What’s your hurry? It’s not like you’re ever going to finish… (or, Why karate is better than school).

‘Kyu do mu gen’                             ~ Investigating the Way is endless

It often seems to me that the popular western view of education, which is one of accumulation and attainment of educational status, makes a poor bedfellow with the idea of a ‘Way’ in karate or any martial art.  Indeed the sale of karate ‘education’ and its emphasis on the provision of an educational service reinforces the view that some product should be acquired by the student (e.g. Black Belt, great personal confidence, the ability to defeat an attacker), and a failure to acquire these implies some fault in the teacher.  Perhaps so, but I am recently reminded by conversations with karateka who I hold in very high regard that even if a teacher can point to the ‘Way’, the students has to embark on it without being pushed or cajoled.  All too frequently I see students drill themselves to ‘learn’ a kata, even to a reasonably good standard, only to achieve the ‘goal’ of that kata (i.e. pass their next grading) and cease practicing it.  To me this seems counter productive – like learning to recite Plato’s ‘Republic’ beautifully – without ever actually considering the arguments encoded within it, and then calling myself a philosopher, when in reality I am merely a performer (albeit a good one).

In this mindset, three meters of black ribbon becomes a goal in itself; a ‘destination’.  To my mind, this imposition of the popular view of western education on karate is incompatible with any ‘Way’ and is to be discouraged. It is not karate. I’m not even sure it is education.

The Modern Reader’s Japanese English Character dictionary (Nelson, 2004) defines the kanji for ‘do’ (WAY) as representing a ‘Path’, ‘Road’, ‘Journey’, ‘Course’, but also ‘Duty’, and ‘Morality’. Nothing in there about attainment.

In addition to a means of self-defense, the Empty Hand Way provides the dedicated exponent with a means of transcending daily cares, ego and attachments through immersion in the practice as an end in itself via the ‘ecstasy of sweat’ (Shoshin Nagamine). The Way also provides us with a code of conduct and an ethical structure by which to conduct our business, social exchanges and daily lives. In short, a path to enlightenment. While Karate is a self-defense system, ‘Do’ adds a holistic, self-developmental aspect, a Way of Being in the world. The lessons learned in the dojo; simplicity, patience, humility, and steely tenacity can, and should, permeate every corner of our lives. One might play basketball, but one is a karateka (or not).  Just about everybody used to ‘do’ karate.

So, unlike school, where we are encouraged to concentrate on the benefits we will enjoy as a result of (and at the end of) our labours, the study of karate-do is a reward in and of itself; a means to daily contentment.  The study is the reward, the lifestyle is the benefit, the balance that it brings (or should bring) is the ‘pay-off’. Unlike school, in the dojo the test often comes first, and the lesson is learned afterwards.  My grandmother would often say experience is that thing you get right after you needed it!  These are the lessons rarely forgotten, and used each day.

Paradoxically, the path to enlightenment as a definition does suggest a destination. However, one who has attained enlightenment through the study of the martial arts would not simply cease to practice their art in the same way that one who has arrived home might cease walking (Musashi, 1645; Vellucci, 2008). Practitioners of Karate-do, or any art that has at its heart the development of the character of its participants, come to understand that the Way is the destination, the destination is the Way.

I am reminded of an interview with celebrity chef Nigella Lawson. The interviewer posed a question. “Nigella, you studied Medieval Languages at University. Had much call for it?” Of course his question implied that — as she never landed a job concerning the topic — she had wasted her time.  Without missing a beat Ms Lawson replied, “Well, that’s a vulgar way to think about education”.

Perhaps Ms Lawson knows something.  Instead of imposing a ‘vulgar’ view of education onto karate, perhaps we might do well to apply the ‘Way’ to our approach to other facets of our life, including our family, doing the dishes, calculus, english, and even medieval languages.  To do anything else might cause us to miss the essentials – and the best parts of the karate that was handed down to us.

Happy practicing!


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