(From the book True Karate Dō, by Jeffrey Brooks.)
The Japanese character for the word “kata” – 型 – shows two hands linked together using an implement to cut into the earth. To build a house you pour a foundation. Before you pour the concrete, you dig into the earth.
You build a form, out of wood, that will hold and shape the concrete.
You pour the concrete into the form. You give it time. Once the concrete cures it will make a strong, stable foundation for the house. Once the concrete cures you can remove the form.
In Japanese the wooden form that receives the concrete is called a kata.
Concrete continues to increase in strength for many years. People who use kata for training also increase in strength for many years. The simile holds in other ways:A well-made form will serve its purpose. A poorly made one will not. The soundness of the finished work will depend both on the quality of the form and on the quality of the material which fills it.
As traditional practitioners we use kata
to perfect our combative skills and to refine our bodies and minds. We pour ourselves into the kata every day. Not once, but again and again.It is not a matter of becoming rigid and fixed like concrete, or becoming a robot or a machine, repeating the same thing over and over.
By pouring ourselves into the kata fresh, every day,
we refine our skills and transform our lives. We enter the kata in an immediate way, with the living material of our bodies and minds. By entering the form, by trying to fulfill the ideal of the form, we change. The same kata produces more complete results as time goes by.
The metal used to craft a fine sword blade is smelted from ore. Once it has been refined and prepared, it is melted and poured into a mold. The mold shapes the metal. In Japanese that mold is also called a “kata.” Shaping the metal in the mold is one step in a long process.
Heating and cooling,
adding layers of material, removing impurities and imperfections, grinding and polishing are precise steps on the path, as the form and substance of the blade are perfected.
No matter how good the quality of the metal, if the form was flawed, the process will fail. The strength, sharpness and resilience of the finished blade depends on the kata in which it first took shape.
As a “template, a style, a pattern, a mold, a form, a posture, or a standard procedure” we have a practical sense of how the word “kata” is used and understood.
But in the words of the 13th century Zen monk Dogen’s “ “Genjokoan” – Actualizing the Present Moment” – we have a transcendent one. Maybe it is possible for karateka to practice genjo kata – fully alive in a fully living universe, where we are, as we move, every moment, every day, for as long as we practice, for as long as we live.
Chojun Miyagi’s motto “Oku myo zai ren shin” – “Deeply hidden reality arises in training the heart and mind” – is at once a practical and transcendent presentation of the idea. It is at once a command for action and a template for contemplation. The relationship between form and content, between change and continuity, between life and our tools, between pattern and spontaneity – the reconciliation of all these apparent dichotomies – challenges the way we think and live.
Its penetration is essential work
for sincere practitioners. Empress Wu ruled China in the 7th century. She was not able to grasp this. She needed to. Fazang, her imperial advisor, a master of the Hua-yen school, used the metaphor of a statue of a golden lion to make it clear. Gold is poured into a form. There it takes on the form of a lion.
We see the statue. We recognize a lion. The gold was gold before it was a lion. It will be gold when the statue of the lion is melted. Forms are real, but they are temporary. Something continues – gold in this example – and takes on new form, as conditions change. That is what we do.
We use kata to prepare for combat.
We use kata to get strong, fast, resilient, determined, patient, peaceful and fierce.
Understand: If you only work kata in your training it is like only building the forms for the foundation of a building. We need great forms. But we can’t stop there. We need to fill the kata with life, and then to build on it – with our spirit, purpose and mastery.
That way we continue to construct our style, our skills, and our lives.
Posted by Jeff Brooks, Instructor, Yamabayashi Ryu, Mountain Karate, Saluda, NC
This post is excerpted from his book True Karate Dō, Copyright © 2019-2023 Jeffrey Brooks
Featured image photo – 山林流 Yamabayashi Ryu – mountain forest stream – by Pine Watt