“Technical knowledge is not enough. One must transcend technical knowledge until the art becomes an artless art flowing from the unconscious.”
DT Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture
Overview of Aoinagi as an Artistic Method:
The martial art we practice, Aoinagi Karate-do, like most classical martial art systems can be divided into its two core components, the Martial, having to do with the physical, the fighting or external dimensions of self-defense, and the Art, relating to the artistic, expressive, and more internal dimensions of self-development.
Aoinagi, an eclectic martial arts system integrates from of a variety of martial arts systems including Daito Ryu Aikijitsu, Judo, Kobudo, Yang style Tai Chi Chuan and other martial art disciplines. At its center however, it utilizes the Japanese-Okinawan art of Shito Ryu karate-do founded by Mabuni Kenwa. Aoinagi-ha Shito Ryu founded in March of 1972, at the roots of its practice, emphasizes Self-Development through Self-Defense.
In the diaspora of martial arts systems where arts can vary dramatically from style to style, it is helpful to contextualize any further discussions of expression and art by first identifying where Aoinagi fits in the spectrum. On the continuum from extremely physical to intensely spiritual, I would characterize Aoinagi as leaning more toward the spiritual dimensions. As practitioners of Aoinagi karate, we care about more than just proficient fighting technique.
On the scale from externally focused to internally focused, I would characterize Aoinagi to be pretty much right in the center. Aoinagi is an integrative art that strives to balance both external and internal aspects. Finally, from the perspective of emphasizing Kumite or Kata, I would say we lean toward the Kata, not at the expense of Kumite, but because ultimately the majority of the self-developmental battles we face as artists of life on the road ahead are internal battles best faced through kata practice. These value judgements are mine and mine alone but set the stage for the purposes of this paper and put my biases out there from the very start.
Artistic Expression in the New Millennia:
Martial art as a pragmatic, as well as symbolic art form simultaneously requires that the practitioner get in touch with their animal nature for survival (war) and their godly nature for tuning into one’s higher self (peace). This simultaneous and congruent integration of our lower and higher selves represents a full and complete expression of our human nature even though on the surface this may seem like a gigantic paradox and contradiction.
“The dynamic tension between our dreams and our fears IS our life.”
This is not an endorsement of war, violence and self-seeking patterns of behavior designed to serve our individual needs in a zero-sum game world. This is not a Carte Blanche acceptance of our violent natures and man’s inhumanity to man that seem all too commonplace in life today. On the contrary, we live in an age where competition is no longer a key determinant of our survival as a species, or our success as individuals. “Social Darwinism” is an anachronism whose time has long passed. Martial arts as we practice it at Aoinagi is not of the kill or be killed variety or to be used for personal ends.
But on the other hand, let us not deny our basic instincts and violent natures, and like the proverbial ostrich bury our heads in the sand. Instead, let us recognize those built-in primitive parts of us and utilize the appropriate media and healthy processes like sublimation, through which to express these parts of ourselves, rather than have them manifest in alternative, maladaptive, and destructive ways. Aoinagi karate-do as an art form becomes a forum for the resolution of these internal conflicts on the path towards personal integration and actualization.
Art, regardless of the media through which it is expressed is intended to influence those that experience it, to get us to feel and think in new and expansive ways. Art is intended to move us, to get us in touch with those inner parts of ourselves, the world of feelings, symbols, myth, and emotion.
Historically, we can tell a lot about a society by the nature of their art and the place of art in the social order. Assessing art’s value and identifying what in art is valued is as good a portal into a culture as just about anything else available to a cultural anthropologist.
What does art in America in 1999 say about us as a culture?
Art imitates life and life imitates art:
Art in every society takes many forms. Art imitates life and life imitates art. In modern society, typically, as a common form of artistic expression, our cultures mores and norms predispose us toward dance, painting, music, sculpture, poetry and other traditional/classical media of expression. A relatively unknown and unsung hero on this road, at least in our culture is the martial way in general and traditional karate-do in particular. The standard viewpoint of martial arts in America today is as sport. There is nothing wrong with sport Karate per se. But while sport can be artistic, art is not sport.
Our culture today values a variety of forms of artistic expression. With the communications revolution and the dawn of the information age we are increasingly moving to art of the digital form where bits and bytes are the smallest units of the pallet. But art where atoms are the smallest unit of measure as expressed in the human emoticon with feeling and spirit, rather than that of the increasingly digital world in which we live is animate, visceral and the genetic precursor to all other media. As history will validate, as we evolve throughout the ages, we are losing touch with our own bodies and souls.
