You may have heard shorinji kempo mentioned as a legendary martial art or read about it in texts on judo and karate as an ancient Chinese-temple style. But shorinji kempo lives, and, what’s more, it’s growing.

Editor's Note: This article first appeared in the May 1978 issue of Black Belt.

At a recent karate exhibition, a high-ranked black belt demonstrated his “art” to a college audience. On command, his assistant lunged with a front punch. “Now, see what I do,” the instructor said, grinning. He twisted and executed an eye gouge, then hurled the assistant to the floor and enthusiastically stomped on his solar plexus.

“We don’t mess around,” he boasted. Several members of the audience walked out.

The demonstration was typical of the terror-of-the-street attitude in much of the American martial arts. Maybe sports and self-defense are all Americans require of the arts. Perhaps the spirit of budo isn’t relevant anymore. But fluctuating attendance at dojo across the country indicates that something is missing. If philosophy is that missing element, then shorinji kempo may become popular.

Mystery Art

Shorinji kempo? You may have heard it mentioned as a legendary martial art or read about it in texts on judo and karate as an ancient Chinese-temple style. But shorinji kempo lives, and, what’s more, it’s growing. Thousands of Japanese practice it in more than 800 training halls. It’s spread through every major Japanese university and many of the nation’s high schools.

The popularity is growing in Europe, as well, and that leads to the question, When will it come to the United States?

Currently, only a handful of qualified instructors teach the art here. Ken Ohashi, a black belt, is one of them. He describes his relationship with the shorinji organization as “very close.” He makes regular trips back to the headquarters at Tadotsu, Japan, where they’re not quite sure how to promote it in America. 

Tight Control

“We are under strict instruction from headquarters about the promotion of shorinji kempo here,” he says. “They have been very active and aggressive in Japan but haven’t yet decided what to do in the United States. There are certain barriers in terms of culture.”

What barriers? Karate, judo and a host of other martial arts came to the United States and thrived. But a difference arises in philosophy. Shorinji kempo cannot be transplanted to America without its philosophy. America is a nation of fast food and sensationalized techniques. And Americans often lack patience. We like to be entertained. Are we ready for a heavily philosophical martial art?

Philosophy Included

The monks at the shorinji headquarters wonder. Yes, monks. Philosophy figures so powerfully in shorinji kempo that the Japanese government registered it as a religion. Doshin So, the founder of modern shorinji kempo, calls this philosophy Kongo Zen.

“Kongo Zen is a philosophy that turns inward as well as radiating outward,” he wrote. “[It] combines gentleness with hardness and compassion with strength.”

Shorinji kempo represents the physical, active aspects of Kongo Zen. To Doshin So, shorinji kempo isn’t just another empty-hand fighting art, but a whole way of life. Ohashi describes Kongo Zen as a “revitalization of fundamental, original ideas of Buddhism. It is rational and has nothing to do with mysticism or life after death.”

They believe that in an ever-changing universe, responsibility for man’s future lies with himself. He must be wise enough to know what’s right and strong enough to enforce it. The ideas relate directly to the precepts of Buddhism.

Indian Roots

Accordingly, Doshin So traces the philosophy and fighting techniques of shorinji kempo to India 5,000 years ago. They were imported into China and eventually institutionalized at the famous Shaolin Ssu. Shorinji means “Shaolin Temple” in Japanese.

The priests at Shorinji practiced kempo as a form of meditation. To them, it provided a means of spiritual training first and a method of self-defense second. For this reason, philosophy and meditation remain central to modern shorinji kempo. Without the ordering principles of Kongo Zen, it would be an empty gesture. The fighting techniques and teaching methods themselves express the philosophy.

“All the techniques are constructed so they can’t be used aggressively,” Ohashi says. “They are geared to getting out of the way of an attack and then controlling the attacker.”

Jujitsu: Toward One Technique is George Kirby's latest book.

Submission techniques take precedence over killing techniques. Like in aikido, the wrist- and arm-twisting motions of shorinji kempo can paralyze an assailant with pain without inflicting permanent damage.

“We never talk about killing techniques,” Ohashi says. “Killing somebody is the extreme opposite to our philosophy. It may be necessary to control somebody, but it should never go beyond that. Shorinji kempo is communication. You can’t communicate with somebody once he’s dead.”

The teaching methods illustrate this aspect for others. Practice revolves around embu, or two-man kata. According to Doshin So, practice with a partner encourages respect and understanding for other people. Until you play the guinea pig and get on the receiving end of a technique, you’ll never fully understand its effect.

“If a student becomes aware that he can’t develop without a partner, then he will also realize that he can’t exist without others,” Ohashi says. 


Soon the shorinji kempo practitioners at Tadotsu may decide to take action and promote their art in the United States. If they do, they won’t abandon their philosophy along the way. Doshin So believes the philosophical aspect of shorinji kempo accounts for its immense popularity with Japanese youth. Perhaps they’re not so different from American youth.

Officials at the Shorinji headquarters will carefully watch Ohashi and other stateside shorinji kempo instructors to monitor American reaction to their art. If it’s positive, they’ll promote shorinji kempo heavily in America.

Many people seem satisfied with the state of the martial arts in the United States. Sports and self-defense are enough for most people. But for those who are turned off by fighting method alone and are looking for something more, shorinji kempo may be the answer.

Story by Mike Liu

Don't miss a single issue of the world largest magazine of martial arts.

Do you want to maximize your self defense skills? Learn the game of combat chess and most importantly the queen of all moves.

