December 27, 2013

Kara and Ku: Emptying the Mind

JKA line up right to left

More than 200 years ago, the Zen master, Kosen, wrote the calligraphy for
"The First Principle" on a large scroll. This scroll was used by carpenters
to trace the characters on a large piece of wood, which was then etched and
draped over the gate of the Obaku temple in Kyoto. This plaque still hangs
over the temple gate today, and is often referred to by modern calligraphers
as "the great masterpiece."

When Kosen was working on the original calligraphy, one of his senior
students, an audacious lad who thought more of himself than others, happened to pass by. Examining Kosen's work, he boldly proclaimed it "terrible" and "unfit as a pattern for a plaque."
Somewhat irritated by the criticism, Kosen tried again.
"Awful," said the student. "The first one was better."
In a controlled rage, Kosen proceeded to produce character after character,
until more than 80 large sheets of paper lay scattered about, none of which
was good enough to receive the approval of the student.
Driven to the brink of distraction by the young man's impertinence, Kosen's
calligraphy began to look amateurish.
"I can't take it any more," sighed the student. "I'm going out for a drink
of water, and then I'll be back."
"Now's my chance," thought Kosen. "I'll do this calligraphy without that
young smart-aleck's approval!" Turning to the paper, Kosen dipped his brush
in the ink, and with a mind completely free from the distraction of his
pupil, quickly wrote, "The First Principle."
Just then the student returned. Looking at the calligraphy, he bowed deeply
to Kosen, saying, "That is a great masterpiece!"
This famous story of Kosen and "The First Principle" has probably been told
by more Zen masters to their pupils than any other over the past 200 years.
This is not surprising, since it is a simple and perfect illustration of
mushin-the clear, empty, unaffected state of mind sought after by devotees
of Zen. In a state of mushin, it is said, one can respond naturally to any
situation or action, intuitively feeling the true sense of the situation or
act, without consciously thinking about it.
For the samurai warriors, the idea of responding naturally, calmly, and
efficiently from a mind unencumbered by distractions or thoughts of fear,
was obviously a very attractive idea. It enabled them to face their enemies
boldly and, they believed, to move in accord with the flow of the universe.
In short, it made them invincible.
When Gichin Funakoshi was about to pass on, he left his pupils with 20
precepts which, he told them, contained all the "secrets" of karate. What
his followers have learned is that the 20 precepts are timeless, sometimes
confusing, and always challenging. Funakoshi, of course, is the man who
lived his life by the motto, "The ultimate aim of the art of karate lies not
in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its
Clearly, Funakoshi intended for his followers to seek deeper meanings in
their art, and not to be satisfied with mere physical skill. His precept,
Kokoro wa hanatan koto wo yosu, or, "Always be ready to release your mind," is a good illustration of one of the "secrets" of karate-do which is not
always evident in modern tournaments and exhibitions. It is, like the story
of Kosen, an illustration of "The First Principle."
Prior to 1936, the Japanese characters representing karate were written with
a character for kara that could also be pronounced "T'ang" or "to," and
referred to the T'ang dynasty of China. Te means "hands." Thus, karate was
the art of "Chinese hands." But Funakoshi decided that the Okinawans had
been too anxious to call the art Chinese, and that now it was clearly
Japanese in nature. In addition, Funakoshi steadfastly maintained that
karate was a do, a path to follow for a correct, rewarding, and fulfilling
In an effort to correct the misinterpretation of karate as a Chinese art and
at the same time to more clearly indicate the nature of the art as a way of
life, Funakoshi changed the character for kara from T'ang to ku. Ku is also
pronounced kara, and is found in the Hannya Shingyo, a Buddhist sutra
containing the phrase, Shiki soku ze ku, ku soku ze shiki. In this phrase is
contained the essence of karate-do, the way of life of the empty hand.
Literally, it means "Form becomes emptiness, emptiness becomes form."
Shiki is the visible, physical form of a thing. It is the outward appearance
of anything, such as a technique or a kata.
Ku is a term similar to the mu of mushin, and it means "emptiness." But mu
is a specific term relating to the thinking processes of the mind, while ku
refers more generally to the state of being, without any regard to form. Ku
