Monday, December 27, 2010

Karate-do, Gichin Funakoshi, and a Few Words about Avodah Zarah

“The ultimate aim of Karate lies not in victory or in defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants.” Those are the words of Gichin Funakoshi, the great grandmaster of karate-do and recognized founder of pre-MMA, modern martial arts.

As a life-long karateka, I feel a particular closeness with Funakoshi Sensei not just because I trained directly under Richard Lenchus (who trained under Kawanabe Sensei in Atsugi, who himself trained under Funakoshi Sensei)--I feel this closeness because Funakoshi Sensei was authentic, a man who mastered himself, someone worth emulating.

Funakoshi Sensei was born in the Yamakawa district of Shuri, Okinawa on November 10, 1868. He began training in Isshinryu at the age of 11 under Master Yasutsune Azato, who also taught him the Confucian classics. Later, he trained with Master Azato's friend and contemporary Master Yasutsune Itosu. Funakoshi dedicated his life to the development and promotion of karate training throughout Japan.

To fully appreciate Funakoshi Sensei’s Shotokan Karate, it is essential to realize that, above all else, Funakoshi was a Chun-tzu. Becoming such, in Confucian terms, is not an accident of birth but rather the result of the development of ethical values (midos, in rabbinic Hebrew). Chun-tzu can be translated variously as gentleman, superior man, and man at his best. Funakoshi was all of this, and his devotion to Confucian teachings was part and parcel of his karate-do.

Confucius said, “He who in this world can practice five things may indeed be considered man-at-his-best.” These five disciplines are Humility, Magnanimity, Sincerity, Diligence, and Graciousness. If you are humble, you will not be laughed at; if you are magnanimous, you will attract many to your side; if you are sincere, people will trust you; if you are gracious, you will get along well with your subordinates (The Sayings of Confucius, New American Library, 1955, p. 110). It is this type of man, Confucius teaches, who can transform society into the peaceful state it was meant to be.

Diligence, which remains undetailed in the above list, fairly well speaks for itself. But by way of a base illustration: When I was younger, I found the spinning back-roundhouse kick awkward. Or perhaps I was awkward. In any event, I was frustrated by the technique and eventually turned to one of my instructors to ask for a few pointers. "Here's the secret," he said, calling me over to whisper into my ear. "Do it a million times."

Years later, when I taught martial arts at the Lubavitcher cheder (a Chassidic children's dayschool) in Morristown, NJ, I had a number of young students, among them the children of two prominent rabbis from the community. But another "rabbi" objected, claiming that karate was a form of idol worship (avodah zarah was the term used). He fought diligently to have my free class removed from the building. What a shocking non-surprise to later find this very man confronted by the NJ State authorities for physically abusing his own pupils. Ignorance and low morals oftentimes go hand-in-hand.

There is nothing in classical martial arts antithetical to classical Torah teachings. Indeed, Professor Chaim Sober's Tora Dojo--a vital part of Yeshiva University's history as far many of us are concerned--makes it clear that the physical and philosophical aspects of classical martial arts are not only in harmony with Torah, they are a healthy supplement, much like the mussar teachings of the 18th century.

Confucianism, as its founder taught, is not a religion – it is an ethical code. Three key principles are emphasized: the principles of Li, Jen and Chun-tzu. Li has several meanings and is often translated as propriety, reverence, courtesy, ritual, or the ideal standard of conduct. It's what Confucius believed to be the highest standard of religious, moral, and social conduct.

Where Li provides the structure for social interaction. Jen makes it a moral system. Jen, the fundamental virtue of Confucian teachings, is the concept of goodness and benevolence and is expressed through recognition of value and concern for others, regardless of rank or class or wealth or poverty. Confucius summarizes the principle of Jen as: “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you.” (Analects 15:23) In Pirke Avos, Hillel is translated as having said it this way: "What is hateful to you do not do unto others." Regardless of whether Hillel or Confucius said it first (and neither one of them, history shows, would have sued for copyright infringement), the statements are essentially the same.

Avodah zarah, it seems, is often in the evil eye of the beholder.

The third primary Confucian concept, Chun-tzu, represents the notion of gentlemanliness, of living by the highest ethical standards. The gentleman displays five virtues: self-respect, generosity, sincerity, persistence, and benevolence. His relationships are characterized as follows: as a son, he is loyal; as a father, he is kind and just; as an official, he is faithful; as a husband, he is righteous and just; and as a friend, he is faithful and tactful.

Funakoshi Sensei wrote, “True karate-do places weight upon the spiritual rather than physical daily life, one’s mind and body should be trained and developed in a spirit of humility, and that, in critical times, one should be devoted utterly to the cause of justice.”

Oh, that all of our "religious" leaders would have such high standards.


Aaron Cohen said...

Certainly there are many parallels between the activities of students in the dojo and the Beit Midrash.

Aaron Cohen

Michael Netzer said...

Wonderful piece and lovely harmony between seemingly contradictory disciplines. Health and happiness, my friend.