Choosing The Right Path Towards The “Ultimate Aim” of Karate

Disclaimer: To all you second graders, there are no images in this post. Sorry. And I’m not even sorry.

Lately I’ve been thinking about Karate quotes regarding the so called “aim” of Karate, as proposed by masters of the old…

Take a look:

“The ultimate aim of the art of Karate lies not in victory nor defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants”

– Funakoshi Gichin

Perhaps the most famous one, said by one of the founding “fathers” of modern Karate, Funakoshi Gichin. I bet you’ve read that one a thousand times, right?

Here’s another one:

“The ultimate aim of Karate-do is to build character, conquer human misery and find spiritual freedom”.

Apparently uttered by Miyagi Chojun, founder of Goju-ryu Karate.

Equally utopian.

Because, the fun thing is, these quotes basically state that a Karate master is nothing short of an angel, or a saint! A person of virtually impeccable character, with no visible chinks in his armor.

But, I ask, do you know such a person?

A true master?

Do you know somebody who never becomes angry, or even irritated?

Somebody who always gives to charity, always smiles, always does “the right thing”, is incomparably unselfish, never lies, always is incredibly patient, never hurts nobody, never eats cake (?), always laughs at his boss’ boring jokes, loves veggies…

Does such a person even exist?

It’s doubtful.

And if he does, he sure as hell doesn’t come in a white gi with a red belt slapped on.

I’ve seen too many self-centred grand “masters” on top of their kingdoms throwing fistfuls of ass-goo at everyone questioning their authority and (lack of) experience to believe so. Or… perhaps they’re just not masters yet? Maybe I’m just mistaken. Perhaps they’ve not yet reached that level of perfect manners, fantastic character and saint-like behaviour? They might be masters in the making, right?!

Well, maybe.

I don’t know.

But… I don’t think so.

The crux of the matter is, of course, that the people who are truly good human beings (if there is such a thing), and true masters, don’t care about publicity and thus rarely become known to the rest of us normal, deadly, people.

They have no interest in being admired.

Because they don’t do it for themselves.

The result is, just like in kindergarten, that the ones who shout the loudest get all the attention.

And if those people happen to be in the “right” place  -during the “right” time – they might easily be confused for masters in the art of Karate! Which, when the truth is revealed, makes us all question the validity of quotes from our old Karate pioneers. I mean, when the “masters” right in front of our very own eyes are not even near “perfection of the character” or “spiritual freedom”, as proposed by Funakoshi and Miyagi, what are we supposed to think?

I think people simply need to be blinded by “knowledge”.

Because nobody likes to ride in the bandwagon of uncertainty.

Ever since the dawn of mankind we have been made to follow leaders who can gather people together because the advantages of being in groups ownz the advantages of being alone, whether your group is carrying the right knowledge or not (you can never be sure). It has always been more profitable for an individual to tag along with other people in the wrong direction than to be all alone in the right one.

Follow the loud and assertive fool – or the introspective thinker?

Your genes were carried down from the first.

Wow, k, thx. But how do we know if somebody is a master then? “Okay, so I can’t trust what he says and he also happens to burp and fart occasionally, so apparently he has some flaws (or is seriously lactose intolerant), but he’s got a red belt on, along with a pooload of diplomas and certificates on the wall, next to his incredible collection of photos with famous masters, so he must have done something right… right?”


There was, believe it or not, a time when I myself thought that by simply looking at the belt of somebody I could actually easily determine their skill level. I was about 7 years old at the time, if I remember correctly. The reasoning went:

White belt = nOOb.

Black belt = godlike.

(Purple belt = mysterious, and slightly girly)

Simple as that.

But then I gradually noticed that the farther away from the core that you went (from yourself > dojo > national organization > international organization > different organization but same style > different style > etc.) the less did the belt-theory hold true, and for the most part it got literally flipped like a pancake on b/day.

Because the belt is first and foremost for yourself.

Next, for your sensei.

Next, for your dojo peers, etc.

And then it just spirals out of control, having literally no worth at all for people on the edge of your stylistic limit. So, once I understood that, I said to myself, “okay, if the belt is not a perfect measure, perhaps length of training is?”. I was about 10 at the time, obviously living in a bubble. Like:

1 year of training = nOOb

50 years of training = godlike

But simply asking “so, how many years have you been training?” turns out to be not that much better. At all.

