The Unexpected Gift of Karate
Can learning to punch and kick bring you closer to your true self – even to God? It’s a secret the Shaolin monks knew fourteen hundred years ago. And it’s changing lives today.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2001 issue of Spirituality & Health.
Physically I have always been an exercise-avoiding wuss. Yet all my life I have been drawn to Eastern traditions, including the martial arts, and when the chance to study karate dropped into my lap, in the form of a month’s free lessons won at a PTA fundraiser, I jumped at the chance. I studied, taking two or three one-hour classes a week for three years, gradually working my way up to the green belt, about a third of the way to the coveted black. At first I was a timid, weepy little thing, afraid of “flunking” class. Gradually, though, the karate worked its unique magic on me, and I was drawn into this amazing art form — created, it is said, in 400 B.C. as exercise for Buddhist monks. I got stronger physically, yes. But there was something else going on. There were more lessons to come.
First, however, my dojo closed abruptly. For months I shopped around, experimenting with different schools and styles — there are dozens — and finally found another school that felt right. Sensei Jason Hoffman is my new teacher; Tiger Schulman’s School of Karate in Middletown, New Jersey is my new karate home.
Oh, it’s good to be back. Sure, my excitement is about physical fitness. It’s also very much about the obvious: self-protection. There’s profound security in knowing how to protect yourself. I used to pray to be shielded from all hurt. Later I came to understand that my higher power has given me the capacity to create my own life, and to protect and defend it. When I hone self-defense techniques, I am becoming God’s hands in my own life.
Karate by design develops inner strength, above and beyond an average workout. You take a choreographed practice punch or a fall in karate class and you survive. You take a shot outside the dojo (of criticism, at work, say) and you’re more resilient. A model of toughness has been patterned in your mind. “After taking hundreds of falls and surviving, you become like a superhero,” explains Jerry L. Beasley, Ph.D., associate professor of physical and health education at Radford University and an accomplished martial artist. There is a dimension to that strength that’s beyond the confidence you gain from other types of exercise, says Beasley. Because karate necessarily involves a victor and a vanquished, the dynamic is unique. “You present yourself as a target freely to a potentially lethal blow,” he says. “This demonstrates trust.”
Karate makes you face your shadows. The tears I shed early on were from fear — of the fierce side of my God-given nature. I remember asking my first Sensei about anger: “Is it good to bring it?” “No,” he said sharply. “Anger has no part in karate. But,” he added, “Passion is good.” Until that moment, I hadn’t thought of them as different. That lesson learned, I was less afraid.
Karate blows you right by the Western mind–body schism. When I am lost to the moment, when I totally submit myself to the drills, I am most out of my ego. I feel one with myself, with my body, and with my God. In my old school, this oneness happened most often through sparring. (In the new one, sparring doesn’t happen until you reach intermediate level.) There are no half measures there. If you lose your concentration, you lose your chance to get off your best punch, kick, or block. “On the mat the students’ attitude must be what is known as the state of muga, that is, an absence of feeling that ‘I am doing it,”’ says Chuck Norris, martial artist and actor, in The Secret Power Within: Zen Solutions to Real Problems (Little Brown, 1996).
This doesn’t happen right away. It happens only after you’ve practiced a move over and over until it’s installed in your cells, and your muscles remember it without your conscious mind engaging. Just the other day I was practicing a three-part self-defense move. My partner — playing my attacker — lunged for me. And I reacted without thinking. It was a sublime moment of muga. It’s that state of union of mind, body, and spirit that, it seems to me, makes me closest to my true self, and thus, closest to God.
It may sound paradoxical — even offensive — to say that I draw closer to God by learning to fight. But knowing violent moves makes me ever more peaceful and peaceable. Stronger. More dignified. Karate is something I learn to do so I don’t have to do it. “By the time you’ve reached black belt you’ve vanquished thousands of imaginary opponents,” says Dr. Beasley. “You can walk away from conflict. You’ve already proved yourself.”