This is ironic considering that body language, as a means of human expression is one of the oldest and certainly the most universal of all media in the human experience. Interestingly, in the last 30 years, a researcher at UCLA named Marabian has been studying the way human beings influence themselves and others. By applying the scientific method of inquiry, he discovered that:
Our words constitute a mere 7% of how we influence others.
The tone we use, i.e., not what we say by how we say it represents 38% of how we influence others.
Our physiology (body language and non-verbal communication) constitutes 55% of how we influence other people and ourselves.
Interesting science. But the seekers of the East, through intuitive discovery have known these truths for
more than 3,000 years!
References to the way of the warrior, as precursor to the Aoinagi method, can be traced all the way back to the Mundhaka Upanishads in the Vedic traditions of India. More recently to the 28th patriarch of Buddhism who was the 1st patriarch of Zen, Bodhidharma in China (circa 520 AD). Still more recently, to the Zen tradition of Feudal Japan (1600’s), and finally to the recent history, mythology and traditions of Aoinagi Karate-do in America today (1999).
“Knowing why changes nothing. Acting differently changes everything!”
Over many generations, geographies, cultures and personalities, the art has transmuted, transformed, and metamorphosed to reflect the nature of the times (background). More importantly, however, it has retained the vital essence of the tradition of self-development and self-actualization. It is on this historical bedrock, on the shoulders of giants of a great many generations of our ancestors, and with the awesome responsibility for passing this art form on to future generations, that Aoinagi Karate-do as a medium of self-expression and personal development is practiced.
To lose sight of this context, as we embark on any integrated analysis and synthesis of the Kihon (Basics/Fundamentals), Kata (Moving Meditations/Form(s) of Expression) and Kumite (Application of these techniques for self-defense) is to lose sight of the forest for the trees.
It is hoped that you as the reader of this document, whatever your experience with martial art, will grasp and appreciate not only the highly complex and rich tapestry that many of us have come to know and love as Aoinagi Karate, but that you will also gain some insight into the process of experiencing art, in any medium, in a new, engaging and moving way.
Kihon-The Alphabet of the Art of Body Language:
As mentioned earlier, Aoinagi Karate, as practiced today is rooted in Japanese-Okinawan Karate. Without taking a long and circuitous detour into the “Japanization of Okinawan Culture” suffice to say that Yamato damashi (the Japanese Way/Spirit) ingrains a right way (Shikata) and a wrong way to do everything.
The culturally held eastern value of holding tantamount that one be considered as part of a group, and not raising your head above the pack, lest like the proverbial nail, it gets smacked back down into place has been both an asset and a liability. The liability is that creativity and innovation, historically speaking, have not been considered cultural assets of the Japanese for the last century, although this too is changing with the more recent “Americanization of Japanese culture”, post-World War II.
As far as traditional martial arts go, however, this has been a blessing as the art has managed to stay relatively close to the formal structure of its creators. The discrete elements of the art, namely, the stances, blocks, punches, kicks, and strikes will for the purposes of this paper be considered as the alphabet of the art. Different Ryu or methods/systems have through a process of trial and error distilled these down to the “right” way to do things (structural integrity), although these may differ from Ryu to Ryu.
For example, Shito Ryu is well known for its acute use of hip rotation at the center to apply power and simultaneously minimize the target while blocking. Mabuni, Kenwa the founder of Shito Ryu was a small man, around 5 feet tall and therefore had to use maximum centralization to ensure efficacy in his technique. By comparison, Shotokan uses this hip rotation considerably less than Shito Ryu does, even though Funakoshi, Gichin, the founder of Shotokan was even smaller than Mabuni in stature. The third of the four major styles of Japanese-Okinawan Karate, Goju Ryu created by Miyagi, Chojun uses hip rotation even less than Shotokan and by comparison to Shito Ryu, virtually not at all. Incidentally, the fourth major style, Wado Ryu is an amalgam and therefore requires no comparison in this context.
The point here is that what may be considered a right way for a particular Ryu or system doesn’t generalize across systems, much like the minimalist brush technique of the Japanese calligrapher varies greatly from the multiple and detailed strokes of the western impressionist painter, or the “drip on” technique of the abstractionists.
