Monday, September 29, 2014

The Simple Genius Of Kata

I was contemplating the Tao Te Ching recently. It’s an incredibly insightful collection of short poems from China of 2500 years ago.  81 brief poems that encapsulate a huge amount of wisdom. The wisdom of ancient people from a culture as different from mine as can be imagined. Yet each time I read from it I learn things. Koryu budo kata are much the same.

The Tao Te Ching has been looked to for wisdom and insight and understanding ever since it was written, and it’s value hasn’t diminished even after 25 centuries. People still look to it for wisdom and insight and understanding. It’s only 81 short verses totalling about 5,000 characters.  Not much for a text that many feel encompasses great truth about the universe. How can something so brief, so compact have such deep wisdom that continues to resonate with people after so many centuries?

Kata are a lot like the Tao Te Ching in that sense. They are short. I can’t think of any system, modern or classical, that tries to be encyclopedic in its collection and treatment of kata. Many systems have well under a hundred kata. Systems that have more are usually teaching offense and defense for a variety of weapons so they have to have a least a few for each weapon so students can become comfortable with each weapon in the curriculum. Of course this adds to the system’s collection of kata. The number of kata added for each new weapon though is comparatively small, just enough for the student to become familiar with the weapon. No system gets too large. Yet with these relatively small sets of kata, a huge amount of information can be transmitted.

What do budo kata and the Tao Te Ching have in common in their brevity that makes them so worthwhile that the Tao Te Ching endures and is popular after 2500 years, and budo systems like Katori Shinto Ryu and Yagyu Shinkage Ryu and Eishin Ryu continue to thrive 400, 500 and more years after they were founded? People still find wisdom and understanding about the world in the Tao Te Ching, brief as it is, and they still find classical fighting systems effective for learning about combat.

What gives both the Tao Te Ching and budo kata their continued usefulness and effectiveness is precisely their brevity.  They don’t try to lay out all their answers and insights to every potential scenario. They give you the rough framework and you have to do the work of building the understanding. You can’t just memorize the Tao Te Ching and understand it. You can’t just memorize the movement patterns of a set of budo kata and be good at budo.

To make them work, you have to work at them. The Tao Te Ching is deceptively simple.

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the origin of heaven and earth;
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Therefore let there always be non-being so we may see their subtlety,
And let there always be being so we may see their outcome.
The two are the same, but after they are produced, they have different names.
They both may be called deep and profound.
Deeper and more profound,
The door of all subtleties!

The more time you spend thinking about this, the greater and deeper the implications and ideas. The entire collection is like that. Brief, simple, deep and profound. What makes it profound?  Much of that secret, and the secret to the incredible usefulness of kata is in plain site in this verse, number 11 in the Tao Te Ching.

Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore benefit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.

The Tao Te Ching does not lay out every detail of its philosophy and ideas for the reader.  In just 81 verses totaling about 5000 characters, there is now way it could.  Instead it lays out a few ideas and principles while pointing to more. It is this lack of detail that makes the Tao Te Ching useful and relevant across 25 centuries and changes in culture that were unimaginable when it was first written. If the Tao Te Ching had laid out too many details, in particular relating it to the culture within which it was written it would have long ago lost relevance as the world changed and the cultural touchstones it referred to were forgotten. Part of its genius is that it gives a rough, bare framework to the ideas within it, forcing each person who encounters it to complete the picture with their own details.

    Because it lacks specific details, it is like a clay pot that is useful precisely because it has a hole in the middle which will hold other things. The Tao Te Ching gives shape to the details of life in any age by providing a frame which can hold the details and information of any age, any culture. Good budo kata do much the same. It’s amazing how much information can be encoded in just a few good kata. It would be foolish and impossible to train for every possible permutation of combative scenario. Kata are the solution.

Kata are those stiff things you see karateka do. They are also the judo kata often seen demonstrated at glacial speeds. There are iai kata and kenjutsu kata and kata for pretty much every weapon imagined in Japanese history. Most systems don’t have a lot of kata though.  Eishin Ryu has around 45 iai kata depending on which line you follow.  Very few systems have more than this for any single weapon, though some systems have accumulated a large number of kata because they teach a variety of weapons.  None of them try to teach by having students practice every possible situation with a particular weapon.

I am always amazed at how much the group of sword masters who created the Kendo No Kata were able to pack into the 10 kata that make up the set.  They figured out how to teach the fundamentals of Japanese swordsmanship in 10 simple kata.

