Two Questions On Classical Form, Kosokun Dai

Dear Peter and other karate-ka,

Peter Gold of the Redlands Dojo asked this question. I don’t know what the first question was or if I responded to it at some earlier time. At any rate here is a question about the differences of kata and kumite and the proper use of formal structure and pragmatic structure.

Most of this is the stuff of sensei-ship. I hope it does not burden you if you do not yet see the importance of senseis and the formal structure inherent in sensei-ship. If so, perhaps, just save a copy for a future date when you, too, may be a Sensei and want to know a little of the techniques, tactics and strategies of a sensei in dealing with students.

A second question I have regards the fact that the kata I know are made up almost entirely of statics and movements which emphasize classical form. Recently, you discussed that kata are performed at different levels, depending on our ability. As our ability increases, we can chose to perform kata at levels higher than technique, emphasizing tactics, then strategy (kata theme) on up through spirit and attitude.

It is best for you to emphasize those aspects of kata which will aid you the most in your training at where you currently are. The very beginner emphasizes static techniques (stances, positions). With time the beginner then moves towards dynamic techniques (punches, kicks, blocks). Combinations come next. Applications usually follow. Kata becomes the next intrigue followed by the romance or repulsion of kumite.

The intermediate student becomes more involved with integration, kiai, kime, kimochi and the sum total of physical/mental/spiritual progress. Eventually, the goal becomes technical proficiency at a score near 7.0 in the Aoinagi Scoring Method. But that is not even near the end of the line. Technical proficiency is a good place to start but it is only the threshold of advanced training..

Then there are the tactics, i.e., how we effectively apply the techniques of our arsenal. This requires appropriateness, leading, jitsu, kyoo-creation. Wow! Now we are into something much deeper than just technical proficiency. We are into tactical proficiency. Peter, at such a time you don’t want to glue yourself to the seat of technical proficiency. You want to slip away into the land of tactical excellence. Yes, you want to change your emphasis. And later you will want to develop strategical excellence, attitudinal excellence, spiritual excellence….all in good time.

And each step of the way you change your emphasis (not forgetting the previous ground covered, however). It is one whale of a marvelous journey!

If as we advance we strive to perform kata at these higher levels, then why are all the kata I am aware of performed using classical form? Why aren’t there kata designed at the level of tactics, for example, in which classical form is not emphasized and the form appears similar to that used in our kumite rounds? In such a kata, the karate-ka would then have the option of developing a type of bunkai in which classical form is used in sort of a reversal of what I am presently aware of. The same question also applies to designing kata to emphasize other levels of progression such as kimochi, strategy and attitude, and bunkai are developed to study the other levels of the kata.

Well, Peter, this question has only a fundamental answer, but one which, I believe, must be understood by every serious bushi or artistic-anarchy will emerge.

Techniques have a formal structure, formal function and a pragmatic dynamic. The formal structure is how the technique is performed in any particular style. The formal function is how the technique is defined to be used in combat. The pragmatic dynamic is best considered the body dynamics which develop in the karate-ka by proper practice of the formal structure. (Now, the formal structure is defined by what we call style. However, there is more to style than this but for the purposes of this discussion we will ignore the symbolic structure, function, and mental/spiritual dynamic in an effort to answer your question.)

The sine qua non of style is the formal structure. Delete it and no one can communicate with others. Alter it and the student’s pragmatic dynamics will change, perhaps for the better, but perhaps for the worse. With hundreds of years of development Okinawan karate has refined a formal structure which is superb, allowing the sensei an arsenal of tools to teach proper body dynamics to students with a minimum of chance. In addition, the artistic component has been able to be passed from generation to generation, a value which is immeasurably great.

Aoinagi-ha Shito-Ryu formal structure techniques aim at maximum use of tanden (centralization, hara) and axis. Through practice of the formal structure and careful guidance by the sensei students develop hara. Without formal structure even the best sensei can do nothing more than talk about body dynamics and perhaps show by example. But, the student is left then with fighting techniques having no definition and potentially weak body dynamics.

Fortunately or unfortunately some people are naturals. They learn quickly without much instruction. These people spend little time learning the full depth of the style and believe that they “know” it already because they can perform it. Some say that these people have good body image. Whatever we label them as is not so important. They seem to pick up the correct body dynamics quickly. This is good for their immediate personal progress. The unfortunate part comes when they wish to teach the techniques. Often these people make horrendous teachers. They just can’t seem to understand why others don’t learn body dynamics “right now.” The lack of good body image in their students never occurs to these gifted people. It is not a part of their experience until they have taught for many years. Then, perhaps, compassion emerges and they “see” for the first time their talent for good body image when compared to other people.

