The Moving Target

Some folks think there was a golden age, a better time, long ago, before the fall, when people lived sincere lives, worked hard, did things right.  In East Asia in the past, where our martial arts came from, people venerated their ancestors, homes had a family shrine, people looked back for guidance.

Some folks put their faith in the future. They believe in progress. Riding on the arc of history they feel they are being carried along to a better world.  The new world might be born in blood and fire or by grace and tolerance, but, these folks are convinced, we are part of the inevitable unfolding of history, and are destined for the sunlit uplands.


Some martial artists repeat and repeat the moves of their kata.


In Asia and in Europe when people studied a traditional art – scholarship or shipbuilding, construction, or the art of war – they began by memorizing and repeating. Scholars for example, around the world – in Europe, Asia, North Africa and the Middle East – began their studies by memorizing whole books. Sometimes in languages they could barely understand.

But: they did not stop there.  Little by little, their teachers would explain the meaning. Then they would think and reflect, practice and put their understanding to work.

Learning techniques in martial arts – of the spear, staff, sword or empty hand -commenced the same way.  That ‘wax on-wax off’ thing wasn’t just a cinematic trope – it represented the long and genuine history of martial pedagogy.  It is still used.

For as long as there are records we know that scholars have been concerned about the purity of their texts, their completeness, and the unbroken continuity of the transmission of the explanation of them from generation to generation. Scholars want to be sure they are studying the real thing, perfect and pure, unchanged.


They are not sure. They debate about that.  As martial artists do.


Some ancient crafts were transmitted completely, and refined continually, because they were needed.  But great achievements can be lost – building seaworthy ships by hand, cutting the trees, hewing each beam and plank, joining them with perfect mortises and pegs, sealing them with caulk gathered in the forest and processed by hand.  People don’t do that anymore.

Master masons led crews of hundreds of craftsmen for projects that ran for centuries, creating cathedrals that still take your breath away. Hundreds of tons of rocks cut and moved, stacked and carved.

Those masons were ‘masters’ because they knew their work. Their buildings were beautiful and strong. They fulfilled their purpose.

That art is nearly gone.  We can still transform stone perfectly well. But the stone does not transform people the way it once did.


Some martial artists want to throw kata away.


They want to ‘just fight’ – throw off the old, create new forms, get real, do what works, find novel approaches, new names.  They are familiar with machines: engineering and coding, innovation and continual creative destruction. That is their model.  Can it be that martial practitioners are moist machines to be loaded with better code?

Some have not learned how to use kata to train practical skills. Maybe they have seen kata used badly and superficially. Or maybe they are impulsive, impatient, and have no one to show them another way.


We have access to the wisdom of our ancestors. They wanted us to have it.


But we cannot access it if we stand apart from it and judge it, as if we know it all already. We can dig in. Explore. Plumb the depths, and discover the riches we have inherited.  We can live the kata. And as we go deeper, following the form, the kata will transform.


We can not get access to ancient insights by blindly following a superficial pattern, over and over again, in the hope that the results we want will magically come from mere persistence.


Our ancestors did not make their discoveries by mindlessly copying half-understood forms of the past and hoping for the best. Hoping for insight. Hoping for enlightenment. Hoping that mere repetition would, somehow, transform into mastery.

They did not teach their students by having them wait in mute and obedient silence while they searched for just the right words, words simple enough to convey the essence to these grasshoppers, straining to express the inexpressible, perhaps to eff the ineffable.


Our ancestors did not mistake kata for a talisman, a strange and ancient artifact that, like a magic charm, will somehow, somehow, bring us to perfection. They did not give up their dignity in servile, needy submission to a dude who could certify their rank.

The contributors to our legacy were not all masters.  They were honest and persistent people, strong enough to hand something of value to their students and co-practitioners.


They were people who ventured out into the unknown, using the tools they inherited from their teachers. They pioneered and they maintained the skills they learned.  They took risks and explored their art with courage – questioning honestly and investigating humbly.

Those are the ones who left the legacy that we value.  They rose to the demands and met the conditions of their world. They trained to face hardship and they prevailed.

Some kept secrets. Some were fakes. Their influence will fade and disappear.

The good ones left us their forms, their tools, their maps, their kata.  The good ones found what worked because their lives were on the line.


They had skin in the game.  Maybe we do too.


We stand at this moment at an elevated spot in history.  It is high enough to see where we have come from, and high enough to see the road ahead.

We do what we need to do. We take one step from here.

If we honestly judge every step in this way – every day, every class, every punch, all of it – we will travel well, and we will go where we want to go.


Post by Jeff Brooks

Image credit CC BY 2.5

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