Tournament Fighting and the Use of Proven Zen & Budo Strategy

There is a good reason the samurai adopted Zen philosophy and its strategic insights – it optimized fighting strategy and taught them to deal with fear and death to obtain victory. The benefits were proven over hundreds of years in situations where the penalty for failure was not loss of a “point”, but death. Today Zen is rarely taught in fighting, and the focus of martial arts classes are usually all physical despite the fact that the mental component is the most important attribute in any fight – tournament, or real life.

Asian strategy (e.g. the classic “Art of War” by Sun Tzu) and Zen are not religions but provide systems for understanding yourself, optimizing technique and performing at your best. It is unfortunate in modern karate sports fighting (which is also a mind game) that athletes are not taught the Zen concepts which are the basis of the art they are performing. Some sports karate teams do go as far as to have sports psychologists, and while that is beneficial, it is shame the athletes are not exposed to the Zen lessons of the samurai which are profound in achieving victory because the goal was not a gold medal, but a life or death match (where, like in the sports world, a simple “tag” with a katana (sword) would mean death). Some of the principles taught by sport’s psychologists mirror that of Zen in the martial arts and other things taken from Zen are more specifically directed towards combat. The modern term of putting oneself in “the zone” is directly analogous to the Zen mind state of mushin – one Zen principle which can be related to kumite is discussed in more detail below.

How does the below phrase and image relate to fighting?

“Like a full circle, the mind must be empty, yet complete.”

The Japanese term often used in Karate which is loosely translated as “empty mind” is mushin. This term does not strictly imply “no thought”, but rather no attachment to any one thought, emotion or strategy. To obtain this state of mind, mushin, you must let go your fears, doubts, ego, and any preconceived thoughts of action (strategy), or the mind will not react openly.

When we apply mushin to certain techniques and kumite strategies in seminars many karate athletes start to say, “…well you have to be analyzing your opponent and formulating a strategy so it doesn’t apply to modern tournament fighting…”. They often miss the point at first glance – it revolves around the assumption that you have trained the mind to know all these strategies innately and that at any moment in kumite the right one for the situation is released without thought. This creates the required speed (i.e. no delay) and enables dynamic adaptive change to your engagement strategy after the opponent begins to react (which enables another innately trained technique/combination to emerge as soon as it is needed). There are drills, combinations and training methods to enhance the mind state of mushin (other than describing one simple physical example below this article does not attempt to describe complex combinations and partner work via text). The application of the mind is usually reinforced whenever one speaks with, or does seminars under, any of the great karate tournament legends – they almost always comment on the importance of the mind as a key to victory.

A simpler conceptual analogy for mushin which removes the complexity of strategy is the following: imagine fighting someone who truly has the ability to strike with any one of their 4 limbs at any time (i.e. their physical balance and ability allows it and their mind does not favor a punch, or kick, or a particular limb). Many of you may have fought such a person, and these people are always tricky fighters due to the fact that any limb can come out at any time i.e. no attachment or predisposition to any one thing (mushin). As one works on kumite this is one physical-mental approach which can be drilled.

There is a famous Zen saying “mizu no kokoro” which also helps clarify mushin.. Mizu no kokoro on the surface translates to “a mind like water.” Everyone understands how the water of a pond can be calm and clear. In this state, it will reflect all around it truthfully & accurately, much like a mirror. In Karate and in life we strive to have a calm mind that reflects everything around us accurately. Therefore, the mind must be clear like the glass surface of a still pond, reflecting everything accurately and without distortion. If the mind gets attached to any thoughts, this is analogous to throwing a stone into the tranquil pond. The ripples that the stone creates (or thought in the mind) will interfere with the smooth surface of the pond making the reflection (perception) distorted. If your mind is cluttered with thoughts, how can it possibly react quickly in stressful situations? Only when the mind is clear and calm will you act instantly without hesitation or fear.

The term “void” (kara in Japanese) has very real implications for strategy, Zen mind set and accessing weak points in an opponents technique and body. Since 1929 this term has in fact been the first of the three Kanji (Japanese characters) that represents the word “Karate-Do”. The Keio University Karate club substituted this character to replace the original first character for Karate-Do (prior to this the first character translated the term karate as “Chinese hand”). The use of “void” as the first character in Karate-Do was later consolidated in 1935 by Funakoshi sensei (founder of Shotokan) publishing the book “Karate-Do Kyohan”. The link between “voids”, or “emptiness”, has obvious similarities to mushin, however, its mental implications for strategy go further than that. The mind is just one component of a “void” approach used in fighting. Other cumulative uses of the “void” concept include:

– technique combinations which open an opponent enabling the scoring of a “point” (pre-determined opponent response strategy which occurs following a particular combination)

– furthering the first two points by striking a cavity, or anatomical void, to most damage/upset the opponent.

Therefore, fighters can chose to train certain combinations that provide a three pronged approach of creating mental voids, physical opening voids, which are then followed by impact on an anatomical void. The emphasis here is to use all three “void” approaches in a cumulative fashion. The goal here is to not only score points but also mentally optimize one’s position of confidence and strength relative to the opponents physical and mental state. Again, I do not believe a text forum to be the appropriate place to describe physical technique combinations based around a multi-tired use of “voids” in fighting (these are covered in seminars and dojo training).

Although this article mentions just two karate related Zen concepts a number of others exist which are highly relevant to kumite performance. All such concepts can be worked on as part of one’s training to optimize tournament fighting. Other Zen-based lessons can include:

o centering in a bout (physically and mentally) – upsetting your opponents “centered confident state”

o striking voids (mental and physical combinations)

o progressing through the stages of Zen as one’s fighting improves

o reading your opponent

o dealing with fear and anxiety to perform at your best

o fudoshin

o use of Aiki and Kiai to upset your opponents mind game, and at the same time create physical openings for standard technique scoring

-End of excerpt components from the free streaming video course “Zen & Fighting” at