“Karate is a lifelong pursuit” or “karate training lasts a lifetime” is the ninth of the twenty precepts of karate written by Funakoshi Gichin.
The Japanese version of this precept is “一、空手の修業は一生である Hitotsu, karate no shūgyō wa isshō de aru“.
It is obvious that karate can take anyone more than a lifetime to learn, even those gifted with a natural athletic ability. Even if you spend your whole life studying the art, by the time you die, you will probably feel like you’ve merely scratched the surface.
But the same thing can be said about other arts, from judo, BJJ, and boxing to painting, acting, and writing.
Many people quit karate at white belt, yellow, purple and brown belt levels and many people also quit after they get their shodan.
It is their lives and their choices and, of course, they should be free to do what they want.
Life is too short and there is really no time to muck about doing something you are not really interested in.
However, it would be a real pity when people don’t spend enough time learning karate and realizing its potential to transform their lives and quit too soon.
It is also equally sad when people get to blackbelt and then quit because they think they have learned all the karate techniques and most of the kata and further training will just be more of the same things.
The opposite is actually true. Even if you spend 5 to 10 years of training to get to the blackbelt level, reaching your shodan (meaning “first level”) is just the beginning of your karate journey.
At this stage, you only master the basic techniques and kata to a certain degree. Being able to use those techniques instinctively and effectively is a whole new level.
If you are in the right dojo and look deep enough, you will find that no matter how hard you train, you will never run out of things to learn.
The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.Aristotle
While Gichin Funakoshi did not elaborate on the meaning of his 20 precepts, Genwa Nakasone, a teacher, politician, and also editor and publisher of martial art books, wrote commentaries on these precepts which were then read and approved by Gichin Funakoshi for publication.
With regard to this precept, Genwa quoted a passage in the first book of Hagakure (meaning “Hidden Leaves”, a manual for the samurai classes written by Yamamoto Tsunetomo) to illustrate.
Below is a full quote of this passage from the Hagakure translated by William Scott Wilson.
A certain swordsman in his declining years said the following:
In one’s life, there are levels in the pursuit of study.
In the lowest level, a person studies but nothing comes of it, and he feels that both he and others are unskillful. At this point he is worthless.
In the middle level, he is still useless but is aware of his own insufficiencies and can also see the insufficiencies of others.
In a higher level, he has pride concerning his own ability, rejoices in praise from others, and laments the lack of ability in his fellows. This man has worth.
In the highest level a man knows that he knows nothing.
These are the levels in general.
But there is one transcending level, and this is the most excellent of all. This person is aware of the endlessness of entering deeply into a certain way and never thinks of himself as having finished. He truly knows his own insufficiencies and never in his whole life thinks that he has succeeded. He has no thoughts of pride but with self-abasement knows the Way to the end. It is said that Master Yagyu [a feudal lord, swordsman and martial arts writer] once remarked, “I do not know the way to defeat others, but the way to defeat myself.”
Throughout your life, advance daily, becoming more skilful than yesterday, more skilful than today. This is never-ending.Hagakure translated by William Scott Wilson
The learning levels described in the Hagakure overlap somewhat with the concept of the four stages of competence listed below.
- Stage 1 – Unconscious Incompetence: You are unaware of your weaknesses and incompetence. With respect to karate, it may be that you have absolutely no self-defense skills whatsoever and are not even aware that they are something that you may need
- Stage 2 – Conscious Incompetence: You become aware of your limitations and realize the need to learn. It could be that after you get mugged one day and manage to escape that you take up karate and are motivated to learn. You don’t know a lot yet but you are making conscious effort to learn basic techniques and kata
- Stage 3 – Conscious Competence: You learn new skills and are capable of performing them well if you focus on the given task. At this stage, you have trained for long enough that you are able to perform karate techniques competently. But when engaging in combats, you still need to think about how to respond and your techniques do not yet come naturally
- Stage 4 – Unconscious Competence: You are able to naturally perform a skill well and the skill has become your second nature. In actual combat, your body will react to the opponents and fighting situations reflexibly without thinking.
However, even when you reach the “Unconscious Competence” stage (the levels of karate master), you will realize that this is not the ultimate end goal of a martial artist and that your learning journey will never end.
Other posts you might like to read:
Precept 1: Do Not Forget that Karate-do Begins and Ends with Rei
Precept 2: There Is No First Strike in Karate
Precept 3: Karate Stands on the Side of Justice
Precept 4: First Know Yourself Then Know Others
Precept 5: Mentality Over Technique
Precept 6: The Mind Must Be Set Free
Precept 7: Calamity Springs from Carelessness
Precept 8: Karate Goes Beyond the Dojo
Gichin Funakoshi (1938). The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate
Genwa Nakasone – Teacher, Journalist, Politician
Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai
Four Stages of Competence – Wikipedia
The Four Stages of Competence – Mercer County Community College
"What is the best fighting stance?" is a common question that karate practitioners and other martial artists have. In this article, we cover the characteristics of a good fighting stance, what...
Building a strong body should be an essential part of a karateka's training program. No matter how good your techniques are, at the end of the day, size and strength do matter a lot in a fight. This...