Written and submitted by: Ciara McGrath
How does one reach the essence of Goju-Ryu Karate through training?
This is an incredibly interesting question and has several elements that merit further investigation in detail. Over the course of this piece, we will break down the ingredients that make up essence.
To my mind, true essence is a melding of good character, mental toughness, physical strength (to the best of one’s ability) all brought together with the overarching intangible element of Budo Spirit. These elements will be discussed in detail with the hope of providing clarity of the authors thought and give the reader the opportunity to self-reflect.
If we look back to the origins of Karate, we find Bodhidharma who, legend tells us, travelled from India to the lands of the Liang Dynasty (China) where he lectured the Emperor Wu on the concepts of Buddhism. After his death, research by Gichin Funakoshi as detailed in The Essence of Karate (Kanazawa, K. Funakoshi, G. Funakoshi, G. 2013) describe the discovery of an engraved chest which was found at the site of the wall on which Bodhidharma gazed for his legendary 9 years. In the chest were two texts: The Marrow Cleansing Sutra and the Muscle Modifying Sutra. Marrow cleansing (Funakoshi, G. 1935) means the cleansing of the mind so that it’s true light may shine. Muscle modifying refers to strength while modifying means to change. We see from his writings Bodhidharma believed that the path to enlightenment necessitated training to cultivate physical and mental fortitude. The skill of the Shaolin Monks that Bodhidharma trained is a legend that continues to this day. We see much of this thinking, the melting pot of mental and physical endeavours, across many martial arts and oriental activities which at the very highest of levels has produced stories of outstanding individuals.
Finding essence as a beginner.
Today, many of us live in the now. I am currently studying for a Masters in Cyber Psychology and some of the statistics that are coming to the surface from how technology has changed our lives are more than worrying. By multitasking, for example, feeding our young children whilst texting, we are reducing the time we spend bonding with our babies by over a third which leads to problems in anger management, emotional intelligence and self-regulation. Furthermore, we have outsourced our working memory… in 1965 our working memory could handle 7 +/-2 points of information. Today, due to our over dependence on Google, devices and the internet, the current population of the same age can only remember 5 +/-1. The above is important as it helps us to understand the mentality of those who join our dojos and how their Senseis need to direct their studies. Karate takes a while to unveil itself to beginners and reveal a path towards the possible. In the beginning period is eillusive and for many, confusing. Good Senseis will gradually introduce new starters to a range of experiences that will enthuse rather than frighten, a good example the Sensei who warns more experienced fighters to help beginners and reduce their work rate etc.
Back when I started training there was only TV, Radio and the outdoors. My Sensei was passionate about history and a fan of working us hard. Much like developing your personal brand, I believe that finding “essence” is movable. For the beginner me who walked into the dojo, any deeper meaning was almost impossible, I was in survival mode. Yet the characteristics I described earlier, (good character, mental toughness, physical strength and the consistently striving for improvement) were called into focus by my Sensei. I should mention that at this time I was training in Shotokan Karate and we followed the line of Sensei Kase. Legendary for the ability to generate power and immovable force.
Essence for me at this point was quite simple yet also elusive, somehow I had to get through training and aspire to be as good as some of my dojo colleagues. I mentioned my Sensei was tough, he had very high standards for us and was ruthless in his demand for good etiquette.
On one night in the middle of a hot summer evening (they do happen sometimes in Ireland) we had focused on Kihon for almost 2 hours and finished with 30 minutes of Kumite. Everyone was dripping and towards the end of class tempers started to fray. Several Karateka started to make the kumite a bit more “real” than perhaps they should have. Sensei saw, stopped the class, sat everyone in Seisa and left to go out into the hallway. On return, he launched into a speech that resonates to this day, about respect, self-control and restraint. Finished off with, what would Sensei Kase say if he saw what happened here tonight.
It transpired that he had attended the hallway to tell the parents who were waiting that we would be late as we had cleaning to do, but that some of us would serve them tea. For 6 weeks this continued. No training, just time to clean and no talking. It was a night that was never repeated.
I spoke to my Sensei many years later and he mentioned that “I can only judge my success as a teacher if at least one of my students goes on to be a better Karateka than I”.
Beginners have a decision to make in my opinion but, access to the decision itself depends on the belief system of the instructor. I was very lucky that I had a Sensei who was passionate and very clearly and openly following his own line of development. The decision is quite simple, do beginners trust the path that their Sensei has outlined or not and can they see that there is something special at the other end? Beginning is difficult, the work is hard, and the levels of repetition are high. There is always the danger to make the training more “entertaining” and to lean away from the harder work, but this would be a huge mistake and does not lend itself to long-term development of the Karateka.
