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The Bubishi – Karate’s Most Important Text?

The Bubishi – Karate’s Most Important Text?

There is undoubtedly a huge difference between the martial arts as they are practised today and the way they were practised in years gone by. The emphasis that was placed upon effective combat skills has shifted significantly in light of the modern day sporting considerations. The original purpose of the martial arts was to enable the practitioner to protect themselves in either military or civil combat. Along with effective fighting skills it was common for martial artists to be instructed in philosophy and morality. Fighting skills in the hands of those of a violent disposition, who had no regard for the greater good, would be damaging to the order & harmony of both armies and societies. It is for this reason that traditional martial arts would also insist upon the development of the individual.

When discussing the development of Karate it is important to remember that strictly speaking it is not a ‘martial’ art, as it was never intended for use in war. Karate is a civil tradition that was designed to enable its practitioners to defend themselves against day to day violence. Today’s Karateka also requires effective civil self-defence skills, and as the art was designed for just that purpose, one would think it would be ideally suited. However, any honest modern Karateka will admit that the lack of grappling during training leaves the art very vulnerable should striking fail to end the confrontation. Although grappling should always be actively avoided in real situations, there are times (and plenty of them) where it can not be, and it is here that we find modern karate’s greatest weakness. Why does a system specifically designed for civil self-defence appear to be lacking such an important element? I believe that the system is NOT lacking, but the modern interpretation of that system certainly is. This failing of modern interpretations is by no means unique to karate, for example many grappling arts no longer practice striking anywhere near as much (if at all) as they did in the past. So why have these aspects been lost?

The sporting aspect of karate specifically forbids many aspects of grappling, (chokes, strangles, joint locks, dangerous throws etc.) hence skill in these aspects will not bring the karateka any competitive acclaim and as a result these areas are neglected. This neglect of grappling is common to most of today’s striking systems. On the flip side many grappling arts forbid striking after the clinch, when on the floor or all together and hence are often deficient in these areas. There is nothing wrong with these sporting evolutions in themselves. Many people enjoy the competitive aspect of the martial arts either in the capacity of competitors or spectators, however, it must be acknowledged that many of these sporting modifications run in direct opposition to what is needed in a self-defence situation. A look and what is disallowed in a system’s rulebook will usually point out the same systems shortcomings in self-defence situations. The arts as they were originally practised are undoubtedly more complete and hence more effective.

The original techniques of the karate system are recorded within the traditional katas. Throughout the katas one can see the integrated use of grappling & striking techniques. Arm locks, leg locks, throws, takedowns, chokes, strangles etc. can all be found within the katas (read my book, “Karate’s Grappling Methods” for more information). The problem is that the katas are often undervalued and as a result are insufficiently studied. Few clubs place value on bunkai (kata applications) preferring to concentrate on technical competence, which although important, is of little use without any knowledge of how to apply the techniques in a live situation.

In addition to the katas a look at the older texts reveal that karate does possess grappling methods. For those who wish to practice karate as it was intended to be, one text stands clearly apart from all others – The Bubishi. It is this important and profound text that is the subject of this article.

The Bubishi (Wu peh chi in Chinese) was a closely guarded secret that has been handed down from master to student for generations. Nobody is sure of its exact origin but it is believed that it was brought to Okinawa from China (Fuzhou) sometime during the late nineteenth century by persons unknown. The word Bubishi roughly translates as, ‘Martial arts training manual.’ As most martial artists are aware, Karate is a fusion of an indigenous Okinawan fighting art called ‘Te’ and Chinese Kempo. The Bubishi deals with two kempo styles that formed the basis of modern karate. Those styles being White crane & Monk fist boxing. The Bubishi consists of 32 chapters (articles) and gives instruction on fighting techniques, herbal medicine, philosophy, strategy, pressure points, training principles, etiquette and the history of the kempo styles.

Many of the great karate masters owned a copy of the Bubishi and used it in their studies. Miyagi Chojun (the founder of Goju-ryu karate) referred to the Bubishi as the ‘Bible of Karate.’ The name ‘Goju’ is taken from a poem within the Bubishi: ‘”Everything in the universe is breathing hard (go) and soft (ju), in and out.” Mabuni Kenwa (founder of Shito-ryu karate) referred to the Bubishi extensively in his 1934 book, ‘Kobo Jizai Karate Kempo Seipai No Ken Kyu.’ It was in this book that the first public reference to the Bubishi was made: ‘Making a copy of a Chinese book on kempo that my venerated master, Itsou Anko, had himself duplicated, I have used the Bubishi in my research and secretly treasured it.’ Funakoshi Gichin (founder of Shotokan karate) also used extracts from the Bubishi in his book, ‘Karate-Do Kyohan.’

