by Jordi Muria Gratacós

The kanji for Shin () has several meanings, namely, "mind", "spirit", "heart". This is something common in Japanese writing as in the past they didn't have a writing system and adopted the Chinese one.

Heart / mind / spirit

Training in Karate-do, from a Budo point of view, implies not just a civil self-defense system but a physical means to reach moral and ethical development and an understanding of ourselves, our environment and our live. To me, developing a good shin (spirit, heart) would be the greatest achievement for a martial artist or for any regular person for that matter. But how can we evaluate or know if a karateka/person is really developing a good shin? We can tell whether or not a person is strong by watching them lifting weights, for example, but I've seen excellent martial artists in the dojo whose behavior or spirit left a lot to be desired out of it.

The spirit or character of a person is displayed through their thoughts, words, and deeds. I think you can tell what kind of spirit a person has by knowing them but more importantly by watching what they do... Do they assume financial risk to have an over-materialistic life, putting their families at stake, or are they cautious when it comes to managing their money? Are they so concerned about dojo fees that they even overlook certain aspects of classical Karate training? Do they smoke or drink after teaching a martial arts class showing no sense of self-defense? Did they stop training years ago and all they do nowadays is demonstrate against compliant attacks in front of the class? Sadly, these examples speak volumes about the person in question and their true spirit.

So far so good, we know the theory, we know that martial arts aim to develop our spirit, but each of us faces daily the reality of our lives... As Funakoshi Sensei said:

When you leave home, there are a million enemies waiting for you.

We obviously do not live in complete chaos or a war zone where going to the supermarket to get a loaf of bread or going to collect water might cost you your life. What enemies do we face nowadays? Where are they? Disaster stems from negligence so avoiding negligence with all our will is good self-defense. Normally it originates within ourselves. Simple things like checking up your vehicles, respecting other people's lives or living a plain life can help us live better and happier, avoiding accidents, conflict with someone else or trouble with the bank, for example.

I think a budoka has to display the spirit of awareness (zanshin) at all times. I don't mean at a paranoid level where you leave home assuming kamae, but trying to foresee danger or mishap, being aware of your surroundings.

On the other hand, there's the psychological war. Interaction with other people may be difficult. Sometimes your spirit must deal with lies and provocation. A common rule I've often come across is "the end justifies the means". Some people show no morality when it comes to getting what they want, they are even willing to run over you if need be. The idea of fair play with honor does not exist in the cruel reality, everything's shady and deceitful. Unfortunately, this is also the case in Karate-do: when the goal is money, there are no rules, everything's easy, everything can be bought, even grades. The spirit gets corrupted.

To me, the million enemies Funakoshi refers to are within ourselves. We need to declare war to ourselves on a daily basis, our great battle is fought against ourselves. Our spirit, heart or mind, is sometimes confined inside a box, and our mind is ruled by our ego, envy, laziness, pride, vanity, selfishness, ignorance, and so on. According to the Buddhist school of thought, it is believed the human being has 108 defilements. Therefore, on December 31st at noon 108 bell-chimes are meant to ward off such bad spirits.

Sometimes we look away trying to get around the sacrifice of doing what is right. As human beings we usually look for the easiest and most comfortable way in everything we do. Having enough integrity and courage to do what is right in accordance with a good spirit is hard, but very rewarding and uplifting for our spirit. Identifying these crossroads and fighting mercilessly so that our spirit is not taken over by the 108 defilements is a true achievement for a karateka.

Barrett Sensei said that whenever we get into the dojo we should face a challenge. Challenges help us grow as human beings and they also develop a strong spirit. We may fall into conformity and comfort, and all kinds of excuses stem from these. We create a comfort zone, and it's hard to get out of it. I for one try to be honest to myself, and when I feel my spirit weak, I do something about it.

In my training, I leave the heavy tools for the end of the week; they feel even heavier. Normally my mind starts to come up with many excuses to avoid the battle against these tools; "you are very tired", "it's been a tough week"... I'm not going to lie; I've been defeated many times, and I hope I'll be defeated many more times in the future so that I can learn a lot more about my character.

I also use a deck of cards. One exercise from junbi-undo or hojo-undo is assigned to each suit and one has to perform as many repetitions as the number displayed on each card. I like to liken this exercise to life itself; you never know what number you'll get next, but you know you'll have to go through all of them, good moments and bad moments, always with a spirit of endurance and composure, an indomitable spirit.

Hojo undo is a typical feature of Goju-Ryu. Besides its fundamental quality, i.e. its direct link to Karate techniques, it also provides a good opportunity to challenge our spirit. The tools are always ready to train, they never come up with excuses, and they never get tired! You can use more weight or increase the number of repetitions, or use stronger timber for your makiwara. It's up to you how far you want to go.

