Moral Kata

Martial artists develop powerful concentration in training. In bursts, under pressure, and for sustained periods of endurance training, our ability to focus goes far beyond the capacity we would have if we were untrained. That deep focus comes, little by little, naturally, as we make effort to meet the high-performance demands of our training.

We can export that deep concentration to seated meditation practice. There we can apply it to objects other than our bodies and our opponents. We can apply it objectives other than staying alive and keeping others safe.

It seems that sometimes when we do seated meditation, even in a retreat setting, we sit there and daydream until the training period is over. What are we doing with the time? It’s nice. Quiet. Incense. Bells. No pressures or irritations. We need a break from the pace of life, and we take it. That’s not bad. But it is not training. 

How do we do good training when seated?

Seated meditation is not the foundation of religious or spiritual life. It is not special, and it cannot make you special. Seated meditation cannot make you perfect, it cannot end your difficulties, or make you a spiritual person. It can lead to high flow states and to deep samadhi; it can help us to approach the threshold of human fulfillment. 

It is critical in a way, but it is trivialized if it is understood as distinct from the rest of our life time. It is only useful if it is understood as a part of a continuum of practice which forms the foundation of life.

Unless we know why our seated mind training is an urgent matter it is difficult to import the urgency we feel in martial arts training to it. When our body is in immediate jeopardy we respond to protect it. If we fail to recognize the threats to our heart and mind which are presented by every moment of contact with experience, we will fail to respond urgently to our training opportunities. We need to know what we are doing and why.

Sometimes you will hear that taking up the seated posture is enough. Some say that then you are suddenly manifesting complete enlightenment. If you do not understand what is being proposed you will be disappointed. What do you think that means? What result do you want? Into whose hands have you put your life? If we sit like a fresh loaf of bread, cooling on a countertop, or a bottle of wine, corked in a dark cellar, or a cheese, all we do is age. 

Meditators will get some results from sitting there. But then, like the bread, wine and cheese, meditators will begin to decline and spoil. Unless we know what we are doing.

Without a foundation in good conduct sitting will be fruitless. Without guidance and application of rational wisdom we will wander. 

As a sincere practitioner we monitor and train our personal conduct continually. If we notice that we are thinking, speaking or acting in a harmful way, we stop. If we notice anger or greed, we subdue them. If we speak harsh, divisive, false or useless words, we stop. If we are taking something that is not ours, hurting someone or inclining to, we stop. We do this all the time. Not just at special times when we are “practicing.” If we notice that we are failing to assist people who could use our help – out of laziness, or selfishness, obliviousness, lack of skill or resources – we see what we can do to remedy that.

When we practice kata, we first memorize the postures and sequences. Next, we examine it for its meaning and application. Then we learn how to increase the skills that will enable us to embody the use of the movement spontaneously: energy flow, body conditioning, applications in striking, grappling, throwing, off-balancing, seizing and more. Then, after accumulating a lot of experience, insight, knowledge and principles, we drop off all the examination, reflection, analysis and thought. Then we are free to move well. 

When we practice moral action, the process is similar. We learn what to do and what to avoid. We practice. We monitor our performance. We get feedback – from teachers, friends, family members and others. Not always painless, not always right – but we get it and consider it and act on it as we deepen our understanding of how to act towards ourselves and others.

As we train in this moral “kata” our life stabilizes. We build the foundation for deeper practice. Without this moral training our lives are turbulent and our minds are tense and unsettled.

We cultivate clarity and stability through training in conduct. We build on this with seated mind-training “kata.” That is: we learn what to do, and then we make an effort to do it. Then our purpose will be clear and we will have the skill to achieve it. 

Without this grounding in ordinary intelligence, also called practical wisdom, no amount of breath-counting, thinking, koan penetration or blank mind will be of use. Some of the previous notes on this site, in the Black Belt Forum, in the series of articles on developing flow in the dojo, and the series of articles on mistaken Zen, explain how to use our own practical wisdom and apply traditional guidance in our training.

This is an urgent matter. Our kata show how to bring our inherited wisdom to life.


Post Copyright © 2021 Jeffrey M. Brooks, author of The Good Fight – The Virtues and Values of the Martial Arts.

Photo by André Cook via Pexels

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