Karate Precepts and "Dojo Kun" (Part 1)

Dating back nearly 200 years to the beginnings of Okinawan karate as we know it today, great masters have often left behind letters of advice to their successors, lists of precepts that sum up their philosophical and/or technical approaches to the martial arts, or "Dojo Kun," usually short sets of rules for the dojo or brief summations of their advice and beliefs. In some schools, these Dojo Kun are repeated before or after practice as a promise or creed of the style or school. Below are a number of such precepts and Dojo Kun by a variety of famous masters. In many cases, these have been translated multiple times, often inconsistently. I have attempted to give a version that makes the most sense, sometimes taking part of one translation and melding it with parts of others. For historical interest, I am also including the original calligraphy of the master when it is available. In a few cases (for example, that of Nakazato Shugoro), their precepts have been posted in their dojo in English; in such cases, I have made no effort to correct grammar or spelling. Part 1, below, covers a number of major Shuri-te-related schools and styles. Future postings will include other Okinawan and Japanese schools and styles.

Matsumura Sokon's Advice to His Last Formal Student
written May 13, 1882

"You must first resolve to study if you wish to understand the truth of martial arts. This resolve is very important.

Fundamentally, the arts and the martial arts are the same. Each has three fundamental elements.

As far as Art is concerned they are Shisho-no-Gaku, Kunko-no-Gaku and Jussha-no-Gaku.

Shisho-no-Gaku is the art of creative writing and reading - in a word, literature.

Kunko-no-Gaku means to study the past and gain an understanding of ethics by relating past events to our way of life.

Both Shisho-no-Gaku and Kunko-no-Gaku are incomplete until supplemented by Jussha-no-Gaku, (the study of the moral aspects of the teaching of Confucius).

Have a tranquil heart and you can prevail over a village, a country, or the world. The study of Jussha-no-Gaku is the supreme study over both Shisho-no-Gaku and Kunko-no-Gaku. These then are the three elements necessary for the study of the Arts.

If we consider Budo, there are also three precepts. They are Gukushi-no-Bugei, Meimoko-no-Bugei and Budo-no-Bugei.

Gukushi-no-Bugei is nothing more than a technical knowledge of Bugei. Like a woman, it is just superficial and has no depth.

Meimoko-no-Bugei refers to a person who has physical understanding of Bugei. He can be a powerful and violent person who can easily defeat other men. He has no self-control and is dangerous and can even harm his own family.

Budo-no-Bugei is what I admire. With this you can let the enemy destroy himself - just wait with a calm heart and the enemy will defeat himself.

People who practice Budo-no-Bugei are loyal to their friends, their parents and their country. They will do nothing that is unnatural and contrary to nature.

We have "seven virtues of Bu". They are:

  1. Bu prohibits violence.
  2. Bu keeps discipline in soldiers.
  3. Bu keeps control among the population.
  4. Bu spreads virtue.
  5. Bu gives a peaceful heart.
  6. Bu helps keep peace between people.
  7. Bu makes people or a nation prosperous.

Our forefathers handed these seven virtues down to us.

Just as Jussha-no-Gaku is supreme in the arts, so Budo-no-Bugei is supreme in the martial arts.

"Mon-Bu" (Art and Martial Arts) have the same common elements. We do not need Gukushi-no-Bugei or Meimoko-no-Bugei - this is the most important thing.

I leave these words to my wise and beloved deshi Kuwae [Ryosei].

- Bucho Matsumura"i

Matsumura Sokon's letter to Kuwae Ryosei.

Itosu Yasutsune's 10 Precepts
written October 1908

"Karate did not develop from Buddhism or Confucianism. In the past the Shorin-ryu school and the Shorei-ryu school were brought to Okinawa from China. Both of these schools have strong points and I therefore list them below just as they are without embellishment.

