Damatte Keiko: Phase Transformation in Kata, I
It was a short drive from the dojo to the beach – on Okinawa you’re always close to the ocean. The driver was a long-time karate practitioner who agreed to teach me a new kata during the last few days of my visit.
This stretch of beach was wide-open, with the endless sea, brilliant sun, and a constant wind to keep us cool. There was nothing formal about the training, no dojo etiquette or anything. We just began: He moved. I copied.
There I was, following his kata as best I could, watching his turns and techniques, trying to take it all in, adjusting my hands, changing feet – doing what we all do when we try to copy a new kata for the first time.
He would demonstrate. I would imitate. He would say “Ko yatte!” And then demonstrate the move. I would copy. He would move my arm, push my shoulder or kick my leg. Then he would do the move again, and say “Ko yatte.”
I was not familiar with this expression. I thought maybe it was an ancient Okinawan mantra with the power to convey the mystic secrets of karate.
“Ko yatte” means “Like this.” “Do it like this.”
It was an easy way to learn to move. Very efficient. Without getting any verbal description of the steps or analysis of the techniques I learned the embusen of that kata in about an hour. The lack of a shared language was not a barrier to instruction, it facilitated instruction. I noticed it right away.
Back home some instructors would go on and on, explaining details of the techniques, searching for just the right words, explaining the tips they had picked up from their teachers over the years, trying to help us learn. We stood and listened. It was hard to remember all the details. We were not much better at the end of the explanation than we were at the beginning, maybe a little worse, because a precious half hour of training time was spent listening instead of practicing.
A tip, a precise pointer, directed to a particular individual at just the right time, can be very helpful. But mainly we learn by moving. We refine and discover as we go.
Damatte Keiko is a good approach: “Don’t talk – Just train.”
An artist in our school painted a floor to ceiling mural of this expression, which hung in our dojo for many years. People liked it, so we made little prints of it, and it appeared in many dojos. It is a good reminder.
At first we use “Damatte Keiko” to create conditions for efficient training. That is only step one. There is a more profound reason to use this principle. It opens the door to deep accomplishment in martial arts. It is accessible to everyone who wants it. But some martial artists do not get a chance to use this because they are not aware of it, or have not understood it clearly enough to put it into action.
Focused training, unmediated by language, pauses, or distractions, is the way to produce the essential “phase transformation” that leads to mastery. Sensei Funakoshi alluded to it but, as far as I know, he did not explain it.
If you do not use it you will not master your art. No matter how sound our lineage, how prestigious our system, how great our teacher, how much kata or kumite we have done, how many applications we know, as valuable as they are they are not sufficient to fulfill our potential or the potential of our practice. To reach that potential we have to cross a phase boundary.
Phase transformation in thermodynamics refers to the change in the properties of a material as a result of changes in temperature and pressure. Ice turns to water. Water turns to vapor. Those are phase transformations.
The temperature of the material may change slowly. But the phase change is sudden. Ice will be ice at -100° and at -50° and at +32°. But go one degree higher and it will become water. Same material. Different properties. If we continue to raise the temperature the water will feel warm and then hot but it will still be water. Until it reaches its boiling point. Then it will hit its phase boundary and vaporize. Same material. Different properties.
Karate practitioners undergo analogous phase transformations after enough time in the heat and pressure of training. The addition of the heat and pressure of training is gradual and cumulative. The transformation can be sudden.
This is referenced extensively in east Asian martial arts lore and literature. The most well-known texts in the medieval Japanese budo tradition hint at it. Some explain it. These texts have been well translated. But the ideas too rarely make their way into practice. I have written about some of them in my book The Good Fight – The Virtues and Values of the Martial Arts in the chapter Is “Nothing” Sacred? and The Sharp Edge of History; and about Sakiyama Sogen’s and my own “shugyo” training in The Rhinoceros Tale – Martial Arts and the Path to Freedom.
The phase transformation of karate practitioners is produced by training under periodic applications of incremental increases of heat and pressure. Similar to the crafting of a samurai sword. By undergoing this process, the practitioner changes: he or she does not just acquire more skill. Their body, mind and life have new properties. They are transformed.
If the training is not intense enough to bring the practitioner to a high-energy state then there will be inadequate heat and pressure to begin the process. If the energy of training is not intensified and continuously re-applied then the practitioner cannot reach the phase boundary.
If the cooling-off period between trainings is longer than needed for recovery then the heat and the practitioner’s skills will dissipate. They will have to restart the process or remain at a skill-plateau. In that case, despite “years” of training, he or she will not approach the phase boundary. Some may fantasize about mastery, wish for mastery, feel sure they have put in enough dojo training-hours to deserve mastery, but they will not be able to achieve it. Funakoshi Sensei’s analogy of the tea pot alludes to this, but he did not elaborate. He is understood to be encouraging consistent practice, an essential piece of advice. There is more.
If training is calibrated to raise the heat (intensity) and pressure (performance demand) high enough to affect the phase transformation, and skillfully enough so as not to injure the practitioner, and if it is repeated along a proper gradient of frequency and intensity, the practitioner will transform.
In the traditional craftsmanship of a samurai sword multiple alloys are laminated and different parts of the blade are tempered under different conditions, to produce a suite of qualities that none of the components have on their own. And there is a deeper transformation: heat and pressure produce a new crystalline structure in the finished metal. This makes a weapon with strength, flexibility, hardness and resilience far exceeding the qualities of the raw materials. And those qualities will remain present in the weapon after the heat and pressure of fabrication are withdrawn.
Reaching phase transformations in martial arts practice is rare and difficult but it is doable. It is what the old texts are talking about. Setting aside obstructions to training – avoiding unnecessary talk and thinking, disengaging from irrelevant sights and sounds in your environment, feelings in your body or mind, and focusing your attention, will and skill on the moment of action – are necessary. That was what circumstances required me to do on the beach on Okinawa that day long ago.
In the next article in this series I will outline where the martial arts phase boundary is, how practitioners approach it, and how to use it for deep training.
The point here in this article is that to approach the phase transition boundary we put the “Damatte Keiko” idea into practice.
Post and photo Copyright © 2019 Jeffrey M. Brooks and Mountain Karate Dojo, L.L.C.
To Continue, read Part II of this series: Mushin and The Science of Flow: Phase Transformation in Kata, Part II