morality which lays claim to virtue. To call humility virtuous is to recognize the goodness of a state of mind. To the Christian there can be no goodness apart from knowing Christ. 'Looking upwards to wisdom and strength, not seeking other desires' is a clear reference to the goal of Buddhist meditation - the suppression of all desire. There is no wisdom outside of Christ. And to seek to fulfill the true meaning of the Kyokushin Way suggests a religious enterprise. Why? Kyokushin means "The way of ultimate truth."

The instructor herself has reinterpreted the meaning of the oath to cleanse it of its original intended meaning. She sees the Kyokushin way, for example, as describing what has gone before in the oath. Strength and wisdom are only being sought for the practice of karate. And 'the not seeking other desires' means not desiring to hurt somebody. But this revisionism will not do. The original intended meaning is still espoused in the literature that the students read if they are interested in progress in karate. And while someone could conceivably rationalise all the symbolism and meaning of terms and the underlying religious nature of the whole exercise, it would be a very difficult task to do so with any intellectual honesty and consistency.

One of the reasons for this is the bowing to the Shinzen at the beginning and end of the training sessions. The Shinzen is the shrine and is found on the dojo walls in Japan. Here, in New Zealand, the Shinzen is a symbol and perhaps the name of the dojo. The symbol is a kunku or a stylised representation of a kata - joined hands pointed towards the sky and the Japanese calligraphy or kanji which reads "The way of ultimate truth." There are also photos of instructors and trainees on the wall.

When you bow to the front wall and the Shinzen, you bow to these things, ideas and representations. You are making an acknowledgement of respect for these things. What then is being acknowledged in this posture of bowing? Like previous explanations the 'respect' is being shown to the concept of the dojo and to the style of karate and to the instructors.

While the instructor I spoke to said that they did not teach 'ultimate truth', this idea of respect to a concept whose English meaning is the 'way of ultimate truth' seems to me to be a religious idea. You are bowing to a representation of ultimate truth even if that concept is transcribed or translated into more culturally acceptable ideas like 'ultimate truth = whatever that means for themselves.' God is ultimate truth. It is significant too that the words 'way, truth and life' are part of the vocabulary of karate. In contradiction to karate, Christianity makes the exclusive claim that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life.

To bow to any other concept of ultimate truth is idolatry - a clear breaking of the first and second commandments.

The buddhist concept of zazen is translated as focus and concentration. Mokuso is practised and just means to close the eyes and concentrate on breathing and is just a form of relaxation after training.

The concept of hara is known by the higher grade students but not generally used. Ki is thought to come from the vicinity of the Hara, but is not emphasised. Ki ai is used to gain maximum strength out of a technique and she understands this to be purely natural.

The word do on the end of karate is not used. Students just learn that karate means 'empty hand.'

The instructor said that she saw karate as more than a sport, it was a way of life. Later she qualified this by saying that it was a way of life in the sense that it was an important part of her life. She said karate did not help to explain the world to her, but instead helped her understand the way she worked as a person. She seems, then, to use karate to help define her personhood and clarify her concept of self. It helps her to balance her life. But she probably means just like any sport would.

Is there room for the influence of the Japanese religious principles that undergird pure karate in the life of a student? The answer must be yes. Because of the symbolism, the bowing and other terminology and ideas that are still the current vocabulary of karate in New Zealand, but also because of the books that interested student are pointed to. This club lends those who want to borrow a book and do further reading, Budo karate of Mas Oyama by Cameron Quin. This contains the underlying philosophy or religious principles of the founder - Zen Buddhism. Children as young as five and people in their 60s practice karate in this club.

(Next month we will continue our examination of karate in New Zealand and notice the pervasive paganism that has always been attached to martial arts, continues in its modern Western variety.)


Karate a religion or just good healthy exercise? (3).

Last month we concluded with a look at three local karate clubs. In the conclusion of this insight into karate, we continue to notice the pervasive presence and influence of crass paganism.

Martial Arts Supplies

The major supplier of martial arts equipment in New Zealand is based in Wellington so I visited Martial Arts Supplies in Dixon St and spoke to the manager there, Mr Bruce Thomson. He teaches self-defense at the university and is familiar with the martial arts scene. Entering the shop you are aware that this is martial arts territory. The symbols of yin and yang (the symbol of tao/dao), for example, appear on shirts and badges for sale, along with various weapons and other equipment.

The manager did not believe marital arts had any religious connotations in New Zealand and observed that they often practised in church halls.

