My son recently began taking karate, which is great because I have been learning, through osmosis, the forms and the Japanese vocabulary as he learns them. I have the utmost respect for the teachers, the assistants, and the dojo.
During class, the teacher often asks the kids “What is the purpose of Karate?” The answer the teacher is looking for is “Self-defense.”
The real answer is “To prepare the mind for enlightenment.”
Now I understand that when teaching kids to punch and kick, it is good to emphasize that the techniques are for defense, not attack. No one wants to see a bunch of Cobra Kai’s running around the playground. I also understand that mention of “enlightenment” is not necessarily good for business—as it is so readily confused with religion.
"Enlightenment" is defined as the realization that there is no independent existence--or, more bluntly, "Enlightenment" is the act of shutting the heck up for a minute and realizing that I am not the center of the universe.
I find the connections between the martial arts and yoga fascinating. At their core, all of these systems seek to create discipline in the body which helps to still the mind to prepare it for meditation. The forms in the martial arts create a healthy body, and they create an attention to movement. Like asana, when doing a sequence, the goal is to still the thinking mind and act from awareness. How useless the thinking mind is in a sparring match! “He’s going to punch with his left, so I will block with my…” KNOCKOUT! Observation, anticipation, action without internal commentary are all cultivated through these practices.
In yoga, we use asana as a mechanical means to cleans the body and unite apana, the normal downward flow of energy, with prana, the normal upward flow of energy, in samana, the navel region. This is why in some systems there is great emphasis on mula and uddiyana bandhas—these reverse the normal downward flow of energy and unite prana and apana respectively. We concentrate on the navel center, the manipura chakra, which stimulates the digestive fire and generates heat to burn away impurities in the body. This is the same as the Dan Tien in Chinese and the Hara in Japanese.
The connection between yoga and the marital arts can be traced to one person: Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma was an Indian Buddhist monk who arrived at Shaolin Monastery somewhere around 523-527 AD. He found the monks were too physically weak (read: fat and lazy) to keep up with their meditation practices. He taught them a series of external and internal exercises that were very closely related to yogic asana in order to create the physical and mental strength needed to practice meditation. From these exercises the various systems of Kung Fu and Qi Gong developed. Bodhidharma is known as the first Zen patriarch. Zen teaches that enlightenment can happen in a flash while the practitioner is still in possession of the body.
Yogic sages also recognized that physical practices are a necessary step to prepare the mind for meditation. The process of Hatha Yoga has only one purpose—to ready the mind for Raja Yoga (meditation) by mechanically manipulating the energy within the body.
Even more interesting is that both yogic and Buddhist practices set the ultimate goal not as achieving enlightenment, the total realization that there is no independent existence, but on renouncing even enlightenment until all other beings achieve it first.
Karate, Kung Fu, Yoga and the other systems are acts of service. The practitioner does great service by passing on what they have learned so that it may help another progress on their path. Krishna states in The Bhagavad Gita “Even a little practice will protect you from the greatest fear [that is, the fear that there is nothing more, nothing beyond the impermanent world]” (II.40)
“Protect you…” I guess “Self-defense” is the right answer after all.
I hope the teachers don’t mind when my son gives this long version as his answer.