They say there is no first attack in karate. There is no last defense in karate, either.
It’s not over.
Lets say you’re sleeping. It’s the middle of the night. You hear something downstairs. It’s probably nothing. You hear it again. It might be something. You get up. Quietly, so you don’t wake your kids sleeping down the hall.
You hear something, like someone walking down the hall, and bang you see him and startle him and he tries to run past you to get out the door or maybe he is running right at you. So you grab him, and take him down, and do what you need to do to get him stopped and end the threat.
It’s shocking to run into that in your own house, or anywhere. Your adrenaline spikes. You’re on red alert. If you are trained that’s a good thing.
When things settle down, your body recovers, your breathing slows, you call who you need to, and you thank God you and your family are okay.
But let me ask you this: How do you know the guy you caught was alone? How do you know there isn’t another one in the house somewhere?
Answer: You don’t.
Until you check everywhere and make sure. A habit of dropping your guard as soon as the immediate threat is over could be lethal.
You might be looking around your own back yard for an intruder. You might be searching an abandoned building for a bank robber. You might be hunting a rapist in an office park or a killer in the woods. Maybe you’re on the roof of a high rise when there are shots fired or in the third sub-basement of an arena when the power goes out. Your environment, your tactics, the laws of self-defense, your use of firearms and other weapons, will vary.
But no matter where you are or the kind of engagement you are in, no matter how much satisfaction you feel in stopping your guy, or how much relief comes flooding back into your muscles when he’s caught, it’s too soon to relax. You are not done.
We can train this in every kata that we do.
There is no first attack in karate.
Some take “There is no first attack in karate” – “Karate ni sente nashi” – as a belief that each kata begins with a “defensive” technique.
To some it means we should be reactive when confronted.
Some understand it as we should never start a fight.
Some say we should not use a pre-emptive technique even to prevent an assault.
Shoshin Nagamine, founder of Matsubayashi ryu, equates it with Sun Tzu’s dictum that the best path to victory is ‘victory without fighting.’
Others take it as a wise teacher’s warning to his hotheaded students that using force to get your way is wrong, and will cause nothing but trouble.
Our understanding deepens as we take responsibility for our own lives and for the safety of others.
The range of meaning is worth considering. But here insight is more accessible through practice than speculation.
There is no last defense in karate.
‘There is no last defense in karate’ does not mean that we are in a perpetual state of battle, always fighting, always at war, or always on red alert. It gives us a way to use kata training to prepare for unseen threats.
‘First attack’ or not, once we are in it, we need to get it resolved.
At the end of our kata
As we complete the cycle of movement in kata and return to our point of origin, we maintain our posture and our spirit. We do not presume the conflict is over: our opponent may recover and get back in the fight. He may have an undetected ally. A new threat may appear.
‘No last defense’ reminds us that threat cannot be permanently eliminated any more than evil can be; the seeds of the unexpected are always present.
Kata teaches the tactics, mind-set and posture of ‘no last defense’
Here is one example.
Place the first two knuckles of your right hand into the palm of your left. With the elbows slightly bent, bring the hands into contact.
Make a circle of your upper body, from one hand, down the arm, around the back, down the other arm into the other hand to the point of contact.
That upper-body circle makes a stable, strong structure. A training partner applying pressure anywhere on your body will find it stable – like a bridge or an archway. The upper arm circle is part of a coherent unified structure that distributes incoming pressure over the full structure of the body – around the arms and back, down through the spine arch and the leg arch, into the ground. This is reliable.
Separate your hands – even as little as the thickness of a sheet of paper, and have a training partner apply pressure somewhere on the circle again. It is unstable.
You might tense up to hold the posture but compared to when the hands are touching it is hard work, unstable, and rigid. For defensive readiness you want to be resilient and alive, not locked up.
Without the hand-to-hand contact completing the upper body circle it is easy for your training partner – or an opponent or an enemy – to disrupt your posture and unbalance your stance. A slight change in the hand contact yields a dramatic change in the integrity of your body structure.
Dislodging the keystone of an arch is all it takes for a roof vault, bridge or roadway to collapse.
A small lapse of attention, in the heat of battle or in a dark room, can result in catastrophic failure.
We know when the kata will end
To use the ending sequence of a kata for combative training we can take the last move of the kata as a moment of decision, not assuming anything. Then, making certain there is no threat present we end the kata.
We emerge from the combative engagement in stages, like a diver decompressing. It is not the same as dropping your arms to the sides, going slack or spacing out once you have defeated your last imaginary opponent.
At the moment of choice
Your fist is the yang, positive or male side of the circuit. The palm of your hand is the yin, negative, receptive or female side. By connecting them we form a complete circle.
Yang sends energy. Yin receives it. Yang penetrates. Yin encompasses.
Like the positive and negative poles of a battery – when they are connected, energy flows. It continues. The job gets done. We use this principle in fighting. We use it in kata.
This concluding posture sets up the alert, open awareness of the final yoi position.
The final yoi or ‘ready’ position gives way to the wu wei of formlessness – when there is neither attack nor defense, no subject-object-action differentiation, no engagement of any kind.
In wu wei, our posture between katas, we cultivate undifferentiated potential, with no shape and no polarity.
In yoi there is formal structure with global awareness.
In the closed-circle arch posture of body and mind there is energy circulating.
In this posture of the hands-in-contact there is completeness, stability, alive with possibility. We are not done. We are not slack. We are not rigid. We are making the transition to completion but the encounter is not yet complete. If we need to touch and go – like a plane taking enemy fire on landing – we can do it.
We practice vigilance and resilience.
Some believe that peace and safety are the natural order of things.
They are not. They take work to create. They take vigilance to maintain.
Whatever we value, whatever we treasure: our homes, our families, our country, our community, our body and mind, our career, our skills, our training – will not endure without protection. We train to provide it.
There is no last defense in karate
Post and photo by Jeff Brooks