Many Wellington clubs advertised in the shop and the posters made a number of claims. One karate club, for example, promised that you would learn something about yourself and develop relationships. The Zen da kei (Way of Zen school) promises self-esteem, confidence building, among other physical skills.

They had sold out of the Cameron Quin book, mentioned above and also their most popular book, describing the style and philosophy of Bruce Lee the dead film star who did so much to popularise martial arts. These books do go into the buddhist/taost teaching underlying modern martial arts.

He noted that people got involved in martial arts because of the influence of the movies. Many dropped out, but some got hooked on the sport. He sees martial arts purely as a sport or self defense.


Television and movies involving martial arts are extremely popular among children and adults. These movies and videos glamorise violence and are what motivates many to want to take up martial arts. It is clearly a false idea that says practising martial arts will not encourage violence. Its popularity is fed by violence, its teaching is specifically aimed at scoring blows to an 'invisible' opponent, who becomes very visible in tournaments which allow bodily contact. It promotes the macho image that the best way to solve problems is to have the physical resources to gain power over others, whether the 'art' is used for that process or not.

The influence of books

The influence of books cannot be under-estimated. The books that we have referred to are commonly available from book shops and libraries.

One likely protestation to the thesis that I am presenting occurs to me. I have already touched on this, but the common apologetic from the karate instructors that I have interviewed is that they are really only involved in teaching physical activities and their design is neither spiritual or moral.

An interesting book on karate, found in our public libraries, has the imposing title, "The Martial Spirit an introduction to the origin, philosophy, and psychology of the martial arts."

The Author Herma Kauz first published this book in 1977. This 1991 reprint has been in constant demand since its installation in the Auckland public library. Since 1993 there have been 30 withdrawals. Clearly there is a market for books that suggest that there is more to karate than merely physical exercises. Those interested in karate are often also interested in the spiritual promises represented by the martial arts ethos. In his summary and conclusion, Kauz writes that there are a number of benefits that arise from the study of martial arts. He notes the physical benefits. He notes that a skill is learnt. He observes that the skill achieved gives one a feeling of self-worth. He say, "We begin to feel that we are all right" (p.130). Apparently the martial art's student also experiences growth of self-understanding and an increased knowledge of others.

He goes onto say,

"We also become aware of the value of employing a more intuitive way of relating to life than has been the custom of our society. Aspects of our training are designed to encourage the growth and the use of this faculty by relaxing or giving reduced play (my emphasis) to the logical, analytical portion of the mind." He says that logical reasoning is not negated, "....However, this capacity is not permitted to occupy the whole field to the extent that we ignore or are frightened or are suspicious of information about ourselves or others that comes from other levels or areas of the mind (my emphasis)"(p.130).

The thing sought is also to be able to focus the mind on each passing moment. Thoughts of past and future are said to be usually irrelevant and will inhibit action. "Moreover, conscious or analytical thoughts at such times block or distort the freshness of the moment."

This auto-soterism or self-salvation promoted by martial arts teachers is nothing less than a full blown religion. Like the Buddhism that spawned it, karate holds out the promise of a 'way' to happiness and fulfilment. This method is to be able to empty your mind of all thought and concentrate on the one thing you are doing. For many hours per week, the one thing you are doing is practising your kata or karate movements.

But I know some would argue that "I'm just not interested in this self-improvement stuff that is meant to give me meaning in life, through karate." But hear what Kauz has to say,

" But even if our conscious thoughts have not gone in the direction described above, beyond perhaps a vague unease with the progress of events in our world, when we embark seriously on the kind of training described we begin a slow change in our life (p. 135)."

He gives as a 'for instance' that we will become less materialistic. He describes this in terms of lack of attachment to materialism. He asks,

"To ask that we in the West alter our thinking about Nature (Note the capital N) from an emphasis on manipulation to an attempt at achieving greater harmony is probably unrealistic (p. 139)."

But clearly this buddhist goal is what martial arts is meant to achieve.

He further pontificates that we feel we need to add something to our lives because we sense that we lack something. But the path of martial arts makes us realize,

"that we are all right just as we are." And he continues, "If we fail to move beyond the illusion that adding something to what we are will make us whole, we will be engaged in an endless search. We will find that the acquisition of the hoped for object or attribute has failed to change us in the way we thought it would. Our search then continues. We are unaware that we were and are complete without adding or changing anything......we are engaged in an exciting and joyous activity -being alive (p.140)."

His concluding paragraph on page 141 must be quoted.

