To search for the old is to understand the new. The old, the new, this is a matter of time. In all things man must have a clear mind. – Gichin Funakoshi
I tend to not be a very by the book kind of person. My natural tendency is to be open minded, adaptive, and intuitive. That’s a great thing… most of the time. Sometimes, though, it helps to have some general guidelines or ideals that you identify with and try to follow.
As people, we all get involved in a lot of things in life, various sports, hobbies, organizations, etc. One of the things I have been involved with is martial arts. I started taking Traditional Tae Kwon Do on June 27, 1995. I was fourteen years old and had always had an interest in martial arts, primarily from movies and television shows. Like many Americans, I did not know that martial arts was much more than learning a fancy way of fighting with a dash of Eastern mysticism. It turns out that while it does take some practice and instruction, it’s not as complicated as one might initially believe, though it does take a life time to perfect. But the real gem of martial arts is character development, what it teaches you directly and indirectly.
I have respect for all martial arts. Though I only hold a formal rank in Chung Do Kwan Tae Kwon Do, I have cross trained at various times in several other martial arts, some old and some new. One of the arts that I have cross trained in is Shotokan Karate.
Funakoshi Gichin is the founder of Shotokan Karate. Master Funakoshi was a well respected and highly skilled martial artist. And while the contribution he made toward the technical world of martial arts is undeniable, his niju kun, or 20 precepts, are what have impacted me the most.
Shotokan niju kun
1. – Karate-do begins and ends with bowing. – Show respect in all that you do. No, really. Show respect in all that you do. One of the major things lacking in our culture is mutual respect. Respect doesn’t ever mean letting anyone take advantage of you. Respect is a way of relating to the world, a way that allows you to know you treated the other person the way you would like to be treated. You should do this even when the other person doesn’t show respect back to you because, in the end, respect is more about your world view and less about the situation.
2. – There is no first strike in karate. – First and foremost, strive for peace. In traditional martial arts, we are taught that we are to be peace makers. A true martial artist is quick to walk away from a confrontation and slow to speak. A true martial artist seeks first to understand.
3. – Karate stands on the side of justice. – Do what is right, not what is easy or best for you. I truly believe that we reap what we sow, and if we want to be treated fairly when we need the favor of someone or when we have made a mistake in our life, we need to show this same consideration towards others.
4.- First know yourself, then know others. – It’s not what you do but why you do it that is important. Know why you do things. When something happens and you feel a negative response occur within you, stop and try to understand where it came from. If someone else does something wrong or something that offends you, stop and try to see if that thing also exists within you. Many philosophers, spiritual leaders, and psychologists believe what we see in others is what you see in yourself. Often if you are having trouble relating to others it is because you do not have a truly accurate picture of who you are yourself.
5. – Mentality over technique. – Don’t become too narrow minded or dogmatic. Principles and guidelines exist for a reason: they teach you the proper way to do things. But the ultimate goal should be for you to be able to understand why the principles and guidelines were in place so that you can act independently and successfully adapt to any situation.
6. – The heart must be set free. – Be your true-self. You are never going to be happy or at peace trying to be someone or something that you are not. This isn’t an excuse to have low standards but rather a raising of the bar to be the best you that you can be.
7. – Calamity springs from carelessness. – Be vigilant and aware. You don’t need the focus of an air traffic controller 100% of the time, but most of the problems we face in life are things we could have dealt with long before they became the catastrophes that seem to have no answer. Take control of your health and your finances. Take responsibility for your own wellbeing and your own happiness. This is your life and no one can live it but you.
8. – Karate goes beyond the dojo. – Everything you do becomes a part of who you are. We tend to compartmentalize things too much in our lives. The things we learn when working out, taking a test, or writing a report can be applied to other parts of our lives, either directly or indirectly. The discipline you learn by working out daily can be used to control your tongue when someone says something offensive. The knowledge you learned studying for an exam can be used to relate to the complexities of life. A holistic approach towards life is best.
9. – Karate is a lifelong pursuit. – Anything worth doing is worth seeing to the end. While we may not be fully engaged in everything we do for the entirety of our lives, what we learn from it, the connections we make from it, and how it made us grow as a person shouldn’t be lost.
10. – Apply the way of karate to all things. – Therein lies its beauty. Knowledge and wisdom does not benefit you unless you make it a part of the whole. Again, take a holist approach to life. Just like the organs of your body work together to make the whole you, let all your wisdom and knowledge join together to become the whole of your consciousness.
11. – Karate is like boiling water; without heat, it returns to its tepid state. – Use it or lose it. Even the sharpest knife if left outside will begin to rust and dull over time. Take time to use what you know and have learned.
12. – Do not think of winning. Think, rather, of not losing. – Let not your ego control you. It is never a pleasant thing to focus on your own humiliation but focusing on your own virtues too much can cause just as many problems. A healthy level of self confidence and self worth are a great thing, but do not make the mistake of thinking you are better than anyone else. Just do your best and leave it at that.
13. – Make adjustments according to your opponent. – Be adaptable. It’s almost become cliche now, but one of the famous concepts from martial arts is being like water. Water adapts to any shape or situation you put it. It’s soft to the touch but yet carves great canyons out of rock. Learning to adapt and being opened minded will make life less stressful and help you see the greater possibilities in life.
14. – The outcome of a battle depends on how one handles emptiness and fullness. – Seek balance as the answer. Peace and happiness are never found in extremes. You need balance. There needs to be times when you work really hard and there needs to be times when you relax. Sometimes you are going to have to compromise and at times you need be persistent. Balance is perhaps one of the simplest and most beneficial things a person can have in their life, but yet it tends to get overlooked far too often. Make an effort to cultivate balance in your life.
15. – Think of hands and feet as swords. – See the tools at hand for what they really are. Often we get too used to thinking about using certain things in certain ways that we do not even realize that we have the answer to your problems already within your grasp if you just think outside of the box. There are a lot of things you know how to do, things you have, and connections you have made that can be beneficial in many ways in your life.
16. – When you step beyond your own gate, you face a million enemies. – Do not let others talk you out of your own truths. While I truly and honestly believe every single one of us has the potential for greatness, quite a few people never take responsibility for their lives. They let life happen to them instead of them happening to life. That is fine. That is their life. The problem that arises, though, is that they translate their own perceived reality into yours and will often not be very encouraging towards you or supportive of your success. Be polite but remember who you are and remember what you want. Always believe in yourself. Life is too short and too precious to be anything but happy and living out your dreams.
17. – Formal stances are for beginners; later, one stands naturally. – After learning the proper foundation, one must learn to apply what they know. Things rarely work out in the real world the way they did when you practiced them in a controlled setting. Things were simplified for learning purposes. Once you have a good foundation, you need to be adaptive, creative, and tenacious to succeed.
18. – Perform prescribed sets of techniques exactly; actual combat is another matter. – Realize that things aren’t going to work out the way you have imagined it in your mind. See what is and what you would like and then connect the dots.
19. – Do not forget the employment of withdrawal of power, the extension or contraction of the body, the swift or leisurely application of technique. – Live artfully in all that you do. Life is beautiful and so are you. Live life and it’s battles on your terms.
20. – Be constantly mindful, diligent, and resourceful, in your pursuit of the Way. – Take all that you are, all that you know, and all that you have and never give up. You’re worth it.
Just as it is the clear mirror that reflects without distortion, or the quiet valley that echoes a sound, so must one purge himself of selfish and evil thoughts, for only with a clear mind and conscience can he understand that which he receives. – Gichin Funakoshi
Note: I focused on the non-martial definitions of the precepts and the interpretations are in my own words and do no necessarily reflect the opinions of any martial arts organization.