Regardless of the parameters of the style, complete mastery of the fundamentals and basic unit form is a pre-requisite for a complete understanding of, and expression within the system. Since karate is created and experienced in the physical medium, however, this is not an intellectual process. The body must learn, relearn, and unlearn for a great many years until it becomes an unconscious competency of the artist. Once this formal structure is internalized, the artist of life has the language (movements) complete with its “rules of grammar” (principles of Kata creation) to work with, within and beyond.
Function Follows Form:
Properly applied, these discrete elements are parsed together to simultaneously and synergistically create the martial (Kumite) and the art (Kata). Here is an example: The high outside block (jodan soto uke) applied correctly protects the face/head from attack. The downward sweeping block (gedan barai uke) applied correctly protects the lower body. Done simultaneously, in a physical altercation, they can defend the practitioner from a two-person attack on the hardest angle of incidence (embusen) to defend.
But with expression, appreciation and insight into the art and its symbolism and language, this technique can be transformed into an “eagle” block (washi uke) elevating the fighting form to art form, from the pugilistic to the artistic. This is achieved by tapping into the symbolism that the eagle represents universally from occident to orient; as seen in the eagle in the seal of the United States or the Garuda (eagle) of Indonesia. Every individual in every culture can relate to the concept and feeling of freedom even if we are only bound by the knots of our own making.
Discipline as a Path to Freedom:
Kihon (Form/Origin) mastery of any style or art form takes discipline. In Aoinagi karate-do, starting with unit form at its center, the beginner integrates balance, power and speed to develop versancy in static technique. Next the Kime (Focus) layer integrates this static technique within a spatial dimension as altitude, azimuth, distance and timing, when properly applied, ensure effectiveness and utility. Now the Strategy layer incorporates the mindset of the practitioner and their partner/adversary to create an additional level of complexity and integration. Here, the ability to maintain calm concentration while disrupting the psycho-physiological balance of one’s opponent becomes paramount. Mastery of unit form to the point that it is “hardwired” into the cell memory and psyche of the artist is what is sought.
But as we know, “Practice makes permanent, perfect practice makes perfect”.
Hardwiring the right way, as defined by the style and devoid of personal quirks is not easy! Speaking from personal experience as a student of Aoinagi Karate-do for more than 40 years my Kihon fundamentals still need work. Incomplete pullbacks and preparations in my physical technique reflect incomplete pullbacks and preparations in my inner self. Recognizing this is only half the battle. Undergoing the painstaking labor of love to correct these stylistic distortions is quite another. What am I exposing about myself by not pulling back completely? In what ways am I ill prepared or short changing my preparation? Ultimately, all variance away from the structural integrity and formal expression of proper form are reflections of my resistance, inflexibility, self centeredness, and self will-the very things that traditional martial arts training is trying to eliminate.
The Sensei knows this and reads the variances like a book. The rich volume of students, over many years of teaching serve as a growing encyclopedia of experience to see, read and interpret these variances from proper form as developed, codified and passed on in a particular Ryu. Teaching art is an art form in itself.
Black Belt is just a beginning:
Black Belt in our system represents “mastery of the basics” and merely serves as a passport for further self-development and discovery for the artist of life. It is not an end unto itself. Structure and function blend as Kihon is internalized. But technical knowledge is not enough. As the student masters the basics of the art and undergoes the discipline to strip off all self created and limiting variances, they are rewarded with freedom in the extension of these techniques in Kumite and Kata applications of the art and ultimately in their life as discussed later in this paper.
As Michelangelo, one of the greatest artists ever, said when asked about how he creates living masterpieces from inert masses of rock, “The beauty is already there. All I do is chip away at the excess.” What a superb metaphor for the teaching process!
Since the focus of this document is largely on Kata, and while other members of the team are covering Kumite in great detail, I feel compelled to at least scratch the surface and address a couple of observations about Kumite. As we can see from the Kihon section above, the relationships between Kihon, Kata and Kumite are wholly inter-related, interdependent, and inextricably connected and any attempt to separate them is merely an academic contrivance.
Kumite-To Cross/Mix Hands:
As the student internalizes the formal structure of Kihon, s/he has a much higher probability to be able to create the conditions in Kumite for spontaneity, where the body intuitively responds appropriately in a physical encounter. The mastery of Kihon beyond cognition develops an intuitive ability in the practitioner to express the appropriate and unobstructed technique in a self-defense situation. Proper training refines the character of the artist to seize the moment and resolutely accept the imminence of death and thereby enjoy an unbridled enthusiasm for life. These qualities are manifest as a result of proper training beyond just technical proficiency.