  1. Karate is not merely practiced for your own benefit; it can be used to protect one's family or master. It is not intended to be used against a single assailant but instead as a way of avoiding injury by using the hands and feet should one by any chance be confronted by a villain or ruffian.
  2. The purpose of karate is to make the muscles and bones hard as rock and to use the hands and legs as spears. If children were to begin training naturally in military prowess while in elementary school, then they would be well suited for military service. Remember the words attributed to the Duke of Wellington after he defeated Napoleon, "Today's battle was won on the playing fields of our schools".
  3. Karate cannot be quickly learned. Like a slow moving bull, it eventually travels a thousand leagues. If one trains diligently for one or two hours every day, then in three or four years one will see a change in physique. Those who train in this fashion will discover the deeper principles of karate.
  4. In karate, training of the hands and feet are important, so you should train thoroughly with a makiwara. In order to do this, drop your shoulders, open your lungs, muster your strength, grip the floor with your feet, and concentrate your energy into your lower abdomen. Practice using each arm one to two hundred times each day.
  5. When you practice the stances of karate, be sure to keep your back straight, lower your shoulders, put strength in your legs, stand firmly, and drop your energy into your lower abdomen.
  6. Practice each of the techniques of karate repeatedly. Learn the explanations of every technique well, and decide when and in what manner to apply them when needed. Enter, counter, withdraw is the rule for torite.
  7. You must decide if karate is for your health or to aid your duty.
  8. When you train, do so as if on the battlefield. Your eyes should glare, shoulders drop, and body harden. You should always train with intensity and spirit as if actually facing the enemy, and in this way you will naturally be ready.
  9. If you use up your strength to excess in karate training, this will cause you to lose the energy in your lower abdomen and will be harmful to your body. Your face and eyes will turn red. Be careful to control your training.
  10. In the past, many masters of karate have enjoyed long lives. Karate aids in developing the bones and muscles. It helps the digestion as well as the circulation. If karate should be introduced, beginning in the elementary schools, then we will produce many men each capable of defeating ten assailants.

If the students at teacher training college learn karate in accordance with the above precepts and then, after graduation, disseminate this to elementary schools in all regions, within 10 years karate will spread all over Okinawa and to mainland Japan. Karate will therefore make a great contribution to our military. I hope you will seriously consider what I have written here - Anko Itosu, October 1908"ii

Itosu's 10 Precepts in His Own Handwriting

Kiyan Chotoku's Instructions

  1. It is appropriate to teach in the following order: explain first what is karate, what is the attitude of training, then learn the forms and the movement. Then learn the way of striking with the fist and the elbow, the way of kicking, the parries corresponding with the techniques of seizing and immobilization, and finally the kata. It is well after one has well learned a kata that one should be initiated into combat.
  2. When one trained traditionally in combat, without any protection, this was not without accidents. It will be necessary to use from now on (in the future) certain protections, like those of kendo, and to wear rubber gloves. We will then be able to avoid accidents.
  3. For training, aside from the makiwara and the protections that I have earlier mentioned, we don't have a need of another object, nor some partners, nor much of a place. It is one of the advantages of karate.

All things considered, during the daily training it is necessary to strengthen the body, to exercise the blows of the fist and the feet, to learn how to skillfully mobilize the members, and to shift oneself with ease, all while understanding well the principles of training. While training ourselves in this manner a long time we will arrive at acquiring the subtle principles of application and how to act suitable in any situation that presents itself to us. However if one trains oneself with the techniques of the body, and neglects to quiet (dampen down) the spirit, that which is fundamental to the art will be unusable. It is necessary to become clairvoyant in life and seek to develop modesty, the calm spirit, promptitude and bravery, at the same time that one trains the techniques of the body.

  1. The martial arts aspires to prevent violence, to alleviate disorder and to protect oneself. It's why those who take the martial arts must always have a modest attitude and reserve to comport oneself correctly with a spirit of loyalty and devotion.

  2. It is essential in the martial arts, to act at the necessary time while totally investing your spirit, your force and your body. Those which their force makes haughty unto arrogant are harmful to the society, detested by others and will do themselves misfortune. It's necessary to hold this in account. A proverb says: "A fist strike will remain a treasure in the sleeve." It is necessary to avoid its use without discrimination.

  3. Contribute to the physical education, train oneself to the martial arts, quiet the spirit; such are the aims of karate.

  4. One must keep the posture while remaining motionless and to submerge the "ki" to the bottom of the stomach while taking care that it does not rise again. However, one must also avoid at any price from freezing [in place].

