Monday, June 6, 2011

The Purpose of Patterns

Michael Rosenbaum's scholarly work Kata and the Transmission of Knowledge in Traditional Martial Arts seeks to identify the history, development, and original purpose of kata (forms) as a training excercise in warrior traditions throughout human history. His indepth account of the martial practices of ancient peoples and the influences which acted on their deployment of soldiers and the design of their weapons and armours gives the reader a new understanding of the esteem in which those warriors traditions held the practice of kata.

From the Introduction

"The great Chinese writer Chaung Tzu once said,
The fish trap exists because of the fish; once you've gotten the fish you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit; once you've gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning; once you've gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?             
-(Chuang Tzu, 140)
Like the fish or rabbit trap, kata exists because of combat. Once its lessons were recorded and then understood, the form was set aside so that the "meanings" Chuan Tzu wrote of would become clear.

Although "kata" is a term used often by modern martial artists to describe pre-arranged sequences of techniques, the word is a by product of the Asian fighting arts. In actuality, the practice of combative techniques in pre-arranged forms is a methodology that has been used by many cultures throughout history, from the Roman soldier whose drills taught striking with the shield and then stabbing with his gladius, to modern day karate-ka whose kata is executed so crisply in their starched white gi. The use of kata or pre-arranged training routines is a long standing tradition that has been employed in most fighting arts in some form or fashion. Even in those societies whose combative systems may not have been subject to the same systematic methodologies, as is found within many Asian and European fighting arts, some means were used to preserve and to transmit martial knowledge. In some cases transmission of techniques was accomplished in a highly organized manner as during the Renaissance of Europe when mathematics, the printing press, and codified techniques all came together to present a highly scientific - and at times overly analytical - analysis of the fighting arts. Yet on other occasions, the transmission of technique has been accomplisherd in less formal, but still eloquent means. Thomas Arnold observed about the Swiss and their martial arts that,
This was an important development, for though the Swiss and the landsknechts certainly possessed elaborate, sophisticated and effective tactics, they apparently had almost nothing in the way of written drill. Theirs was a culture of war, not a science - it was taught by old soldier to new, and never was really codified or regularized.
-(Arnold, The Renaissance at War, 64)
In each case the intent was almost the same; to preserve and pass on knowledge of battle proven techniques, that could be used at a later date when the need warranted. These routines of transmission also allowed the man-of-arms to practice certain techniques in a repetitive manner. This allowed him to perfect skills and gain artistry that made the execution of his techniques nearly as natural as walking down a city street.

Kata and pre-arranged training routines were not the only methods used to transmit and preserve martial knowledge. Dance, poetry, and written texts were used extensively to record historical events and preserve knowledge related to a society, its existence, and its martial prowess. In the early English epic Beowulf, the power opens with mention of the "Spear Danes" and that "the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness." (Heaney, Beowulf, a New Translation, 3) Beowulf is not the only poetical verse that tells of a culture's martial prowess. Homer's Illiad is filled with passages that detail combat of the early Greek society and shows us that the development of sophisticated fighting arts by mankind is a very old practice. Dance was another medium used to practice and record martial knowledge. Both the Zulu tribes of Africa and early Filipino martial artists used dance to transmit techniques and even train warriors. The use of written text has also played an important role in spreading knowledge of the martial arts. In Europe during the Renaissance period the printing press proved to be of great value in the production and distribution of fighting arts manuals.

To study the history of kata and pre-arranged routines is to also explore methods of communication, as they went hand in hand with the practice of pre-arranged practice patterns. In fact, the same creative process that was used to develop dance, writing, and poetry was also used to create kata. Just as physical shape and form is given to what were often ideals of an abstract nature, kata embodies the essence of the arts of war. It allowed man to identify, segment, practice, and then transmit concepts and techniques that otherwise would be lost in the chaotic realm of hand-to-hand combat. As Joseph Campbell said about man's ability to give physical shape to such ideas, removing them from an abstract process and thereby giving both form and meaning to the process itself, "The craft holds the artist to the world, whereas the mystic, facing inward, may be carried to such an extreme posture of indifference to the claims of phenomenal life as that of the old yogi with his parasol of grass in the Hindu exemplary tale, "The Humbling of Indra" (Campbell, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, 89) For the fighting arts practitioner, kata or pre-arranged training routines are the bonds that holds them to this world. They are the physical manifestation of the fighting arts. Without them, and the techniques of which they are comprised, we have nothing but theory.

For the pre-modern or classical martial artist, kata practice was not just an empty routine performed for aesthetically appealing reasons. It was instead a complicated training ritual used to instill martial behavioral patterns and responses that were critical to their survival. Kata and the use of pre-arranged routines, allowed the classical martial artist to preserve techniques and behaviors that had proven successful in mortal combat. They were the "craft," that Joseph Campbell spoke of that provided the warrior with a rationalized means to examine the battlefield's chaotic realm and then perfect ways to survive on it. Dr. Karl Friday said about the influence of Confucianism on Japanese martial arts and their own use of kata that;
This infatuation is predicated on the conviction that man fashions the conceptual frameworks he uses to order and therby comprehend the chaos of raw experience through action and practice. One might describe, explain, or even defend one's perspectives by means of analysis and rational argument, but one cannot acquire them in this way. Ritual is stylized action, sequentially structured experience that leads those who follow it to wisdom and understanding."
-(Friday, Legacies of the Sword, 105)
Wisdom and understanding. That is the purpose of the practice of kata. We do not practice our forms for the approval of others, nor for the beauty of their physical performance. We practice the forms to gain wisdom and understanding. The practice is study. Training. It instructs us in its very execution.

Drills -
Beginner: Practice your forms again and again until you can perform the movements without faltering or stopping. Once you can perform the form in this fashion, you can then begin to make the movements your own through repetition and the application of emotion.

Intermediate: Perform your forms with only the upper body moving and the legs held still. Then perform them with your arms still and only the legs moving. Practice your forms in this way again and again, but remember to return to the entire body performing. The purpose of isolating aspects of forms in this way is to focus on perfecting those specific movements, not to forgo your study of the rest of the pattern.

Advanced: Practice your forms with intensity and explosive breathing with each major movement. Then practice them with grace and smooth, flowing motions. Practice them with kiai and stomps, and again breathing through the nose and gliding across the floor. Learn from each of these activities. Make each of them your own.

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