5. Mastery of Shito-ryu Physical Training (Mastery or Myth?)

Lee continues by asking, “Also, what constitutes mastery of Shito-ryu? Is knowledge of all the kata sufficient? What other aspects of training characterize mastery?”

Wow!!! Now that is a really BIG set of questions. Certainly, when a person masters kata he/she is a master of karate. The two sophist questions then become 1) what is the meaning of mastering kata, and 2) why doesn’t a master have to master anything else to be a master of karate?

What is the meaning of mastering kata? Does it mean that a person must master all 54 kata in the Aoinagi System? No! a person doesn’t have to master all 54 kata in the Aoinagi System to become a master of Aoinagi Karate. If we follow Gichen Funakoshi’s axiom “hito kata san nen” (each kata three years) we recognize it would take 162 years just to learn all of the 54 kata correctly. Not many of us will live to be more than 162 years old so it surely can’t mean that a master must have mastered all 54 forms.

When a dedicated student begins karate he/she memorizes the movements of the kata. The learning is a superficial intellectual learning, much like memorizing the preamble to the Constitution of the United States. There may be words in the preamble which have no meaning to the person who has memorized it. Similarly, there may be movements in the kata which have no meaning to the person doing the kata. It is simply memorized meaninglessness.

As time progresses the student usually wants to develop the kata into something more meaningful. He/she learns some applications and then strives to develop better balance, speed and power. This is usually here we consider the person a purple belt. With power, speed and balance incorporated into the kata along with some idea of how the movements are applied in a fighting situation the student is much farther ahead than when the student only had the kata memorized.

Sometime after learning how to put balance, power and speed into the techniques of the kata the student becomes aware that greater effectiveness in technique and greater control of oneself and an opponent is possible by developing locking technique at the site of impact (called peripheralization) and developing locking technique at the center of gravity of the body (called centralization). These two processes, i.e. peripheralization and centralization, blend together to impart an impulse power at the target which can be devastating to an opponent. Generally the person is in the green belts as he/she develops these two important body dynamics.

Axis control, kime (maximum impulse power at the target), and kiai lie in the realm of brown belts. The brown belt wants to develop a strong sense of stability with a lightening-like mobility (including turns). Stability and mobility require axis control. The student also wants to impart maximum impulse power to the opponent in what we call timing-target-thrust (the 3 Ts). These are essential brown belt lessons. And then the big one; Kiai.

Kiai is not just the yell of karate. Kiai literally means to concentrate internal power. I like to call it integration. During brown belt level the student wants to integrate the movements of kata with power, speed, balance, centralization, peripheralization, timing-target-thrust until the movements of the kata are one blended unit of effectiveness. Once the student has learned this he/she is really ready for a black belt, for the student has mastered the basics of karate.

But that does not make the person a master of karate. There is much more in that process. At this time I wish to deal only with the kata-mastery. After the student has learned kiai (as described above) the student wants to develop what is called kimochi. Kimochi means literally to have ki, and figuratively to have feeling. This is where the “spiritual” part of karate really begins. Kimochi is related to the theme of the kata. For every kata there is a theme, usually related to some deep-enduring human quality or characteristic; impenetrability, peace, flexibility, etc. The student who is attempting kimochi delves into the theme of the kata in daily life and implants into the performance of kata the intense human feeling associated with the theme. Let’s take an example: The kata Bassai has to do with impenetrability. The karate-ka who is trying to develop kimochi tries to encompass the feeling of impenetrability in daily life. This is not impenetrability to loved ones, but is impenetrability to the rantings and ravings of belligerent, rowdy individuals or groups. Perhaps it is impenetrability to the anger of bosses, irate-irrational husbands, defying children or a host of other verbal attackers. And perhaps it is impenetrability to the mental or physical attacks of angry mobs, gangsters, demonstrators and etc. The lessons learned in real-life experiences may be brought to the kata by the karate-ka and incorporated into the kata. The kata will then take on a truly impenetrable emotion called kimochi.

