The creators of chuan fa, the Shaolin monks, lived by it. The ancient samurai code of bushido is based on it. Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan, studied it. Many karate masters of today immerse themselves in it. The art of karate has long been steeped in the traditions of Zen Buddhism. Zen is a school of Buddhism that states enlightenment can be attained through meditation, self-contemplation, and intuition rather than through faith and devotion. Zazen (seated meditation) is practiced to calm the mind and body in order to experience insight into the nature of existence, and thereby reach enlightenment.
Zen (or Chan in Chinese) was ostensibly first brought to China by Bodhidharma, circa 527 A.D. It was taught to the Shaolin monks as a way to achieve enlightenment. The introduction of Zen into Japan is dated as early as the seventh century, but it was in 1191 that the Rinzai School of Zen, founded by the monk Eisai, became the first official sect of Zen in Japan. The philosophy of Zen was very popular among the samurai class. It provided them with the mental discipline to become skilled with the sword, but it also taught them to accept impermanence and death, and to have no fear of it. The samurai were faced with deadly combat everyday. Any fear or reflection on possible failure or death could not be tolerated, as this would interfere with their combat effectiveness. The samurai studied Zen to allow them to approach combat without thought or fear.
Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan, also studied Zen and integrated it into his teachings of karate. A perfect example of Zen's influence in karate can be seen when performing mokuso (meditation) at the beginning and end of every class. This idea of meditation stems directly from Zen. The Dojo Kun recited at the end of every class is derived from Buddhist teachings. The following is a summary of the most basic principles of Buddhism. It is not the purpose of this section to give an in depth explanation on Buddhism and its various forms, but only to demonstrate how it pertains to one's karate training.
The concept of morality requires the karateka to live an ethical life. This involves proper behaviour in all aspects of life. The Buddhist code forbids killing, stealing, lying, etc. Instead, it preaches love for fellow man. Herein lies the code of all martial artists: one's skill to harm others should only be used for self-defense or for the preservation of justice.
Mental discipline, another core idea of Buddhism, is one of the most highly sought after rewards of all martial arts training. The Zen school is known for its emphasis on meditation, called zazen, to strengthen and discipline the mind. By controlling the mind, one can suppress desire and control emotions. The martial arts practitioner should feel no anger, no pride, no pain, no suffering of any kind. These are the major causes of violence, unhappiness, and defeat, and they must be avoided. Budo training was and is often very harsh in order to bring the individual to the boundaries of their physical limitations, and then to surpass them.
Intuitive wisdom implies that one must do, not think. When "thinking," one imposes restrictions on oneself by creating attachments to the world and its illusions. In "doing," you detach yourself from the world, becoming egoless and effortless. In Japanese martial arts, the word mushin is used, which means "no mind." It refers to being void of thought, without emotion, without expectations or anticipation. The idea is to "not think" and let your body do what it has been trained to do, allowing for an uncluttered mind and a quicker reaction time. According to Buddhism, one must avoid the illusion of reality and accept impermanence. By emptying the mind and realizing impermanence, the unification between thought and action can be achieved. This intuition allows an individual to fight effectively, without hesitation. But its true power lies in that it can alert an individual to danger before it strikes, thus making it possible to avoid peril.
According to Gichin Funakoshi, one must expand upon this concept of emptying the mind as it also refers to the emptying of harmful intentions as well. This requires a spirit of humility. It is for these reasons that Gichin Funakoshi changed the character of kara in the word karate, from the meaning of "China" to the meaning of "empty." So the translation of karate to mean "empty hand" implies not only a lack of weapons but an emptying of the mind as well.