This essay was written by one of our students, Edina, for her blue belt grading. She shared some great insights into the topic and has kindly agreed for me to publish it here!
Shorinji Kempo is a discipline that develops individuals. ‘’Jiko kakuritsu’’, meaning ‘’self-establishment’’, refers to building strength of character. As such, the goal of Shorinji Kempo is not to train martial arts champions but to train stable and strong leaders, who will be an asset to society at large. This is achieved through increasing physical strength through regular training and increasing mental focus and self-understanding through meditation. Over time, as we become physically and mentally stronger and become more competent, we also develop greater self-confidence.
I see parallels between this aspect of Kempo philosopy and Carol Dweck’s theory of growth mindset, which proposes that people can develop qualities and reach their goals with effort, perseverance and drive, regardless of natural ability. This theory is based on neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to continue forming, strengthening and weakening neural connections throughout life. People who have a growth mindset use feedback and mistakes as opportunities to improve, while enjoying the process of learning, thus becoming more productive.
Kaiso [our founder] wisely said ‘’live half for your own happiness, half for the happiness of others’’. Therefore, to maintain the balance between self-interest and altruism that kenshi should strive for, ‘’jiko kakuritsu’’ is paired with ‘’jita kyoraku’’, which means ‘’self and others mutual enjoyment’’. In other words, our ‘’well-established selves’’ should strive to live in harmony with others’’.
A few weeks ago, Sensei Ben talked about us having to do more teaching as we progress in our training. He explained that if one day some of us have our own dojos, we will have to first ‘’establish ourselves’’, meaning we first have to show that we can do everything ourselves to earn the trust and respect of the kenshi [students]. Once we have established ourselves as the person in charge, then we can be less controlling and let others teach. This made me think about this concept of ‘’Jiko kakuritsu, jita kyoraku’’; first establishing ourselves as leaders and then living in harmony with others by giving them a chance to practice leading.
Reflecting on my own Kempo journey, I can see how Kempo has contributed to my development as an individual. When I first joined the dojo, a fellow kenshi jokingly described me as ‘’weedy’’, which was a fairly accurate description; I had the upper body strength of chicken, and the only exercise I did was walking. Over the years, I have got progressively stronger and can now do a 2-minute plank, 20 push ups, and a single pull up; it doesn’t sound like much but for me it’s great progress. I jog to work to improve my cardiovascular fitness and I bought a bike so I could cycle to Kempo and avoid public transport during the pandemic. Training Kempo has encouraged me to have a better work-life balance. Initially, I would often miss training because I would be working late, whereas now, on Wednesday, I ensure that I only plan work that I can reasonably do in 9 hours.
In conclusion, Jiko kakuritsu and jita kyoraku sum up how Shorinji Kempo develops individuals; by believing our own potential and improving ourselves, we can use our strengths to improve the lives of those around us for our mutual benefit
The shakujo is also somewhat unique in that it is one of only three weapons practiced in Shorinji Kempo. Alongside the nyoi (如意, sceptre, baton) and dokko (独鈷, single-pronged vajra, palm-stick), likely chosen by Doshin So due to their deep Buddhist symbolism and connection to the Shaolin temple monks, their techniques have been all but lost due to years of de-emphasis from the core syllabus. We are fortunate in the UK that Mizuno Sensei made a special study of shakujo and nyoi techniques, in part directly from the famous shakujo master Ueda Sensei (more on him later), to ensure he was able to pass them on to a new generation of students. It is something of which I in turn have attempted to make a detailed study (although I still have a long way to go myself!).
In this article, I'd like to delve a bit into the rich history and meaning of the shakujo, as well as talk about its application within the Shorinji Kempo system. Because while it doesn't necessarily add any practical value, I think understanding where something comes from enriches our practice. And of course it's also important to retain our connection to the past whenever looking forward.
My (1st place!) shakujo embu from the BSKF 2017 national taikai.
While I was having a clear-out this weekend, I found a single sheet of paper tucked amongst some leaflets and other papers from my first trip to Japan (and one and only visit to Shorinji Kempo headquarters), for a world taikai back in 2005.
