Ryukyu Ancestor Worship and Its Relationship to Karate

Chu usachiyu ruu duu uyamee.
Revere your ancestors, and they will respect you in kind.  (Ryukyu proverb)

If religion is a set of teachings, rituals and beliefs shared by a group or community aimed at facilitating a relationship with a deity, then spirituality is a person’s link with the transcendent questions that confront human beings.

Every culture has religious, spiritual and secular customs to mark each milestone and rite of passage including birth, marriage and death.  Some are celebratory. Others offer comfort.

Ancestor worship, or the veneration of the dead, is a common practice in Okinawa.  Islanders believe that even after friends and relatives leave this life, they continue to exist in another realm, and can influence the future and fortune of the living.  They may also deliver guidance, much like an eternal, otherworldly sensei.

Whether you place a picture of your deceased grandparents on a mantel, or display a photo of your first, or most influential teacher above the kamidana (spirit shelf) you are engaging in a form of ancestor worship.

In a dojo, the kamidana is not a decorative element, but rather, a portal to the past that serves as a bridge to our budo-kami or usachi-yu, martial ancestors.

Karate and all budo are steeped in Confucian and Taoist practices. Demonstrating filial piety, or respect for parents, elders, ancestors and spirit-guides paramount among them.

The Confucian Classic of Filial Piety was written during the Qin-Han period and arrived in Japan 3 CE.  While the text was embraced by the Ryukuyan people during the reign of Shunten (1166–1237), the first lord of the archipelago, honouring ancestors as kami can be traced back to ancient times.

Okinawans believe that after a thirty-three-year memorial cycle, kami lose their earthly attachments and are elevated as spiritual protectors able to move freely between cosmological planes.

Departed teachers/sensei follow the same cycle until they become budo-kami who watch over students, protecting and keeping them healthy, and guiding their progress, while maintaining harmony in the training hall.

In the 21st century, karate and other systems of meditation are often preferred methods to align the body, mind, and spirit.  Even in dojo that promote both classical and cutting-edge concepts, respecting tradition must be balanced with the needs and interests of modern practitioners.

Connecting with your martial ancestors can deepen and transform your budo practice, and offer a link beyond the present.  To quote the sage poet Rumi, “Sometimes we need to step out of the circle of now, into a circle of forever.”