Zen Martial Arts Center

Sacramento Martial Arts and Karate

I was recently asked by a student to expound upon the name and meaning of our system of karate, Isshinryu. These thoughts reflect my own understanding of Isshinryu at this point in my short 15 years of training. They are in no way meant to be a universal definition of what Isshinryu means.

The name of our system is Isshinryu Karate-Do. (一心流), which means “One-Heart Way.” The founder of Isshinryu Karate was Soke Tatsuo Shimabuku, who was already a well-known master of two other systems of Okinawan karate when he formed the system of Isshinryu.

The first character of Isshinryu (一) is the character for ‘one.’ When asked why he chose the name Isshinryu, it is said that Soke Shimabuku explained that “all things begin with one.” The beginning student who takes their first steps into the dojo knows this well. The sounds of punches snapping with concerted effort, the sight of dedicated students training in their pressed white uniforms, and the practice of foreign dojo etiquette trigger the mind to be as a sponge—experiencing this new environment with the eyes of a child. For a while, every punch feels like your first punch and is practiced with honest sincerity of effort. In time, however, more experienced students may feel bored by practicing the same techniques over and over again. They say to themselves, “I know this. I am proficient in this. I have mastered this.” In truth, even the most experienced of us should be practicing with the beginner’s mind, the mind of the child, every class. The punching technique that you did yesterday is gone. It does not matter how strong it was. The punch that you are doing now, in the moment is the one that matters, for “all things begin with one.”

The second character of Isshinryu, shin (心), means heart. This isn’t a reference to the physical heart muscle, but the strong and tempered fighting spirit of the karate practitioner. Some people first come to the dojo because they want to become more physically fit, others to learn self-defense skills, and still others that want to compete in martial arts sporting events. There are myriad of reasons in fact that people begin their karate journey. But many of these reasons lack any serious long-term depth. If your only goal is to become a great fighter or to get in shape, there may be faster and easier methods out there. Students coming to Isshinryu looking only for these things, may become disappointed. Thankfully, it doesn’t take long for the beginning student to realize that the true gift of sincere karate training is the strengthening of the spirit and perfection of one’s character.

A ryu (流), is a way or method of transmitting teaching. There are many ryu, or systems of karate. In the past, many of these traditions were passed on only to one’s immediate family. The connection to ryu with family is an important one that I believe should not be forgotten. Not because we should only share karate with our family, but the people that we share karate with should become like family to us. You see, we have many wonderful people that train in our dojo together. Each of us have our own personal strengths and weaknesses. Together, as a ryu, we are quite strong. It is the duty of every one of us to continue to develop as practitioners of Isshinryu. It is also our duty to make sure Isshinryu remains strong by helping those that are around us. This takes the form of paying back what was given to us by helping students less experienced than we are.

Ultimately, I believe that it is best if we extend our ryu, or family, out even further by taking what we learn out of the dojo and into the world. Sincere practitioners of the One Heart Way will find the physical boundaries of the dojo walls dissolve, for their life will become their dojo.

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