Why? Simply because some people train once a week like zombies on Valium; while the next man trains four times a week like Superman on ecstacy. Yet, they might both have been training for five years in total. And they are not even on the same planet when it comes to skills! Like night and day. Or “like oil and water”, as the Japanese say.

It turns out that what matters more is how you have been training during those years and what you have been training during those years.

And I can’t possibly demand that every person I meet gives me a detailed record of their training history, can I?

Of course not.

So, the solution then became clear.

Regard E-V-E-R-Y-O-N-E as masters.

Or, perhaps master is the wrong word, but regard everyone as somebody with totally different experiences and skills compared to you, and relentlessly try to see what you can extract from him/her… and then add that to your own understanding of Karate.

Although this might seem egocentric at first glance, it is quite the opposite, because you need to become a nobody.

A constant white belt.

You need to become a shadow that literally sucks in knowledge and skill from everyone and everything you meet.

Which I imagine can be quite hard for those who are very attached to their rank/position/status and the advantages that follow. But I don’t care. You must let it go. Throw it all away. You will no even want to go back once you see how your new advantages trumps your former “advantages” (which were more like roadblocks).

Easier said than done, I know.

But the longer you do it, the sweeter it gets.

As an interesting side note, the reaction from other people is quite revealing when met with this approach. Some people will immediately become your self-appointed sensei guru, taking advantage of this “sucker” (you!); while other people will become very suspicious, thinking there is something wrong with this “freak” (you!) therefore refraining from cooperating with you at all.

But, on rare occasions, you meet somebody who has the same attitude as you.

And that’s when magic happens.

“No matter how you may excel in the art of fighting [te], and in your scholastic endeavors, nothing is more important than your behavior and your humanity as observed in daily life.”