Sensei Jason Hoffman, a third-degree black belt and owner of my school, tells of a time a guy — a big guy — threatened him outside the dojo. Hoffman, who weighs in at about 125, replied: “You think I’m afraid of you because you’re bigger than me?” That was the end of the potential fight. “He knew I knew something,” says Hoffman. “And whatever it was, he didn’t want to tangle with it.” Beasley even says he finds that out of the pseudo-violence comes a deeper compassion. “Over a period of time, visualizing yourself being violent to another person, you take on that person’s pain. And you become less likely to strike out at others.”
Karate discipline can be intimidating. There are prescriptions for everything from how to greet each other to how to leave the mat. There are rituals — you bow entering and leaving the dojo. You begin each class with a meditation. When you pair off for tandem exercises, you bow to each other before you begin. At my dojo, we greet each other with a strong “Osu!” (a respectful greeting with no direct English translation).
At first I thought I’d hate all those rules. But this is not the principal’s office. This is a solid, efficient protocol to bring order and dignity to the hour we’ll spend together. I submit to it voluntarily, as (on a good day!) I submit to God’s will. I bow to Sensei Hoffman because I admire and respect him not only as a martial artist but as a person (of course, those two things truly are one). I bow to fellow students to honor them — and myself. It’s a cleansing act.
Karate training is like no other learning I’ve ever done. It not only requires you to build on what you know, instead of memorizing and regurgitating, it comes with a powerful philosophy that, as a white belt (I started over at my new school) I’m only beginning to understand. Sensei Hoffman often delivers an inspiring homily as we stretch at the end of class. The messages are simple: Just when you feel ready to give up, focus on your goals, whatever they might be — a stronger physique, relief of stress, more knowledge. One time, when our responses to his directives were lackluster — we’re supposed to yell “Os, Sensei!” each time — he talked about how this is necessary to keep us focused.
But his most vivid messages come from his example. I have never seen him angry. I have never seen him lose his temper or his patience. He always conducts himself with dignity and cordiality. And he is truly humble — always open, as much student as teacher. Best of all, he smiles — a lot. My karate, at its best, is joyful. It’s rich and invigorating and holistic.
And karate brings love into your life. Yes, love. “I came to karate to face my fears,”says Terry Grewen, a fellow student who achieved blackbelt last year. “It led me to a spiritual path. First I learned to defend myself. Then I had to decide, Am I worth defending?’ I kept showing up, especially when I felt like it the least, and I got my answer. And the answer is love.” The opposite of fear is not absence of fear, but love. Faith. God as you understand God.
Does every karate student see it this way? Of course not. There are as many ways of experiencing karate as there are students. Karate, says Sensei Hoffman, is the great leveler. “When you walk out onto the mat, you are all equal as people. Ultimately, it’s not how fast you are or about how high you can kick, it’s about who you are, it’s about being fully yourself.”
Gay Norton Edelman wrote about working with a spiritual director in the Winter 2001 issue of S&H. A senior editor at McCall’s magazine, she has a husband and three sons, and lives and studies karate in New Jersey.
Empty Hands, Strong Hearts: The Origins of Karate
The development of the whole person through the marriage of vigorous physicality and inner discipline has been a part of the martial arts since their origins in antiquity. Karate is believed to date to early Greek civilization, maybe even to ancient Sumeria. We know for certain that a Buddhist priest named Bodhiharma traveled widely, from India to China and then Japan, spreading both Buddhism and a militant style of exercise he had devised. There are many legends about how his teachings became institutionalized. Most of them center on his visit to the Shaolin monks, who, it is said, were so out of shape that they lacked the physical stamina for long hours of meditation. Some sources speculate that karate also gave them a means to defend themselves from bandits and wild animals without using weapons, which they had forsworn — the word "karate" means "empty hands." I believe that while the philosophy of karate borrows from Buddhism, its traditions are so old, deep, and wide that women and men of any faith can find it an amazing tool for all-encompassing personal growth.