The term karate-do is most commonly translated as “the way of the empty hand”. While many people think this means a form of self-defense that specializes in not using weapons, the real meaning of the words is much deeper than that. The kanji of karate-do actually depicts three separate and distinct concepts, which when put together create the over-all meaning behind the term karate-do.
The “do”, pronounced “dough”, stands for a method, style or path. Most martial artists see the “do” in karate-do as meaning that it is a total system impacting the mind, body and spirit of the practitioner, not just physical techniques. Karate-do includes development of character, integrity, and a sense of duty to the ultimate goals of the student.
The “te” element represents the physical aspect of the training. The ancient art as it was practiced in Okinawa was simply called Te and stood for the martial arts that were practiced during those times. Although it translates as hand, in reality it is understood that it also includes knees, elbows, kicks and anything else you can functionally use in a crisis situation.
The “kara”, translated as empty, is better explained through the term “mushin” or empty mind. At the lowest level, this simply means that a cluttered mind is not conducive to responding to any problem in a timely and effective manner. In the beginning, the karate student learns to train the body to react to specific attacks in predetermined ways. To make this strategy effective, one needs to be able to flip a mental switch when engaged in a physical encounter, letting the body react reflexively to the stimulus without thought. Like a computer that has too many programs running at once, the body reacts quicker when the mind is not concentrating on a variety of things in the heat of battle.
The problem with this strategy, however, is if you train your body to react predictably, then it allows for an opponent to set you up more easily. Therefore, the next step of “mushin” is simply to become unattached to your thoughts and learn to flow from one tactic to another without any preconceived thoughts or biases. To be able to approach a situation without previous biases allows a martial artist to come to the table with an open mind and have a greater range of resources at his disposal. This mind set also allows the warrior to remain unattached to one method or style beyond the life of its functionality. This is necessary in a rapidly changing process like self-defense.
On the physical level, having the ability to go with the flow, yield to the strong and attack when opportunities present themselves is easy to see. Having the same flexible and pliable mind is equally as important. This is the real meaning behind the “kara” in karate-do.
One of the best explanations of this concept was a short story I read many years ago about two Shaolin monks who were on a journey to a distant temple. As they came across a small river, they notice a young lady standing by the edge. When they addressed the young lady, she informed them that although the stream was not deep, she was afraid to cross the stream. At this point, the senior monk picked up the young lady and carried her across the stream. The two monks continued on their journey. After some time, the younger monk, not able to contain himself anymore, spoke up to the senior monk asking him why he had picked up the lady when they were forbidden to touch a woman. After a brief pause, the senior monk responded to his junior that indeed he had picked up the young lady and had put her down on the other side, but pointed out that he, the junior monk, was, still carrying her. Like the senior monk, it is important for us all to learn how to put things down when we reach the other side.