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Hidden in Plain Sight:

Rediscovering The Wealth Of Kata

By Jeff Brooks

Buddha's disciples all gathered together to hear the master teach one day, about 2500 years ago. Hundreds of them were there and many had been present for many of his lectures. They expected another talk, but this time instead of speaking he held a flower up, and turned it slowly between his fingers. His entire teaching was contained in this single gesture.

Only one of all his disciples understood what he was teaching. In response to the turning flower, the monk called Mahakasyapa smiled. He understood. Nothing in the teaching was hidden from the other disciples there. They just did not have the ability to understand it. Yet.

It is in this sense that things are hidden in kata. There is no longer any need to intentionally hide things in the kata. In the days of repression in Japanese-occupied Okinawa, karate practice in general was hidden from public view. There were times when karate moves were encoded in dance and made to look innocuous or decorative or gymnastic instead of martial. That these moves contained the means for martial training was hidden in a sense from the prying eyes of ignorant outsiders. But with regard to the karate kata we have now, what many regard as hidden material is actually just stuff you don't know yet. We can know it, we do have access to it, if we know how to dig deep into the kata and see what is there - unhidden, evident, right there in the open, if you know what to look for.

But you need the tools. Orienting in the wilderness requires more than toughness and determination. It takes a map, a compass, the ability to read the land and the sky and so on. The longer you spend at it the more familiar you become with the subtle signs you would have missed earlier in your experience. What would be even more important, especially at first, if you could get it, would be the guidance of a native, someone intimately familiar with the territory who could - and would - show you how to find your way. In discovering the terrain of kata we also need to have the right tools and to use them diligently, to explore. If we have a teacher who knows it all - fantastic. But if we don't have such a guide we make ourselves helpless if we pretend to have complete knowledge, or, if out of hopefulness or willful blindness, we follow someone who claims to have it when they do not. We practitioners need to be scrupulous in our assessment of what we know, and what we don't know. Then we can proceed to discover. And then, when we come upon something new, something once so obscure that we didn't even know we didn't know (to paraphrase the Defense Secretary) we can be open to it, recognize it, and have it for our use.

Karate is an oral tradition. Even if we could record in words or on video or in some virtual reality simulator all the knowledge we have of karate movement, it would be lost and nearly impossible to recover once human beings stop living it, once we have stopped passing it on directly, through long, arduous, day in and day out, consistent, diligent training in the company of other people.

In oral traditions knowledge is fragile and skills are perishable. Passing the skills on is an arduous task, and when that arduous work is no longer urgently required by the practical demands of self defense, when cultures change and the demands of ordinary life become so great that there is no longer a large number of dedicated practitioners passing on and preserving unchanged the great insight and full systems pioneered in the past, that perishable knowledge perishes. Or at least recedes from view.

Most modern practitioners of karate and of other martial arts have not been taught all of what is encoded in the movement.

Martial artists in Asia and in the west, in the course of practice and study, have sometimes preserved the movements of the kata without knowing exactly why they were preserving those movements in that exact form. These faithful practitioners - some unfairly criticized for being hidebound and "uncreative" -- were handed a time capsule. They knew that some day somehow someone would recover the knowledge embedded in the kata even if they had not had the chance to learn it all themselves. They knew intuitively perhaps, or maybe because they were told it was so by their teachers - but somehow they had faith that within the kata all the knowledge was present and preserved.

There have been a number of such cultural changes recently which have degraded the transmission of Asian cultural traditions, including martial arts. In the lifetime of my teachers there have been two changes that have deeply affected the oral transmission of Okinawan karate. (There have been comparable ones influencing Chinese and Japanese martial arts, but since Okinawa is relatively small in size and population, the ramification of these changes has been profound.) One of these is the rapid change from a rural agrarian culture to a modern industrial urban culture. The other, in the case of Okinawa, was World War Two.

Take a walk around the Peace Memorial at the southern tip of the island and you will see granite markers recording the names of the hundreds of thousands of people who lost their lives in the Battle of Okinawa - a third of the native civilian population, as well as many military people on all sides of the war. Among those names are most of the great karate practitioners of that generation. Look at the 20th century genealogies of any Okinawan family or the lineage chart of any major style of Okinawan karate and you will see the date of births vary decade by decade but a preponderance of dates of death say d.1945, d.1945, d.1946, d.1945… again and again. That rupture in the transmission lineage, and the poverty, despair and chaos that followed the war years, stopped the living transmission of knowledge and slowed the life of practice for some time. Collectivization and the Cultural Revolution in China had a similar if less extreme effect.

But still, much of the Okinawan transmissions remained intact. More and more of the pieces lost or not shown to most of the younger generation or to westerners are being reverse-engineered back into the kata. By getting the analytical tools that come from the study of grappling, tuite, throwing, kyushojutsu, detailed target analysis, skillful internal and external energy production, chi kung, atemi, posture, Chinese medicine theory and breathing, it becomes a more and more natural part of karate practice to understand every nuance, all the choices inherent in every section, every move, every submove, every gesture, every moment of each kata.

The richness is unbelievable. The more I learn the more it seems that there is too much material in even a single system to master in a lifetime. Knowledge and discoveries keep unfolding like an endlessly blooming flower, turned slowly in the hands of a master.


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About The Author:

Jeffrey M. Brooks holds a Go Dan Fifth Degree Black Belt in Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu, training in Okinawa, Japan and the USA, with Shoshin Nagamine, the founder of the style, Takayoshi Nagamine, his successor, as well as with numerous others in the Matsubayashi Ryu lineage and related Chinese traditions. His Buddhist study and practice is with Rev. Issho Fujita, resident director of Valley Zendo and Geshe Michael Roach of the Asian Classics Institute. He has an M.F.A. from NYU Film School and works as a speechwriter for public figures. He is founder and director of Northampton Karate and Northampton Zendo in Northampton, Massachusetts, offering classes daily for adults and children since 1988. (www.northamptonkarate.com)


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kata, kata transmission, karate, oral transmission, bunkai, atemi


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