Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Understanding Kata

The term Kata means Dance, but it is not always used the same way. In Karate for example Kata are forms practiced by an individual such as Shodan no Kata, the first form taught in Classical Shotokan Karate. In Shotokan Waza (meaning technique or method) is drill performed by 2 people such as Ippon Kumite or one step sparring & Sanbon Kumite or three step sparring. The exercise of Ippon Kumite & Sanbon Kumite is to teach waza or technique. To help the reader I point to the video below, where one is perfecting technique such as a high block and counter strike. Sometimes in the term Waza is used to describe exercises such as Sanbon Kumite and Ippon Kumite in the west.

However, in Jujitsu, Aikijutsu, Aikijutsu or Taijitsu (all different terms for basically the same art of unarmed combat) Kata is a training method. Here Kata is executed by applying a series of waza or techniques against a non-resistant opponent. Below is a comparison of Shotokan Karate's Heian Shodan no Kata & a random Jujitsu Kata.
Heian Shodan Kata:
Jujitsu Kata:
The reason for the videos is simple, it makes the differences easy to understand, the term is the same, the kanji is the same and meaning is the same. But, the core principles are very different, as is the reason for the existence of kata in the two forms. In karate, Kata refers to solo practice drills in China and Okinawa these drills wee practiced much like the scene from Enter the Dragon, were each person is amassed and executes the actions in unison. This was an Asian form of Drill & Ceremony for older times, Western armies used marching. Likewise, the kata could be practiced by individuals alone and was a form of moving meditation, physical exercise and a "text book" for martial arts where Bunkai (literally "to disassemble") is used to analyze the form to discover alternative applications and techniques. Here a single form taught lower ranking soldiers might have a totally different meaning to the initiated higher ranking soldiers. Kata Bunkai has three ways of viewing Kata... Omote is literally "surface" so Kata Bunkai  Omote is the first form of initiation, the surface application of the form. At the Omote level what you see is what you get, a punch is a punch, a kick a kick and block a block. Here kata forms the process of exercise and teaching basic fighting techniques.

In our ancient Asian army we would call our "NCOs" (Non-Commissioned Officers) or "Sergeants" (if you are a civilian) would be initiated into the Ura Bunkai, Ura literally means "Behind" and it I what is behind the form. Here techniques are not just techniques, a Juji-uke (cross block) and pivot may be a trap and break or throw. This is the "secret" teaching of the Kata. And finally our last level of initiation is for our "Officers" this is call Honto Bunkai, Honto literally means "true" or "truth" for the largest part because few Karateka wrote down their teachings much of Honto Bunkai has been lost to history, but this is where the intentionally "hidden secrets" in kata are laid bare. 

Many times throughout history in both Okinawa and China this level of initiation was used due to armies having conscripted soldiers. Many of the documents which survived to present day are written in a form of metaphor that served as a code. Understanding these metaphors was part of the Honto Bunkai level of teaching though not directly related to Kata where strategy and tactics could be concealed in the form at the Honto level. One claiming to know the secret codes would have to be initiated at various levels. This of course is like a ancient form of security clearance. That prevented misuse of knowledge by those who would seek to overthrown their leaders.

By comparison, Feudal Japan during the Sengoku period when many schools were formed into codified systems. The primary differences in Jujitsu and Karate Kata, is the about Mid-Tokuagawa era the Bushi became a specific class and "migration" between classes was ended. Prior to the Tokugawa shogunate (bafuku) a merchant could become a warrior or a warrior could become a priest. Many farmers were conscripted to become Ashigaru (literally Light Feet) or Light Infantry, some becoming Warriors (bushi) or more correctly mercenaries. When after Oda Nobunaga the Ashigaru's position became fixed, making the Ashigaru members of the Samurai class, though this was not in all domains. Mainly in rural areas were Ashigaru could be "promoted" to the rank of Ji-Samurai or country samurai under a Kokujin. Such Ashigaru might still be farmers but considered Bushi was well, think of supply line soldiers who be drawn from the rear to fight on the frontlines. Meaning the Ashigaru were considered Samurai class & their primary role was warfare but they still supplied the army with other duties.

Bujitsu (to include jujitsu) became a skill only of professional soldiers (the samurai class) and as such teaching was more direct to produce warriors of skill compared to the conscripted warriors of the preceding era. As such a school could have branches among various classes because members of the same family existed in different classes. Families were locked in the position of being warriors, so techniques and application became more direct in study but also more closely guarded. A technique, waza, was practiced through kata, with the focus less on whipping a conscripted army into shape to follow orders through drill like the Kata of Karate and more on perfecting individual skill at arms. These direct but rote movements lead to an understanding of Ura, the principles of technique that work "outside the technique" and finally the Honto or "true meaning" of a technique.

In Jujitsu the Ura is understood by practicing Kata and testing one's skills in battle. Sometimes, Warriors would engage in duals called Shiai. Shiai is made up of two kanji Shi means literally "Test" or "To Test" and ai means literally "to gather" or "join" and one interpretation is "to test to gather" or perhaps "test each other." As such shiai can mean anything from a game or contest to a bout. Experience leads one to understand the principle behind the techniques, such contests were often limited by few rules meaning injuries were common. Honto was achieved only by understanding the higher meaning of the technique.

 What is this higher meaning you may ask? What is the Truth of Kata? The truth of Kata is found in doing, not reading. I can tell you the secret and you will never know the truth of it without training. You see the Honto, the Truth of Kata is that it is the beginning of wisdom and not the end result. This is the point when one can invent techniques, not by making things up and applying a name to it but by creating it in a moment of need in the Shiai of self-defense or the Randori of sparring match. This level truth is known as Mushin, the no-mind state of being without thought or emotion when one acts without knowing to act.

Mushin exists in Karate as well, in fact I wrote this blog to address the differences in the term Kata, for a friend. Its does not mean different is either good or bad, it means different paths to the same summit.

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