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In this note we will look at the role of Mokuso in karate. We will see that Mokuso is not just a way of ending a training session in the dojo but is a crucial part in training of the mind so that the karateka’s application of karate can be effective when needed.
The word Mokuso means silent meditation. It is performed while in the seiza position. This is a Japanese way of sitting with the legs being folded underneath and the tops of the feet resting on the floor. The back is held straight and the palms are resting on the thighs.
While seated in this position, breathe in slowly through the nose and out through the mouth. Each breath should take about 20 seconds although this will vary by individual. Focus on breathing throughout, not on any thoughts (which may come and go). The breath is imagined to go up to the top of the head and then wind its way down into the centre of the abdomen (the hara). On the out breath, it is imagined to unwind from the hara and out through the mouth. It is important that the breathing is abdominal and not from the upper chest.
Over time Mokuso will enable the karateka to control the ebb and flow of their emotions and is recommended as a way of reducing stress – which, as we are all aware, has become a common ailment in this day and age.
The question has to be asked why do we have this form of meditation, or even why do we have any form of meditation at all. To answer this we need to go back to the early roots of karate in the Buddhist Temples in China. Many theories exist as to why the empty hand techniques developed here but one of these relates to meditation and the state of mind that the Buddhist monks were trying to reach. As set out in [Jo], the monks were trying to empty their minds en-route to “Enlightenment”. However seated meditation is a very individual experience and it is not possible for a teacher in meditation to gauge an individual’s state of “emptiness” or assist them in what they needed to change since the teacher could not look into an individual’s mind. Hence the monks attempted to take the process of meditation out of the mental dimension and practice it in the physical.
To do this the “pushing hands” exercises were developed. In this the practitioners start in strong stances (such as an early form of kiba dachi or sanchin dachi), put their arms into contact and push one another’s arms in various ways. The aim here being to eventually unbalance the other practitioner. The monks had taken vows against violence but were still allowed to hold and control a physical force and, by using a well centred posture, redirect or pass these pushes on.
The monks realised that one cannot perform the “pushing hand” exercises with an appropriate level of skill unless the mind has become “empty”. Only with an empty mind can the monks immediately respond to each other act appropriately. As such this is a physical representation of what the monks were trying to achieve. This enabled them to observe directly whether a monk was achieving the desired level of emptiness in his meditation.
Even though it was arguably developed at the source karate, in most forms of karate the pushing hands exercise are no longer used although a form still exists in Goju Ryu.
It can be seen that the introduction of ballistic techniques into the exercise can quickly develop the exercise to more of a martial art. It can be argued that this takes a step further than contact as it brings in to play the visual aspect. The state of mind here also being crucial. Not only do we need the quick reaction times but also peripheral vision is needed. For example consider the case when one is approached by a group of potential assailants. A common approach by such a group is for one of them to try and engage you in conversation. This is so that your focus will be on him, but he is not the person you should be worried about. The group knows that you may become stressed. If this occurs then adrenalin will flow and tunnel vision will result. An attack if it is to come, is more likely to come from one of the other potential assailants who will now be standing at the side. As such calmness, and consequently peripheral vision, is crucial to maintain.
The state of mind also leads itself to be useful in other martial arts and the Buddhists knew that this was the case. This can be seen, for example, in the writings of Takuan Soho (1573 – 1645). In particular his treatise “The Unfettered Mind” is described as writings from a Zen Master to a master swordsman [Ta]. In this work he indicates that the mind focusing on one thing will slow it down and leads to the defender being cut down by the opponent(s). He introduces the concept of “no-mind” (or Mushin) as a desired state to be in. “It is called No-Mind when the mind has neither discrimination nor thought but wanders about the entire body and extends throughout the entire self”. The principle appears to be that if the mind concentrates in one place it misses what happens elsewhere and hence can slow the martial artist down. In simple terms by being in a state of no-mind allows the karateka to move quickly – however the karateka needs to know what to be able to do. He describes the concept like having a mind like water otherwise it is like ice.
As an example of what can happen when the mind becomes too focused on one item consider the following exercise. First of all consider a jiyu ippon chudan attack it could be a gyaku-zuki or an oi-zuki. For the experienced karateka this should be a straightforward exercise with a block and counter coming in a controlled manner. Now consider the same situation but with the attacker now having a weapon, say a training knife. For the karateka who has not mastered the skill of mushin the situation now becomes more difficult. In this scenario the karateka’s focus will go to the knife and the karateka will miss the cues as to when the attack is to commence and what the movement of the opponent as the focus is now on the knife. What used to be a simple “block and counter” now becomes much more difficult. If the karateka is skilled in Mushin then he does not place all of the focus in one place and the situation becomes much closer to the standard chudan attack.
These ideas also appear in later works. For example it is related to one of Funakoshi’s principles “The mind must be set free” [Fu]. Also we have other principles as stated in Nishiyama [Ni] such as “mizu no kokoro” – a mind like water and “tsuki no kokuro” – a mind like the moon. Kanazawa in [Ma] is quoted as saying “Mushin means an empty mind which is in a state of total control and concentration…the mental attitude you need in your journey to find success in your life”. Hence even though the mind is described as “empty” this does not mean that the karateka is cut off from what is around him. In fact the opposite is true in that the karateka has a sense of complete awareness of what is going on around him.
