Ahimsa is a deep and old spiritual concept that is believed to have originated in India. Several traditions, including Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism have strong connections to this concept. It may be understood, in the strictest sense, as a commitment and prohibition against any type of violence against another sentient being. In this absolute expression, even using violent means to defend one’s self would not be acceptable. Other expressions of ahimsa allow for certain exceptions to the general rule of non-violence. Some of these exceptions include defending one’s self, family or country when attacked. Karate shares in the teaching and practice of ahimsa.
In contemporary times, we have seen ahimsa used in the political arena. This has had some amazing and tragic outcomes. Gandhi, and later Martin Luther King Jr., applied the strict practice of ahimsa to force serious civil reform and changes in India and America respectively. The footage, news clips and photos of these valiant actions will remain etched in our consciousness for some time to come. It’s remarkable if you think about how they applied ahimsa. Governments, with all of their weapons, influence, authority and economic dominance were effectively subdued by a refusal to use any physical force! Tragically, their commitment to non-violence did not save them from meeting violent deaths. Both were shot. It was very sad. But, what they both proved on a global scale was that a strict commitment to non-violence can literally change the world. What would the world look like today if large numbers of people worldwide took this position?
Ahimsa has taken a slightly different path in karate. In the Japanese language karate means “empty hand.” It was also called “Chinese hand.” Karate developed in Okinawa in the 17th Century. In Okinawa, it was called Tii. (i.e. “tee”) Its formulation was greatly influenced by Chinese martial arts. But, how exactly did ahimsa become so essential to the practice of karate? I have some ideas about that. One has to do with the story of Bodhidharma (a traveling Indian Buddhist Monk) traveling into China in the 5th or 6th century. See Meditation In Martial Arts for that story and his introduction of meditation practices to monks.
The second part of my theory has to do with how karate itself even became necessary. Basically, Okinawan people needed a way to fight off invading groups like samurai from Japan. Once “conquered” they could not carry weapons or any object that could be seen as a weapon. In effect, they had nothing but empty hands left. Though this was not strictly the case as they were allowed to use farming tools for cultivating lands. They masterfully created magnificent self-defense techniques with these basic tools. Those techniques have been handed down to this day in the form of katas (forms) and ritual dances. Likewise, the same can be said of karate self-defense techniques. Lethal punches, kicks, poking, gouging and powerful knee and elbow strikes were created, practiced and used with great success against armed attackers.
The creators of karate were presented with an unenviable proposition. Offer no resistance and still be beaten and humiliated or create a non-aggressive and non-offensive form of self protection. Here the philosophy of ahimsa can said to have sprung up organically. Karate comes out of a tradition that at its root was not developed to attack, strictly to defend. One was taught to receive his opponent rather than invite him. For obvious reasons, these self-defense techniques could not be practiced “in the open.” So they were often disguised in dances, katas and farming techniques. They were also secretly practiced in small groups in private.
It is my belief that Bodhidharma’s influence on the monks of China (e.g. Shaolin Monks), and the subsequent influence of Chinese martial arts on almost every other Asian style of martial arts, is the main reason why ahimsa found its way into the practice of karate. The schools and teachers today who maintain ahimsa as absolutely essential, if not primary, in the practice of karate (and several other martial arts) are called traditionalist in part due to their commitment and adherence to a form of ahimsa. To my knowledge the term “ahimsa” is not specifically used in dojos. (i.e. training halls) But, for many of us it is implied whenever we say “karate” or “self-defense.”