SKA so-cal

Shotokan Karate School

Palm Springs, California, USA



The story of Karate is indeed an elusive one. Prior to the 19th century, its history is virtually unrecorded and much of what has been passed down is over simplified and base more on oral tradition and legends than facts. To be sure, knowing the factual origins of karate is not crucial to learning and loving the art of karate-do but for those who are interested, it adds another dimension of understanding.

In his autobiography, the founder of Shotokan Karate-do, Master Ginchin Funakoshi wrote that,

“Inasmuch as there is virtually no written material on the early history of karate, we do not know who invented and developed it, nor even for that matter where it originated and evolved. Its earliest history may only be inferred from ancient legends that have been handed down to us by word of mouth, and they like most legends, tend to be imaginative and probably inaccurate.”  ( My Way of Life, p 29) “However much of the legends we accept as historical fact, I think there is little doubt that Chinese boxing (Kung Fu) did indeed cross the sea to Okinawa, where it merged with the Okinawa style of fist fighting to form the basis of what we now know as karate.” (My Way of Life, p38)

The legends that Funakoshi speaks of most commonly trace the origins of Okinawan Karate-do (and by extension Japanese) back some 1,500 years to Buddhist monks traveling from India to temples in China with the intention of spreading Indian Buddhism. They also carried with them a highly developed, disciplined and weaponless form of self defense.


BATUO (Buddhahdra)

Central to the story is the now legendary Shaolin Temple in China, founded in 495 by the Indian monk Batuo (Buddhahdra) on land granted to him by the Chinese Emperor Xiaowen. Batuo practiced Orthodox Indian (Hinayana or Nikaya) Buddhism and some of his disciples were masters in Indian fighting arts. The combined practice of these two disciplens, one spiritual the other physical, formed the foundation of fifth century life at the Shaolin Temple. Thus from its early history, Chinese martial arts has been inseperable from the practice of Buddhism leading to spiritual transformation.

DA MO (Bodhidharma)

Some years later, Bodhidharma Daruma (Da Mo as he is known in China), another devout Indian Buddhist and contemporary of Batuo, set off on a 2,500 mile journey from his home in Western India arriving in 527 at the Batuo’s Shaolin Temple, in north-western China. He brought with him a different type of Indian Buddhism which over time evolved into what today is known as Chan (China) or Zen (Japan) Buddhism .

Da Mo also had disciples with military backgrounds, who were highly skilled martial artists. Eventually, Chan Buddhism became the exclusive form of Buddhism practiced at the Temple. Da Mo’s demanding school of martial arts training and Buddhism evolved into Guongfu or Kung Fu. These are the two inseparable cornerstones of the teaching and culture at the Shaolin Temple: Chan Buddhism and Shaolin Kung Fu.

The legend goes that “Bodhidharma (Da Mo) found the monks at the Shaolin Temple weak, unhealthy and unable to sustain long periods of meditation”. Da Mo knew from experience what was required to endure extended periods of meditation. Historical legend relates that the first 9 to 14 years of Da Mo’s life at Shaolin was spent in constant meditation in a cave. Clearly given his experience, this was a man with high expectations.

Eventually, he began to teach the monks what he believed was the path to spiritual transformation achieved through dedicated practice of Chan Buddhism and Guongfu (Chinese boxing). He insisted that the monks constantly train and develop the mind-body-spirit through the committed and rigorous, if not grueling daily practice of martial arts and Chan. Over time, the Shaolin monks became known as the best fighters in China. His system became know as Shaolin (Shorin) Kung Fu as recorded in his book, Ekkin-Kyo often referred to as the first book of Karate.

He spent the rest of his life at the temple sharing all that he had been taught and learned from personal experience.

To be continued....soon.



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