The martial arts in Dragonball Z are essential to the cultivation of the main cast. Goku’s style of martial arts begins with the Kame-Sennin (Turtle School) style of martial arts, as taught by Grandpa Gohan and Master Roshi. The turtle school emphasizes protection of others and oneself, and focuses on compassion.
In the martial arts there are two basic forms; soft, and hard. This can also be described as open and closed. An open hand or a closed hand signifies a great deal, as it is an expression of the artist who uses it. Many martial arts even use the closed fist as the symbol of their school. This is primarily done in the hard schools, such as Karate.
What is the main difference between open and closed? A soft martial art typically emphasizes morality and the building of character, or ‘heart-nature’. This is taught either specifically, or as it may be in the case of DBZ, through the process of physical training and enduring of hardships.
Picture your grandmother, for example. When she goes to give you a big hug, does she do it with her hands wide open, or closed? Is she open and caring, or closed off? It’s impossible to give somebody a hug with your hands and arms in front of your chest. They have to be open. The position of the hands is a manifestation of the inner spirit.
Buddhist monks who practice physical cultivation, such as the Shaolin, study Buddha Law to cultivate their heart in tandem with their physical practice. Unfortunately in more recent years the schools have strayed from their original methods and now emphasize only the practice. As a result their compassion has decreased and their school has been turned into a factory, spitting out students who have more technique than character.
But of course this all depends on the master (teacher). If the master is compassionate then even an inherently uncompassionate school can improve one’s character. But this is not to say that similar practices can’t lead to improved character through forbearing hardship, because it certainly can. It’s just much slower.
Hard schools on the other hand focus on being closed. Their energy is typically not compassionate, but at the higher levels of practice it can still be expressed. They use fists and hard strikes to down their opponents, and emphasize proper technique. Being kind to the enemy is not a priority in these schools, nor when borrowing applied techniques from these schools. The emphasis is on downing the opponent quickly.
What techniques are used in the Kame-Sennin style? Three primary techniques are employed. These are the rock (fist), paper (open hand), and scissors (mix of open and closed).
The rock is used when Goku or the others are trying to down their opponent or knock them out. The purpose is to end the fight. Hard techniques are also used for strength training and directing will power. Goku tends to prolong the fights for much longer than a practitioner of a hard school would allow, as he is always giving his opponent more chances to enlighten, but when push comes to shove, he brings out the fist.
Paper is employed primarily when blocking other attacks, chopping through weak points with the knife edge of the hand, or when using energy techniques. The openness of the hand allows more energy to flow from the central energy channels to his lao gong acu-point on the center of his hand. By doing this he can redirect the energy of his opponent, completely nullify the opponent’s attack, project energy into the bottom of his hand for cutting, or project it out completely as a straight line or sphere.
The scissors are used as a middle ground style of technique. He points his pointer and index fingers straight while closing the ring and pinky fingers. The thumb can either be open or closed. It is employed most often when trying to pierce the opponent’s defenses and strike at acu-points. It is not as commonly seen as the other two, but we see it a lot in the first series and the beginning DBZ movies. It can also be witnessed when Yamcha or other fighter’s direct hard energy with their minds after it has been projected.
There is a duality at play in all of this. The ebb and flow between soft and hard, open and closed, is in itself a method of opening and closing the energy channels. This is where physical cultivation can be employed in the martial arts. The repeated opening and closing can slowly open up and widen the energy channels, but it is an extremely slow process if done by its self. To quickly cultivate and open the energy channels it is necessary to cultivate the heart. The body will follow.
Through careful observation of our own energy we can see that each finger in the hand is connected to a particular energy channel. Opening our hands wide allows energy to flow completely, and closing our hands into a fist does not allow energy to flow much at all. A closed hand is rigid and hard, it does not circulate. Each finger of an open hand that is subsequently closed reduces the amount of energy that circulates through the body and ultimately through the hand.
A near endless combination of techniques can be developed and employed by manipulation of the hands. Hand techniques and their proper use are extremely important when dealing with an opponent.
There is a battle in school philosophies over which method is better. Better of course is a subjective term, and it all depends on expectations and goals. If your goal is spiritual cultivation and the raising of levels, then go with the open and soft. If your goal is effective techniques and expression of will power, go with the closed and hard.
In the end, if you truly master that school of cultivation, you will achieve an understanding of the other. When you’ve mastered the hard you will have the knowledge and wisdom not to use it, or to only use it when absolutely necessary. And when you have mastered the soft you’ll naturally be disinclined to use it, but if necessary you can apply what you know in an effective manner. Likewise you will be able to apply hard techniques with energy and soft techniques with effectiveness.
In his youth Goku was like many, matching rock with rock, but as he matured he also unlocked more of his divine powers. An example of mastering hard and soft is Goku’s Dragon Fist; a grand manifestation of a divine golden dragon that pours directly out of his spirit and is projected by his fist at the target.
Goku uses both methods with an emphasis on compassion and the soft. His Kamehameha wave technique is an open expression of hard energy, and he uses it to end many fights with the hope of saving others.