Essence through the grades
Karate benefits greatly from the grade system in my opinion, this is evident in the children’s class when more senior students are encouraged to look after the junior children. The addition of height and hormones can bring an interesting learning point and over the years I’ve seen more than one junior (male and female) test their developing skills against an adult, usually with very honest results and a junior bruised ego.
As students graduate through the system, one of the most exciting times is the journey through brown belt ranks. So much change happens for Karateka in these grades and there are immense challenges, the ultimate reward being the award of Black Belt on the other side.
So many examples exist of students who have graduated to Dan grades and simply disappeared. This is always sad to see, especially after so much work and dedication, and yes, life moves on and changes, however it is always a shame when it happens. Of course, there are edge cases, some people come back years later, however, my Sensei in Ireland, would call to students houses and look for his blackbelt back if students failed to continue training… there was a considerable road that they needed to travel when they returned to regain their rank.
Finding personal essence
One of the fantastic aspects of Goju-Ryu right around the globe is the expectation on personal training outside of the scheduled dojo time. This training is not easy and demands physical and mental toughness along with humility and discipline. For me personally, this culminates in time spent dedicated to training in Okinawa. Specifically in smaller groups where there is a considerable focus on the deep training and soaking as much of the environment up as possible.
Personal training is honest and unforgiving. It’s all too easy to focus on the training elements that are fun and that I enjoy such as Kumite focused training, but that is fool’s gold and so a rounded approach to all the elements of Goju Ryu is necessary. It is whilst focusing on these that pays the most attention to the true essence of training.
Working on the characteristics.
If you accept my definition of essence being good character, mental toughness, physical strength and consistently striving for improvement, how can you work on these aspects on a regular basis.
“Character” is, essentially, derived from the Aristotelian philosophy of virtue ethics, in which the combination of an individual’s possession of virtues with the exercise of practical judgment will shape her decisions and result (ultimately) in Eudaimonia
(flourishing). It necessarily involves moral distinction, identification of aspects
of character as good (virtues) or bad (vices).
Further, the traits of character may be understood as likely to result in behaviour
consistent with those traits (honesty with truth telling, for example) but the
correlation is not strong, if for no other reason than that virtue ethics understands
behaviour as a combination of the aspects of a person’s character and her
exercise of practical judgment; conduct does not flow from character alone.
Well in this instance, we now need to define what being a good character actually means in today’s world.
Essentially character is made of traits. These traits lead us to think, feel and act in certain ways. Over the years, psychology has demonstrated that what are considered strong traits have evolved. The basis of the English legal system, for example, has required lawyers be of “good character” since the advent of any formal regulation of the profession. The differences between ethical and psychological character can perhaps be
best explained through articulating a distinction between the ethical concept of
“character” and the psychological concept of “personality”.
The dojo has an interesting way of marshalling good character, beginners are given directions as to what is expected and anyone who has visited a new dojo will know the nervousness of ensuring that no insult is given via a lack of attention to the dojo “rules”. New students are helped to clean the dojo, to look after others and they learn respect from their Seniors and Senseis. The final step is up to them. In the past I’ve seen students asked to leave dojos because of behaviour that does not lend itself to good character and in some cases, individuals spotting behaviour that is not in good standing raising their concerns to Senseis. The best dojos will be full of Karateka who will protect their environment and in doing so, create an environment for everyone to flourish.
Sensei Kase once said that “character is forged through tough training and no ego”. I remember this distinctly as we had travelled to Hasselt where the European Honbu Dojo for my style at the time resided. There was a tradition of staying in the dojo which had sleeping quarters, showers and a basic kitchen. In a private meal Sensei once commented to me about one group of people “they come, but they never go home, they don’t train as much as they could”. I thought this a strange comment however, during the course of my week in Hasselt I trained every day and we had a big focus on the kata Empi (燕飛). This kata is a mixture of balance, strength, speed and Kime (often on one leg). By the third day I couldn’t walk down the stairs. By the fourth day the numbers on the gasshuku started to dwindle though the numbers sleeping in the dojo stayed the same. At 2 a.m. on the 5th day, Sensei Kase, arrived at the dojo, told us to clear away the sleeping bags and we began training. This continued for 2 hours, mostly in Fudodachi up and down the floor using basic blocks. Class finished with a warning that everyone was to be at training the following morning “for something special”. The classes on the days that followed were more of the same. No Senior Kata, no fancy techniques just hard slog. Sensei said little but counted. At the end he merely asked if we had learned a lesson and quietly bowed out the class.