acknowledges existence, but describes an absence of form in that existence.
Ku is difficult to describe, but easy to feel. For example, as we go about
our daily business, concentrating on our work or studies or whatever, there
is a larger process occurring all around us, which we never examine, but
which we notice and accept. That larger process is the change of seasons. As
spring turns to summer, the weather becomes warmer, and one day we notice that it is uncomfortably hot outside. As summer turns to fall and then
winter, we become aware of the changes in temperature, and suddenly we
realize that it is cold. If we go to bed on a clear night, we may be
surprised to awaken in the morning and learn that a heavy snow has fallen.
This change from season to season is ku; the seasons and the changes clearly exist, but they do not rely on conscious action. We do not contribute to the changes of season with our consciousness, nor are the seasons themselves "aware" of their own changes. The process of change from one season to another has no shiki, no visible form, but this process still clearly
In karate-do, the meaning of kara (ku) is the same. For example, when
students first learn a kata, they must concentrate on the movements,
immersing themselves completely in conscious attention to every detail. A
great deal of conscious thought is required, and complete attention must be
given to shiki, the physical form of the kata. After many repetitions,
however, the students do not consciously think so much about the physical
nature of the movements; the movements become more natural, and the body remembers the sequence. The form (shiki) is becoming emptiness (ku). Shiki soku ze ku.
After thousands of repetitions (Funakoshi believed that at least three years
of solid practice was necessary to master a kata), the kata becomes part of
the nature of the student. When we watch masters perform a kata, we
sometimes feel that they are moving in another plane of existence. They are no longer doing the kata; the kata is "doing itself" on their body. No
conscious thought is given to the physical form of the kata. This complete
emptiness (ku) is the same emptiness involved in the change of seasons. No conscious thought is involved, and the shiki (the different seasons or the
techniques of the kata) is expressed through this emptiness. Ku soku ze
In the kata, Kanku Dai, the first movements are visual representations of
shiki soku ze ku, ku soku ze shiki. The hands move together and raise above the head to look at the sky, then break apart, moving in a wide arc to come together again in front of the center of the body. Together they are form; apart they are emptiness. Then they come back together. Form becomes emptiness, emptiness becomes form.
In the Zen tradition, pupils are taught that shiki soku ze ku, ku soku ze
shiki means that positive becomes negative, hot becomes cold, gain becomes loss, and so on. The phrase is an exposition on the belief that the universe is dynamically balanced and in a constant state of flow between its
In karate-do, the expression of form through emptiness can only be found in the process of repeated performance of the techniques. Modern fighters are often heard to say, "Practice this or that technique until it becomes 'your
second nature.'" But in its ultimate manifestation, the technique that has
been practiced thousands of times is not a "second nature" technique at all.
It is, in fact, an outward representation (shiki) of the manifestation of
the emptiness (ku) of the performer. Ku soku ze shiki.
The benefit of this state of mind in free sparring, or in a real fight, is
that the mind does not have to think about the situation nor devise a
strategy for one kind of opponent or another. Indeed, in time of crisis,
students who have trained rigorously to achieve this state will simply
"release their mind," throwing out all conscious thoughts, allowing the
techniques they have practiced so often to be performed through their body.
No matter what the opponent does, the response of the student will be proper and strong, and it will often appear that the response comes before the attack. We have all heard about masters who "seem to know what I'm going to do before I do it," and shiki soku ze ku, ku soku ze shiki is the reason.
We can no more successfully attack such a person than we can stop the snow
from falling by punching at the sky.
It is impossible to attack emptiness.
This article is written by Randall G. Hassell, copyright 2006. 
All rights reserved. Available at:
Sensei Hassell is also the chief instructor of the American Shotokan Karate Alliance:

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