Empty Hands

David Michelson
Shodan Essay

I truly enjoy the many physical challenges of karate, especially as taught at our school, where there are high standards for strength, stamina, and technical precision.  The movements we practice, even in isolation, are difficult to perform correctly with good power, speed, and posture.  Putting the movements to imaginary but spirited use in katas ups the ante further with greater focus on timing, distance, rhythm, and agility.  In kumite sessions, awareness, reaction, and strategy are added to the mix (along with a healthy threat of “negative feedback” for any deficiencies).  Karate is at the very least a training method, a crucible even, for developing physical and mental skills for fighting.  Is this why I am trying to emulate my USKL teachers and my fellow black belt candidates in dedicating time and energy to karate?  I don’t really think I’m ever going to get challenged to a fist fight.  I’m much more likely to get challenged to a tennis match.  Might I be able to get just as physically fit playing tennis three to four times a week?  I might.  Would my competitiveness drive me to develop the same kinds of abilities to use awareness and strategy to my advantage on the court?  It might.  Honestly, I think tennis is a great sport and I have enjoyed many hundreds of hours of playing it.  But my tennis racquets now sit in the corner of my office collecting dust, while our washing machine can barely keep up with the steady stream of sweaty gis thrown its way.  I think I know why, and it is contained within the word karate itself.  Perhaps a little more explanation is in order.

I have read that Sensei Ginchin Funikoshi (1868-1957), the founder of Shotokan, played a major role in popularizing karate in Japan at the start of the 20th century and that one of his early decisions was to change the written characters for “kara” and “te” from ones meaning “Chinese hands” to ones meaning “empty hands.” I can understand why he might have sought to downplay the strong Chinese influences on the development of the martial arts in Okinawa, given the climate at the time of increasing nationalism and militarism within Japan and simmering hostility between Japan and China following the end of the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895.  Funikoshi Sensei is said to have also changed the names of some katas from Chinese ones to Japanese ones to further the acceptance of karate in Japan.  I have read that these changes were not well accepted in Okinawa, and that such grievances may have been the reason that Funikoshi Sensei never returned to his homeland after going to Japan in 1922.1It saddens me to think that what I see a stroke of genius by a man renowned for his scholarship and calligraphy engendered such spite in those chaotic times.

I myself bear no ill will toward China and I might be just as happy to be studying the way of Chinese hands, but I have to say I love the symbolism of studying the “way of empty hands.”  At one level it is, like the fundamental movements that we study, simple to understand.  We study self-defense techniques performed without weapons, although as Funikoshi sensei wrote in the 15th of his 20 guiding principles – “Hito no te ashi wo ken to omoe” - we should think of our empty hands, and those of our opponents, as swords.2A trained karateka hardly walks into a combat situation “empty handed” as he carries with him all of his years of preparation to use his body as a weapon, a weapon made of strong bones which he can wield with devastating power.  I like the poetic contradiction of the weapon that is not a weapon, the hand that is holding nothing and yet missing nothing.  And yet, I like thinking of the term in still another way, the way that leads to The Way.  Let the wordplay begin in earnest.

I look at the word “karate” and many of the art’s seemingly contradictory aspects and it reminds me of the beautiful symmetry of a martial artist’s greeting -- a fist pressed against an open hand.  The gesture suggests harmony between the complementary opposites of the hard and the soft, aggression and restraint, the willingness and readiness to fight and the preference for peace.  By training our bodies, our minds, and our spirits for fighting, while also teaching control, courtesy, respect, and humility, properly taught and applied karate training can be a path to harmony, integrity, and balance.   This is certainly good for us, and good for society, but is developing a “perfect” character really our ultimate goal?

The juxtaposition of kara and te remind me of how by studying this art I am trying to develop the two very different sides of who I am, my emptiness (mind/spirit) on one and my hand (body) on the other.  We human beings are living contradictions – collections of physical matter indistinguishable at the atomic level from the elements of the earth itself, but filled with the capacity to desire and fear and the potential to learn to transcend desire and fear and, in so doing, transcend the mortal nature of our physical forms.  Karate is not just physical training for the body or even a mental puzzle for the intellect.  There is a deep well of quiet beauty and tranquility at the heart of karate, more important than the movements or the correct application of them for justice – the Zen of karate.  All Zen is the same, whether pursued through karate, or iaido, flower arrangement, calligraphy, or meditation – but perhaps we are each of us made such that we are more likely to access, perceive, and embody it through a path that particularly suits us.  As Johnson Sensei knows from the smile that comes across my face, there is just a hint of calm that bubbles up within me when it is time to practice kumite.   I think karate might be my path, how I am most likely to achieve harmony between my contradictory natures.