Tai tanren is another aspect of Karate that I find quite useful, not only to forge your body but also your mind and spirit. This kind of exercise is aimed at hardening the main parts of the body by pounding them against a training partner or inanimate objects found in the dojo. This way of training is no longer popular in many dojo. To me, this kind of exercise puts your mind/spirit to the test. You are taking pain but you keep pushing forward. Your indomitable spirit should step, take over, and prevail over our feelings of pain, fear, insecurity, helplessness...

Another aspect of Karate-do which I think shows the level of the spirit of the practitioner is shime. This is used to test our physical structure and make sure it is in line with certain efficient principles of movement. The moment your movement stops being efficient, this becomes obvious thanks to the resistance provided by the person performing shime. For me, the internal battle starts when structural weakness is revealed in my Sanchin. Just when you thought you were starting to get things right in thin air, you realize that wasn't the case, you are not as good as you thought. Your pride is easily kept in check by good shime!

Training in adverse places and conditions, like the mountains or the countryside, or in hot or cold weather (sochu geiko / kan geiko) can help our spirit to develop determination to fight against the setbacks we may come across in our lives. Courage and perseverance are two great lessons we can learn from these extreme ways of training. Our spirit is linked to our body; wherever our spirit takes us, our body will follow.

The study of Karate-do or any martial art as Budo is no easy task. I for one find it a wonderful challenge to improve as a human being. There are five spirits whose study may enable us to understand budo and ourselves a little better. I'm going to try to explain these spirits from my humble point of view since I believe many years of study are required to get to understand these concepts completely. They can be difficult to understand/explain and I'm at a stage where my understanding of my art and myself is still shallow.


Shoshin refers to the spirit of the beginner. For the practitioner of the martial arts, the main attribute at this stage is morality. In the past, in order to be accepted as a student by an authentic sensei, you had to display good manners, and you were also put to the test for some time so your teacher could assess your character. Sadly, this is not very common nowadays, most teachers are not interested in having students but clients.

At the beginning, the role of the senpai is essential. They embody the values and virtues of Budo we aspire to and help us to get used to the traditions and customs of the dojo (reigi saho, soji, etc.).

Never forget the spirit and humbleness of the beginner

The same way the beginners watch the senpai, the latter should also watch the spirit of the beginners, their energy and motivation. Many senpai and even sensei may fall into the trap of pride and vanity because they lack a humble character. Normally these are people who don't get out of their comfort zone very often. Your attitude towards Karate-do and life itself is the key and what makes a difference. We must always have a positive, humble and honest attitude, open to learn.

Humility... I wonder if anyone pays attention to the maxims left by the great masters about humility... What's the point of accepting and bragging about a high grade awarded by some federation when you actually know you don't have that level. Miyagi Sensei allegedly said: "I've been doing Karate for a long time, but I haven't mastered the essence or truth of the art yet. I feel as if I were wandering alone along a dark way." How humble Miyagi Sensei must have been to say those words publicly... Nowadays the martial ways are comfortable, well paved and illuminated, with shihans, gurus and other semigods who will show you the way for a price.

Honesty... Being honest to ourselves... When I did Japanese Karate I used to think my gradings had more value if the grading panel was made up of people who didn't know me as they wouldn't be biased and could just judge my technical level. Eventually I came to realize that federations had only one interest: money, and that, more often than not, the people sitting on the grading panel were not sensei but Karate businessmen with weak characters who accepted that the head of the organization determined the number of applicants who should pass an fail. Keeping people happy so they kept paying their fees was all that mattered.

To feel better with myself I decided to undergo the same grading under a more traditional association and a famous sensei with terrific abilities which couldn't be denied. I used to attend his seminars regularly every year but, regardless of how many seminars I attended, I wasn't his student, and he didn't really know me. I don't understand how this kind of professional instructors can be said to have students as they devote their lives to travel around the world giving classes... I think what they have is followers and they don't really care about their character. Also, the way associations are run is not very different from the way they run federations; it's all about money.

Now I'm a white belt and I'm happy. I have the chance to start over with something authentic, and I wouldn't accept being graded by a sensei who doesn't know me, who can't be sure my character matches my grade. If Karate is a martial art to enhance your life, to develop you morally and get to know yourself better, what's the point of taking grades from people who don't even know what your character is like? If you are lucky enough to be accepted by an authentic sensei, a person of high character, who doesn't make a living from the martial arts, who dignifies them and does not sell them, then if your character doesn't change, if it doesn't improve, if you give him excuses instead of reasons, they won't give you any grade and they will even have the moral duty to ask you to leave the dojo. This is definitely what I was looking to feel again; shoshin.