Other kata have different kimochi, but the kimochi is real and extremely powerful when properly developed no matter which kata is performed.

Then comes the BIG STEP. Once the person has a wide and well-developed kimochi he/she may well slip into the highest level of kata practice; abandonment. Abandonment is called mushin in Japanese. It is the state where no conscious effort is needed to perform the kata in a state of kimochi. The practitioner IS the kata with all of its ramifications; unit form, combination-transition form, balance, speed, power, centralization, peripheralization, kime, axis control, kiai, kimochi. There is NO conscious process in the kata. It is not really a performance anymore; it is what it is, absolute reality.

This state of kata is mastery. The person who achieves it in any one kata has mastered that kata. To master any other kata takes far less time/effort/devotion. This person, with only one kata mastered, is approaching mastery of kata, because the total immersion of self into one kata is the hardest step in martial arts kata practice. After the first, the second and third flow from the force of the first. And the fourth and fifth are only a step away.

This is mastery of kata, but it is one giant step towards mastery of karate. There are those, many of those, who would categorically state that any person who has reached the state of abandon in several or perhaps only one kata has truly mastered karate and is a master. I agree that this state of abandon in a kata, if it can be done consistently, represents the greatest achievement of karate kata practice. I would gladly learn from this person, if he/she knew how to teach.

But is this full mastery of Shito-ryu karate? Some would say yes!! I would agree, this person is a master. But is there anything more to be gained from karate practice? Again, some would say yes!! I would agree. The person who is a master of one kata, or of all kata, may still miss the point of martial training. Life is perhaps more complex than we imagine, and perhaps even more complex than what we can imagine. The height and depth which karate can take us parallels life-itself. If life is very complex the master of karate may well take his art into that complexity and, with it, learn lessons that today we only imagine.

The more practical person says “yes, but what about fighting? Does all this kata practice really yield results in fighting ability?” Yes, it certainly does.

The karate-ka begins to learn karate by learning kihon (basics). It takes a while until just a few basics are learned. Then these basics are taught in combinations which soon build into the first kata. Kata, however, are more difficult than basics and so the kata never seem to be as proficiently performed as the basics. Then there is kumite (sparring). It never seems to be as proficiently performed as kata. As one of the three improves the other two also improve. If you improve you kihon, your kata and kumite will improve. As you improve your kata your kihon and kumite will improve. As you improve your kumite your kata and kihon will improve. As you improve the mixture of kihon-kata-kumite you progress to new levels. The mastery of kata will result in vastly improved kumite and self-defense ability. The issue is to make sure you improve your kata and not just the performance of your kata. You want to develop kimochi and abandonment (mushin) not just APPEAR that you have kimochi and abandonment.

The mastery of kihon, kata and kumite is the highest physical goal of the students training in karate. Mastery of kata, as described above, is the epitome or culmination of the trainee-karate-ka. I believe that this is what Lee was asking about when he asked what constitutes mastery of Shito-ryu karate.

Lee also asked, “What other aspects of training characterize mastery?” The answer of kihon, kata, kumite as described above partially answers this question. But, there is more.

What I have briefly written about is mastery of kata, with much less emphasis on kihon and kumite. In addition to these aspects there are the life-experience and ethical aspects of martial arts training. The issues of life-experience and ethical aspects I have not addressed in this brief introduction of what constitutes mastery of Shito-ryu karate. Further study in the life-experience and ethical aspects is highly encouraged at Aoinagi Karate. It is individual, however, and discussion of such is mostly hit-and-miss in the gyo level whereas it is a major emphasis in the shugyo level. If you, Lee, or any other student has specific questions regarding the mastery of life-experience or ethical aspects I will be glad to write about the specific questions or talk in person to you. I feel that a discussion of these experiences is not what Lee meant so I shall leave it open to further discussion if there are those of you who wish me to address it. The subject is vast, so, by necessity, I must limit myself to your specific questions. Sensei C