the single precept

you have thirty seconds in which to construct one sentence which sums up the reason anyone might choose to do karate. go.

perhaps it is unfair to try to reduce anything as complex as karate - or, for that matter, pretty much anything - to a single statement, but increasingly we find ourselves needing to do just that. in a world where information is not only readily available but almost invasively present, from any number of television channels to the apparently inexhaustible internet, the desire to make our chosen message be discernible against background noise drives us towards the use of soundbites: catchy, memorables phrases clawing for attention. with such a wide range of choice of things to distract us and simply not enough time to examine everything in the detail we would like, sometimes the cut-down versions of stories or ideas are all we have time for. the price of choice is brevity, and if it is unfair that we sometimes have to play that game, it might still be better to play it well; being memorable and confident might help in securing a loan for a start-up business, or describing yourself in the infamous five words during a job interview (who can forget Mark Radcliffe's own "short; looks like a librarian"?), or even simply making a salient point in a tense situation.

in order to reduce something to its fundamental concept, its 'bottom line', one must really understand what one is talking about. and yet, in paring something down in such a way, it is possible to go too far; i once heard a description of the book war and peace: "it's about russia". so what are we stripping down to find? what does karate provide that cannot be found in anything else? and this can be an entirely subjective question; generally, for a complex or wide-ranging issue, what we choose to focus on depends on who we are and thus reveals something about us. this is the beauty of asking such open questions; as well as the response to the question itself, the way the question was interpreted can be informative. there are many aspects to karate, and each participant is likely to favour certain ones over others. some karateka train only for competition, some for self-defence, and some train only for the exercise. but there are competitions in all sports, and many ways to exercise or learn self-defence, so perhaps it has to be something more subtle. something more precise. why karate instead of judo? why not lacrosse, or cycling, or watercolours? or perhaps you do all of these, and each provides a part of the whole? so going back to the one-sentence approach, and this time take as long as you want. what will you choose?

perhaps a natural choice would be to choose a quote, often reproduced, from funakoshi himself:

The ultimate goal of the Art of Karate is not in victory or defeat, but rather in the perfection of the character of its participants.

as one-sentence summaries of karate go, this has to be fairly close to the top of anyone's list. succinct and almost beautiful, it clearly stands against the idea that karate is a violent practice, and picks out the idea that karate is more than the system of self-defence it is most often taken to be. this was funakoshi's perspective on the martial art now credited to him. perhaps this preconception of karate as purely practical self-defence (or worse, violent sport) is precisely why this quote is so often brought up. and i like it, i really do, but a few years of talking to people about why i do karate, and sometimes wondering just to myself, i have settled upon a different maxim that i feel better expresses the idea of what karate actually aims to do. i find the notion of 'character perfection', important though it undoubtedly is, to be a little, well, vague. i'm all about perfection of character, but in using my one precious sentence i want to be a little more convincing.

so what else might we consider? funakoshi's twenty precepts are an excellent source of wisdom, and are continually rewarding through study, but they are from a time before soundbites and they operate as an extended system. i doubt that many karateka give them much thought in their first few years of training; they are not designed to catch the interest of passers by. and though the iconic there is no first attack in karate is nothing short of profound, it adds nothing for the uninitiated: there is no first attack in volleyball, either. the dojo kun, with only five bullet-points, achieves an admirable punchiness (pun intended; i won't apologise for it) but is intended as a guide for people already engaged in karate. and yet somehow, it seems rather tacky to try and come up with an advertising slogan for a martial art, of which humility is a core part, or to resort to starting 'well, i do karate because...'. to make a tenuous analogy, shotokan karate is built on the single-attack strategy, and that is what we are searching for here. a single strike, well-formed and timed and powerful enough that the match is fought and won in a single blow. one single precept.

i don't claim to have such a thing to offer, and i would be entirely skeptical of someone who did claim that, but in teaching karate i have found myself explaining things in ways i hadn't expected, and making relevant points i didn't know i was capable of. in looking for a single precept you need to know what you're talking about, and the best way of testing whether you know what you're talking about is to teach it to others. and in thinking about how best to explain to people the spirit of karate, and in particular reference to the performance of kata (not bunkai, just kata), i found myself once saying the following:

if you cannot control your own body, you have no hope of controlling anyone else's.

and there it is, my 'single precept'. feel free to quote me. and sure enough, if you look for it, this sentiment is right there in the niju kun, number four: First know yourself, then know others. my version is a little more direct, although strangely it doesn't mention karate; in one stroke it indicates the usefulness of karate as a comprehensive method for self-defence, controlling others, and also hints that such a thing does not come easily. the 'perfection of character' is right there, too; control of oneself extending beyond the physical movements of karate to the way one behaves in everyday life. one weakness of the statement is that it lacks a little context, and runs the risk of sounding like 'controlling others' is the aim of karate when really it would be much closer to say 'controlling others who intend you harm'. that can be the extended version, the dvd extra; in an effort to be pithy i'm willing to hope that people take it in the context of self-defence. of course i may decide there is a better expression at some point, and i may not, but one thing i am sure of is that it would be a failure to stop looking for one. in albert camus' the plague, joseph grand spends the entire book looking for the perfect sentence to start his novel. he doesn't find it, continually rewriting and rewriting, and is eventually driven to despair; here we might return to our tenuous analogy of earlier, for while karate is the search for continual improvement, the strive for perfection, it also rests on the idea that in the absence of perfection, what we have available at the time can be entirely worthwile.

in truth, and as was most likely obvious from the start, for such a personal subject there is no real one single precept that would suffice, but i believe there is a merit in thinking about the question even if it is doomed to go unsatisfactorily answered. and if you feel that you could come up with a better precept than i have here, either for yourself alone or for the wider world, i have two things to say to you: i) you're probably right, and ii) don't keep it to yourself!

-neil jerome, 2009


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