  5. When one practices a kata, it is necessary to execute it with as much willpower and with the feelings of the moment where one would face with his enemy.

  6. Speed is necessary in all the gestures and displacements [body shifts - movements]. All the displacements [body shifts -movements] owe their carry out while placing the force in the toes.

  7. When one practices a kata, it is necessary to know the direction, not to be mistaken about on the goal (target) of the techniques, and distinguish the jodan (high), the chudan (middle) and the gedan (low). Training without comprehension is useless.

  8. It is well needed to train with the makiwara, and reinforce the impact of the strike. Whatever its speed, the strike will be ineffective without force in its impact. More ever, whatever the force of the strike, it will be ineffective if it is missing agility and speed in the techniques of the members [arms and legs] and in displacement [body shifting]. It is not necessary that missing neither force of the strikes, nor agility; they are like the two wheels of a carriage, with only one missing they are unbalanced.

  9. It is always needed to endeavor to integrate the spirit, the body and the eyes.iii

Kiyan Chotoku, "What to Know About Fighting"

An Elderly Kiyan with His Students, Including Nakazato Joen (far left)

  1. I cannot emphasize the importance of first trying evaluating the opponent's strengths and weaknesses in order to establish your strategy. If attacked by a more powerful opponent one should shift their attention to defensive strategy. This way the attacker is compelled to use more strength. This is the opportunity to seek out the "suki" (unguarded moment) and exploit it. This is how to best use the opponent's force.
  2. Less powerful opponents can also make worthy defensive fighters as they're evasive and use many techniques. One must be careful not to attack thoughtlessly against such fighters but make good use of your hand and footwork. Letting an opponent inside is one way of setting up an immediate counter attack. However, remember that taking or giving the initiative means you that must always be prepared for the unexpected.
  3. Never quickly or forcefully attack an opponent thoughtlessly. Agile fighters can often perceive the intentions of hand and foot movement and counter-attack quickly.
  4. You should be careful to never telegraph your intentions of let your opponent read your body language. Irrespective of the opponent's strength or power, try never to move backwards more than three steps.
  5. During a fight you must pay close attention to defending the centerline and not be caught off balance by starring at an opponent's feet or eyes. You must be especially careful not to get hit in the vital organs, grabbed or have the testicles seized when attacked. Also, it's not always wise to use too much force in defensive technique as movement tends to become slower, which also reduces the possibility for quick reaction or taking advantage of an opportunity.
  6. If you seize an opponent's wrist, garment or arm be certain to maintain a pliable strength all the time being prepared to exploit his reaction. This way you can maintain control of the opponent's movement.
  7. Naturally, quick hands are a necessary requisite for effectively attacking one's opponent. However, if you miss the intended target in the midst of an attack there's no need to fall back and try again. After achieving such close proximity to your opponent just continue freely attacking different target zones with your hands and feet. Even without using full power you can still gradually wear down an opponent this way.
  8. It is not necessary to use your hands in defense of an opponent's kicks. They can be trapped, thwarted, or even swept away by your own leg while simultaneously countering with your hands. In case the opponent falling or being knocked down, be careful not to rush in carelessly and be caught off guard.
  9. Even if the opponent seizes your foot or leg, you can take advantage of it by quickly stepping down and into him, reducing the risk of injury. However, be very careful of this situation if the ground conditions are bad as you could fall down yourself.
  10. Be careful not to be caught off guard by an opponent's clever deception. For example, don't be fooled by someone pretending to grab with their hand only with the intention of actually kicking with their foot. Conversely, the opposite can also be used; The kick can be used to cause a response for the purpose of being exploited by the fist. Listen and react to voice and sound, and, never be caught off guard.
  11. If confronted by several opponents at once be careful not to grapple with them. You must keep your distance in order to maintain the advantage. If someone attacks from the right, shift to the left. If you have to defend yourself from the front be careful not to overlook the opponent behind you. This is the only good way to deal with multiple opponents.
These are essential issues at the forefront of fighting, however, please remember they're just one example. In other words, the differences in martial arts are truly endless and mysterious. Therefore, don't solely rely on written materials. The best way master the art is to train diligently and enthusiastically. Perhaps after lengthy study, you may achieve enlightenment.iv

