Although movies and magazines have skyrocketed the popularity of numerous arts, shorinji kempo remains a mystery to most people -- even martial arts enthusiasts. This in-depth look at the art will change all that.

Although martial arts movies and magazines have caused the popularity of numerous arts to skyrocket, shorinji kempo remains a mystery to most people. Even martial arts enthusiasts are frequently ignorant of shorinji kempo’s techniques and philosophy. And they are almost always astonished to learn that the style has accumulated some 1.5 million students in more than 3,000 dojo in 27 countries. A single group, headquartered in the town of Tadotsu on the island of Shikoku, Japan, regulates all that training and testing. However, with only 23 dojo in the United States and four in Canada, shorinji kempo is still an enigma to most Americans. This article will attempt to remedy that. The History of Shorinji Kempo Doshin So is the founder of shorinji kempo. Born in 1911 in a small mountain village high above the city of Okayama, Japan, he traveled to China at age 17 and lived there for more than a decade and a half as a special agent for the Japanese government. His work brought him into contact with several Chinese secret societies, and he learned the Chinese martial arts from instructors who had gone into hiding because of the Boxer Rebellion. After training extensively in Beijing with a Shaolin master named Wen Laoshi, Doshin So was permitted to succeed him as the 21st master of the Northern Shorinji Giwamonken School. He started with various kung fu techniques he had learned in China, then added moves of his own and melded it all together. He named his creation “shorinji kempo,” which translates as “Shaolin Temple fist method.” Doshin So returned to Japan in 1946 only to find his nation in a post-World War II state suffering from moral decay and dismal self-esteem. Because of his concern for his country and desire to end its mass depression, he began lecturing young people. When he failed to get his message across, he realized that words alone were not enough to modify minds. So he opened a dojo and began the task of rebuilding the character, morale and backbone of the Japanese people by using his shorinji kempo techniques as the bait to attract new students and as a vehicle to teach his message of Zen philosophy. In December 1951, Doshin So founded the Kongo Zen Sohonzan temple in Tadotsu with shorinji kempo as its main teaching; thus he was able to teach the art despite the Allies’ prohibition on martial arts training. Two years later, he created the Japan Shorinji Kempo Federation, and in 1974 he set up the World Shorinji Kempo Organization. In the 33 years that followed the founding of the art, he dedicated his life to developing young men and women into strong adults through his philosophical and physical teachings. He wrote a bestseller titled Shorinji Kempo: Philosophy and Techniques, and in 1975 it was abridged and reprinted in the United States as What Is Shorinji Kempo? In 1976, a movie was made about the life of Doshin So. It featured martial arts film star Sonny Chiba performing shorinji kempo techniques and playing the role of the founder. The film primarily dealt with Doshin So’s return to Japan after the war, the opening of his dojo and his rebuilding of his people. Unfortunately, when it was dubbed into English and released on video in the United States, it was sensationally retitled Killing Machine, thus misrepresenting virtually everything the founder stood for. In April 1980, Doshin So traveled to Shaolin Temple, where the Chinese priests welcomed him with a festive ceremony. A stone monument dedicated to him still stands in the courtyard of the temple. He returned to Japan, and on May 12, 1980 he died of heart disease. His daughter, Yuki So, then 22, decided to continue her father’s vision and serve as president of the World Shorinji Kempo Organization. Today, the system she oversees is used by police and military agencies in Japan and is recognized not only as a martial art and a religion, but also an entity that is committed to the betterment of society. Shorinji Kempo: A Complete Martial Art As a religion registered with the Japanese government, shorinji kempo seeks to follow in the ancient traditions espoused by the Shaolin monks — in short, unifying the mind and body through spiritual and physical development in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha. Because the art revolves around Zen meditation and Oriental medicine, it can offer students three main benefits: improved health, spiritual development and self-defense. The self-defense component stems from the shorinji kempo’s reliance on combinations of “soft” and “hard” techniques designed to allow a weaker defender to control a stronger attacker by dynamically applying the laws of physics. That makes it perfect for women, children and people of all ages. Its curriculum can be broken down into four basic parts:


  • Goho, which refers primarily to punches, kicks, hammers (non-punching hand strikes) and slashes.