As discussed earlier, today’s karateka include little, if any, grappling in their training and yet the Bubishi contains an entire chapter on grappling and escapes. Although the grappling methods contained within the Bubishi are not as sophisticated as those of a dedicated grappling art they are as effective as they are brutal and are ideal for the use in self-defence, which is after all what they were intended for. The Bubishi’s twenty-ninth article contains forty-eight self-defence diagrams – many of which are grappling techniques that can also be found with the traditional katas.

In an attempt to conceal the techniques, poetic language is used rather that a direct description of the technique itself. Examples include a takedown from an arm lock, which is also included in the opening sequence of Pinan Shodan (Heian Nidan) being described as, ‘Two dragons playing in the water.’ The leg lock & take down from Kururunfa & Neiseishi (Nijushiho) is described as, ‘Tiger strikes the earth’ and a throwing technique from Wado-ryu’s version of Rohai being listed as, ‘Tiger pulling down a boar.’ Funakoshi Gichin also refers to (and includes some of) karate’s grappling techniques in Karate-Do Kyohan, ‘…in karate, hitting, thrusting, and kicking are not the only methods, throwing techniques and pressure against joints are included.’ A little later he writes, ‘all these techniques should be studied referring to basic kata.’

The Bubishi also contains advice and instruction on the use of some of the more unpleasant (although undeniably effective) fighting methods. These methods include hair pulling, seizing the testicles, head butting, biting etc. Interestingly the concept of mentally disarming an opponent prior to pre-emptively striking (which is emphasised by today’s self-protection experts) is referred to in the Bubishi, although I overlooked it at first. A number of years ago I was lucky enough to train under Geoff Thompson on a number of the courses he ran in both Newcastle and Carlisle. It was on these courses that I was introduced to Geoff’s methods of pre-emptively striking an assailant, which has been part of my practice ever since. A little while later, I was reading the Bubishi when one particular line now made a lot more sense: ‘Often it is essential to deceive the attacker in order to make an opening. When the circumstances dictate the meeting be prepared to feign intoxication, weakness or cowardice and when he lets down his guard, strike immediately.’

I also found a part of Funakoshi Gichin’s Karate-Do Kyohan (page 234) which would also appear to endorse mentally disarming and then pre-emptively striking an assailant: ‘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 defence techniques should be considered. Even at times like these, do not show any intention of attacking, but first let the attacker become careless. At that time attack him, concentrating one’s whole strength in one blow to a vital point, and in the moment of surprise, escape and seek shelter or help.’ Although many martial artists believe that pre-emptively striking an attacker is against the philosophy of the martial arts, here we have two of Karate’s greatest texts (arguably the greatest two) appearing to support the method. Along with grappling techniques it would seem that pre-emptive striking was also intended to be part of everyday Karate practice.

The Bubishi also contains a number of diagrams and information on the use of pressure points. The pressure points in the Bubishi are thought to be the ones used by a Ming dynasty Daoist called Feng I-Yuan. It is said that Feng I-Yuan used his methods many times but was never defeated. They are said to consist of nine death points, nine knock out points, nine paralysing points and nine pain points. The Bubishi gives advice on the use of these points but cautions against using them in any but the most extreme of circumstances. One of the most controversial articles in the Bubishi is the one that refers to the death touch. Article twenty-one contains twelve diagrams that detail various acupuncture points and the time of day that they should be struck in order to cause death after varying time delays. These time delays range from a few moments (“the time it takes to take seven steps”) up to three years. Personally, I am very sceptical with regards to the delayed death and fail to see of what use it is in combat.

The Bubishi also gives instruction on the use of herbs to heal the injuries of both oneself and others. This knowledge would undoubtedly be very important to a injured martial artist in an age that did not have the benefits of modern health care, but is perhaps less important today.

There is also a great deal of advice on etiquette and philosophy contained within the Bubishi emphasising that the true martial artist is to be a person of paradox who on the one hand is sincere, honest, gentle & benevolent, and on the other hand is capable of dealing with extreme violence should it become necessary.

The Bubishi is a profound document and undoubtedly the most important in karate’s history. It is an excellent training manual for civilian combat that had a great impact upon the development of Karate-Do and should be a part of every karateka’s (if not every martial artists) library. There are a few English translations available. The two that I'd recommend are:

‘Bubishi – The Bible of Karate’ which is translated by Patrick McCarthy and published by Charles E. Tuttle Company Inc. (ISBN 0-8048-2015-5).

'Bubishi - Martial Art Spirit' which is translated by George Alexander & Ken Penland and published by Yamazato Publications (ISBN 0-9631775-1-6).

Karate was designed for use in civilian combat and it is only in relevantly recent times that some important elements (Grappling, pre-emptive striking, kata application etc.) have been overlooked due to the popularity of the competitive aspect of the art. However, those methods have always part of Karate and should be included in everyday practice if effective fighting skills are your aim. The Bubishi is the original Karate handbook that provides instruction on all aspects of the system.