Note: In this writer’s view, this state of being is actually the result of correct Kata practice and will be discussed in the Kata section below.
Nevertheless, Kumite can undoubtedly serve as more than just battlefield strategy and tactics for self-defense. Kumite can also serve as a metaphor for a wide variety of relational dynamics and engagements that may never lead to physical confrontations or violent encounters. In learning the fundamentals of Kumite in Aoinagi Karate-do, the practitioner is guided along a continuum; from totally defined and pre-arranged techniques, to less defined, and finally to wholly spontaneous and “free form” scenarios. Progressively, the student learns to relate, respond and blend in a variety of circumstances, all the while expanding their ability to create proper alignment and right relationships. In this process they hopefully are learning about more than just advanced fighting dynamics. More likely, under the proper tutelage, they are applying and integrating different ways to relate, engage, and transact with a wide variety of people in a great many circumstances.
Kata as the Religious Ritual of the Spiritual Athlete:
If Kihon are likened to the alphabet of the art of body language and Kumite is their applied expression in the external dimension for self defense and beyond, Kata is the sine qua non of inner development-the soul of expression in traditional martial arts.
Kata have served as the treasure chests for the transmission of knowledge, truth and light for centuries. Treasures in art have no value other than those ascribed to them by their experiencer/viewer as in our culture diamonds have a different value that carbon although they both share the same organic properties. The difference is in the aesthetic. Without the aesthetic there is no art. Pressing carbon into diamonds may serve as a poignant allegory for the creation of Kata in our system; at least the 1000 move kata before its final manifestation is pulled from the blind. More on this subject will be discussed later.
A Historical View of Kata:
In our tradition, one of the earliest kata recorded dates back to Bodhidharma in around 520 AD and a Kata he developed called the 18 Hands of Lohan. Let’s take a moment to briefly put kata development in a historical context. As man refined his techniques of war, imitating the animals and their specialized skills for survival, codifying these techniques in some form was inevitable. Initially these techniques were largely pugilistic with an emphasis on leveraging the techniques and strategy of the animal kingdom to defeat an external enemy. A momentous paradigm shift of seismic proportions, however, occurred in the 1600’s in Okinawa when Chatan Yara introduced the Kata Seisan, thereby opening the doors for the Golden Age of Karate-do.
With Seisan, for the first time in the recorded history of our tradition, Kata expressed a distinctly human rather than animal theme that transcended mere pugilistic excellence. Of course the external physical dimension and application of the physical moves for self-defense still existed. But the aesthetic, symbolic, spiritual and moral dimension that Chatan Yara brought to bear overshadowed the pugilistic value. Suddenly, the doors of expression were flung open in a new direction. The development of Kata with natural, moral, mathematical and supernatural themes began to flourish and serve as the reservoirs for human experience to be passed down for future generations. Now these treasure chests contained the essence of what it means to be fully human, beyond materialism and survival, and dealt with the core moral, philosophical, emotional and spiritual questions – universal issues that seekers of truth have been pondering since time immemorial.
Both older kata we know like Kosokun and Seisan, as well as more recent creations like Aoinagi and Nakayama Unsu reflect a transformation toward self (inner) development and expression about the lessons of life. Prior to this time, physical movement for external development was for the most part separated from the internal exercises of breathing and meditation. Now these world’s collided and were unified into a medium where the artist, the process of creating/experiencing the art, and the subject of the art became one for the purpose of elevating the practitioner to a highly attuned state of “non-ordinary reality”.
Since the legacy of our system has its roots in the spiritual and personal development traditions of the east, for those that are so inclined; Kata can be expressed and experienced as “moving meditation”. Here the meditator, the meditating, and the meditation are one. This is full expression in Kata practice.
But how do you get there?
