“Mentality over technique” is the fifth of the twenty precepts that Gichin Funakoshi wrote to guide his students in their martial arts and character development.
This post discusses its meaning and how it might be relevant to your martial art journey.
Different translations of this precept
There are quite a few different translations of this precept.
Let’s first look at the original Japanese version of this precept which is “一、技術より心術” (Hitotsu, gijutsu yori shinjutsu).
Hitotsu (一) means “one”.
Gijutsu (技術) has two words:
- Gi (技) means “technique”
- Jutsu (術) means “art”, “skill”, “method”, “technique”, or “means”.
Therefore, gijutsu can be translated as “the art of techniques“.
Yori (より) means “than”, “other than”, “rather than”, or “more than”.
Shinjutsu (心術) has two words:
- Shin (心) means “heart”, “mind”, spirit”, “vitality”, “inner strength”, “core”, “center”, or “soul”
- Jutsu (術) means “art”, “skill”, “method”, “technique”, or “means”.
Therefore, shinjutsu can be translated as “the art of the mind“.
To sum up, I think the essence of this precept (gijutsu yori shinjutsu) is that “the art of developing the mind is more important than the art of developing techniques“.
Other translations of this precept that I have come across are:
- Mentality over technique
- Spirit is more important than technique
- Spirit first, technique second
- Spirit before technique
- The art of developing the mind is more important than the art of applying techniques.
Why the art of developing the mind is more important than the art of developing techniques
As mentioned in the discussion of the second precept, Gichin Funakoshi did not explain in detail the meaning of those precepts. However, 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 told two tales to demonstrate the importance of developing the mind over developing martial art techniques.
Tsukahara Bokuden testing his sons
The first one is of Tsukahara Bokuden (1490 – 1571), the legendary and most deadly swordmaster of his day testing the abilities of his children.
Approaching retirement and looking for someone worthy to take over the reign, Bokuden decided to test his three sons.
Bokuden balanced a heavy headrest on top of his door and called his eldest son, Hikoshiro, into the room.
When Hikoshiro gently pushed the door open, he noticed that it was heavier than usual. He then reached up, carefully felt along the upper edge of the door, and found the headrest.
He took it down, entered the room, and then placed it back afterward.
Bokuden then called his second son, Hikogoro, who simply pushed the door open, making the headrest fall down.
Hikogoro, however, was quick and managed to catch it and put it back in its original place.
Bokuden then called his youngest son, Hikoroku who energetically pushed open the door, making the headrest fall down and hit his head.
Hikoroku, who possessed better technical abilities than his elder brothers, drew his sword at once and cut the headrest in two before it hit the ground. He laughed at the incident and was rather proud of himself.
Bokuden then told his sons:
Hikoshiro, the one who passes on our method of swordsmanship has to be you.
Hikogoro, if you exert yourself and don’t give up, you may someday reach the level of your brother.
Hikoroku, in the future, you will surely cause the ruin of this house and bring shame upon your father’s name. It will not do to have someone as imprudent as you in this house.
And with that, Bokuden disowned Hikoroku.
This seems a little harsh by today’s standards but that’s how the story went.
Tsukahara Bokuden’s disciple
The second tale was about one of Bokuden’s disciples.
Bokuden had a student with extraordinary technical skills.
One day when he was walking down the street, this student passed an agitated horse that kicked at him. But he was so quick that he turned his body and avoided being injured just in time.
When Bokuden learned of this incident, he was so disappointed that he dispelled the student from his school.
People who witnessed the incident applauded the student’s ability and could not understand Bokuden’s reasoning for the dismissal. So they set up an ill-tempered horse on a road that they knew Bokuden would pass to find out what he would do in such a situation.
They were surprised to observe that Bokuden went to the other side of the road to stay completely out of the horse’s reach.
They were intrigued by Bokuden’s reaction and confessed their plan to him and asked for an explanation.
Bokuden then replied:
A person with a mental attitude that allows him to walk carelessly by a horse without considering that it may rear up is a lost cause no matter how much he studies technique.
I thought that he was a person of much better judgment, but I was mistaken.