This paper is timely in that mental toughness and preparedness for competition has been discussed at length after the departure of the English tennis player from Wimbledon, the performance of penalty takers in the UEFA European Football Championship and Simone Biles speaking openly about her internal challenges in the Olympics.
Research has found that on 30% of achievement is a result of talent. The remainder is delivered by what is, by many sports psychologists, termed “Grit”. Defined as the perseverance and passion to achieve long-term goals. This has long been investigated. A standout report by Angela Duckworth a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, found after measuring a total of 2,441 cadets entering one of the hardest courses, the Beast Barracks, a deviation higher on the Grit Scale implied 60% more likeliness to finish over their peers. Interested in the Grit Scale, click here.
All the above is fine, but how does it play out in real life, in the dojo. I was a white belt for the longest time. Back then, in Shotokan, you had beginner (no grade, wore white belt) then first white, second white, before you got to yellow. After that point the grades went very like Goju Ryu. So many people never made it out of the white belt period, and I was struck by the high numbers, many years later asking my Sensei why the system was that way. He just smiled, saying “if you can’t survive a year and half as a white belt, how will you survive a lifetime as a blackbelt”.
I believe we are very lucky with the system that we have in Goju Ryu. I’ve trained in Shotokan for over 30 years and during that time also Yushinkai Karate and Kobujitsu. I’ve not seen the focus on the physical and mental aspects of training in other styles as much as we have in Goju Ryu. Specifically, our style primes the Karateka with expectations regarding their challenges, we see this from our warmup processes through to how we treat dojo kumite. However, more than that, the path to grading is also both demanding and challenging, with a clear expectation that personal fitness and strength will not come from in class training alone.
Karate is not an endeavour that gives instant gratification. Quite the opposite. The beginner is formed over time to the black belt. Most never make it. Many obstacles need to be overcome and often these are not the most obvious…not the gradings… but showing up to class on nights when it’s blowing a hooley and the couch is a much more attractive option. It’s the times when the body feels tired or injured and speed is much slower than normal and adjustments need to be made to get through the class, even if it feels horrid. These are the times when true grit comes to the fore.
Before moving on, I want to look at the area of social anxiety and where grit is not often as apparent. I asked a student some time back if they were going to a gasshuku (this person is an adult) and they mentioned that they found the process overwhelming. As we talked further, they had been to several UK gasshukus, to Okinawa and now had made the decision that further gasshukus were not for them. Why? They struggled with the pressure of lining up in the right order, not knowing those around them and working with people who they didn’t know. We should always be mindful that the struggle might not always be visible.
I conducted a study 5 years ago and looked at the reasons why adults started karate as children. I was overwhelmed by the results. Surprisingly, for women, over 70% of those who responded cited the desire to increase their social network, learn a new skill and finally, learn to defend themselves. For males, over 70% cited the need to learn to defend themselves, get stronger and learn a skill.
Karate training is specific. The demands on the body are pretty significant for new Karateka and our system does demand extra training in order to meet these requirements. I believe that this is a constant need, and that people should be encouraged from junior grade time to start to pull together training schedules that work for them. I am also a firm believer that you should not come to karate to get fit, certainly you will add to your overall physicality, however, additional training on the pillars of fitness is important. Those are (Mason et al., 2016)
To have “Physical Strength” there is an implication that all the above need to be addressed in a continuous manner. With the onus on the Senseis to teach, get students ready for gradings, cover the syllabus, it is more and more important that the student also start to study these areas themselves, assess their abilities and seek input where necessary.
To be controversial, I don’t see this in mainstream Karate, however, it is central to how people ensure that they are doing the right mixture of training for competition, be it Kata or Kumite. In this regard I feel that we could learn more about how we address our current physicality. I’m not saying that people should be striving for competition level fitness, rather giving them the skills to judge their current fitness levels against their grade and helping to define what a sensible training programme (outside of normal training) would look like. Ex competitors and current athletes will be more than able to describe a myriad of aspects of their state and how they feel about it quite easily.
So far, we’ve taken an academic route to answering this question… How does one reach the essence of Goju-Ryu through training? Of course, if you take the blocks above as you train in Karate you will see “progress”. However, some of the most important elements are invisible. I see many Karateka on their journey, with different experiences and abilities, all looking for something to make sense of their training. As am I.