Let’s continue to explore Kata in general and the creation, performance and returning of Kata in particular. Let me preface this section by sharing that writing about Kata experience is like writing about what love means to me or attempting to verbalize a piece of music that moves me to tears. The written/spoken language is a medium that cannot adequately express what we feel in the art of body language and was never intended to do so. The medium can’t hold the message and describe the indescribable. Nevertheless…
As a martial artist internalizes the fundamentals (Kihon) of the system and learns the language of the system (Ryu) they experience the creations of masters from earlier generations in the form of the Kata that they created. They learn the movements, timing, and proper execution of the external technique. The outer physical movements of the set can be memorized quite quickly-we can all learn a form in about 2 hours. Capturing the essence of the Kata, however, may take a lifetime! We are lucky if we can internalize just a few Kata and make their expression and feeling (kimochi) part of our attitude, spirit and way of life. The outer moves, the shell, are only the carrying case. The inner feeling, the theme, essence, lessons, secret, and koan (enigmatic mystery designed to break through the barrier of intellectualization by a syntactical inversion of consciousness) are quite another matter. Since the kata has to be diligently practiced until it is mastered beyond cognition, the secrets of the art are automatically hidden within, only to be unlocked by the most committed and persevering practitioners. Many students may learn the external moves. Few martial artists will capture the feeling (kimochi). Fewer “artists of life” will internalize it until it is an intuitive part of their psyche.
Martial artists internalize the language of the art, until speaking it is second nature. After decades of internalizing the language, when they are ready for the creative process (sozosha) they strike upon a theme that must be voiced/expressed. After immersing themselves for years in the subject, they begin “constructing” their Kata of a 1000 moves. This gets distilled, squeezed and wrestled with until one day in a burst of insight, in an interlude of free fantasy, the Kata coalesces from their decades of work and is pulled from the wellspring of intuition. It begins and ends on the same spot; it expresses the innermost feelings of the creator. It IS the territory.
The student learns the external moves. They have the map.
The Map is not the Territory:
The diligent student continues to work with the Kata. They learn it beyond cognition. They begin to transcend the time, space and geographic considerations as they become one with the form even if the Kata is created in Okinawa in the 1600’s and practiced in California in 2000. They bridge the gap of distance and smash through the wall of intellectualization. They BECOME the Kata. The lessons of life are passed down to a new generation of martial artists. The territory is traversed again…
For the martial arts to grow and evolve, the process of creating, performing and returning kata are part of a cyclical continuum that properly understood elevate kata to one of the highest forms of human expression. Herein lies another martial arts paradox. On the one hand, it is imperative that the kata remain unchanged, if the art is to continue to serve as a conduit for transmitting knowledge from generation to generation. Variance in unit form, due to the limitations and distortions of the practitioner as discussed earlier, lead from mild to acute disruption of the formal structure and violates the aesthetic. Making changes in movements, either due to an insufficient understanding and appreciation on the part of the practitioner, such as adding a jump in a kata so that it may play/score better in a tournament, also bastardizes the aesthetic, compromises the artistic dimension, and subsumes Kata to the level of glorified sport.
One can make an exceedingly good argument that Kata, as art, were never intended to be performed competitively any more than commissioning Monet, Manet, Renoir, and Degas to compete in their ability to evoke feeling in the viewing experience of their painting. More often than not, the ability of the artist and the art form to “move us” is based on highly subjective and personal criteria and not on external standards.
“That which we dissect, we murder”.
Clearly, modifying the Kata can be considered doing the gravest disservice to the Ryu, the sozosha that created it, the generations of artists that made their best efforts to preserve the art in its original form by keeping their ego in check, as well as to future generations for whom an impulsive burst of ego, in a flicker of time by one person, can deprive generations from experiencing the original work.
I would gladly give my little finger to be able to see the original versions of some of the classical masterpieces in our system. The 18 hands of Lohan by Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen; Peichurin, the precursor of Superimpe’ by General Yei Fe; Chatan Yara’s original Seisan; Mastumura’s Gojushiho, by the master who conceived the original Gojushiho system; Itoman Bunkichi’s original Annanko and others. But I realize that like this author himself, this is idealistic and unrealistic. Unlike Picasso’s work, preserved in time and hanging in a gallery, or the original recordings of the great composers captured in time, Kata only reside in their active practice. They cannot be mummified, preserved in mothballs or suspended in chloroform. Today, with multimedia technology, we can merely record their outer movements but not their inner feeling-this experience must be felt in the first person.
Being able to experience the original works of the ancient masters is idealistic and unrealistic, because by default and design the Kata have changed. We have already addressed how and why Kata change by default. On the other hand, for the art to evolve grow and have meaning and feeling for each subsequent generation considering psycho-socio-political-economic issues and the cultural milieu, the art must change. Here is that paradox again.
Certain themes of the human experience are universal and timeless. For example, there will always be room for appreciating “flexibility in daily life” and the evergreen quality as expressed in Matsukaze, the Kata about the wind in the pine trees. This is true even if, God forbid, future generations live in a world where they only know pine trees from references in a digital library archive.