It was an extract from a talk given by the founder of Shorinji Kempo, Doshin So, back in the 70s. I'm not totally sure home I came into possession, but re-reading it, I was struck by how relevant the words were to the current political climate. Against a renewed backdrop of isolationism, it’s a pertinent reminder that changing the world starts with the individual; that we must build up not just strength and resolve, but also consideration for others, in order to stand up to injustice.
Given I have no idea of its provenance, I can't comment on the copyright status of the text. So until someone tells me to take it down, the full text is replicated below. Enjoy.
Speech by the Founder at the Shorinji Kempo 30th Anniversary National Taikai (1977)
It truly gives me great pleasure that the Shorinji Kempo 30th Anniversary Taikai is being held here today on such a grand scale. After Japan having lost in World War II, I returned to Japan to start my life all over once again, together with many other Japanese people. I thought that we could work things out together by helping each other when I returned to Japan. However, Japan at that time was in a really terrible state. Some behaved like gangsters to other Japanese, or those from some of the victor nations committed many overbearing acts. Despite seeing such acts, nobody tried to help. Under such a situation I honestly felt regret about having to return to Japan.
Perseverance is not a passive idea. It doesn’t mean weathering or suffering through negative events happening to you or around you. Perseverance is active, it's striving, pushing through oppression, a burden, or unpleasant experience, towards a better resolution. It can also mean actively challenging or seeking change. To persevere is to work to improve the situation, despite resistance to that change.
In the same way that perseverance isn’t passive, it also isn’t directionless. It’s towards something, a maintaining of purpose despite obstacles. Simply surviving or abiding is not perseverance.
Tl;dr, training is how we condition ourselves for a real self-defence situation, and if you allow yourself to give up in training, that's what you'll condition yourself to do for real. The goal of effective training needs to be building up resilience, as well as skill.
In our world of instant gratification, it’s easy to give up when something gets difficult, to move on to the next “fun” thing. But in the end that results in only superficial experiences. You lose out on the real deep enjoyment and meaningful satisfaction that comes from losing yourself in an activity; pushing through the barrier of “trying” to the experience of “doing” that we sometimes call flow, or being in the zone, and that defines an activity (in the Japanese mindset) as a do. The catch is, that deeper engagement can only come through extensive practice, to the point where movements and actions become internalised enough that they become like a direct extension of your will. And that’s where the hard bit, the perseverance, comes in!
Shorinji kempo makes use of many different parts of the hand and arm for striking, some common to many martial arts, others are more characteristic to Shorinji Kempo (such as urate, a loose fingered ‘flicking’ movement used to sting rather than strike bluntly).
One of the key aspects of Shorinji kempo is that we aim to strike ‘weak-points’ on the opponent’s body to achieve maximum effect with minimum force, and so it is useful to understand the different tools at our disposal in doing so. Particular angles or surfaces of different body parts or hand positions will be more or less effective at striking different weak-points.
In this post, I’m going to focus particularly on the parts of the hand and arm that are used in hard strikes (goho). There are of course other parts of the hand/arm useful for blocking and in grappling (juho), and other parts of the body that can be used for striking and blocking too, all of which are subjects for another day. Hopefully it’s interesting to the casual reader to demonstrate the breadth of our system, and to experienced kenshi may provide some ideas to integrate into your own practice.
Of course striking weak-points in the wrong way, or even correctly but without proper control can be particularly dangerous, so I’m not going to go into much detail on how to apply each of these strikes here - to learn that you’ll have to go along to your local Shorinji kempo dojo and try it out there!
Akken (closed fist)
Chances are, if you’re reading this post you’ve heard about something called kata. It’s that long choreographed sequence of movements they do in karate? A bit like a dance? Good for demos but not very practical right?
Kata (型 or 形) is often translated as "form" or "pattern/mold", and applied to martial arts (or other traditional arts) describes a codified sequence of steps that should be performed. In martial arts that generally means a sequence of attacking and defending movements, usually for a solo practitioner.
