Gichin Funakoshi’s Guidelines For Life

How would you interpret them?

Gichin Funakoshi's Guidelines For Life

During O’Sensei Gichin Funakoshi’s life and karate training, he developed a philosophy he believed every Karateka (Karate student) should follow in order to develop their character, skills, and personality to their fullest potential. He set this philosophy down in twenty precepts (rules/guide lines) every student should strive to follow. By reading each of these rules one can see how dedicated Funakoshi was to the study of karate, and his belief that a person could obtain more than only the skills of self-defense through hard, diligent training. Funakoshi believed the philosophy of karate could be carried into one’s daily life as it was an essential element in developing character to its fullest. This philosophy framed the following rules:

  1. Karate begins and ends with “rei” (bow) courtesy.
  2. There does not exist an offensive attitude in karate.
  3. Karate is an aid to justice.
  4. Know yourself first, then you can know others.
  5. Spiritual development is paramount; technical skills are merely a means to an end.
  6. It is necessary to let the mind free.
  7. Misfortune is a result of neglect.
  8.  Karate training is not only in the dojo.
  9. Karate is lifelong training.
  10. Confront your problems with karate spirit.
  11. Karate is like hot water. If you do not heat it constantly it grows tepid.
  12. Do not think you have to win. Think you do not have to lose.
  13. Mold yourself according to your opponent.
  14. The secret in combat resides in directing it.
  15. Think of your arms and legs as you would sharp swords.
  16. When you leave home, think that you have numerous opponents waiting for you. (It is your behavior that invites or discourages trouble.)
  17. Ready position for beginners and natural position for advanced students.
  18. Strive for the perfect kata, real combat is something else.
  19. Do not forget; a) strength and weakness of power, b) slowness and speed of technique, c) expansion and contraction of the body.
  20. Devise at all times.

So what exactly do these guidelines mean to us today? I will give you my opinion as to what I feel O’Sensei wanted his students to learn, above and beyond their skills in techniques and tactics. Admittedly, there are a few of his guidelines that I’m still trying to figure out.

We start with: karate begins and ends with a bow. If one takes the time to read Funakoshi’s autobiography, “Karate-do, My Way of Life,” one thing is very clear: from the beginning Funakoshi’s teachers, Azato and Itosu, wanted him to develop humility and to be respectful of everyone. Therefore, bowing is a way of showing respect to your teacher, the dojo, and your fellow students. Bowing also is a way we may demonstrate humility. In a sense we lower ourselves (our upper torso) as if to say I am not better than you. The bow is a ceremonial exercise in which courtesy and decorum are manifest (Egami, p. 18). Shigeru Egami, one of Funakoshi’s senior students, writes about bowing and courtesy in his book, “The Way of Karate, Beyond Technique.” He says, “through courtesy you will take a humble attitude toward your opponent in training and be grateful to him. Without this attitude, there can be no training in the true sense. But if your objective is to batter your opponent senseless, you cannot attain this state. In real training and practice, anger, hatred, and fear are completely absent. It is important to know that one can harbor neither homicidal intention nor enmity, neither opposition nor resistance, against one’s opponent. When you reach this state you will become one with your opponent and you will be able to move naturally in line with his movements” (Egami, p. 19).

In the second precept Funakoshi says, there is no offensive attitude in karate. This comment has its parallel in another by Egami as he explains the translation to karate ni sente nashi, or there is no first strike in karate (Egami, p. 19). In other words we are not to be the aggressors. What we learn and practice is for our personal defense, and the defense of others.

The third point he makes is that, “Karate is an aide to justice.” It is in this case where dedicated Karateka must stand up for those who are unable to do so for themselves. In other words we must be ready to aid the helpless when they face difficulties or overwhelming odds. Unfortunately in contemporary society one runs the risk of being sued because of the materialistic tort-mindedness of some. The challenge is for us to weigh the options in the choices we make. There is also something to be said for the “Good Samaritan” laws that exist in some states. You should familiarize yourself with the stance your respective state takes on such issues. One of the key points we may derive from this tenet, as well as some of the others, is the ethical nature of the attitude and conduct we as martial artists are expected to develop through proper training.