Other Kata themes express and reflect vital issues more in keeping with the cultural times. For example, a Kata about surviving nuclear fallout, Soosei, would have had no value in the 1500’s when the industrial revolution hadn’t even occurred and nuclear energy didn’t even exist, but could be an immensely critical subject for this and future generations.
Karate-do as an art form expressed in Kata, must evolve and grow, otherwise it will stagnate and decay leaving only antiquated artworks that may or may not resonate in the hearts and minds of the future practitioners in its wake. The way traditional martial arts, as practiced at Aoinagi, reconciles this paradox is by a series of distinct phases that the artist must pass through before creating original art. This creative or fourth phase of martial arts is not embarked upon until the student has sufficiently advanced through the trials and tribulations of three other phases.
First, the student develops a solid grounding in the fundamentals. This mastery of the basics is symbolized with the awarding of their black belt which in our system typically takes between four and seven years. Next the student that actively seeks severe training is guided on a deepening of their experience base in a quest to look inside and seek truth and what is best. “The goal aim and purpose of martial arts is to seek and attain what is best.” This second phase typically takes around seven to ten years. At this stage for those that are committed to the transmission of the art, the third phase of teaching is emphasized. Here a forging of the martial artist’s character occurs in the fire of teaching others, until the intuitive understanding of the art and system, as well as themselves and others provides the background and life experience to create within the system and serve as emissaries for coming generations. By now the creator has internalized core principles about Kata as a vehicle for artistic expression and personal transformation.
Exploring the Cycle of Creation, Performance and Return:
Rather than provide the reader with a litany of the principles that apply here, I would like to address certain aspects that move this writer, and demonstrate how the martial arts link the physical application of technique via the aesthetic to the metaphysical and spiritual dimensions of the art.
Kata must begin and end on the same spot. This is one of the fundamental rules of Kata creation and performance. It is not inviolate but it is there for a really good reason.
If you want to discover the answer for yourself, please don’t read this section. If you already know the answer I hope the next couple of paragraphs, do it justice.
One basic rule of Kata creation is that Kata must begin and end on the same spot. While this rule can be taken to an absurd extreme in modern day tournaments, where ending six inches away from your starting point can mean the difference between 1st and 5th place even though the Kata itself was mesmerizing and sublime, this is a remarkable device for linking the pragmatic and aesthetic dimensions of the art across time and space.
In traditional karate-do the art is never used for dishonorable means or for personal ends. In any self defense situation, where one is left with no choice but the last resort of physical violence, the very best one can do when all is said and done is get back to where one started. One never ends up ahead.
Sometimes one ends up behind. (Water inevitably puts out fire). Physical encounters (fighting) when used as the final arbiter by a bona fide martial artist bring order back to the universe.
On a metaphysical level, this spot is where you are NOW. Change, growth, experiencing art and life only happen in the eternal present-this instant in time and space. Alas, so much of our pain and suffering as individuals and as a species is due to our forgetting or denying this basic reality of life. Viewed from a broader and more macro perspective, we are born, we live, we pass on. All journeys, however far or deep, always return us to this reality about ourselves. Finding and affirming our spot in the universe by recognizing both the resounding powers we have and the miniscule element we are at the same time, at any point in our human experience is simultaneously awe inspiring and trivializing. (Honor and Humility). “God don’t make no junk”. But a hundred years from now this moment, this body, this expression of one writer’s words on a page will be like a droplet of rain evaporated on a leaf. The art, the artist, and the experience of art however are here, now, in the eternal present-forever.
By not going anywhere yet going everywhere, Kata bring us back to ourselves. We are all collectors. Some collect stamps or books or photography or music. But to recollect ourselves; to reintegrate within our proper place in the universe, this is a masterful and priceless collection!
How can we achieve this in Kata performance?
Let’s borrow from the nomenclature of twentieth century art theorists like Suzanne Langer and modern day hypno-therapists like Milton Erikson. Both these notable scholars, and artists in their own right, identify “suspending disbelief “as one technique in either experiencing art or in trance induction, for achieving this heightened state of mind.
As a culture we are afraid of being hypnotized. We fear an altered state of consciousness where we may do or say things not ordinarily considered part of our constitutional make up and personality. This is irrational because nobody in a hypnotic state does anything they don’t want to do. We may vary in our degree of suggestibility but we can and do decide what we are willing to do when we suspend disbelief.
