Karate Tournament fighting & time tested Zen & Budo strategy


Karate Tournament fighting and the use of time tested Zen & Budo strategy from the samurai culture
Article taken from Japanese Karate e-Magazine #12 (Q3, 2006)

   -this article contains content excerpts from the Zen & Fighting video/DVD online.

samurai art of war martial arts kumite strategy
There is a good reason the samurai adopted Zen philosophy and its strategic insights - it optimized fighting strategy and taught them to deal with fear and death to obtain victory. The benefits were proven over hundreds of years in situations where the penalty for failure was not loss of a point, but death. Today Zen is rarely taught in fighting, and the focus of martial arts classes are usually all physical despite the fact that the mental component is the most important attribute in any fight, tournament, or real life.

The application of the mind is usually reinforced whenever one speaks with, or does seminars under, any of the great karate tournament legends - they almost always comment on the importance of the mind as a key to victory.

Asian strategy (e.g. the classic Art of  War by Sun Tzu) and Zen are not religions in this context, but rather provide systems for understanding yourself, optimizing technique and performing at your best. It is unfortunate in modern karate sports fighting (which is also a mind game) that athletes are not taught the Zen concepts which are the basis of the art they are performing. Some sports karate teams do go as far as to have sports psychologists, and while that is beneficial, it is shame the athletes are not exposed to the Zen lessons of the samurai which are profound in achieving victory because the goal was not a gold medal, but a life or death match (where in one way the sports karate world have a similar goal, a simple tag, but with a katana (sword) that tag would mean death). Some of the principles taught by sports psychologists mirror that of Zen in the martial arts and other things taken from Zen are more specifically directed towards combat. The modern term of putting oneself "in the zone" is directly analogous to the Zen mind states of joriki and mushin, principles which can be related to kumite and are discussed in a little detail below.

Like a full circle, the mind must be empty, yet complete.

How does the above phrase relate to fighting?

The Japanese term often used in Karate which is loosely translated as "empty mind" is mushin. This term does not strictly imply no thought, but rather no attachment to any one thought, emotion or strategy. To obtain this state of mind, mushin, you must let go your fears, doubts, ego, and any preconceived thoughts of action (strategy), or the mind will not react openly. 
When we apply mushin to certain techniques and kumite strategies in seminars many karate athletes start to say, well you have to be analyzing your opponent and formulating a strategy so it doesnt apply to modern tournament fighting. At first glance they often miss the point - it revolves around the assumption that you have trained the mind to know all these strategies innately and that at any moment in kumite the right one for the situation is released without thought. This creates the required speed (i.e. no delay) and enables dynamic adaptive change to your engagement strategy after the opponent begins to react (which enables another innately trained technique/combination to emerge as soon as it is needed). There are drills, combinations  and training methods to enhance the mind state of mushin (other than describing one simple physical example below, this article does not attempt to describe complex combinations and partner work via text - see our video for examples). 
A simpler conceptual analogy for mushin which removes the complexity of strategy is the following: imagine fighting someone who truly has the ability to strike with any one of their 4 limbs at any time (i.e. their physical balance and ability allows it and their mind does not favor a punch, or kick, or a particular limb). Many of you may have fought such a person, and these people are always tricky fighters due to the fact that any limb can come out at any time i.e. no attachment or predisposition to any one thing (mushin). As one works on kumite this is one physical-mental approach which can be drilled.
Interestingly, modern science has also added a dimension to this. On example is in data that relates to your brain making decisions before you consciousness has become involved (which if you let it get involved, only slows down the execution of a motion). In fact, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, found that by scanning the brains of the study participants, they could predict which hand the participants would use before the participants were consciously aware of the decision (Soon et al. 2008). Click here to go to teh article which dives further into this science and mushin...

The is a famous Zen saying mizu no kokoro also helps clarify mushinOn the surface, Mizu no kokoro translates to "a mind like water".  Everyone understands how the water of a pond can be calm and clear and in this state, it will reflect all around it truthfully & accurately, much like a mirror.  In Karate and in life we strive to have a calm mind that reflects everything around us accurately.  Therefore, the mind must be clear like the glass surface of a still pond, reflecting everything accurately and without distortion.  If the mind gets attached to any thoughts, this is analogous to throwing a stone into the tranquil pond.  The ripples that the stone creates (that is equivalent to a thought in the mind) will interfere with the smooth surface of the pond making the reflection  (perception) distorted. If your mind is cluttered with thoughts, how can it possibly react quickly in stressful situations? Only when the mind is clear and calm will you act instantly without hesitation or fear. 
The term "void" (kara in Japanese) has very real implications for strategy, Zen mind set and accessing weak points in an opponents technique and body. Since 1929 this term has in fact been the first of the three Kanji (Japanese characters) that represents the word Karate-Do. The Keio University Karate club substituted this character to replace the original first character for Karate-Do (prior to this the first character translated the term karate as Chinese hand). The use of void as the first character in Karate-Do was later consolidated in 1935 by Funakoshi sensei (founder of Shotokan) publishing the book Karate-Do Kyohan. The link between voids, or emptiness, has obvious similarities to mushin, however, its mental implications for strategy go further than that. The mind is just one component of a "void" based approach used in fighting. Other cumulative uses of the void concept include:
  • technique combinations which open an opponent enabling the scoring of a point (pre-determined opponent response strategy which occurs following a particular combination - see the video for examples)

  • furthering the first two points by striking a cavity, or anatomical void, to best damage/upset the opponent.
Therefore, fighters can chose to train certain combinations that provide a three pronged approach of creating mental voids, physical opening voids, which are then followed by impact on an anatomical void. The emphasis here is to use all three void approaches in a cumulative fashion. The goal here is to not only score points but also mentally optimize ones position of confidence and strength relative to the opponents physical and mental state. Again, I do not believe a text forum to be the appropriate place to describe physical technique combinations based around a multi-tired use of voids in fighting (these are covered in seminars and dojo training).
Although this article mentions just two karate related Zen concepts a number of others exist which are highly relevant to kumite performance. All such concepts can be worked on as part of ones training to optimize tournament fighting. Other Zen-based lessons can include:
  • centering in a bout (physically and mentally) upsetting your opponents centered confident state
  • striking voids (mental and physical combinations)
  • progressing through the stages of Zen as ones fighting improves
  • reading your opponent
  • dealing with fear and anxiety to perform at your best
  • fudoshin
  • use of Aiki and Kiai to upset your opponents mind game, and at the same time create physical openings for standard technique scoring
-End of excerpt components from the Zen & Fighting video course 
About the author: Jason Armstrong, Ph.D. and 7th Dan, has lived in Japan with a karate master, and has also competed at national and international fighting levels, in numerous Australian & Pacific championships, US championships, and tournaments in Japan.  Sensei Jasons emphasis on Zen has been reached by studying it in Japan with temple stays, and also by seeking karate instructors that taught its principles.  Jason Armstrong also worked in Japan as the CEO of a company based in Tokyo and his knowledge has extended into the Art of War for Japanese business and budo culture.

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