Humberto Heyden Sensei comments on Occident and Orient; Karate-do, sports karate and how Occidental culture has deformed Karate-do.

Shigeru Egami in KanjiEgami Sensei writes in his book "The Way of Karate (Beyond Technique)":

    While it can be said that there are certain groups in the United States and Europe that, with the objective of understanding the soul of the Orient as a means of counteracting the impasse arising from materialistic civilization, place emphasis on the spiritual side of karate, the sad truth is that many styles teach only the fighting art and neglect the spiritual aspects.

What is Egami Sensei talking about here? Are there really groups in the Western world that are trying to comprehend the soul of Orient, as a way of confronting the overwhelming advance of the materialistic civilization? What methods are they using? Using "sports karate"? Of course you may say, if you believe that Karate-do and "sports karate" are the same thing. On the other hand it would also be prudent to ask ourselves: What is wrong with our society? Evidently not all, but the great majority of karate instructors travel to the Western world precisely to enjoy the benefits it offers and we learn "sports karate" from them. What is wrong with our society then?

Another question that also arises: Where is the spiritual aspect of karate? Is it to develop a fighting spirit? For many decades the great majority of instructors have talked about the fighting spirit, the spirit of the warrior, etc., etc. Is this the spiritual aspect of karate? If so, why does Egami Sensei place "the art of combat" on one side and "the spiritual aspects" on the other? Does this have to do with what he calls "the soul of Orient"? On the other hand, why does he consider that understanding the soul of Orient will counteract the overwhelming advance of the materialistic society?

How can Orient be described? And the Western Society?

In the western society we are reflexive, analytical, mathematical, utilitarian, pragmatic, discursive, logical, etc. and following our logical mentality. We evaluate and set value to things, as something completely natural and that is how the things we create are. This is the reason behind our extraordinary technological progress, which we are all so proud of. This is also the starting point for all the "isms" that exist in our society (materialism, communism, capitalism, neoliberalism, etc.).

This view of the world has had us create a society that lives for technological progress, the resulting society is sick and place where humans are less important than machines. In this context, when we practice martial arts, we will act according to our cultural background and will look at Karate from this viewpoint, this world-view, this paradigm. Therefore we will create our own organizations and institutions, they will extend our particular vision of karate or any other martial art. We will create directive and administrative bodies, under a democratic design, if possible, thus giving it more authority and representativity; but what we're really doing is expressing our cultural background within Karate-do.

Following the same logic, we will establish a new grading scale, for we will consider that having 5th Dan as a maximum does not fit the present-day reality, we will create a measuring method that better fits our Western mental structure. We will therefore exaggerate and overemphasize the conferral of grades, accreditation, titles and qualifications, all that that can show off our achievements and our position. That's how, almost naturally, 8th, 9th and 10th Dan (I personally think this as excessive modesty, I can't understand why there aren't 20th or 25th dans) and the titles such as "Grand Master" appear. This makes me believe that one day there will probably exist "super - duper - extra - grandmasters".

Continuing with this logic, technique must necessarily be as utilitarian as possible, this is the only way it can be understood and it's even easier to understand as a sport. Anyone can understand this, many want to learn it and it is therefore easier to sell. Continuing with this same reasoning, titles and more titles will be created, more and more trophies, we will create a gigantic show to elect the best and we will make this the very reason of karate's existence.

As I previously said, within this mentality, we need to create a system that helps us showcase our achievements and at the same time it can help us visualize our own progress. We live in society where people are not appreciated for what they are but for what they have been able to acquire. Thus, Karate, can be no different.

Because people are valued by what they possess, a system has been established where everybody fights day in and day out in order to own more and more, this is the way you can obtain recognition and other people's appreciation and interest. Consequently, within karate and other martial arts, this will result in higher gradings that 5th Dan, titles and positions that show off how much we are worth. I believe our society has created a very peculiar system, where it's members actually lack self-esteem.

On the other hand, in Karate, there are those that with the best intentions, teach the art as a self-defense system. With this in mind, a profound and systematic study is undertaken, that consecuently directs instruction and teaching as a highly effective personal defense system.

Surely karate can be an extremely effective self-defense system, but I believe this is a subproduct, I do not believe this is the real objective of the art. But for our mental structure it's much easier to understand things that clearly prove their usefulness, but this hardly represents the art's real purpose. Master Egami expresses his concern in another part of the text, stating that Karate-do cannot be viewed as an "art of homicide". If this is to be avoided, instructors must not teach it in such a fashion. In any case, this is just another typical manifestation of our pragmatic and utilitarian mentality that is noticeable by its lack of spirituality.