Perhaps my favorite contradiction within the philosophy of karate is the simple Zen phrase that often comes up in discussion of kumite: “mushin no shin” or the mindless mind – a state of unthinking awareness that I must strive to reach (without striving!) in which I will act through intuition alone, aware only of the present, undistracted by thoughts of the past, the future, or my desires and fears.  It will probably be many years before I come anywhere close to this ideal in my kihon training, let alone my kata or my kumite.  I feel like I’m sometimes headed in the right direction during the meditation we do in our opening and closing ceremonies.  I try to be aware only of my breathing, without commanding it, as if observing someone else dispassionately.  It’s somewhat easier after training, though I find it hard to try to ignore the cramping in my feet, the sweat cooling on my neck, and my regrets about my performance in class.  In time I hope not to even have to try.  I think it is good practice for the path we are truly hoping to travel, in and out of the dojo – in which we can maintain a state of moving meditation.  As hard as it may be to find, at least it is a path that has been mapped over many millennia.

Lao-Tsu, the early Chinese philosopher and inspiration for Taoism, is said to have encouraged people to seek a return to the natural state of wu wei, which can be translated as “flowing with the moment” or “acting without effort.”  In chapter 16 of the Tao-Te-Ching, there is a poem that reads in part:

What enables muddy water to settle?
Stillness slowly makes it limpid.
What enables restfulness to endure?
Movement slowly makes it alive.3 

Around the same time that the writings of Lao-Tsu were beginning to influence thinking in China, in the 6th century BC, the philosophy of Buddhism was being spread through India by the teaching and writing of its founder, Siddhartha Gautama.  Buddhism is thought to have spread to China in the 1st century AD, where it quickly blended with Taoist and Confucian traditions, and then to Japan in the 6th century.  Zen Buddhism, which emphasized meditation as a path to enlightenment and transcendence beyond mortal suffering, became a more prominent form of Japanese Buddhism during the 12th and 13th centuries, particularly through the writings of a monk named Dogen.  In a section of his well-known essay, the Genjokoan, Dogen wrote:

To study the Way is to study the Self.
To study the Self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe.
To be enlightened by all things of the universe
  is to cast off the body and mind of the self as well as those of others.
Even the traces of enlightenment are wiped out,
and life with traceless enlightenment goes on forever and ever.4

Takuan Soho (1573-1645) was a Zen Buddhist monk who, through his writing and travels, helped to spread Zen philosophy more widely through Japanese culture in the 17th century.  Through his friendships with Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645) and Yagyu Munenori (1570-1646), two famous and influential swordsmen in Japan, he was instrumental in the introduction of Zen concepts into the martial arts.  He too described in his writings that the ideal state of mind should be like a flowing river, never stopping as it follows its path.  He wrote:

When a person does not think,
“Where shall I put it?”
the mind will extend throughout the entire body
and move to any place at all.”5

Our dojo kun are not explicit about seeking this aspect of karate, but when I recite “to seek perfection of character,” I am not exhorting myself to be nicer or more generous, although those are certainly good characteristics.  I’m reminding myself that there is a river of perfectly clear, flowing spirit within me, and that my goal in training is to unleash it from the confines of my tired body and busy mind.  Funakoshi Sensei wrote in his 6th guideline that we should all “kokoro wa hanatan koto wo yoso” – be ready to free our minds.  It might take me the rest of my life to find that freedom through karate but I will enjoy the search and, maybe by staying healthier, have more time to find it.  Funikoshi Sensei’s 9th guideline states that “karate no shugyo wa issho de aru” – that in karate we will never stop learning.  I certainly hope not.

So, is there one final contradiction that I’d like to mention as I end this paper?  Well, this examination for Shodan is extremely meaningful to me, though perhaps it should not matter so much.  I want to show gratitude to all of my teachers here at the USKL dojo by putting their instructions into action, showing that I have been listening, and that I appreciate their patient guidance and warm support.  I would like to fully share in the celebration, along with all of the black belt candidates, of a tiny but important milestone in our journey.  In short, as I seek to demonstrate my understanding of karate, I hope not to walk away with kara te. 


Dr. David (Dave) Michelson
USKL Ichikyu




  1. Funakoshi, G. (1981). Karate-Do: My Way of Life, Kodansha International Ltd. ISBN 0-87011-463-8.

  2. Funakoshi, G. (1975). The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate: The Spiritual Legacy of the Master, translated by John Teramoto, Kodansha International Ltd. ISBN 4-7700-2796-6.

  3. Watts, A.; Huan, A. C. (1975). Tao: The Watercourse Way, Pantheon Books. ISBN 0-394-73311-8.

  4. Kim, H. (2004). Eihei Dogen, Mystical Realist, Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-376-1.

  5. Soho, T. (1986). The Unfettered Mind: Writings from the Zen Master to the Sword Master,
    translated by William S. Wilson, Kodansha International Ltd. ISBN 9780870118517.