In practicing kata time after time after time over the last increasingly large number of years, I’ve thought about the creation and evolution of various kata. Where did they come from and what was the motivation behind each one and what are the lessons to be learned?
On the most basic level they were created as a compendium of technique. They were a way to remember techniques before video cameras were invented. Indeed, they were a way to remember technique before most people were literate. Writing down the techniques was an option only for the monks and a few other highly educated martial artists of the time, i.e. “The Bronze Man” from China or the “Bubishi” from Okinawa.
What were the techniques that were remembered? In my humble opinion it was the epitome of the Darwinian theory, “Survival of the fittest”. What techniques were put in the kata? Techniques that worked in combat. If the combatant survived then so did his technique. Obviously, if the combatant didn’t survive then his technique didn’t either. So, by default, only workable technique lasted and is carried on in “traditional” kata.
Conversely, today’s “sport” or “exhibition” kata include many techniques that are good for winning trophies and medals. They include techniques that are ornamental and please the aesthete in us. They are athletic, acrobatic and beautiful but have not been time tested and hardened in the fires of combat.
When we look at our traditional kata we feel and see the techniques at different levels. Of course the basic level is dominated by atemi waza or striking (percussive) techniques. This is the first bunkai or application we learn or discover. This is block, kick, punch.
As we grow more sophisticated in our pursuit of the inner essence of kata we look to tuite jitsu or the power of the trapping hand. We begin to see the locks, releases and throws that are secreted within. It is not evident but techniques that look strictly like atemi waza can and do hide tuite techniques or grappling, locking, releasing and throwing techniques.
At the highest level of traditional kata look to kyoshu jitsu or vital point activation as the guide for many of your applications. This is the point at which the kata techniques become particularly lethal. This doesn’t mean that all applications remain at the highest level. You may find that after all a punch is still just a punch but you become aware of precise targets and weapons. Bunkai also flows between atemi waza, tuite waza and kyoshu jitsu.
Masters of the jutsu or combat version of karate created the classical kata and therefore each move should be respected and retained. I feel strongly that techniques in the kata should never be changed or adapted randomly or haphazardly. The masters understood that techniques in kata were symbolic and representative of sophisticated applications. Try to discover the applications rather than changing the technique to make it easier or prettier. In a future discussion we’ll look at how the techniques may also hide Ki or energy work.
Katas are like books. Inside every kata is a world of information. But…no matter how pretty the cover and how long you gaze at it, you eventually have to open the book to discover the information hidden within.
Look inside each kata. Search for and discover the meaning and the function. A good teacher will guide and suggest but it’s up to you to figure out the secrets of the classical kata.
Your training is your responsibility. Understanding the classical kata is a major step along the path to Martial Arts Mastery.