"Why then study martial arts? Aside from having elements that can that can enhance the quality of our life, this form of training can bring us to a sense of our wholeness. This sense or realization will probably begin as an intellectualization. Internalising this idea, making it a part of ourselves, takes time and needs work. The realization, once it appears, is like a small seedling that must be nurtured until it grows strong in us. continued training provides the reinforcement necessary for the proper growth."

In his chapter on the philosophy of martial arts, he lists six ideas that are present to some degree in all martial arts. Respect for life and nature; wu wei or non-action; moderation and balance; education for training character; filial piety and conformity to the social order; transcendental spirit and enlightenment (p.95ff). The book is a clear attempt to encourage this spiritual journey in Western man. Those who accept such ideas, participate in martial arts clubs and who rub shoulders with others less interested in the esoteric side of martial arts, nevertheless are there as an influence. Overt practitioners of another religion are in the dojos of New Zealand karate clubs as well.

Practising karate changes your perception of reality

If Kauz is correct, the movements of the martial arts are designed to enable an internal change of perception of reality, from a Western one to an Eastern one. We have seen that he says that this happens even if the practitioner is not consciously striving for this change. The exercises were designed by religious devotees to this end. Some have suggested that the altered state of consciousness brought about by the repetitive katas or exercises are what enables this change of perspective. It may well be that the effect is similar to hypnosis and other forms of Eastern meditation where the mind is emptied and the spirit is then more susceptible to demonic influence. Clearly if the claims of Kauz and others for martial arts are correct, then a spiritual change away from a Christian world and life view is taking place.

On page 66, Kauz says (and remember, he says these things happen even though the martial artist is not conscious that it is beginning to happen),

"As this sort of practice exerts its influence, the student may alter his method of viewing and solving the problems of daily life. For example, he might begin to admit the possibility of psychic or clairvoyant ability. He might even visit a psychic when he seeks a solution to an important problem..... increased recognition of the existence and usefulness of mind processes that were earlier thought fantasy or of limited use might turn the student toward such methods of divination as the I Ching (An ancient Chinese religious book)....Other members of the occult fraternity, such as a astrologers, graphologists and hand analysts, also can help the serious seeker after self-knowledge to see aspects of his character that wishful thinking or inattention might have obscured."

These are not isolated claims by any means.Bishop, the author of Okinawan Karate records that the karate katas were " a whole meditative process in themselves (p.130)." Bishop quotes Higa also on page 107 that he had learned the following from a student of Itosu...."Katas are Zen in motion." Bishop further records,

" Miyazato taught me that karate and meditation go hand in hand and he named four types of the latter: sitting (or kneeling), standing, lying down and moving. Karate should be moving meditation. This attitude, plus the presence of the dojo shrine, gave the teaching a semi religious element. Likewise sanchin and tensho katas equal Zen ­ these katas are the most important aspect of his Goju­ryu (p.33)."

That the Devil is using martial arts to invade the minds of earnest seekers and athletes can hardly be denied. This man speaks from experience of the power of the application of martial arts to change a person, to become one who seeks direction from Satan.

The Karate Catechism

If someone came to give a talk to a christian youth club to tell them about a new sport, how would they be received I wonder?

Suppose it was explained that the new sport originated in Asia. Its roots were in three religious systems, Buddhism, Shintoism and Taoism.

It was a sport that trained a person to such a degree that they could kill with one blow to the right part of the body.

The terms used in the sport were metaphysical and religious terms that were passed down from the early formation of the sport in the early to mid 20th century.

The exponents of the sport have a lot of contact with the sport in the country of origin. In the training halls of that country religious shrines encasing gods are evident on the wall and the students there bow to these shrines. A form of meditation occurs after each training session in this country of origin, and the instructors explain that the sport itself is not only about the physical side, but the spiritual side of man. The sport will help you to find reality which is really to discover your oneness with nature and so realize that all is God - pantheism in other words.

As well as this there are many books about this sport in shops and libraries around New Zealand which teach the spiritual side of this sport.

But the exponent of the sport wants to assure your youth group that there is nothing religious about the sport as it has been adapted to the New Zealand scene.

It is true that the New Zealand clubs who practice the sport do some of the things that they do in the country of origin where it still has a religious side, but these actions, although identical are not involved with religion in New Zealand.