– Teijunsoku (b. 1663), Okinawan scholar

Because, isn’t being a master of Karate ultimately about being a master of…



  • Stephen Ferraro
    I agree totally! The rank itself does not matter. How many times have we seen Yudansha walking around their dojos with their arms -crossed, fancy Gi (probably bought in Okinawa at Shureido on a trip), and their new obi. Yawn. I used to know a Sensei that would smoke cigarettes in his office the whole night while his assistant's taught for him. It's sad, but true. If you think for one minute that you have a handle on your karate, then you don't get it. Please don't quote me but Nagamine Sensei once said something like, if someone thinks that Karate is done in a line with kicks, punches and blocks, these people are mistaken. ... my 2 cents, Steve
  • Batman
    Excellent entry (as always, I know :p) I started shotokan karate a little over a year ago (I think it's been about 15 months) and got my first grading on Tuesday. I have felt a bit silly being a white belt for so long, but at the same time it's been really liberating, nobody expects the white belt guy to be as awesome at karate as his beard is at being awesome. I could just take part, do my thing, not worry about people turning to me for advice or whatever, and take it all in :)
  • Carl
    Thanks for putting it into words.
  • May be we must not look for Red Belts... neither for Masters... and they will reveal as old people with just an old black belt in a little Dojo at Okinawa...
  • Andrey From Tampa Fl.
    2010-12,18 tampa fl. Oshu !! It is a very interesting subject. In Japan all the stories are not necessary true. but if you get the point that is important. Anyhow all the Trusty Samurai Story finished with betray, dead and mostly Hara Kiri !... I am one of the lucky one. I was with my teacher for 26 years.until the day he went to Nirvana. And even there he teach us Death. Always wearing a plain white do-gi, no patches regular old black belt no grade no kanji. Doing the classes with us. He instructed us in karate kobudo bushido and more he was a Life Teacher !(Like in your own conclusion.) Even today after 20 years he pass away i am still following his recommendation in my daily training and in my personnal life on my way to Nirvana . I still have his pictures in my wallet. Remember it is better to go someplace Alone with a teacher than nowhere with everybody. My sensei spoke fluencly 4 languages including japanese. He live in tokyo for 3 years in 1966. work over there and also made a lot of money Yes you got it ! Teaching French English and Italian for the Olympic.. We can easely rocognize a good teacher... A good teacher in any art,Music , Painting,Calligraphy Kenjutsu,astrology ect. teach you first the passion for his art, than secondly not to rely on him, third how smooth is the transition after his death. Him and his student should be good human beiing Man of trust and responsible and there are model citizen. On the other hand.. Everything your learn in karate you should put it directly in your daily life. It is not necessary how you have been training or wath ! But like in kenjutsu how long did you study under the same teacher? And wath is your Keizu. You must not be a vagabon of budo.! Jumping from one teacher to another , from one another. you should always follow your teacher recommandation . If not ! your teacher is not necessary your teacher and you,of course you are not his student..! In conclusion please just remember like my old teacher always say : "a black belt is just and advanceed white belt." thank you ..( excuse my french !) Andrey from tampa bay..
    • Jake
      This is beautiful. I feel the same about my sensei who I still walk with. We have been blessed.
  • Nice article Jesse, i experimented the same difficulty in evaluating the actual skill level of my interlocutor. Considering that my orientation in karate is more on competitiveness than on traditional practice, a criterion in my opinion is: - no competitions = nOOb - many year of competitive Karate = goodlike I know it is a sort of "racism", but, in practise, I think the main stimulus to reach the perfection in technique and physical form is the fear for the match and for the comparison with other athletes. If you don't have deadlines, your training is inevitably less hard. However this "competitive" vision of Karate is in contrast with "perfection of the character": sometimes award-winning karatekas are egocentric and of course they are very far from being a master in the sense that you exposed.
  • peteampil
    Jesse I believe that 'earned peer recognition' is the key to any title, whether Grandmaster,Shihan, Hanshi, etc......... one earns the respect of peers by mastery of your craft...... as in some professiona where one is conferred the title of Fellow, Right Reverend, Full professor,Master Baker,etc. ...... In our craft,this appears to be being done in Japan and Okinawa....... based upon my rather limited knowledge.. I do not know about the 'we scatch each other's back' practice....... we exchange recognitions among our different organizations...... Also by recognition from an organization's top honcho - should be OK if mastery is the key determinant..... rather than the number of bucks or number of students that a person purports/pretends to bring into the Sensei's umbrella organization...... please accept my heartfelt gratitude for what you are doing for most of your brothers in the craft we are passionate about.......
  • The fact is that Karate Do was born in Okinawa under certain rules. Follow the rules or you are not in Karate Do. It's like "Alternative medicine"; If it's really "medicine" you will study it at the University and would not be "alternative". Say what you want... What men do better is to justify...
  • Igor
    One of the things my teacher told me never to disgard someone on the first glance. Especially if he has many years of training behind him, no matter how odd he might strike you, weak, his techniques looking sloppy and what not. Always observe and scan if there is any knowledge to be stolen :)
  • Cheryl from thatgirlisfunny
    I love this line: "It has always been more profitable for an individual to tag along with other people in the wrong direction than to be all alone in the right one." I don't practice karate. I found this post through the martial arts group on linked in. I'm on a quest to channel what I'm learning about life and people from practicing martial arts. Listening in on your karate people conversation is very revealing. Sounds like what people normally talk about when figuring out their place in the pecking order becomes more important than granting space to the "quiet ones" who might have more to share than the "noisy" people in the group.
    • Oh, well... This web site is VERY noisy...
  • DynamicFisticuffs
    "Does not eat cake (?)" I had JUST finished off a piece of cake before I read that line! XD (Luckily cake eating isn't a problem, or a handsome carrot cake lover on this blog would be in trouble ?) This does remind me of earlier posts of Funakoshi vs Motobu and them hurling insults and this and that and being like "Wait what happened to the ultimate aim of being a good person??" XD Part of my return to karate is associated with Nicolas Pettas' series Samurai Spirit and the karate episode. It talks much about the importance of one's character in karate, even telling a story about Choshin Chibana (Shorin-Ryu pioneer. While my lineage isn't exactly from him, still FTW. I say the same about all karate pioneers tho XD). It was said that he became so renowned for his karate skills that he would get a bunch of challenges. One time a thug tried to test his skills and mug him and Choshin Chibana JUST LET THE MAN BEAT HIM UP because he did not want to use his skills seriously and hurt the man. The man eventually stopped beating him, apologized, and left. I believe Choshin Chibana went back to teaching his students the next day. Similarly there was a more Modern day student from an Okinawan dojo who was abroad in Paris and had to use her karate to defend herself...and she felt bad for it because she had to hurt someone! I find this part of the karate paradox very intriguing!

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