The other 54

Julie Evans from the Redlands Dojo asks the following question:

“I am…interested in your perception as someone older as to the differences in the two ways to perform each kata–the hard and soft or young man’s version versus old man’s version (I appreciate the fact that you are not really old yet). Thank you for sharing your years of experience.”

There are 108 kata in our system. There are two ways to perform each of 54 kata. Two times 54 is 108, the mystical-magical number of circular perfection in the orient.

When the kata 54 was first created by Matsumura in the 1830s he took the basis of the kata directly from local Okinawan religions. At Shuri, the capital of Okinawa and the city where Matsumura lived, there was a major temple. On the temple grounds there were 54 shrines. Each shrine was to a god who represented a human characteristic such as honesty. Two large statues guarded the entry to the temple so that human defilements could not enter. Such defilements were like deceit. Each kata represents a “shrine” in the whole of a “temple.” And each kata artistically expresses a human quality or its compliment. Let’s take a few examples. First will be listed the human quality or “shrine.”
Second will be listed its compliment:

Calm in the storm/wracked in the storm
Respect for father/Enmity for father

The key to finding the correct quality in life is balance. One can be too peaceful or too violent. One can be too flexible or to rigid. One can be too impenetrable or too pierceable. One can be too calm in a storm or too wracked by the storm. One can have too much respect for father (idolization or deification) or too much enmity for father. Etc., Etc., Etc.

The key in life is to find the correct balance. The key in kata is to perform the kata with the correct balance, also. The balance I allude to is determined by the background. The background includes external factors like the presence of a waterfall, or rocks or trees and also includes internal factors such as age, physical and emotional health, conditions and circumstances.

Let me take age as the example. There is the way the young woman performs the kata and the way that the old woman performs the kata. But what about the age 50. Is this young? Or is it old? Well, 50 years old doesn’t really fit young or old. It is a middle ground on a continuum from very young to very old. If we compare a 20 year-old with a 50 year-old we might say the 50 year-old is old, perhaps ancient. If we compare a 50 year-old with an 80 year-old we might say the 50 year-old is young, perhaps immature.

Although the recommendation is not absolute I would suggest that a 20 year-old do the kata the way a young person does the kata. I would also suggest that the 80 year-old do the kata the way an old person does the kata. But what would I suggest to the 50 year-old? The 50 year-old is somewhere between 20 and 50 years old and must seek appropriateness. The way the kata is performed is a continuum from the intense physical “go” of 20 year-old to the intense spiritual “ju” of 80 year-old.

AAKF practitioners at summer camp sometimes criticise Mr. Kim’s kata. I have heard some refuse to train with Mr. Kim because they dislike the way he does kata. He is 79 years old (born November 17, 1917). I expect that he does a kata best by performing it as a 79 year-old, not as a 20 year-old. But so many people get stuck thinking that there is one and only one way to perform a kata. I disagree. The old masters of the Gojushiho System disagree also. What the AAKF people miss is appropriateness. By far it is better to do kata like a 70 year-old when you are 70 than not to do kata at all because you no longer can do it as you could when you were 20. It may also just be better in many ways to do kata like a 70 year-old when you are 70.

Then there are other conditions as well. One of the very best kata I have ever seen in my life was performed by Sandy Pappas when she was swollen-up pregnant with her daughter Elysa. She did the kata Chintoshi. The kata was done as a pregnant woman with little force, but great fluidity, oozing with feeling. I stood there transfixed as she gracefully, yet ferociously demolished every opponent. I could see it. I could feel it. Others could feel it. When she finished there was an audible gasp by the audience and then peals of applause. This kata was done as a 7+ month pregnant woman, not done as a 20 year-old nullipara. It was right and appropriate for Sandy was 7+ months pregnant at that time. On the street that same night she would have fought the same way she performed the kata. She had no choice to fight any other way. She was 7+ months pregnant. My belief is that she would have given any young buck a good walloping.

What I am saying here may easily be misinterpreted. Someone may interpret that they may do the kata anyway they like and be correct. No! That is not it at all. There is a set of conditions which occur in life; birth, growth, adolescence, maturity, pregnancy, middle age, decline, old age, illness and death. Each stage has its own karate, its own defense. People who are adolescent and young adult often have high spirits, want to change the world, believe everybody is doing things wrong. Their fighting spirit is a physical realm. People who are in old age often have mellow yet profound spirits, acceptance of the way things are but a longing for the way things were years ago. Their fighting spirit is a spiritual realm. As we grow and mature in the natural progression of life, we want to look for the new way of karate. Don’t force it, that is no help. Be it. Be what you are.

So, Julie wants to know what the other 54 kata are. They are the same kata, Julie. They are done as the old person does the kata. Julie also wants to know how old people do the kata. The answer can only be found thru the experience of aging.

The best I can do to describe it is, that the kata approaches “ju” or “yin” or what we sometimes call soft-strategy. The kata is a spiritual realm kata where the motion of the body is not fast, nor forceful. The spirit exudes from every pore and the body moves via integrated soft-strategy, a condition found in the wisdom of a woman with a lifetime in martial arts.

I sometimes watch Mr. Kim do his kata. I cannot imitate him, but someday when I am his age I hope to do it just like him.

His kata has left the physical realm altogether. What I see is spiritually powerful. I can only bow my head in deep respect for a man whose kata is so profound. I lament that those in the AAKF do not look far enough to see what profundity is but continue to value only the strong, only the fast, only the bold.

In an effort to answer Julie’s question I may have confused more people than I helped. So let me try again, and hopefully the repetition will help. Each kata represents a “shrine” in the “temple” of karate, metaphorically. But, metaphorically, each kata requires appropriate balance. The balance is determined by the background, i.e., the physical background and the performer’s experiential background. Between the kata and its compliment (the two ways of doing the kata) lies the balance. And it is this balance which must be sought by the practitioner.

Mr. Kim’s balance is far to one extreme, as only one with a lifetime in martial arts can do. It contains a remarkable soft-strategy which is highly functional for Mr. Kim but which will not work for a young person who has insufficient experience. Thus, the Pinan of youth is #6 but the Pinan Mr. Kim performs is #103.

And the US National Champion in karate does Pinan as #6. The performance depends on physical prowess more than any other ability. The young performer has quite insufficient experience to approach kata #103 successfully but has sufficient youthful energy to perform Pinan as #6 or as a pure power-vs-power struggle. Although the performer may imitate #103, and imitate it well enough to fool herself and others, she lacks the maturational experience which makes kata #103 a reality rather than a farce.

(For those of you who appreciate the Yin-and-Yang symbol look at the structure of the Gojushiho System here described and note that the basis of this system is the Yin-and-Yang ideology.)

The appearance of the kata a second time in the 108 is a matter of maturational experience and wisdom. The first time it is brute youthful energy; the second time wisdom.