“Ken Zen Ichi Nyo”: The True Measure of a Black Belt

Are you a human being?

If so, I congratulate you!

Because in today’s world, most of us are human doings – not human beings.

(Get it?)

It’s a pretty terrifying thought, but it seems truer for every generation that passes. We, as humans, are obsessed with doing stuff. Media and society constantly bombard us with the message that if we increase our productivity and get more things done, we will basically get instant happiness. Yet, many of us go through our days scattered; easily distracted by the extraneous details of our settings, and overwrought by the mental chatter playing in our minds.

Most of us even tie our capacity for productive work to our sense of self-worth!

But I believe that each time you choose ‘doing’ over ‘being’, you are gradually detaching yourself from your very own nature.

And that’s the surprisingly simple reason to why our minds are basically uncharted territory for most regular people.

Thus, instead of increasing your productivity, you should be be increasing your selectivity.

Which means; you should choose to embrace Zen.

And as a Karate-ka, you are already way ahead of the competition.

How come?

Well, as the ancient saying goes:

“Ken Zen Ichi Nyo”


The Fist and Zen are One.

A saying so common in traditional Karate that you’re bound to hear/read it in almost any genuine dojo (especially in Okinawa, the birthplace of Karate), along with many other classical proverbs that I’ve written about before, such as On Ko Chi Shin, Shu Ha Ri, Shin Gi Tai, Ko Un Ryu Sui, Yo Ryu Bi and more.

But don’t get it twisted; this has nothing to do with Buddhism or even religion as such. Even the legendary Itosu Anko sensei once wrote: “Karate did not descend from Buddhism or Confucianism”.

Zen means something different in this case.

Some people migh call it “mindfulness”. Some people might call it “spiritual awareness”, “focus”, “stillness” or “centeredness”. Other people might call it cosmos! It doesn’t really matter though, since it’s not about the label anyway.

See, if you are a Karate-ka, you are already practising it.

Perhaps without even knowing it.

Realizing that the source of human weakness actually lies within us (rather than outside us), the early pioneers of Karate came to the conclusion a long time ago that the ultimate journey of Karate must always be inward, not outward. And what better way to pursue this inner journey than through embracing the depths of Karate itself? Karate could literally be, as the legendary Mabuni Kenwa (founder of Shito-ryu) once wrote; “the boat” in which one is “ferried across the great void” to the “world within”.

Today people think of Karate and Zen as two separate things, but they are not.

Karate and Zen are one.

They are inseparable.

Hence the saying.

But because many people don’t understand this relationship, most Karate-ka tend to merely give lip service to Zen. However, just saying “Ken Zen Ichi Nyo” does not automatically make it so, nor does sitting quietly for a few minutes before training automatically constitute the practise of Zen. And although silence of mind does play a big part in it, there is more to the story.

Embracing Zen requires something…


And this, to me, is the one crucial factor that separates black belts from the rest:

Black belts have the ability to instantly switch mindset, with a laser-like focus; from chill time to kill time.

And along with that ability comes a certain knowledge, leading to a gradual understanding of oneself.

“The only Zen you find on top of mountains is the Zen you bring there.”

– Robert M. Pirziq

It’s an inexorable shift in the emphasis of one’s Karate for sure; from technique and strength of body, to refined awareness and a realization of one’s spirit. Something deeper than merely kicking and punching – which are integral, yet small, parts of the greater whole in our ultimate journey towards the summit of our metaphorical ‘Mt. Karate’.

(If you ever go to Okinawa, you’ll undoubtedly discover this yourself.)


  • Lay down the self-help books.
  • Put away the yoga mat.
  • Let go of the meditation beads.
  • And stop feeling guilty of being unproductive.

It’s not about that.

Zen is something to cultivate throughout our lives and something that, in turn, cultivates us at the same time.

And our chosen method of cultivation is Karate.

The sooner you treat it as such, the better.

Until then, I’m simply here to inform you that you’re missing out on something – because Karate, just as life, isn’t determined by the quantity of your output…

But by the quality of your input.

Ken Zen Ichi Nyo.

The Fist and Zen are One.

Make each training session count.