Motobu Choki's "Rules of Quanfa"

The Simple Rules of Quanfa [Kempo]

  1. . If a learner begins training at 11 or 12 years old, chances are that they will develop quickly. However, training in Toudi [Karate] can begin at any age providing that the learner is enthusiastic and practice is systematic. If practice is regular and maintained, Toudi can be a wonderfully holistic ritual, which improves life.
  2. . In the study and practice of Toudi it is important to focus upon transforming weaknesses into strengths and strengths into even greater strengths. Therefore, a learner must train their left side twice as much as their right in both the morning and evening.
  3. . "The physical must be evenly balanced with the non-physical." Hence, learning Toudi also means one must embrace the study of 'bu.' Breath is the gateway between the physical and mental, and, if a learner sit downs to meditate in the morning he should also oscillate the limbs when finished in order restore energy.
  4. . Postures help to cultivate inner-energy as with the "hachimonji" stance. Maintain a straight but pliable position and place the focus of your energy in lower abdomen. Practicing Toudi can help build a strong body and promote a long and healthy life when compared to ordinary people.
  5. . Regular practice is essential and little room is actually required to practice Toudi. With the correct attitude, one can train anywhere morning and evening. This is the real spirit of "Bu."
  6. . In Toudi we observe virtue before vice, values before vanity and principles before personalities. Honoring this is what separates us from others.
  7. . Toudi is also a conduit through which learners can discover and transcend the source of human weakness. Such a spiritual theme reveals the profound influence Zen has had upon Toudi.v

  8. Chibana Choshin's Dojo Kun


    Always be serious minded in your training so as to learn from your experience and receive understanding.

    Refrain from acts or words that are inconsiderate.

    Be tolerant, especially of the opinion of others.

    Think first so as to avoid acting rashly.

    Without question, accept methods and teachings humbly and open minded. Then train hard so as to understand and assimilate these methods and teachings.

    Do not brag or be verbose and above all, don't take chances.

    Lead your juniors with kindness and counsel them correctly.

    Remember, actions speak louder than words.vi

    Master Chibana's advice


    When you train you have to devote yourself only to the way of karate - think of nothing else. Do not think of others, or what they may think. You must develop the ability to focus your mind, hands and feet strongly. You must not only learn body movements but also research and study the art.

    You should develop and improve yourself before you reach the age of fifty. Your body naturally begins to deteriorate after fifty years old so you must then adjust your training accordingly. If after fifty you still train every day then you may not decline so much. I myself have noticed a slight decline at fifty, but I don't think I declined much at all between fifty and sixty years of age. Of course, you cannot help deteriorating to a degree but if you continue training you will not age so rapidly, even between seventy and eighty years of age. Therefore, train continuously.

    In the old days we trained at karate as a martial art, but now they train at karate as a gymnastic sport. I think we must avoid treating karate as a sport - it must be a martial art! Your fingers and the tips of your toes must be like arrows, your arms must be like iron. You have to think that if you kick, you try to kick the enemy dead. If you punch, you must thrust to kill. If you strike, then you strike to kill the enemy. This is the spirit you need in training.

    The effort required is great, but you can strain the body by doing too much. So keep in mind your condition.

    Years ago I wished to leave my name in karate-do and I trained very hard. Now I think my name will remain a little in karate- do.

    Not only do we need physical training, we need to think for ourselves, studying and researching the kata and their applications.

    Its is vitally important to understand kata and train your body to develop the core of karate. You can achieve a five or six times increase in body power if you train hard. Naturally, if you do this you will be pleased with the result, so train very hard.

    Whether you become great depends on two factors only - effort and study. Your movements must be sharp - never be slow - and when you train at kata your eyes will get sharper and your blocking and striking will get stronger.