The question becomes what training is appropriate to try and achieve this state of mind. In Shotokan this is where we can use Mokuso, meditation leading to an appropriate state of mind via concentration on breath. In [Sc] it is proposed that the same could apply with kata, by concentrating on breathing during repeated performances of kata could yield the same result as with seated meditation.
Mokuso helps the mind to achieve a certain state so that the karateka can operate effectively. What is of interest is whether we can use models of how the mind/brain operates to see whether this helps our understanding. There are different theories as to how the mind operates and although they may not agree on the actual structure there is commonality in that it is desirable for certain parts of the brain to operate in certain circumstances.
In [Sc] the left brain / right brain model is discussed. In simple terms, with the degree of split being overstated, the left brain operates in a serial, verbal way whereas the right brain operates in a parallel, pattern recognition way. It should be noted that it is thought that the verbal ego is more of a left brain phenomena. If the left brain is dominant, at a particular point in time, its operation will be serial in nature. In terms of karate it will mean that one action has to be completed before another can begin and there will be barriers to performing tasks in a parallel manner. This means that the karateka will always be one step behind the opponent and if the opponent has the initiative it will be difficult to get it back. When the right brain is dominant then, along with the sense of self diminishing and parts seem to operate without a controller (from an ego or left brain perspective), there is an increase in parallel processing and techniques can be performed simultaneously. In this method of operation simultaneous techniques will be easier to perform and it will be easier for the karateka to seize back the initiative.
Under this model of the operation of the brain, meditation can be seen as a way of quietening the left part of the brain (possibly through the repetition of a single word or phrase as in some types of meditation) thus allowing the right brain centre to be “free” from domination or inhibition. Ideally, the left brain is involved in learning the techniques and the right brain should be used in practice. This is however difficult to achieve.
According to some more recent ideas in mind management (in particular the book by Dr Steve Peters [Pe]), the psychological mind can be thought of as composing of several different “brains”. Three of which have been labelled the computer, the chimp and the human.
The human part of the brain is where “we” are. It is the most rationale collaborative area. The way it operates is by searching for facts and establishing the truth. On a day to day basis, it is the part of the brain that we would like to use the most. The chimp part of the brain is more emotive. The way is operates is via feelings and impressions. It assumes that the world is a jungle and that it is constantly under threat from external sources. It views everyone else as a chimp. It is much stronger than the human part and cannot be forced into submission by the human but needs to be managed. If there is a conflict between the human part of the brain and the chimp then the chimp will win. It does, however, think much quicker than the human part.
The fastest of the three is the computer part. It can think and act automatically using programmed thoughts and behaviours. It stores information and can be trained (by both the chimp and the human). It is the first port of call of both the chimp and the human. From a speed perspective, it is this part of the brain that we would wish to utilise without interference from other elements. According to Peters the Chimp thinks five times faster than the human and the Computer is four times faster than the Chimp.
If the human part of the brain is involved then the reaction time is too slow. By the time the human brain reacts then the conflict could be over – unfavourably. However the human element should be involved in the training of the computer. This would ensure that correct techniques are used when needed. Hence the need to learn things slowly with repetition.
In a physical conflict situation the chimp can perform better than the human, however other effects can come into play that could be improved upon. Once the chimp takes control, reaction times will increase but the “red light” can come on. The chimp under threat typically operates in one of Fight, Flight or Freeze. Adrenalin starts flowing and the body behaves differently. One of the effects is an increase in tunnel vision and the corresponding lack of peripheral vision. This makes the individual susceptible to say a mawashi geri or an ushiro mawashi geri that seems to have “come from nowhere”. If the chimp is in control we are more likely to be struck by something we did not see coming. In a real situation conflict is normally best avoided and so Flight may be appropriate. However if the karateka freezes then this clearly is not an appropriate reaction.
It is common to see the “freeze” behaviour of the chimp during Okuri jiyu ippon kumite training, particularly in those karateka who are unaccustomed to this type of training. The situation follows this sort of pattern. The attacker states where he is going to attack. The chimp in the defender is aware that something is going to happen and pre-plans the block and counter which is performed with body movement. The second unannounced attack happens and the chimp takes over in the defender. As the attack comes in, it is common to see that the defender is rooted to the spot and is just using upper body strength to block and counter. If this happens the speed of training should decrease to enable the defender to improve their technique and abilities so that when the training increases in speed the chimp does not need to come to the fore.
In basic training there is also a temptation to let the chimp takeover. It has to be realised that the chimp thinks that everyone else is a chimp and that they are in a jungle where everyone is out to get them. Hence the chimp has to beat all of the other chimps in whatever they are doing. During basic training this means being faster than all of the other chimps. The problem here is that this can be at the expense of technique. The tunnel vision mentioned above will now apply to the karateka’s own perception of their technique and they will not notice the incorrect stances and poor movement of the hips. They must be good they finished first! This leads to the situation of the chimp training the computer and these poor techniques then become ingrained in the karateka and the computer will need to be reprogrammed, hopefully by the human, before the karateka can progress in their abilities.