For example the bowing is not the bowing to a god in New Zealand. It is true that in some New Zealand clubs, students do bow towards a shrine encasing a god, but that was just a gift from the country of origin and it doesn't mean anything. It is also true that in other training halls students bow to a symbol or the name of the particular branch of the sport and to the instructor. Some just bow towards the front wall where there are flags and photos. But his bowing isn't about religion at all. No it is about showing respect to the sport and to the place where the sport is practised. It is true that the bowing is still to the front wall, which has a religious connotation in the country of origin, but here it just means bowing to the system. The bowing to the front wall is just tradition from a New Zealand point of view.

And what I mean about bowing towards a symbol as a system or style is that I want to show respect for that system or style. What do I mean by system and style? Well I mean my legs and arms and body move in a particular way when I am doing the sport and I want to bow down to that. And I am also paying respect to my instructor and to the founder of the style - most likely a buddhist or taoist as well as a shintoist.

It is true that there are certain things that we do that are the same as what they do in the country of origin which they explain in religious terms, but we explain them in natural terms.

We don't see them as supernatural like they do, but we still practice the breathing and the concentration techniques as they do.

It is true that there are some in this new sport and related to it who see it in their original religious terms and even teach that here in New Zealand. And you will come into contact with these people when you go to competitions.

There are several books that I want to recommend to you. Many of the books contain the religious ideas of the sport that are still relevant to the country of origin. It is true that some of these books are modern books and have been written by Westerners who agree with the religious ideas and do promote this other religion in their books. But you can just skip those and look at the exercises and take their advice on how to do the exercises, even though their advice is meant to help you achieve a religious state of realizing that ultimate reality is found in emptiness.

What I am asking your youth group to do is to come down to the training hall, just ignore the shrine and the symbols on the front wall when you bow towards the front wall and begin to learn this sport. And Oh I nearly forgot I would like you to send your four and five year old brothers and sisters too. Of course they wont know that they are bowing to a shrine and they wont be able to read the books that push the religious side of the sport - yet.

It is true that this sport will equip you with the ability to kill or maim a person. But it is really about teaching you to be non-aggressive and calm and in control. I know that most of the people that come along come because they have seen this sport in the movies and the video games and television and that they just want to be able to kill people too or at least be able to show off. But even though you will be mixing with these people and some of the people who think the religious side is important they wont have any influence on you.

But just suppose that your youth group has some mature young Christians in it who want to challenge this visitor and so they proceed to question the enthusiastic visitor.

Questions from the youth club.

Question 1. I can't see how I could as a christian come into a training hall like this with a shrine or a symbol that you are bowing to, because of the teaching of the Bible?

Karate instructor. Well we are very broad-minded down at the club and we wont mind if you don't bow to the idol, even though we really would like you to bow to the instructor.

Youth. But isn't the instructor standing in front of the front wall which itself is religiously important in the sport back in Asia and which contains photos, flags or a pagan shrine with an idol? or a symbol which means 'Ultimate truth'?

KI. Well, that's true but just pretend when you are doing this bowing that you are just showing respect to me a non-religious expert in the sport and the particular 'school' or system we practice.

Youth (To himself. I wonder why Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego didn't think of that and bowed down to the golden statue of Nebuchednezzar? They ended up in a fiery furnace. They really put themselves to a lot of grief. Dan 3:12.)

Question 2. But isn't this training hall named after the temple room where the original practitioners of the sport did their exercises, the same ones we do? And effectively isn't this a copy of that room in the temple?

karate instructor. Well, yes that is true, but we don't think of it as a temple here, even though others bow towards the shrine on the wall and the symbols on the front wall and the photographs of the founder.

Youth. In their bowing to these symbols and shrines aren't these people breaking the commandment in the Bible that says you are not to make images and bow down to them or anything at all in the heavens, on the earth or in the water under the earth? (Exodus 20:1-6)

KI. Yes I know what you mean. That is one of the Ten Commandments is it not? But even if these other people are bowing down to these things and thereby breaking the commandment of your religion, you don't need to do you, as I have already said - except I would like you to bow to me even while I am standing by the front wall and everyone else is bowing down to the symbols and things as well as me.

Youth. But the Bible says that I am not allowed to go into a place where idol worship is taking place and participate in such worship - even if I dismiss those idols as no gods at all?

KI. I'm not quite sure what you are referring to. You see I haven't got a Bible at home and I have never opened one.

Youth. I know I'm supposed to be asking the questions, but can I refer you to 1 Corinthians, a letter in the New Testament. Some one will lend you a Bible so you can follow me. In chapter 10 Paul is addressing the question as to whether it was OK for the early Christians to go into the pagan temples and join in their eating the sacrificial meal. In verses 19 - 22, Paul warns the Corinthians that they are not allowed to do this. The reason he gives is that demons are involved. He makes it plain that we must avoid any contamination by these demons. He says that it is definitely wrong to drink the cup of demons and partake of the Lord's supper. And the reason he appends is that we will provoke God's anger. And we must certainly be destroying the unity of the Christians who fellowship around the table, by contaminating them with our evil.