His next point tells us to “know yourself first, then you can know others.” This one reminds me of a book I read many years ago by Jess Lair, Ph.D., entitled, “I ain’t much, baby-but I’m all I’ve got.” The concept here is we must first learn about ourselves and become comfortable with our good and bad points. We should fix those things about ourselves we feel are negative, and put the things we can’t fix behind us. Once we’ve become comfortable with who we are it’s easier to accept others as they are. During our short time on earth we all journey down a variety of paths. It is through the experiencing of the good and bad that we grow and develop into the person we eventually become. This allows us to sympathize in some cases with others in their time of trouble. It also gives us the ability to empathize as well. These two abilities are what separates us from other species and is the human side of most of us.

“Spiritual development is paramount; technical skills are merely a means to an end.” Here again it’s about developing the person. From a spiritual standpoint we must strive to be right with our Heavenly Father. This is also a key to becoming comfortable with who we are in the overall scheme of life. The abilities and skills we develop in our training help us to stay healthy, and provides us with a means to defend ourselves and our families should the need arise.

In the precept where he tells us “It is necessary to let the mind free,” I feel he is saying we must not put limits on what we can do by feeling or thinking something is beyond us. It reminds me of a good friend who kept a sign hanging in his dojo that told people four letter words were not allowed. The word he used as an example was “can’t.”

Number seven states that misfortune is a result of neglect. If we neglect to do the things we know we should be doing, we often end up having to fix a problem or problems that result from the neglect. A good example is the importance of preventive maintenance of your personal vehicle. If you don’t have the radiator flushed every couple of years, or the hoses checked and changed when they begin to crack, you’ll end up stranded on the side of the highway when they fail you. Likewise we must continue to condition ourselves in and through our training so we will always be prepared.

The next two points go hand in hand. “Karate training is not only in the dojo. Karate is lifelong training.” When we train in the martial arts with the sincerity and dedication true study requires, it becomes a part of our very fabric and life. Over time these studies begin to form the way we think and how we treat others. When I begin teaching new students today their first impressions are I’m an old guy who won’t be able to do much. It’s not long into the first class before this misconception is shattered. At some point in their training they ask me how I managed to still move with speed and strength. I merely tell them its part of the lifelong training one gains from studying the martial arts. Some of you have heard me tell someone the body doesn’t know age, but it does know inactivity. Those who have studied karate or some other martial art for a number of years know they are in better shape than the majority of those their age. How we treat others is also in large part the result of our training.

What do you think O’Sensei’s means by “confront your problems with karate spirit”? Here I think is where we apply the courtesy, respect, and humility discussed earlier. Many times problems are opportunities to learn and grow as a person. How we deal with our problems gives us the experience to help others later in life. By applying Funakoshi’s approach you would be able to do so with a positive attitude.

I’m sure many of you have heard someone say, “use it or lose it.” That is exactly what O’Sensei is saying in his next precept; Karate is like hot water. If you do not heat it constantly it grows tepid. How do professional golfers, skaters, tennis players, and others manage to become and stay so good? They train constantly. They strive to better themselves so they can be the best in their respective endeavor. Though we are not striving to be professional Karateka, we surely want to be the best we can. Therefore we must train accordingly.

What happens if we are so consumed with winning? We will end up losing on many occasions. Applying different psychology is the purpose behind, “Do not think you have to win. Think you do not have to lose.” Another way of looking at this would be approaching the competition in the desire to learn. In this manner we sometimes learn more when we lose than when we win. Always look for the positive.