  • Juho, which is composed of close-contact techniques, including releases, joint locks, reverses, throws and pins.
  • Seiho, or Zen acu-therapy, which offers health promotion through the prevention of illness.
  • Zazen, or seated meditation, which promotes spiritual and mental development through Zen Buddhism, ultimately fostering the ability to seek a solution to conflict without unduly harming others.
Shorinji Kempo Training Shorinji kempo’s techniques that can be broken down into 25 categories. For the most part, they are taught through partner training, with the students alternating roles as attacker and defender. The partner is not a competitor or opponent, and the object is not to defeat him. Instead, he is a partner in the learning experience, one who can help the student improve his technique. Students continually change partners during class, thus forcing themselves to adjust their shorinji kempo techniques to size, height, weight and reach differences. The esoteric Japanese martial art also teaches pressure-point techniques for self-defense and healing. Out of 708 points known to Oriental medicine, shorinji kempo makes use of 138 for combat. Learning to use them effectively requires much experimentation with a partner. Stance and foot positioning are crucial in shorinji kempo. The Zen term kyakkashoko means “to look at the area around your feet” or “to be aware of what your feet are doing.” If a student fails to observe that, his mind and body cannot function as one. If either one lags behind the other in a confrontation, critical mistakes will be made and techniques will lose effectiveness. The mind and body must remain calm, focused and aware. In the East, shorinji kempo students train in a gi adorned with the Buddhist manji symbol because they seek to follow the traditions of Shaolin Temple. The symbol has been used for millennia by different civilizations and actually predates Buddhism. It possesses profound meaning, and in Asia it can be found in temples, on maps and in works of art. The manji represents the fluidity of the universe and the foundation of life. It also stands for the all-important theory of opposites: heaven and earth, day and night, positive and negative, male and female, fire and water, etc. Each component maintains its own distinct nature while finding harmonious relations with its opposite, and students learn to apply that principle in their interpretation of the art. Unfortunately, Adolf Hitler latched onto the manji, turned it on its side and used it as the swastika. It eventually came to represent his Nazi party. As a result, Shorinji kempo students in the West wear the ken (fist) symbol on their gi. Shorinji Kempo: Art, Not Sport Shorinji kempo is not a sport. Sports have rules, but in self-defense, there are no rules. A practitioner does whatever is necessary to fend off the attacker. To temper that potential lethality, students are taught that under no circumstances should they attack first, as Buddhism holds it is always wrong to strike the first blow. In lieu of the sporting ideal of striving to defeat others or set world records, shorinji kempo emphasizes the importance of overcoming oneself by unifying the mind and body. It is not designed for fighting against others, but as it teaches the practitioner to improve himself physically, mentally and spiritually and thus become a positive person who is useful to society, he can assuredly take care of himself on the street. Because of this philosophy, the art does not award rank based on a comparison with others or a win-loss tally from a tournament circuit. Instead, it is based on the individual student’s improvement. Rank is not used for the purpose of setting up a hierarchy in class, but to provide a series of goals and markers for training. In addition to undergoing a physical test, practitioners must take a written exam that includes crafting an essay on technique, philosophy, history, their motives for studying the art and their current state of mind with respect to it. Shorinji Kempo Philosophy One of the most important lessons of Shorinji kempo is that the body and spirit are indivisibly one and that both are of equal importance. The art advocates training the two halves through the physical techniques described above and through zazen meditation. The guiding principle is that the student must first save himself and then be of use to the world. Developing breath control, mental discipline, and physical and spiritual strength are among the many benefits of shorinji kempo practice. “Boundless strength and unlimited love” is a slogan often used by its adherents. The philosophy teaches that love without strength is ineffective, while strength without love is violence. Movement exists in stillness, and calm exists in action. Through meditation and physical training, shorinji kempo seeks to find balance and harmony between love and strength, mind and body, power and compassion, self and others, and action and stillness. It ultimately becomes a lifestyle, a formula for personal happiness and for the realization of human potential.
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