These kata aren’t definitive. They don’t make any attempt to show everything that could happen. They do provide a platform for students of Japanese swordsmanship to explore and learn.  In any good kata based system, the kata are really only a rough framework. The students have to fill that framework themselves. The kata become most relevant when the students start to fill them. As the movements become more complicated, the students have to explore the kata and discover things.

Pick a kata and take it apart. Figure out what makes it work. Don’t bother your teacher with a million “What if” questions. You won’t learn much from her answers. Grab a partner and work through the kata slowly. If you have a question about why the kata is done a particular why and not another way, try it with your variation, slowly.  See what will make sense for your partner to do in response. Look at 50 different ways to do the kata.

When you start taking the kata apart like this, you’ll understand why the kata is taught in precisely one way. Everytime I take apart a kata I discover that bad things happen more suddenly and much faster than I would have guessed. When I try doing this with a kata too quickly, I usually end up with bruises because I get hit with something I wasn’t expecting. Look at the first Kendo No Kata. It’s ridiculous in its simplicity. Uchitachi attacks, shitachi evades and counterattacks.

Now play with it.  Enter a little too deep too soon and your partner will nail you with a quick thrust.  There’s lesson 1: how close is too close. Don’t enter deeply enough and you can’t hit your target. Lesson 2: how close is close enough. Shitachi is sliding back and forth. Don’t retreat far enough and you get cut. Retreat too far and you can’t recover and enter to counter attack before your partner recovers from her attack. There’s lesson 3: How are far is too far. Play with the kata and really learn just how close is close enough, and how far is too far.

These aren’t lessons you learn from thousands of mindless repetitions of the same kata. These are lessons learned from exploring dozens of variations of the spacing and distancing used in this kata. Once learned, these lessons can be applied to every kata you ever encounter. If you just repeat the kata the same way every time though, you’ll never understand this.  

Great kata systems are not comprehensive. They don’t make any attempt to be comprehensive. A system that was comprehensive would be too large to learn in any useful sort of timeframe. A comprehensive system would have to have a kata for every one of those variations you might discover on your own while exploring the kata. Such a system would be too large to be of use.

A comprehensive system also wouldn’t teach students to take apart and understand situations. A comprehensive system would have all the answers. It would have all the answers for the scenarios its creators imagined. It wouldn’t have answers for anything else. As soon as the situations started to change, new ideas or scenarios are introduced, it would be obsolete.

A good kata system is spare and simple rather than bloated. There are lots of opportunities for students to ask themselves (not the teacher!) “what if?”. A system where there is plenty of room for the students to explore is flexible, because students can explore new ideas and new strategies, try out the same kata with different weapons and different ideas and different partners. A system that doesn’t claim to be comprehensive has room for students to explore and expand their understanding. A comprehensive system doesn’t leave room for that kind of development.

The Tao Te Ching remains relevant 2500 years later because it doesn’t attempt to have all the answers. It gives the reader an abundance to consider and reflect upon. The principles it points to are endlessly applicable. They are endlessly applicable because they aren’t locked into any particular time or culture.

Good budo kata remain relevant hundreds of years after they were conceived because they don’t attempt to answer every imaginable scenario of the period in which they were born. The present situations that are rich with opportunities for students to learn. The lessons continue to be of use because they don’t attempt to be comprehensive for any particular age or place. Each generation of students must explore and understand the kata within their particular world. Just because the kata seem simple, don’t think they aren’t deep.

Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore benefit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.


Rick Matz said...

You need a +1 button.

The Budo Bum said...

Thanks! I've got one, but if you can't see it, I need to put it in a different position.

Ronin scholar said...

Nice post except that you contradict yourself in suggesting that the deep learning of kata takes place after a great deal of mindless repetition, but later in the same post point out that if the kata is practiced in the same way over and over again then the deeper meaning will never become apparent. I believe what you are talking about is mindful practice, not mindless repetition.

The Budo Bum said...

thank you. I'm not sure how I gave the impression I was talking about mindless practice, since I meant exactly the opposite. I even wrote "These aren’t lessons you learn from thousands of mindless repetitions of the same kata. These are lessons learned from exploring dozens of variations of the spacing and distancing used in this kata."

I'll have to work on that so I don't give the wrong impression in the future.