Many instructors have traveled from the East to the West to teach martial arts, but what the vast majority have done, is teach a user-tailored art, adapted to the Western mentality. They have therefore overemphasized titles and distinctions and the art has been transformed into a sport, this has of course guaranteed the success of many of them. We must then assume, that what these instructors have done is profit from the Western benefits, that is, the material advantages that it has to offer. When we take this into consideration we can assume that these instructors had a very Western mentality beforehand. This is of course not the case of those instructors that have taught their art establishing a cultural bridge between the East and the West.

Evidently, Master Egami considers the spiritual aspects as very important and fundamental for understanding the soul of the East.

How can we describe the Eastern world?

The East is illogical, irrational, unreflexive, intuitive, affective, non-discursive, non-pragmatic, integrative, deductive, non-individualistic and thus, socially group-oriented. It is not philosophical nor speculative, it is religious, it is profound, it is spiritual. This expresses itself through cultural manifestations that are linked to this spirituality. That is why the Budo martial arts and Karate-do are a representative part of this spirituality, that points, through training and practice, to the most profound aspects of our being.

Karate-do is an art which searches to awaken a new level of consciousness, just as all oriental cultural expressions. That is why filling it with Occidental superficiality erodes it's essence. That's why the art can't be utilitarian nor full of titles and gradings beyond those established by the founders and creators, this is not based on a respect for tradition, rather a respect for the very essence of the art. If I need titles and trophies, I am filling it with superficiality that is not part of the art's essence, rather a part of Western logic and certainly not a part of the art's original objectives.

The art of Karate-do as Master Egami presents it, is for human development, but a development strongly based on the Eastern view that searches for an awakening of human spirituality, giving him/her the tools to confront the overwhelming advance of an insensitive and materialistic society.

Now, how can we attain this purpose?

I believe this can only be done through sincere practice, through a sincere love of the art and certainly not trying to profit from it. Life cannot be the search of profit. Life is feeling, sensibility, life is integration.

Why do we have to fight one another? Why do we have to show that we are better than the others? Can't we mutually help one another in becoming better people each day?

It is only our insecurity that makes us so competitive and we search for reassurance in other people's recognition. We will not stop being who we actually are, just because we are "better" when we compare ourselves with others.

I believe that Master Egami clearly showed the way. Competition, even if it's only Kata or only Kumite is nevertheless competition, and it has no place in a road that searches for spiritual development. Competition is sport and sport may be good for people, but it is not a method for spiritual development. Here I would like to clearly state that I am not against sport, on the contrary, I consider that all people should train in a sport, not considering sex, age nor physical condition. Everybody should train the most appropriate sport considering their personal characteristics, but this does not mean, no matter how good it is for society, that everything should be turned into a sport.

Can you imagine a group of priests organizing a tournament to determine who can preach the best mass, or a cleric championship to find Homily Champion? This would simply be ridiculous, in the very least. Can someone imagine Master Egami sending his students off to participate in a tournament?

From all I have expressed previously, it would seem as if there's a confrontation between the Eastern and the Western mentality, but I do not believe that is the case. However, it is necessary to clearly define cultural attributes to be able to understand the problem in the fullest extent, only then can we fully grasp the words of Master Egami.

It is my belief that thanks to the cultural mixing and the great development of communications, a day will come when there will no longer be a dichotomy between cultures and we will talk about a great universal culture. It's objective will be the holistic development of human beings and all society. If this is to happen, great leaders will be necessary. People that can express the best aspects of human beings and struggle for humanity's cause. Will this be the job of the men and women of the third millennium? Let's hope so. Karate-do and Budo will need leaders that will maintain Master Egami's legacy unaltered. These leaders must be pledged to the cause of humanity, but furthermore they will need a large amount of humility to assume the role. It is not a political job, it will not be attained in this fashion, no matter how many organizations we establish and no matter how noble their goals are. It's a goal that will be attained through Keiko, this job will have to be done with keiko-gi. It is a goal that must be accomplished in intimate contact with nature and not in front of a desk nor in an sports arena, it's a job that has to be completed in the deepest confines of each human being.

Who will be the next one that will give his life so that we may understand something about the Way.


Humberto Heyden
July 3, 1997
Karate Do Shotokai Enyclopedia on Karate-do and Japanese Martial Arts
© 1995-2013. All rights reserved unless otherwise stated.
For reproduction permission contact: infoshotokai@shotokai.com
Concepción Chile.