  • Lukas
    Wow, great article! I just had been to Okinawa for ten months and studying it more intensivly made me end up in a Zen-dojo as well. I had the honour talking to an old zen master and my question was: "i somehow have the impression that zen and karate are connected, why is that?" (of course i had read it too). He confirmed that and said something like "the heart/spirit is important the form of the practice does come at the second place" (my girlfriend translated his japanese so i couldnt really know his excact words). This had a huge impact on my Karate-practice and I think it can have on many others too since you realize that on the essence theres nothing to really archive the importance is just staying in touch with that essence. Only throught that one can understand why Karate can be in everything what we do (or not do) and where the difference between traditional and sport karate is. Thank you :)
    • Lukas-san, isn't it wonderful how such stories/encounters end up changing our course up Mt. Karate? ;)
  • Andi
    I think it's a decision I made to trust in a process of Karate at a stage when I yet didn't know what exactly it is about. Without trust, how can I be committed? And without committment, what could I ever become of it, if anything? Karate, being an abstract one-word formula (like e=mc2, sounds easy), as a genuine reflection of individual as well as collective humanity, has a complex, actually messy derivation. Trusting in this reflection, with Karate as its working theory, means allowing yourself to enter the process. And maybe, one day, you will be able to write such exciting articles. Ganbatte kudasai, Jesse-san.
    • Andreas-san, I appreciate your thoughtful comment and I completely agree that we have to dare trust the process in order to commit fully and achieve "Zen".
  • Szilard
    One could argue "Make each training session count" does not make that much sense when you realize there is only one training session, and you just have to be there. I mean "be" there, your mind, your body, your attention, all there. No more is needed, don't have to "make" anything. But I guess you meant the same thing, just in a different paradigm.
    • Good eye, Szilard-san! I initially considered writing: "Each session counts" (or something along those lines) but opted for the more motivational, albeit slightly less precise, alternative. Hopefully the intended message still gets through! :)
  • Kim's
    Great article and very well timed for me.
  • Adalbert
    "Karate, just as life, isn’t determined by the quantity of your output... But by the quality of your input". Indeed, non multa, sed multum! BTW, sometimes the greatest "achievements" are "byproducts" :-)
  • Uwe
    From memory: A student once asked the master: "Master, what is the true meaning of tao?" The Master replied: "When I'm hungry, I eat; When I'm thirsty, I drink; and when I'm tired, I sleep." All the best, Uwe
  • Shamus Mowrey
    Jesse, Once again you have written an excellent and articulate article. I have practiced Zen with the Martial Arts for the past 50 years. I have never heard or seen this subject stated in such a clear and understandable fashion. Thank you! Shamus
    • Thank you Shamus-san, I really appreciate your comment and I'm glad you like my work. Looking forward to hearing more about your vast experience!
  • Barbara Hesselschwerdt
    Just started with a new club/style after nearly 9 years in my old club. Putting away the black belt I used to wear and putting on a white one really tested my attitude and beliefs. Giving up the possibility of competing this year also tested me. On a personal level, my kids are now adults. So, I have been going through the whole 'what do I do now?'crisis thinking that also leads to the guilt over being unproductive because I don't work (for a wage). This article just gave me the answer of how I silence the panic inside of me and find the direction I seek. Karate truly is my chosen method of cultivating zen. Thanks for reminding me.
  • Leo
    Can you say to which time the saying traces back?
  • CreakyCurve [aka Ryan-san]
    "Karate, just as life, isn’t determined by the quantity of your output… But by the quality of your input." To me, that's deep, that really hit me hard, I interpreted that as: it's not just how much effort you give but also how much you learn to your Sensei or how much you take in and then take what you have learned and refine it make it your own to your ability and henceforth increasing your ability. (which may also be another way of saying keep training or keep climbing that mountain ["Mt. Karate"] to increase your ability) Maybe this hit me a bit more than you intended but you also said that "Black belts have the ability to instantly switch mindset, with a laser-like focus; from chill time to kill time". and for me this happens a lot from writing (in exams [i'm 15 btw] or stuff like this) to fighting or sparing (before hand i'm a laughable, stupid, typical gamer nerd, but when i start sparring I become Sensei Ryan, but have fun doing it [that's also important]). -Thanks: -Ryan
  • Gustavo Sosa
    Jesse, could you write something on using karate as active meditation (a la taijiquan)? I suspect doing a single kata over and over can work in the same way as the runner's high. But maybe much smarter persons than me have expressed opinions on this issue.
    • Maybe this can help? https://www.karatebyjesse.com/how-to-do-perfect-kata/
      • Gustavo Sosa
  • Karate nerd cuber
    ohh i understand it now.
  • Josh L.
    Empty Hand by Kenei Mabuni talks a lot about this, and karate as "Zen in Motion". Karate is not "of" Zen, but it can definitely be a different path to the same goal as Zen. He quotes his father (Mabuni Kenwa): -I enjoy my mind getting empty while rowing to the island of bu. (Nanigoto mo uchi wasuretari hitasura ni bu no shima kogu ga tanoshiki) An interesting note from the translator in the edition I have is that "bu" has a phoneme meaning "emptiness" rather than ? (martial ability).

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