The state of complete awareness as required by Mushin cannot therefore occur once the “chimp” takes over. With the chimp there is an increase in adrenalin flow and hence an increase in tunnel vision. In the example of the knife training earlier, the appearance of the knife corresponds to the appearance of the chimp in the karateka and as mentioned before the cues are then missed.
In his books [Ka1], [Ka3] Kanazawa describes “mind reading”. This appears to correspond to an appropriate (computer) part of the mind operating. If the human or chimp brains were operating then this would slow the brain down. Through practice the karateka can pick up on visual cues and react appropriately - if the “computer” has been trained appropriately.
Through “pushing hands” the right state of mind was achieved by the Shaolin monks, enabling them to react properly.
The same holds true in kumite, enabling the karateka to pick up on cues that would be missed and enabling them to react appropriately. It should be clear that the right state of mind is essential for jiyu kumite. To help achieve this, the karateka should use the other forms of kumite not only for training of technique but also for training of mental state.
In pre-planned kumite when training both the attack and defence have often been predetermined. With novice karateka there may be a sense of nervousness and as such the Chimp may be in control. Also it is likely that the mind will be focused on the technique at hand so the state of “no mind” will not be achieved. However, correct use of breathing and the development of the ability to use peripheral vision in order to “read” the opponent will assist the karateka help achieve the correct state.
When training in Okuri there is more of a potential for attempting to reach the correct mental state. But even here there is the temptation to decide, say, what the second attack is going to be even before the first attack has been made, with no account taken of where the opponent is situated. In this case it is common, either for the inappropriate attack to go ahead, or if there is a “change of mind” then, even though the attack is now different, the second attack will now appear later than it otherwise would have and so it is easier to deal with. This is an example of when the mind is not like water but like ice. It is best for the attacker to keep an open mind (or a state of “no mind”) and perform an attack that is appropriate to the circumstances. The karateka should first master this in Okuri so that when they move onto Jiyu-kumite they are well practiced in achieving the required mental state.
When training in Happo Kumite (eight direction kumite) as described in [Ka3] the correct mental state is key. As the attack can come from any direction and can be of any form the defender must keep an open mind as to what defence and counter is appropriate. When the attack is announced the defender needs to be able to react quickly and appropriately. As such it is clear that a correct mental state is crucial in these circumstances.
It should be emphasised that having the right frame of mind is not sufficient. It is also necessary to know the appropriate techniques. For this to happen the computer part of the brain has to be trained appropriately. This can be done by either the Human or the Chimp. If this is done by the Chimp then there is a high chance that the techniques will not be learnt correctly. By training slowly the Human part of the brain can remain in control and so there is a higher chance that techniques will be learnt properly. It should be noted that Kanazawa in [Ka2] that once in every three times the kata should be performed in a relaxed manner at a leisurely pace.
At this point it is probably worth pointing out another important effect of Mokuso that is also of benefit to the karateka. The relaxed state of mind that ensues that the karateka is trying to achieve will affect the body of the karateka. This means that the muscles of the karateka will also be relaxed and hence the speed at which the karateka can move will be much quicker. So as well as being able to move appropriately the karateka will also be quicker than otherwise would be the case.
What we have seen is that having the right state of mind is crucial for the karateka throughout their training. Whether it is during the assimilation of basic techniques or the application in kumite a correct mental state will ensure that correct techniques are learnt and executed appropriately when needed. Regular training in Mokuso will assist the karetaka in achieving this mental state.
[Fu] Funakoshi, Gichin. The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate. Kodansha International Ltd, 2003. (Originally published as Karate-do nijukkajo to sono kaishaku in Karate-do taikan in 1938)
[Jo] Johnson, Nathan. Barefoot Zen – The Shaolin Roots of Kung Fu and Karate. Samuel Weiser, Inc., 2000.
[Ka1] Kanazawa, Hirokazu. Black Belt Karate – The Intensive Course. Kodansha International Ltd, 2006.
[Ka2] Kanazawa, Hirokazu. Karate – The Complete Kata. Kodansha International Ltd, 2009.
[Ka3] Kanazawa, Hirokazu. Karate Fighting techniques– The Complete Kumite. Kodansha International Ltd, 2004.
[Ma] Mann, Jeffery. When Buddhists Attack – The Curious Relationship Between Zen and the Martial Arts. Tuttle Publishing, 2012.
[Ni] Nishiyama, Hidetaka and Brown, Richard. Karate – The Art of “Empty-Hand” Fighting. Tuttle Publishing, 1960.
[Pe] Peters, Steve. The Chimp Paradox: The Mind Management Programme to Help You Achieve Success, Confidence and Happiness. Vermilion, 2012.
[Sc] Schmeisser, Elmar. Advanced Karate-Do – Concepts, Techniques and Training Methods. Tamashii Press, 2007.
[Ta] Takuan Soho. The Unfettered Mind: Writings from a Zen Master to a Master Swordsman. Shambhala Publications Inc.; Reprint edition, 2012