Part I: The Zen of Kata
Martial arts forms, or Kata, is a method the martial artist uses to perfect, catalog, and transfer their fighting methods so that they may be preserved and refined by the next generations of fighters. The fact that we have forms still with us today that are between several hundred to over one thousand years old is an incredible testament to their genius and innovation. Improperly taught, learned, or practiced however, can lead to disastrous outcomes that can cause an entire martial art system to fall into the ash heap of history.
Over many years of training, while I have always liked Kata and all other martial art forms, only now I can say that I truly appreciate the difficulty in doing what it takes to perform them correctly. Sensei has driven that point home to me on numerous occasions, and there is one occasion I was training with him that was particularly grueling, yet very productive. We had been working on Shorinji-Ryu's Kushanku series of Katas non-stop for over two hours, and I was becoming exhausted.
Earlier in my training with Sensei, I didn't dare approach or ask him questions unless prompted to do so. Later as the years passed, he became much more open with me, taking great liberties to answer all of my questions regarding details, how fighting applications were derived from the Kata, with no stone un-turned or detail overlooked. I would soon discover that time was about to come to pass. Desperately needing a break form his intense regimen, I posed a question about one of the moves, as I didn't fully understand the fighting application behind it.
Sensei admonished me, "You have been a black belt for sometime now. Do the Kata! Then you will learn what it all means. No more questions!!"
"Yes Sensei" I replied, attempting to be indirect, as Sensei never answered direct questions, "So I hold my weighting this way before I move in Shuto?"
"You're making an attempt to intellectualize of the Kata" Sensei said. "Such attempts work to undermine your progress and will be you undoing. You see, the moment you become intellectual, you mind starts seeking proof from an opposing point of view - that creates internal conflict, at which point you are finished! Your opponent will kill you, and you will have no idea of how it happened. Save for your last view, a 360 degree pan of the world when you head flies from your body!!"
"See, you have to put yourself into the battlefield" Sensei continued, "there is no space for useless banter in your head. Kata is about precision, finesse, power, movement, and most importantly, Ki. You must Do the Kata, not practice it. There is a significant difference between the two. Now drop down in your stance, and drop your Ki down into you belly and breathe, breathe deep."
I thought I understood what he meant, as I made a failed attempt to duplicate the movements exactly as he instructed, he immediately lashed out, "No! Don't breath like you're sitting on your couch - that is death. Breath like you're alive! Use it to relax, and the pain in your legs will go away. You have to feel the Kata, understand the art in you bones, unthinking with your intellect, and reach into your sub-conscience. That is where the real you lies along with all of your true talents. Let the Kata break you, your ego. Let go, and understand what it all means without attempting to grasp at it, lest it will escape you."
All in that moment I understood what he was saying, but more importantly, I could feel what he was imparting. As I continued through the Kata, Sensei continued his lecture, as he expected me to perform Kata while absorbing his words at the same time during certain points. "The problem with most is that many say 'Kata is no good, Kumite is better' - what they are really saying is they are not up to the task of doing Kata properly. Then there are those who practice it, and never get anywhere. That is because they weren't listening to their teacher, or the teacher did not understand what they were showing them. Chalk it all up, it is no wonder the state of Karate has eroded over the years."
I continued my training with renewed enthusiasm and energy. As we moved toward the end of our third hour I became completely spent. As I attempted to move from an extremely low stance into a higher one, my legs gave out and I stumbled over. "Why did you do that?!?" Sensei shouted, then he realized in the same moment "Oh, ah ha - I see what's happened" he started to laugh "You're too tired to stand! Good, training is over for the day, let's get some food." I was relived to hear his words.
Happy that I was getting a break, what I did not yet know was I was about to get the real point of the day's lesson over dinner.........