Allow me to intercept those who would object to the title of this article. I'm not claiming that there's a secret move, shortcut or hack that will give you the edge in any fight. Even if there was an ultimate weapon or strategy, you likely would avoid it because you
Keep Reading Show less

Looking to buy some weights to gain some strength?

Looking at Dumbbell, Kettlebells or Weighted bar? How about an all in one that won't just save you some good amount of money but also space? Look no further, we bring you the GRIPBELL!

Let's face it, when we do want to work on some strength building, we don't want to go around shopping for 20 different weight equipment things. That would just not want us to even do any sort of strength training. But what if we only needed a few, a few that can do the things we want without having 20 things lay around? That's where the GRIPBELL comes in. Let me clarify with you first, these are not some heavy duty, muscle exploding weights, they are for building the level of strength we as martial artists want without going crazy and insane in bulk sizing!

Keep Reading Show less

Many different types of "blocks" are taught in most martial arts school. We are taught high blocks, low blocks, middle blocks, knife hand blocks, etc. Some schools will also teach how to use the legs to block an attack, as well.

The purpose of this writing is to possibly open some minds to the possibilities of going outside the box and considering alternatives to the basics.

Blocking is taught as a way of protecting oneself from harm. Truly, we don't "block" anything, as a non-martial artist would think of it. What we call "blocking" is more of a redirection of an opponent's attack, or even a counterstrike against the opponent's attacking limb.

To block something would mean to put something, like your arm, leg or other body part directly in front of the attack. That would certainly hurt and possibly cause some damage. The goal should be to move the attack out of the way in order to prevent injury and provide a way to fight back. For example, many schools teach blocks as a limb moving toward the strike such as a circular high block.

The movement required for a block might have other uses, if you keep an open mind. The blocking techniques can also be used as attack techniques. For example, your "low block" may be used as a striking technique against the outer thigh of the attacker. Your high block might be used as a strike to the jaw. The set up for a block can be used as a deflection, as well as the actual block.

Doing a block or a series of blocks will most likely not end an attack. A block needs to be followed by a counterattack. While the block is usually taught as a separate technique in order to learn it correctly, it should also be used in combination with a counter.

The more you know, the more you realize how much you don't know. Intensive books can and have be written about basic techniques. With this writing, I am hoping to create interest in exploring the additional possibilities for what we have been taught and what we teach others.

About Grand Master Stevens

GM Stevens has been training in taekwondo for 47 years under the tutelage of the late legendary Grand Master Richard Chun. He holds an 8th degree black belt and is certified in the USA and in Korea. Grand Master Stevens is a member of the Board of Directors of the prestigious Richard Chun TaeKwonDo World Headquarters organization. He has been very active in his community and has been a volunteer with the Glen Rock Volunteer Ambulance Corps for over 11 years. He is a certified member of C.E.R.T. (Community Emergency Response Team).

Gary Stevens Taekwondo is located at 175 Rock Road in Glen Rock, New Jersey.

For more information: call (201) 670-7263, email: or go to

Having partners at or above your skill level is important for improving in your martial arts training. At some point, however, you will probably find yourself with a shortage of skilled partners, especially if you are an instructor.

This can happen for any number of reasons: students can move away, change their work schedules, start a family, etc., and just like that, you find that you're the highest-ranked student, or sole instructor, in your gym or dojo. This doesn't have to be a bad thing. In fact, if you take advantage of it, even working exclusively with lower-ranking classmates or students can improve your skills.

I used to host a twice-a-week training session at my dojo where I invited mostly black belts from other schools (as well as a few of my advanced students) to come and run drills. It was a blast. These were tough two- to three-hour sessions where I got to work with fighters of all different sizes, speeds, and technique preferences. My sparring improved dramatically over the next few months, and I don't think I've ever been in better shape. But unfortunately, it doesn't always work out that way. And as the old saying goes, "You gotta work with what ya got." So, make it hard on yourself.

I like to set handicaps when fighting my students. Specifically, I focus on forcing myself to work on improving my weak areas. Is you right leg weaker than the left? Then only kick with the right leg when sparring your students. Not much of an inside fighter? Don't kick at all. Training with partners of lesser skill not only helps you improve your weak points but gives them an opportunity to improve as well by working on strategy. It's also great for building their confidence. It can also be a low-cost opportunity to test new techniques and combinations, which benefits you as well.

In grappling, just like sparring, there is little benefit to wrapping lower ranking classmates into pretzels over and over, for them or you. Instead, let your partner put you in a bad situation. Let them get the mount; help them sink in that choke or armbar. If you start standing, such as in judo, allow your partner to get the superior grip before attempting a throw. This way you will get comfortable working out of a weaker position and your less-experienced partner can perfect their technique (and get experience using multiple techniques, if you get out of their first one).

You might think that giving advantages like these to students who may be far beneath your skill level is much of a challenge. Trust me, you'll reconsider that sentiment when you wind up sparring a 6'5" novice with zero control over his strength after deciding to only use your weak leg, or have a 250-pound green belt lying across your diaphragm trying to get an armlock after you let them get the pin. Remember, this is exactly what you signed up for: a challenge.

If you find yourself at the top of the heap without partners who are sufficiently challenging, there is no need to despair. Use it as a low-stress opportunity to improve your weaknesses and develop avenues to help your less experienced classmates and students to grow. You may even be surprised. One day they might present more of a challenge than you ever imagined!
Don’t miss a thing Subscribe to Our Newsletter