How would you apply Funakoshi’s concept, “Mold yourself according to your opponent”? This one will require each of you to analyze your personal approach to competition. For each of us there will be variations. However, Sensei Egami has an answer for us. He does so by posing a question: “If instead of opposing the movements of your opponent, you moved with him in a natural way, what would happen? You will find that you and he become as one, and that when he moves to strike, your body will move naturally to avert the blow. And when you become capable of this, you will discover a completely different world – one that you had not known existed. When you are as one with your opponent and move naturally with him without opposition, then there is no such thing as first strike” (Egami, p. 19).

In order to control a combat situation, one must try to control it. Hence the meaning behind, “the secret in combat resides in directing it.” If you do not participate in the argument someone starts in order to fight with you, most times there won’t be a fight. Also refer to the above paragraph.

How many times have you heard your teacher tell you to “think of your arms and legs as you would sharp swords,” or some variation on this same theme? I have students ask me when they will be able to learn to use oriental weapons like the Bo, or Sai. I tell them we don’t begin teaching the use of those items (tools) until they have earned their brown belt. They must first develop competency with what God gave them, before they add to them.

“When you leave home, think that you have numerous opponents waiting for you. (It is your behavior which will invite or discourage trouble from them.)” This is an important point all students of the arts need to pay attention to. Wherever we go there are people who would victimize us. If we walk down the street showing a lack of confidence we become an inviting target. If, on the other hand, we walk with confidence and show no fear, those who would take advantage of the weak will not see us as such. My 40 plus years in law enforcement have shown me the truth of this wisdom. The bad guys are always on the prowl. They choose their victims by looking for people they feel will not try and fight back; people they can easily intimidate.

The seventeenth precept is one that requires individual interpretation. The seventeenth rule states beginners start in the ready position, while a more advanced student starts from a natural one. This can mean the beginner starts from the ready position, while the more advance student is always ready. Here again the importance of training is indicated subtly.

We all have different feelings about kata. There are those of us who love to practice forms. Others would rather spar till they drop. When kata is taught and practiced properly, the student will be ready for all possibilities. “Strive for the perfect kata, real combat is something else;” in my view was Funakoshi’s way of telling us that training in kata will better prepare us to deal with an attack. One who trains in kata with due diligence develops conditioned reflexes that will enable them to survive. Though we compete against imaginary attackers in kata, as opposed to a real person, we still hone and improve our skills and perceptions in preparation for the battle we hope will never occur. This idea furthers the concept of O’Sensei’s whole premise of karate being a defensive art.

In the next to last of the guidelines O’Sensei gives us several contradictions. He tells us, “do not forget: a) strength and weakness of power, b) slowness and speed of technique, c) expansion and contraction of the body. How would you describe these points? For me “A” would be like the willow tree that gives when the snows weigh heavy on her branches, thus enabling her to survive, while her counterpart the oak tree will have branches that will break from its inability to support the weight and lack of flexibity. The letter “B” tells me there are some techniques that work better when applied slowly than with speed. The last letter, “C” speaks to the need to be able to move with your opponent, instead of fighting force with force, or again applying Egami’s concept of moving with your opponent.

Lastly, “Devise at all times.” Like one of the key tenets of the Boy Scouts, one must always be prepared.

You may have different ways of interpreting each of O’Sensei Funakoshi’s 20 precepts. The important thing is to put them to good use, both in your personal life, as well as in your practice of the arts. Many times Americans and those of other countries training in the martial arts have failed to learn these tenets because the person who taught them (or is teaching them) wasn’t taught them. The theme of the “Karate Kid” movies best empathizes this. The true study and aim of karate is a two-fold endeavor. We learn physical skills and techniques, as we build our attitudes and spirits as people. Most American martial artists get involved in the tournament circuit and quit training after a few years. They never open the door to the true aspects and challenges of Budo.

All the best in your martial arts endeavors,

Mike Sullenger, 9th Dan
AKS Chief Instructor
Major, USAF Retired
Associate Prof. TSTC – BS, MS.