By Robey Jenkins, HDKI Shodan
If kata is the answer, what’s the question?
In our last shinbun, I waved aside the modern fixation upon bunkai (breaking down) and oyo (interpretation) in kata, arguing that it should be seen as a form of physical, mental and, yes, spiritual conditioning that, whilst its roots are based firmly in combat, transcends these roots.
This approach is very much in step with the ancient Buddhist roots of modern oriental martial arts in that it seeks to “un-ask the question” posed by kata and shake us into an attitude towards our training that looks beyond the physical. However, it is equally harmonious with the spirit of Bodhidharma and the Buddhas to un-ask the question in a completely different direction. There are infinite answers to the question of kata and to tie ourselves down to only one restricts the potential for our karate studies to enhance our experience of life beyond the dojo.
In this article, my approach to un-asking the question of kata is to look it from the completely opposite direction: what if kata isn’t the question, but the answer? And if it is the answer, what was the question?
If this is all getting a bit metaphysical, let me reassure you that we’re getting right back into the physical and practical realities of kata, here.
Modern kata has been designed to allow a sensei to instruct a whole room full of students with a single instruction. But it began – both in Okinawa and, before that, in China – as a dialogue between a master and a single student. Karate was, in many ways, “secret knowledge” passed by word of mouth and through kumite, the grappling of hands, more like a traditional apprenticeship. The student would be posed – or, if the master was particularly tolerant – would be allowed to pose questions on how to respond to this or that attack. The master would then offer a range of options: if he attacks you like this, you may respond like this; but if he is tall, you may hit him like this; or if he comes from the other direction, you may respond like this…
The student and the master would then drill through these ideas over and over again. The student was then expected to take these drills aside and to run through them on his own, finding the similarities, the reflections, the commonalities within the responses that then knit together into a kata.
As Scott Sensei wrote in Issue 1, kata doesn’t mean “form” so much as it means pattern, law or – my favourite – mould. I work with moulds in my business and they come in lots of forms, but the most common is the two-part mould: two halves that press together and into which the casting material is formed to make the finished whole. In kata, we are practising one half of the mould. The other half is the questions the sensei posed to his student and which are still posed to us, today. You cannot know, from studying one half of a mould, exactly what the other half looked like. But you can make intelligent guesses: you can create pictures of the other half that make the half we have look like it makes sense.
When we begin to study kata in this way, we will often start with a rigorously literal interpretation that tries to follow the embusen and structures of the kata precisely. But as we go deeper into our studies, more and more we begin to hear the voices of the old masters to understand that this move that we did five steps ago is actually another version of that move that could be used in the same situation but against a slightly different attack. Or that these two moves that look the same are, in fact, applying the same physical principles against entirely different attacks.
This approach to thinking about and training in kata is different to the more yogic approach I described last time, but neither is “right” or “wrong”. They are different ways of thinking about and engaging with kata and they are far from the only ways of doing so. No one way is “right”, nor is any other way “wrong”. Rather, by using these different lenses to consider our approach to kata, we draw more and more richness from an inexhaustible well.
Nor should we feel pressured to focus on more than one way of engaging with kata at any given time. What’s right for us now, may not be right for us in the future or in the past. But if you think you’ve plumbed the depths of what kata can teach us, you’re certainly wrong.
So, if kata is the answer, what is the question?
The question is also kata.