Garyō Tensei — Paint the Dot of the Eye of the Dragon 画竜点睛

It is said that the "devil is in the details" — that may be so, but more importantly, it is the small final details that often make all the difference in delivering world-class performance.

Garyo Tensei 画竜点睛 [pronounced “gah-ree-yo ten-say”] is one of the common four-kanji expressions in modern Japanese culture; it has been a part of karatedō. Literally, it refers to a story about a drawing (ga ) of a dragon (ryu ) that when the final dot (ten ) is drawn on the pupil of its eye (sei ), the dragon in the picture takes flight. More figuratively, however, it denotes the important of the “finishing touch” or the “final detail” that completes a task at hand.

A Story About Painting Dragons

Zhang Sengyou was a famous artists that lived in 5th century China. He was well-known for his amazingly realistic and vibrant life-like paintings and drawings.

His fame grew far and wide, until one day he was invited to paint a mural of four white dragons on the wall of Anrakuji Temple.

The work took him a very long time, but eventually the lifelike dragons appeared one by one upon the wall. Visitors came from all over to see the dragons take shape and watch the famous painter work, and eventually all four of the dragons were completed.

Their fame grew even more once they were finished, but then visitors started noticing an interesting fact. The eyes of the dragons had no pupils!

So the officials of the temple went to Zhang and asked him to complete the four dragons. However, the famous artist shook his head and replied, “If I add the pupils, the dragons will fly off into the sky.”

“That’s impossible!” They laughed in disbelief, insisting he finish the dragons. But still, he refused.

So they asked an apprentice painter to come to the temple, and finish the dragons. The apprentice painted one pupil, and then finished a second one.

As he painted, dark clouds gathered. Thunder clapped. Lightning struck. True to the artist’s word, the mighty beasts came to life and flew to the heavens, leaving the two unfinished dragons quiet upon the wall.

Once the dragons were out of sight, calm returned.

The crowd was struck dumb, staring in silence at the sky. In fact, it is said that the two pupil-less dragons remain to this day on the walls of Anrakuji Temple.

Success is the Details

In life, we are often faced with complex, long, and difficult tasks – sometimes projects that may take months or years, sometimes a course of study that lasts a semester. It is tempting, as we close-in on the end of the task to begin to seek to cut corners, to omit the finer details, all in the interests of finishing the project.

However, Garyo Tensei 画竜点睛 reminds us that in many cases, it is the very last part of the project, when the smallest details are finished, that truly complete the task at hand. And in many cases, it is those small, final touches that make the difference between an adequate ending and a spectacular finish.

Practicing karatedo in the world around us means that we are aware of the final touches, and aware not only that we need to do them, but of their importance.

Final Touches Make the Dragon

Final touches make the biggest differences, and do so sometimes with just the smallest effort. Yet, they are crucial to the final outcome. As in the story about the dragon, there could be no flight, no coming to life, without the very last dot in the pupil of the creature.

The same is true in our karatedo on the dojo floor.

Surely, a karateka nearing the end of an hour-long general class is tired, both in mind and body. But it is exactly at that point in the class that kata training is presented, and he or she would be remiss in not focusing closely on the details of a specific count, on not polishing every last detail in a mindful state.

Making sure to look first, before moving, or in executing a series of kicks crisply, exactly, so that each kick may be seen clearly – sometimes these are the details that make the difference between an adequate kata and a great one.

Sometimes those details are what make our kata, and our karatedo, come to life.

Final Touches are Often More Difficult than Broad Strokes

It should come as no surprise that often these final touches take a disproportionate amount of time, effort, and resources to complete. We have many pithy sayings that speak to this, including "the last five percent of a project can take 95% of the effort."

This makes sense, though. These last details are what makes a project complete, and completing all the parts of a project and truly bringing it to fruition is worth all the extra effort those last details require.

The willingness to expend that effort and resources is also the hallmark of a karateka committed to success. Many are not willing to see a task or project through to its finish: they stop, or they even give up, because "it's not worth the effort." No such excuse makes sense to a karateka.

So while indeed the "devil is in the details" – the details take much effort and are complicated – this is a devil worth conquering.

The Dot Becomes the Entire Picture

The final touches that we add to the creations we build are what define us as karateka. These final touches are what makes the difference between "adequate" and "amazing" – and we can take this concept into every part of our lives.

It's been said that a business or a product has about ten seconds to achieve "delight" with a customer. In the packaging, in the service, in the presentation – these details are what contribute to that delight.

And it's always been true that our first impression is generally the one that stays with us. For most people, that means the small details, because those are what make up that first impression.

It takes focus and discipline to make sure those final touches are done, and done well. And in many ways, this is the strength of a karateka.

Kanji/Katakana Meaning
picture (ga)
dragon (ryo)
dot, point (ten)
pupil of an eye (sei)

Editor's Note: This lecture was first delivered by Sensei at the Goju Karate dojo in San Rafael, California on 12 August 2013; this concept was presented again at the Goju Karate NYC Dojo on 25 October 2023.