But he even goes further than this and in the verse 23-33 shows that to even to partake of the sacrificed food in the homes of unbelievers, if we know it has been sacrificed to idols, is illegal too. And the reason for this is that we will not be seeking our own neighbours good, because we will appear to be tacitly approving of his pagan religion.

KI. Yes I see what it says here. So that means that you shouldn't come to my sport's club because you may be preventing me from coming to Christ. Thank you for witnessing to me in this way. I see that your 'way' seems to give you more certainty than the karate way. I have to admit that I began this sport because I felt inadequate. And somehow, the answers that karate promised me are not there. Perhaps you will let me take this Bible home?

Well, what are we to conclude about our survey of martial arts?

1. It is clear that the martial arts derive from religious systems foreign to Christianity. The key promoters of karate, in their books, do see karate as more than a sport. Indeed they see it in religious terms.

2. The karate instructors here in New Zealand, who I spoke to, deny any religious association, but agree that some get drawn into delving into the traditional (ie. religious) side of karate-do.

3. The majority of New Zealanders involved in karate probably see it as just another sport.

4. The religious roots of karate are still evident in the rituals, the clothing and the dojo or room where the karate takes place. I cite the presence of an actual shrine complete with idol in one major dojo in Lower Hutt. The major force in karate in New Zealand also has symbols which represent the concept of their particular school - in this case 'the way of ultimate truth'. Trainees bow towards these objects and symbols or to the front wall or to the instructor as a part of their karate. This bowing is explained away as merely showing respect to the dojo, the system of karate, the instructor or the founder. The powerful symbolism in these actions cannot be quite so easily swept away. Certainly a 4 or 5 year old would interpret such an attitude of homage differently than a cynical adult. The children, then, are trained from this early age to bow down to representations of gods or concepts. This can only be interpreted as bowing to idols - even if those idols have been sanitised in secular New Zealand. There is still a submission to an idea, a concept and a tradition that is grounded and rooted in Oriental religious systems.

If bowing is not related to its original purpose, that is deference to shinto or buddhist gods, then why do it in New Zealand? In saying that bowing is something that is not done according to its original purpose, then why continue it? It cannot then be said to be done for tradition, because the tradition is denied.

5. Children are influenced at a young age to get involved in karate. Christians are to be examples to others. Bowing in a dojo to a symbol or a shrine or an instructor or concept is hardly a good example to others. It is tacitly supporting the underlying philosophy of karate.

6. Many of the instructors and trainees spend much time in Japan or China. There they imbibe the more blatant religious ideals of karate so obviously promoted in books written by Westerners and aimed at New Zealand Martial artists. Inevitably the training in Japan with all its associated paganism and pantheism will have some impact on the way they relate karate to their own world view.

7. The people who write the books, many of the books for sale at karate clubs and shops or available from libraries, teach the religious side of karate as an important component.

8. A practitioner of karate breaks the first two commandments of the law. If he refuses to bow he still disobeys the Word of God by participating in religious activity in a pagan temple. Where others are bowing to idols, a pagan temple exists.

9. The dojo kun (vow or oath) that karate devotees state in some clubs is also idolatry. We read of God's judgement on the children of Israel in Jeremiah, because of their vow offered to 'the Queen of Heaven.' (Isaiah 44:24-30). To swear fealty to a principle, a system or to metaphysical concepts, whose roots are firmly planted in pagan religion, is to commit idolatry as Israel did.


Karate is a religious system, which maintains its links in a variety of ways with the Eastern religious practitioners who spawned it. These links include widely available books, visiting and resident teachers, idols and terminology and the same exercises designed as meditative techniques which worked to develop occultic powers.

On the basis of the jealousy of God, it is illegitimate for His people to participate in this crass paganism.

The Christian firstly must consider his duty to serve only God.

Secondly he must be an example to other Christians in the way he conducts his life. This cannot include the participation in karate. His example is seen by covenant children and new Christians who may easily follow the false path of syncretism with pagan religions that karate represents

Finally he must consider the message participation in karate gives to the unbelievers outside Christ who devote their time and energy to this ancient paganism. In sanctioning their evil and in participating in it, he further contributes to their condemnation. No thinking Christian can justify participation in martial arts.