Mokuso, Karate & Gratitude

Very often we hear the phrase “karate begins and ends with courtesy”, which has largely come to mean ‘start and finish’ with a bow’, but I’d like to pass on something my teacher impressed upon me.

“Mokuso is not praying, but giving thanks.”From a post training conversation with Higa Kiyohiko during the summer of 2017

I feel it goes far beyond simply ‘paying respect, for respects’ sake’. It’s this, “At the Bugeikan, training begins and ends with gratitude.”

Thinking back, in what now seems another time, I recall being a child kneeling on a grimy basketball court, in a South London YMCA. My eyes half closed and breathing deeply, I would fight the urge to ‘peep’ at the others in class in an attempt to learn just ‘what it is’ I should really be doing.

The teacher called this ‘mokuso’. Or rather, the class ‘assumed’ this practice whenever the word ‘MOKUSO’ was bellowed out as a harsh command like “MOK-SOH!”
For a long time no instruction in what ‘mokuso’ actually meant was ever given. To be fair, my teacher of the time had probably never had it explained to him either, despite having lived and trained at the JKA honbu dojo in Tokyo for a while.

When I was a few years older, another teacher would tell us to assume ‘zazen’, which basically means ‘seated meditation’. That came a little easier because for a while I had practised Zen by then, and so well understood the technique for single-minded meditation. But was this the same as ‘mokuso’?

I never really gave it much more thought. Some teachers it seemed said “mokuso” at the beginning or end of a class (or both), and others would say “zazen”. I put it down to personal preference of the teacher.

The posture assumed for both were the same. Kneeling with hands held in the lap. The eyes closed and breathing deep using the diaphragm. One curious difference did ring out though. Zazen could last for quite a while, half an hour or more sometimes, but mokuso always seemed over before it really began. Maybe just two or three breaths and then a bow.

Higa Kiyohiko c.1976
courtesy of M. Bishop

Skip forward a couple of decades and I found myself on the tatami at Higa sensei’s Bugeikan dojo in Okinawa with my sempai Isyado Hirokazu leading me through a workout of punch, strike and kick combinations. This wasn’t really ‘training’ but just our way of warming up before training. The real lesson would always begin after a short period of kneeling with our hands in the ‘gassho’ or ‘prayer’ position which we in the West might know more from Abrahamic faiths.

Going on autopilot from my childhood I’d try to take a few deep breaths to clear the mind and ‘wipe the slate clean’ for the lesson ahead. A sort of ‘getting in the zone’ for training, then a bow and begin. I think most schooled in a ‘hard’ or mainland style of karate would explain it the same. But maybe that’s not right?

Most likely sensing my confusion, Higa made a mental note and at the end of the lesson came and explained in simple terms:

“Mokuso is not praying. It is ‘giving thanks’. ‘Thanks for this lesson’. ‘Thanks for life’. ‘Thanks for coming, thanks for ki – energi, and Universe’…” ending with a knowing nod and humming Japanese filler sound. I nodded with a little more clarity too.

It wasn’t an immediate moment of enlightenment I admit. But from that day on, whenever I find myself training alone or with others, at home, on the beach or anywhere, I will either stand or kneel for a moment in quite composure with hands pressed and give thanks. And as my personal practice has developed so has my understanding of the importance of giving gratitude.

So, for example, I might say “Thanks for the patience of my teacher who shares so openly with me. Thanks for the persistence of my sempai, who never let me move on to a new technique until I could ‘do’ the one he was teaching me under pressure. Thanks for the multitude of situations, people and events that happened to bring us all together. Thanks to Magdalena for her support of my journey along the Way. Thanks to the Sun, its warmth and energy. Thanks for life…” The list can go on. And it isn’t fixed, it changes from session to session, day to day.

You see, gratitude is an important aspect not just for martial arts but for living.

If we don’t have gratitude for the things we have in life, people, possessions, health, the things we’ve achieved, then we basically take them for granted. And I suspect you probably know what happens when you take something for granted. You lose it.

zazen at the Bugeikan
courtesy M Bishop

In the past some have likened mokuso as a way of ‘compartmentalising’ the mind and getting ready for the task at hand. “I am now ready to do karate!” “I am closing the door on the rest of my life and DOING karate!” But wanting to compartmentalise the brain only leads to split-personality issues – the true induction of which comes from extreme trauma or abuse to fragment the mind. Is that what people doing karate want? I can tell you from working with clients suffering in this way; it’s not healthy.

Real bujin (martial artists) allow their training to permeate into their lives and their lives to pervade into their martial arts. It’s an expression of being. Maybe you only see yourself as a ‘martial artist’ in the dojo, and then a CEO at work, then a parent etc… I don’t know. But that would seem odd to me. Just be you.

This is why real bujin have an eye for their own. Why you can walk down the street and pick out those that have some notion of the ‘warrior path’. Maybe it’s in the eyes, a person’s poise, or simply their ‘aura’? True bujin radiate their ‘being’ outwards; and the more advanced they are the more subtle it becomes physically.

The kanji for mokuso combined is often translated as ‘meditation’. But it’s so much more than that. The first kanji can mean ‘silence’, ‘quiet’ and the second can mean all sorts: ‘want’, ‘think’, ‘wish’, ‘suppose’, ‘believe’, ‘feel like doing’.

So I’m not saying the word ‘moksuo’ is ‘gratitude’ but that gratitude can be about quietly thinking of giving thanks to the things you wish, want, feel like etc.

In short, ‘giving thanks’ is an important part of helping you to strive ahead and lead a more fulfilling life. Try it. Next time you set out to train in karate quietly think of five reasons why you are grateful for the moment. It’s so much better than trying to take a few breaths and clear your head, and it will actually bring you a lot closer ‘into the moment’.