So far, we have discussed body and mind. The final piece, in my opinion, is Spirit. The final element of Bushido. This for me is embodied (or not, depending on your standpoint ) in the “Emptiness Chapter” (Musashi. M, 1645).
“Emptiness, of course, is nothingness. Knowing the existent, you know the non-existent. This, exactly, is Emptiness.”
Later, he says
“In emptiness exists Good but no Evil,
Wisdom is Existence.
Principle is Existence.
The Way is Existence.
The Mind is Emptiness. “
From The Book of the Samurai, Hagakure by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, (Tsunemoto & Wilson, 2012)
“If a warrior is not unattached to life and death, he will be of no use whatsoever. The saying that “All abilities come from one mind” sounds as though it has to do with sentient matters, but it is in fact a matter of being unattached to life and death. With such non-attachment one can accomplish any feat.”
Without Spirit, which for me is very much the glue that brings all the elements together, there is no “way”. We see the building blocks of Spirit identified in Bushido as righteousness, courage, benevolence, respect, sincerity, honour, loyalty, and self-control. In today’s world, having a belief system that is ethical and leads to a sincerity in all one’s endeavours is certainly going to create a special individual.
In Goju Ryu we are tested constantly. We have profound elements within our style that could occupy more than an entire lifetime. By accepting the challenges that lie for example, within our Sanchin Katas and how that embosses the rest of our Kata will lead a Karateka down a path that promises riches however, this is not an easy path and requires the right mentality and approach as we have discussed to this point.
Bringing it all together
One night, in Okinawa, with the likes of Terauchi Sensei in the class we were a group of maybe 20 individuals and the focus was Hojo Undo. The construction of the lines meant that I was 2 rows directly behind Terauchi Sensei. Watched by Higaonna Sensei we were doing Chi-Ishi and after each exercise the lines moved forward and with two moves, I was facing a gigantic Chi-Ishi as chosen by Terauchi Sensei. I could manage, just. With Higaonna Sensei’s eyes on me I was not going to give anything other than my best effort.
Higaonna Sensei, standing beside Terauchi Sensei pointed to my (it literally was huge) Chi-Ishi said something in Japanese and Terauchi Sensei found a (slightly) lighter Chi-Ishi that he brought to me. Quietly, Higaonna Sensei told me “good effort”, “good spirit”, but “Chi-Ishi too big”. No loss of face for me, just not the Chi-Ishi for where my physicality was at that point of my training.
If you agree that Essence breaks down to good character, mental toughness, physical strength brought together with Budo Spirit, then by approaching training with a plan to address the discussed subsections of these elements, layering difficulty and setting challenging programmes that test the individual regularly each layer becomes a step closer to finding true “essence”.
This type of training creates a humble and focused individual. That’s the plan anyway. I am not sure that that I will ever reach the true essence of Goju Ryu, but I will do my very best to get there. I have certainly been around those who, via their training, attitude, experience and history embody what I see as the essence of Goju Ryu. More importantly, they never stop training or assume they are “done” or at the “destination point”.
The last year and a half separated us all and could have torn our dojos apart yet the “never give up” mantra brought many of us together in online gasshukus and training continued social media platforms. If there was ever a time to focus on finding essence, the last year and a half was certainly a test. It has been impressive to see so many people share how they have focused on their home-based training and what they have achieved.
My final thoughts, there are no short cuts to finding true essence. The search is a lifelong commitment to constantly stepping out of a comfortable position and look for the next step, battling through the times when the next step seems impossible then constantly repeating. In the words of Higaonna Sensei “look, listen, sweat”.
Bodhidharma. (2021). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodhidharma
Duckworth, A. (2018). Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (Illustrated ed.). Scribner.
Funakoshi, G. (2021). Karate-Do: My Way of Life by Gichin Funakoshi (2013–02-01). Kodansha 2013.
Funakoshi, G., Berger, R., Funakoshi, G., & Kanazawa, H. (2013). The Essence of Karate (Reprint ed.). Kodansha International.
The Good Body. (2021). The Good Body. https://www.thegoodbody.com/meditation-statistics/
Mason, R. C., Horvat, M., & Nocera, J. (2016). The Effects of Exercise on the Physical Fitness of High and Moderate-Low Functioning Older Adult Women. Journal of Aging Research, 2016, 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/8309284
Musashi, M., & Kaufman, S. F. (2004). Musashi’s Book of Five Rings: The Definitive Interpretation of Miyamoto Musashi’s Classic Book of Strategy (2nd ed.). Tuttle Publishing.
Tsunetomo, Y., & Wilson, W. S. (2012). Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai (Translation ed.). Shambhala.