“Karate begins and ends with Gratitude”

Mokuso and zazen are not the same

Very often we hear the phrase “karate-dō begins and ends with curtesy”, which, in the West, has largely come to mean ‘start and finish with a bow’. But I’d like to pass on something that my teacher Higa Kiyohiko impressed upon me which I feel 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 a lifetime ago, 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. But I don’t think anyone knew what it was for.

For the longest 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 in Tokyo for a while. 

When I was a few years older, another teacher would have us to assume ‘zazen’, which basically means ‘seated meditation’. That came a little easier because for a while I had practised zen meditation at a Buddhist centre and so 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, or semi-closed, and breathing deep in the belly. 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.

When I found myself at Higa Kiyohiko’s Bugeikan dojo in Okinawa I came to understand mokuso in a different way. It has now become a more meaningful practise.

Each session began and ended with mokuso, kneeling in seiza with hands in the ‘gassho’ position (the ‘prayer’ position which we in the West might know from exposure to 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.

“Mokuso is not praying. It is ‘giving thanks’. 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 – energy -, and thanks to Universe’…”

I nodded with a little more clarity.

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 at this farm in the mountains, I will either stand or kneel for a moment in quite composure with hands pressed and give thanks. 

As my personal practice has developed so has my understanding of the importance of giving gratitude for the things I experience and the richness others in life bring.

When I was teaching karate to children in London we would also begin this way. I would ask them to sit quietly for a moment and ‘think of three things they were grateful for that day’. 

What do I give thanks for? Well, for example I will give ‘thanks for the my teacher who shares so openly and generously with me’. ‘Thanks for the patience 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 the support of friends and lovers on my journey along the Way. Thanks to the Sun, its warmth and energy. Thanks for life, and this very breath in this moment” This list isn’t fixed, it changes from session to session, day to day. 

You see, gratitude is a massively important aspect not just for martial arts but for living. I suspect you probably know what happens when you take something for granted. You lose it. 

Mokuso is not ‘getting in the zone’

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 yourself. ”

This is why 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

Mokuso 黙想, is often translated as ‘meditation’ but it’s so much more than that. The first kanji 黙 can be ‘silence’ or ‘quiet’ and the second ‘sou’ can mean all sorts: ‘want’, ‘think’, ‘wish’, ‘suppose’, ‘believe’, ‘feel like doing’. 

So I’m not saying the word ‘moksuo’ is ‘gratitude’ but 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. It’s so much better than trying to take a few breaths and clear your head, and it will actually bring you a lot further ‘into the moment’.