For those who have not been blessed with such body image the course is one of constant diligence. They need the help of a sensei and the armamentarium of devices the sensei has developed to create and refine greater martial techniques. In general, these devices are passed by what we call style; formal structure and formal function.

Those who have been blessed with high levels of body image skip or jump to various levels of efficiency in body dynamics. They don’t need the “style.” They get to various levels of efficiency in body dynamics by inherent talent. They often consider style as a hindrance to spontaneity and personal development. For their lucky genetic endowments they may be correct; but for those who have not been so endowed their opinions of style are naive.

A very important part of martial arts is the style. It is not important in the midst of a violence. In violent conditions more spirit, technique, tactic and strategy (when possible) are necessary. The style doesn’t count for much other than THE WAY the person learned to get where he is. But if we consider that the art of karate is more than those few minutes of violence, if we consider that karate is A WAY then we may begin to realize the importance of style. Style is the means and a way to get beyond the haphazard progression from point A to point B in upward martial arts development. And this means and way includes physical conditioning, kihon, kata, kumite, mental preparation, spiritual readiness and attitude.

When FORM is altered all potential distortions emerge. You see, there is more to the form than fighting technique. Form gives us a window into our souls. We do not do kata with opponents as other martial arts do (kendo, naginata). We do it alone or in conjunction with partners. We are our own opponents. When we change the form we distort the style. But, more than that we expose our inability to see or accept the wisdom of the ages. We elevate our own opinions over the experiences of hundreds of martial artists over hundreds of years. We suffer arrogance, self-centeredness, false-pride. These are the lessons of our souls, if we watch.

If we accept FORM as it is we nyunanshin. Now the lessons, be they ancient or modern, pass through us. Whether we “believe in them” or not the power and spirit of hundreds of martial artists over hundreds of years pass through us. What we do we become. The lessons pass; we develop.

To create a kata of tactics and strategy is not difficult using purely stylistic formal structure and function. There is little need to alter the formal structure in an effort to envelop a kata of tactics and strategy. Tactics are too short to be joined coherently in kata without a cement of formal structure. Strategies are too complex to be “explained” by any other device than meaningful symbolic formal structure.

Just to create a nice kata of techniques useful for the violent street fight is best left to kumite practice. Just to create a nice kata of techniques useful for the tournament is best left to kumite practice also. It is within kumite practice that the techniques and tactics can be worked out for their specific purposes; handling a criminal if you are a police office, handling a drunk in the emergency room, handling a person on PCP who shows up at a day-nursery thrashing around the children, handling two knife-armed robbers intent on slashing you and your wife to pieces, handling an opponent in an open tournament, handling an opponent in a traditional Japanese karate tournament, etc.

The kata are not developed with the specific goals of kumite and kumite’s variances. Kata are the heart and soul of the in-depth communication of you with yourself and your sensei with your inner self. The formal structure and your relationship to it is the window to what you cannot see about yourself from any other perspective. It is also the window to your soul that the sensei has been trained to assimilate via his own martial-life-experience. Alteration of the formal structure is the first means a student uses to hide from the sensei. Soon afterwards the pattern is set; the student learns how to hide from himself.

If the student gets the idea of FORM the student discloses HERSELF/HIMSELF through proper FORMAL STRUCTURE and learns nyunanshin. This person has taken the first step into freedom, not bondage; into abandon, not restriction. This person may well become the master of tomorrow, by acceptance today.

It is my nemesis that I have never taught a person to the state of abandon. Diane Hara got close but could not let go at the very terminus (much like Carlos Castenada under his brujo). All other students have struggled with resistance to formal structure just enough to ablate the slip into abandon and freedom. The key lies somewhere beyond technique, but yet within…

No form, no means.

The very advanced student sits on the edge of a great precipice; the void of the sky is above her and the void of the abyss is below her. The ground is familiar, but may not be usable unless she sees the correct pathway (style helps). The sora (void) is unfamiliar, but may lead her to higher levels than she conceived possible while standing on the edge of the abyss, but it may not be attainable unless she seeks the correct pathway (style helps).

Either way, to see or to seek, FORM helps, STYLE helps, NYUNANSHIN helps.

I hope I have answered the question you have asked, Peter. You asked a simple question. I gave a complex answer. I could go on for hours, but, perhaps I have already answered what you wanted to know and perhaps I have skirted it in an effort to open more than just your and other’s eyes.

Sensei C