"I don't like it because it's not practical", "there's no point to it", "it won't help on the street": those are some of the most common criticisms of kata I've heard (and read) over the years. They're all valid points of course, but really it comes down to how you train in kata that determines whether it's practical, meditative, or basically just dance.
In this post, I want to talk about kata and share some of the conclusions I’ve reached from my own reflection and research. Tl;dr I absolutely believe kata is an important part of balanced training, and not just something you dust off for demos every 6 months. Why? Because done right, it hones the basics: good form, balance, stance, timing, distance, speed; in a controlled and repeatable way.
Shorinji kempo kata
There are 14 official ‘empty hand’ kata in Shorinji kempo. There are also several unique kata for shakujo, nyoi and dokko (totaling 16 more, that I know of!), and which are a subject for a future post!
Several of the kata are direct single form (tanen) versions of full pair-form techniques (hokei). Ryuoken dai ichi (1) is the single-form of the basic technique kote nuki (ryuoken 2 and 3 are single-form versions of yori nuki, and ryote yori nuki respectively); byakurenken dai ichi is single-form tsubame gaeshi. To emphasise this difference, the forms are often referred to collectively by a different name in Shorinji kempo: tanen kihon hokei (single form basic techniques).
Stances are an important aspect of many traditional martial arts. They serve the purpose of setting up or inviting certain attacks (such as hasso gamae which invites an attack to the middle, or taiki gamae which presents an obvious opening to the head) and so form an integral part of many formal techniques. Many stances were developed from a need to appear intimidating or well prepared in front of a potential assailant, in an attempt to dissuade them from attacking (aiki gamae, manji gamae). In other cases, stances can serve to conceal one’s preparedness with an inconspicuous or more natural looking position (useful for de-escalating a situation while remaining ready if that fails) - such as midare or tate muso gamae.
Being a Japanese martial art, stances in Shorinji Kempo are also an important aspect of etiquette, and like much etiquette relating to potentially dangerous activities like martial arts, are founded in safety. Stances such as kesshu gamae show that the student is paying attention during instruction, and gassho (rei) signifies mutual respect between training partners before starting to practice.
There are 17 formal stances in Shorinji kempo, grouped into two families (Byakuren and Giwa) named for two of the Chinese schools from which Doshin So took much inspiration in founding his system.
Byakuren (8 stances)
Shorinji kempo (少林寺拳法; Shaolin-temple boxing) is a Japanese martial art that was founded in 1947 by Doshin So, a Japanese intelligence agent and martial artist. Through his travels in China before and during the second world war, Doshin So had the opportunity to study with many of the "lost" quan fa (kempo) schools that were driven into hiding following the boxer rebellion; schools steeped in history and with a deep connection to zen buddhism. He also experienced first hand many of the horrors of war, terrible acts committed by ordinary people and soldiers, and on his return to Japan after the war, found a nation defeated and in disarray.
These experiences together impressed on him the importance of an individual's strength of character in how they act and treat others. This motivated him to create a system that would teach both practical self defence and the ideals of mutual respect, responsibility and cooperation to the young people of his country, to help with healing and improving society. His art quickly spread, and today Shorinji kempo is practiced in over 40 countries around the world, and continues to promote self improvement and mutual cooperation through the practice of the martial art.
Shorinji kempo combines elements of the styles of jujustu that Doshin So learned from his grandfather, with many techniques and ideas learned from various quan fa masters during his time in China. Doshin So took these elements, and systematised them, incorporating ideas and changes from his own experience. In many ways, Shorinji kempo is one of the original mixed martial arts.
In choosing a name for his martial art, Doshin So picked one that reflected the spirit of the Chinese arts he had learned (epitomised by the Shorin-ji or Shaolin temple), and would stand out in contrast to the classic traditional Japanese arts such as karate, aikido and jujustu.
Ben is instructor at East London Shorinji Kempo. He has been practicing for 20 years and has reached the rank of 4th dan.
Shorinji kempo stances