Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Kata tells a story

Kata - there is this undying argument amongst martial artists whether Kata is the indispensible core of budo or whether it is the great evil.

Someone sent me an email a couple of days ago mentioning that they'd heard that kata was like the ancient equivalent of a DVD - providing the practitioners of old the ability to record, preserve, and study the technique of the masters.  And I agree.  That is certainly part of the value of a kata.  But it is not the whole story.
See, kata (if they are well-constructed) tell a story.  It is a real story about strategy and tactics with protagonist and antagonist and dilemma and climax, often divided into chapters, and often encoded with a table of contents or an index or map key so that you can understand the story better.
Anybody with little kids knows that they love hearing the same story over and over again, and that this is a crucial part of kids development.  It is through this repetition of familiar stories that they develop stable worldviews and personalities.
The same applies to kata - particularly for the less-experienced martial artist.  Sure, you are developing strength and endurance and muscle memory and good technical form, etc...  But you are also listening to the kata tell a story over and over again.  More than listening, you are embodying and enacting the story over and over again, allowing you to develop stable, mature ideas about the kind of conflict that the story is about.
There are problems with this kind of learning.  Not all stories are equal.  Some are masterpieces and some are dime novels.  Likewise, not all kata tell equally valuable stories.  But the best of kata tell stories that are part of the accepted cultural literacy of budo.
Eventually you will have to stop listening to the same story over and over again and get some variety in your reading.  Eventually you will have to grow up and live your own life (do some randori or shiai) instead of listening to these (very instructive) fairy tales over and over again.

Patrick Parker

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