Meeting with a Viper

From “My Way of Life” by O-sensei Funakoshi

Kodansha International


In Okinawa, there is a very poisonous pit viper called habu. Happily, its bite is no longer quite the fearsome thing that it was in my younger days when, if a person was bitten on hand or foot, the only way to save his life was immediate amputation. Now an eflfective serum has been developed, but it must be injected as soon as possible after the bite. Our Okinawan habu, which grows to a length of six or seven feet, is still a good beast to avoid.

Back in the old days before the development of the serum, I went one night to the house of Master Azato for a karate practice session. This occurred several years after my marriage, and I asked my eldest son, then in primary school, to accompany me and carry the little lantern that lighted our way through the island night.

As we were walking through Sakashita, between Naha and Shuri, we passed an old temple dedicated to the ancient and much venerated Goddess of Mercy, called Kannon in modern Japanese. Just after we passed her temple I spied in the middle of the road an object that I first took to be horse droppings, but as we drew nearer I realized that what I was looking at was alive-and not only alive but coiled to strike, glaring angrily at the two intruders.

When my young son saw those two piercing eyes glittering in the night and then, by the light of the lantern, that sharp red tongue darting out, he shrieked in terror and threw himself upon me, clutching my thighs in his fear. I quickly thrust him behind me, grabbed the lantern from him, and began to swing it slowly from right to left, keeping my own eyes riveted to those of the viper. I cannot, of course, say how long this went on, but at last the snake, still glaring at me, slithered off into the darkness of a nearby potato field. It was only then that I could see how very long and thick that habu was.

I had, naturally, often seen habu before, but never until that night had I seen one coiled to strike. Knowing, as every Okinawan does, their unpleasant habits, I very much doubted that it would slither off quite so submissively without making even an attempt to attack, so- terribly frightened though I was-I held the lantern in front of me as I crept into the field in scarch of the snake.

I soon saw those two glistening eyes reflected in the light of the lantern and realized that the habu was indeed expecting me. It had set its trap and was now waiting for me to spring it. Fortunately, seeing me and seeing that swinging lantern, the snake abandoned his attack and this time disappeared for good into the darkness of the field.

It seemed to me that I had learned an important lesson from that viper. As we continued on our way toward Azato’s house, I said to my son, “We all know about the habu’s persistence. But this time that was not the danger. The habu we encountered appears to be familiar with the tactics of karate, and when it slid off into the field it was not running away from us. It was preparing for an attack. That habu understands very well the spirit of karate.”