Both of these tales show the importance that Bokuden placed upon the concept of zanshin (残心) in martial arts which is just one aspect of the martial mindset.
Zanshin refers to the state of being totally aware of your enemies and your surroundings, foreseeing potential dangers and avoiding them, dealing with your attackers and simultaneously taking in everything else that is happening.
Bokuden’s third son, Hikoroku, had great sword skills but he lacked awareness and presence of mind and he reacted without thinking.
It is the same case with Bokuden’s student.
He may have had enviable swiftness but he lacked the ability to foresee dangers and avoid potential injuries in the first place and Bokuden considered this mental attitude to be much more important than technical ability.
Gichin Funakoshi emphasized the same point in his book “Karate-Do Kyohan: The Master Text“.
The secret principle of martial arts is not vanquishing the attacker but resolving to avoid an encounter before its occurrence.
To become the object of an attack is an indication that there was an opening in one’s guard, and the important thing is to be on guard at all times.
One should refrain from walking alone at night as much as possible, and when that is unavoidable, one should take aroundabout route to avoid dangerous neighborhoods.
If, even whiIe taking precautionary measures, one should be attacked by hoodlums in a stroke of ill-luck, then it is better to run away. Running away as far as possible and seeking shelter in someone’s home or shouting for help would be the best forms of self-defense…
When there are no avenues of escape or one is caught even before any attempt to escape can be made, then for the first time the use of self-defense techniques should be considered.Gichin Funakoshi in Karate-Do Kyohan: The Master Text
One time I was walking on a busy street one evening and was probably following my own train of thought and someone jumped in front of me and yelled “boo”.
Needless to say, I was scared to death and frozen for a moment. Looking up, I saw my sensei smiling at me.
“Where’s your zanshin?” he asked.
It was really embarrassing and, from then on, I’ve been walking on the streets very differently, still get distracted sometimes but definitely with better awareness.
Mentality is more than just zanshin
Developing a correct mindset as a martial artist involves not just having a zanshin state of mind but should include other areas like:
- Respect means showing respect to others, yourself, and the environment around you, earning it in return and living a meditated and fulfilling life
- Karate ni sente nashi means that one should use all non-violent ways possible to resolve conflict before looking at using physical forces
- Humility means demonstrating a beginner’s mindset at all times and always having an open mind and being willing to listen and learn. This is the only way to keep progressing in life. Once you think you already know a lot, you will stop learning
- Resilience is consistent with the fudoshin (不動心) concept of having an immovable mind or being unshaken in the face of victory, defeat, or other external factors. The mind totally focuses on the goal and cannot be stopped
- Mindfulness means focusing on the here and now and is consistent with the mushin no shin ((無心の心) concept or the state of “mind without mind”. In this state, one is free from ambition, anger, hate, or fear and therefore is open to everything and able to deal with the situation at hand intuitively
- Self-belief in your own ability and the right cause that you are fighting for will give you the super strength that you need to achieve your goals.
All of these can have a huge impact on what kind of person you will become as well as your fighting ability. Your technical training, in turn, will also have an impact on your mental aspect and general character development.
Note that Gichin Funakoshi did not imply that one should choose character development over physical training or that physical training is not that important. He only emphasized that your heart, mind, spirit, ethic, and general martial attitude are more important than the technical aspect of your karate.
You may possess great fighting skills but without a good heart, you will become a burden upon your family and society.
On the other hand, if you have a great heart but mediocre skills, you won’t be able to contribute to the greater good as much as you would like.
“Mentality over technique” reminds us that karate is more than just developing correct and powerful techniques.
Developing a correct mindset is perhaps a lot more difficult and more important than perfecting your techniques.
Techniques will only take you thus far but cultivating and developing a mental attitude is part of becoming and living life as a genuine martial artist.
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
What Is the Purpose of “Chambering” in Karate?
How to Generate Explosive Power in Your Karate Punches
Gichin Funakoshi (1938). The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate
Karate-Do Kyohan: The Master Text
Genwa Nakasone – Teacher, Journalist, Politician
"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...