Fear of hypnosis is ludicrous because we are already hypnotized!
We have bought into a collective state of “ordinary reality” that putting it kindly is an illusion. Normal is the psychopathology of the average. Don’t keep up with the Jones’s. The Jones’s are NUTS. For example, our image of the ideal female form as typified in our mass media is an illusion and the cause of endless dis ease and suffering just so entire consumer industries may prey on these convoluted beliefs. “A waist is a terrible thing to mind.” Beauty in a women’s face is not where we have been conditioned to think it is. (Ensha) Money doesn’t buy you happiness. These and countless other beliefs, including racial prejudice have unfortunately been well learned. Many of us bought them hook, line and sinker and we are worried about being hypnotized…
Suspending disbelief in the performance of Kata transforms us from our day-to-day conditioned way of being to a “non-ordinary” state of consciousness by breaking through the barriers created by cultural conditioning, language and our personal experience. This heightened state of awareness can be likened to the dynamic trance state of whirling dervishes of Sufi mysticism, or the static state of silence behind the thoughts of Zen monks and yogis. By total immersion in the theme of the artistic piece, the artist becomes the art in the first person. This filter, the inability to experience life as it is may be the one thing in martial arts and the human experience that is worth smashing. Unmediated experience or artless art is the result.
Again, the degree to which we lose ourselves to our higher selves in the process of experiencing the art and life in the practice of kata is somewhat difficult to ascertain as an outside spectator. However, our ability as Kata practitioners to transcend the imaginary opponents and “see” them as real, draws the spectator into the immanence of the moment, much like in a good movie or play when you forget that it is “only an act”. The spectator, performer and performance merge taking the audience to another level of experience.
The creator’s (sozosha) ability to synthesize the specialized feeling (kimochi) of the theme, and the practitioner’s ability to give the piece voice and life transforms the Kata to fully human experience.
Finally, the artist’s ability to take these themes, principles and lessons of life and expand their reach outside of the training hall (dojo) and even outside of the boundaries of Kata practice toward integration in their whole life is one of the highest tributes the martial artist can pay to their teacher and to their art.
The play continues long after the last curtain call…
Suspending Disbelief in Kata and its impact in Kumite:
Earlier in this piece I suggested that Kata practice, properly experienced, led to the freedom to resolutely accept death (Aiuchi) and thereby create a formidable opponent with an unbridled passion for life (Ainuke). It is important to reinforce this cross-pollination between Kata and Kumite with respect to the concept of suspending disbelief.
Diligent Kata practice as religious ritual, moving meditation and with suspended disbelief leads in an intuitive blast to a state of abandonment and provides the practitioner with transcendent tools to utilize in his or her arsenal for right living or dying. Having entrained the psycho-physiological conditions of desperate battle, time and time again, in the unfortunate event that a violent altercation ensues, the artist of life is both physically and psychologically equipped to respond appropriately. This is not about strength or technique but about spirit!
Once again technical knowledge is not enough. But proper grounding in technique and proper practice until the art is second nature creates the condition for this leap to another level altogether.
Having stepped onto the razor’s edge and internalized a life of right living with the resolute acceptance of death, the artist of life enters the gateless gate and does what s/he has always done. Stumbling blocks have been turned into stepping stones. The enemy within is turned into an ally. Abandoning the droplet of self in the ocean of Higher Self liberates the spirit.
Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived:
Expression in Kata as an art form is a deep and complex subject. Like most kata, in this piece a lot has been left unsaid, leaving room for the reader’s imagination, self-discovery and personal experience. Hopefully, the artist, by their own practice can experience Kata as if for the first time, unmediated by the words and feelings of another.
As you can see, formal structure and function blend in the Kihon. These are the building blocks of the
art. Kata and Kumite blend in the experience of the artist, merging the internal world of myth and
symbolism, with the external world of the pragmatic and the aesthetic. Ultimately, art and artist
blend in the transformational process of creating, performing and returning the art.
The internal world of the artist is cultivated and expressed through intuition and insight. This inner
reality is fused with outer awareness and a deepening of experience to raise the art to
new levels and in return inspire the artist to rise up to higher and higher states of being.
Ultimately, the “aha” experience of Kata as art is something I invite all readers to experience for
themselves whether as spectators, performers, creators, or artists of life.
“For those that know, no words are necessary.
For those that don’t know, no words will suffice.” — Lao Tsu