Zanshin refers to the constant spirit of awareness which remains. We know from our experiences in the dojo that it's a state of concentration before, during and after doing a technique. It's a high state of consciousness, not just about the technique you are doing but also the environment you are surrounded by. When we enter the dojo we need to be aware of this spirit. Any action we carry out in the dojo requires a strong spirit of zanshin, from pointing our zori to the exit, showing that we are careful and thinking ahead, to picking up a piece of equipment using good body structure, careful not to hurt our back. Zanshin must be shown in our kata, as well as when we bow or do kumite with a partner.

At an internal level, I think zanshin can be thought of as being aware against negative thoughts (pride, jealousy, envy, etc.) and the temptation to not do what is right. Once again, we need to pay attention because our great enemy lies within ourselves.


Mushin refers to void, emptiness, the "mind of no mind". It's a state where there are no feelings of anger, anxiety, fear, selfishness... this is particularly important so that our actions, both in the dojo and in daily life, are not chained to a specific thought which can get in the way when we need to make a decision. "Hitotsu. Be calm in mind and swift in action." Miyazato Sensei put this in the dojo kun for us to study it. Acting with our mind clouded or distorted by feelings and emotions may lead us into failure.

At a technical level something similar happens when it comes to reacting with a certain technique if we are not able to find emptiness in our minds and we are chained to thought; this technique won't come out naturally. Repetitive training tries to make motions and techniques automatic to prevent finding ourselves in this kind of situation.

In Budo, it takes 1,000 days to learn a technique, 10,000 days to polish it, but the difference between victory and defeat is measured in fractions of a second.


Unmovable mind/heart. This spirit refers to courage and self-control, both mentally and physically, achieving a stage where any attack, physical or psychological, cannot disturb us at all. Both in the dojo and in life we may suffer different kinds of attack. The goal would be not allowing these attacks to have any effect upon us.

It's no easy task to maintain your composure or spirit when you get bad news, but Budo training is not easy either, and that's why it takes many years of training and study to grasp the different lessons. Life can hit you in many different ways, and very hard! From losing your job to losing those you hold dear or facing illness. In any case, you feel like an earthquake within yourself, everything wobbles to the point you think you'll break down, and sometimes you do. Keeping emotional stability and an attitude of immutable calmness is a clear sign of self-control.

Keeping calm when everything is quiet, that's not true serenity; keeping calm in the middle of the most adverse and threatening action, that's true serenity.

Takuan Soho

Fusoshin as a strategy may help both in a fight and when interacting with other people. In the face of danger, provocation or deception from the opponent, not showing any external signs of what we intend to do or how we feel inside may give us psychological advantage over the opponent. Likewise, the person whose temper and/or emotions are known and predictable can be handled and overcome relatively easily if we know how to take advantage and use this against them.


This refers to the spirit that transcends and goes beyond the limits of experience. In Budo this is normally called 'satori' or 'enlightenment'. It's a very high level of mastery and control over oneself.

Seishin also refers to a merciful and purified heart/spirit. The true way of Budo is the way of peace, the art of winning without fighting.

Do not hit others, do not get hit by others, this is the principle of peace without incidents.

Chojun Miyagi

As budoka, our main goal is always avoiding conflict with another person and even in a hypothetical case of extreme conflict we must support peace. A selfish and out-of-control spirit which seeks to harm deliberately does not dignify bodoka but turns them into a beast. Defense, even putting our physical integrity at risk is an essential attribute of Karate-do.

There's no first attack in karate

Kata is the essence of Karate-do. In-depth study of the kata will reveal the different principles and strategies passed on by the great masters. All kata begin with a defense and, as far as I know, there's no kata made up of just offensive techniques... why? This fosters the right attitude of avoiding conflict in the karateka.

On the other hand, if we take a look at the offensive techniques found in the kata, we can see that some of them are quite dangerous in nature (using sharp tools to strike vital points) while others are less harmful (using blunt tools, dodging, disengaging...). Why did they include this kind of techniques in the kata? As budoka, if we find ourselves facing a stressful situation, we need to come up with a quick answer, and if this is proportionate to the risk we are facing, this will help us feel our merciful and purified spirit and be in peace with ourselves.

Jordi Muria Gratacós

“No matter how you may excel in the art of Karate, and in your scholastic endeavors,
nothing is more important than your behavior and your humanity as observed in daily life.”