    Even when you reach the age of seventy or eighty you must continue your research with a positive attitude, always thinking 'not yet, not yet'. vii

    Nagamine Shoshin's Precepts for Mastering Karate-do

    1. He [my partner or opponent] is human and so am I.
    2. It is an imitation of self-limitation on my part, if, I cannot accomplish whereas others can.
    3. Discard this imitation: if he practices three times I must practice five times.
    4. If he practices five times then I will practice seven or ten times.
    5. Do not turn to others for help, Musashi Miyamoto once said: "Pay your respects to the gods and Buddha's, but never rely on them."
    6. Earnestly cultivate your mind as well as your body and believe in yourself.
    7. Karate may be referred to as the "conflict within your self ", or a life long marathon that can be won only though your creative efforts.viii

    Nakazato Shugoro's Karate Principles
    (Posted in Nakazato Hanshi's dojo)

    1. Keep the rules of this dojo and be not self-righteous.
    2. Maintain rapport with trainers, superiors, and equals. Always be courteous and strive to cultivate the virtue of modesty.
    3. Endeavor to develop perseverance, a sound body, and the spirit, not merely the tricks, of karate.
    4. Strive to (1) elevate your soul, (2) form character, and (3) peaceful self-defense.
    5. Always be prudent in conduct, never provoke a quarrel nor be conceited from karate.
    6. Practice kata and techniques in the proper sequence, increasing training time and strength gradually.
    7. Practice each and every form of karate orderly and evenly, developing neither weak nor strong points.
    8. Ask your seniors and trainers whatever questions you may have.
    9. Use makiwara (striking posts) and other training aids habitually to harden the fists and other parts of the body. Practice each kata repeatedly.
    10. It has been said, from old times, that at least three years is needed to completely master a single kata. Therefore, unlimited time is needed to master all the forms and techniques of karate. Never be self-conceited. Self-conceit will impede your progress and make you a detriment to society.ix

    Seibukan Shorin-ryu of Hanshi Zenpo Shimabukuro
    (Student of Shimabuku Zenryu who was a student of Kiyan Chotoku)

    To Strive for the Perfection of Character

    To Defend the Paths of Truth

    To Foster the Spirit of Effort

    To Honor the Principles of Etiquette

    To Guard Against Impetuous Couragex

    Shinjinbukan Shorin-ryu of Onaga Yoshimitsu
    (Student of Higa Yuchoku)

    The heavenly, spiritual way, "the way of god".

    The human, civil way.

    The martial way.

    The way is attained through practice not contemplation.xi

    Directions on Practicing Karate
    Okinawa Shorin Ryu Matsumura Kenpo Karate and Kobudo Association under
    Kuda Yuichi/Kuda Tomosada of Okinawa Shorin Ryu Kobukan Karatedo

    1. Those who study karate must always be polite so that they may not be selfish.
    2. They must be polite not only to master and seniors, but also to fellows and juniors.
    3. They must always begin and end with greetings [i.e. a bow] when practicing karate kata and playing practice matches.
    4. Karate kata are the base of karate. They must practice and study the kata and matches eagerly without making haste for the successful result.
    5. The variety of karate skill is limitless. They must always make efforts to train the mind and improve the skill.
    6. When they play practice matches, they must do their best at concentrating their attention so that the motions may be faster, stronger, and more accurate. They must not get excited in the matches.
    7. They must always remember to improve the skill and study the essence of it. There is no end in practicing karate.
    8. In daily life, they must always behave well. They must not be hot-blooded or quarrel with anyone.
    9. They must not be self-centered because they have made progress. They will not improve the skill and their natural virtue, but will do harm to others if they are self-centered.
    10. More than strength is needed in karate. The purpose of karate is not only to train the body and the mind, but also to make efforts to achieve a good personality by practicing faithfully and to be a good member of society.xii

    Dojo Kun (School Principles) of Shorinjiryu Kenkokan Karatedo
    Mayayoshi Kori Hisataka

    1. Maintain propriety, etiquette, dignity and virtue.
    2. Gain self-understanding by tasting the true meaning of combat.
    3. Search for the pure principles of being truthful, just and normal.
    4. Exercise a positive personality: confident, courageous and determined.
    5. Always seek to further develop the character, by aiming towards perfection and complete harmony with creation.

    Student's Creed
    1. I will develop myself in a positive manner and avoid anything that could reduce my mental growth and physical health.
    2. I will develop self-discipline in order to bring out the best of myself and others.
    3. I will use what I learned in class constructively and defensively to help myself and others and never be abusive or offensive.

    Shorinjiryu Shindo Black Belt Oath
    1. I accept with honor and privilege this Black Belt in Shorinjiryu. I swear to uphold the standards of honesty, modesty, courtesy, integrity, high moral code, perseverance, courage and indomitable spirit.
    2. I sincerely pledge to honor my instructor and school with loyalty and support, also to value and carry on the martial arts tradition with respect and dignity.
    3. I further pledge, with humility and gratitude, to continue my mental, physical and spiritual growth to the highest level, to lead by example and to share what I have learned with others.xiii

    Okinawan Shorin-ryu Matsumura Seito Karate-do
    Soken Hohan's Orthodox Karate-Do Association

    Hohan Soken's Dojo Kun
    1. Karate practitioners always conduct themselves with proper etiquette.
    2. Without fail, bow to begin and bow to end when performing kata and kumite.
    3. When practicing, rouse your energy and pour in all of your strength. Practice devoid of energy is all the more an obstacle to progress.
    4. Watch and listen well to the teachings of yours instructor, your seniors and your seniors in the various other schools. Work hard and refine yourself, never forget Karate Shugyojo no Kokoroe (their Teachings).
    5. Looking and listening are both large keys to progress. As one improves, their importance becomes more apparent.
    6. Continue practice, even if a little at a time. Interruptions become an interruption or a step backward in progress.
    7. Learn the essence of your technique, watch over the state of your heart and plan out their development. "Technique" and "heart" are as "omote" and "ura" (two faces of the same entity).
    8. Beware of overdrinking and overeating. It is a rule that overdrinking and overeating lessen the effects of practice.
    9. Never lose the thought of improvement, never slacken (your effort). Self-conceit is a serious illness easily contracted during karate practice.
    10. Limitless is karate training. Work ceaselessly, and you will be surely become a Master.xiv

    i Graham Noble with Ian McLaren and Prof. N. Karasawa, Masters of The Shorin-ryu Part One: http://seinenkai.com/articles/noble/noble-shorin1.html. For alternative translations, see "Sokon 'Bushi' Matsumura" at http://www.shotokankarateuk.com/matsumura.html and "Sokon 'Bushi" Matsumura" at http://www.msisshinryu.com/masters/bushi/. See also Christopher M. Clarke, Nyumonsha: A Handbook for Beginning Students. Huntingtown, MD, 2007, page 120.

    ii Iain Abernathy, http://blog.iainabernathy.com/?p=81. See also Noble, Masters of The Shorin-ryu, Part One; and "Master Itosu's 10 Precepts<' at http://www.shuriway.co.uk/precepts.html. See also, Christopher M. Clarke, Nyumonsha: A Handbook for Beginning Students. Huntingtown, MD, 2007, page 96-97

    iii Tokitsu Kenji, History of Karate-do (French to English translation by Victor Smith) in Budo Karate Journal, 2005.l

    iv Kiyan lecture to the Okinawa Prefecture School of Agriculture and Forestry, translated by Patrick and Yuriko McCarthy, Koryu Journal, 2001-2002.

    v Motobu Choki, "The Rules of Quanfa," Koryu Journal, 1999.

    vi Shinjinbukan Shorin-ryu at http://www.okinawakaratedo.com/Shinjinbukan%20net/Chibana.htm.

    vii Graham Noble with Ian McLaren and Prof. N. Karasawa, Masters of The Shorin-ryu Part Two at http://www.seinenkai.com/articles/noble/noble-shorin2.html.

    viii Mike Clarke, "A conversation with Takayoshi Nagamine Sensei," Sunday, March 1, 2009.

    ix Christopher M. Clarke, Nyumonsha: A Handbook for Beginning Students. Huntingtown, MD, 2007, page 53.

    x See Stamford Dojo, http://www.stamfordisshinryu.com/id80.htm.

    xi Stamford Dojo, http://www.stamfordisshinryu.com/id80.htm.

    xii Stamford Dojo, http://www.stamfordisshinryu.com/id80.htm.

    xiii Stamford Dojo, http://www.stamfordisshinryu.com/id80.htm.

    xiv Stamford Dojo, http://www.stamfordisshinryu.com/id80.htm.