Searching For The Essence Of Okinawan Kata
By Shifu Christopher J. Goedecke
It’s true. I’m an unabashed Joisey Boy, born and bred. I am also a long term and passionate student of Okinawan martial arts. In this first, of many blogs to come, I would like to share my perspective on the nature of authentic Okinawan kata with a little Soprano-like chronology.
KATA BING 1968
Think gangly, introverted seventeen-year old, living in the quiet insulated and affluent suburb of Short Hills. One evening I was “wowed” by Ilya Kuryakin’s (David McCallum) karate chop summarily dispatching a foreign thug during an episode of the popular 1960 TV series, Man From U.N.C.L.E. Agent Kuryakin’s shuto shattered my utter ignorance about this once exotic Asian fighting art. Then there was the uncanny timing of my sister’s boyfriend, an actual karateka, inviting me to visit his dojo the next town over. Karate was not a household familiar word to Americans in the 1960’s, and unless you served in the armed forces, Judo wasn’t much better known. There was a great air of mystery and excitement about the martial arts at this time which bit me hard. My sister figured if I really was earnestly trying to teach myself self-defense in my parent’s basement from Bruce Tegner’s Complete Book of Karate (Bantam Books 1966), I might actually want to join a real dojo. That $1.00, 224 page, paperback carried me long enough to jump on that serendipitous offer for one free class. The next day I had joined the International School of Judo and Karate for a $60 monthly fee (allowing me participation in up to six classes a week) and shelled out an additional $12 dollars for a mandatory pair of unbleached, cotton, combat jamies. My mother was equally pleased and irked. Her oldest of four had found an outside interest, and she gained another chore.
What did I know about martial arts back then? Absolutely Zero. Karate’s sheer mystery compelled me to leap in—with hindsight—right over my head. I had no idea that the infamous Bank Street School was one of this country’s pioneering East Coast dojos or that I would rise to become one of its primary sensei and later to head a system. I also had no idea what authentic Okinawan karate discipline was all about, nor the tremendous life-altering change this niche, Asian discipline would have on my future. For it would consume my body, mind and soul for the next four plus decades. And nothing would grab me so completely as its fighting forms.
Bank Street, as we informally called our dojo (named after its location at 3 Bank street, Summit, NJ), opened its doors to the public in 1962. A shrewd salesman and avid judoka named Allen Good foresaw the coming popularity and business boon in martial arts and negotiated a lease to open the training hall near the center of town. Not a black belt himself, Good hired a French judoman to run his spacious 3,500 square foot second floor facility. Bank Street was an instant success. Within months Good had 250 judo enrollees. In 1964, he had received so many requests for karate that he hired the square jawed, marine corps veteran and Isshinryu black belt Gary Alexander (current head of Isshinryu Plus) to become the School’s first karate sensei. Though Alexander only lasted a few months as head teacher, Bank Street’s karate history had officially begun. The Bank Street Dojo produced many notable teachers and a steady stream of experts (several who went on to distinguish themselves in other disciplines). By 1970 Karate had established itself as the ‘Big man on the U.S. martial campus’. Judo phased out and Bank Street profited from hundreds of young men, aged 17 to 35 years old, looking for a little Asian, kick butt mojo. By 1973 the Bank Street Dojo, under its formal new name, the Isshin Kempo Association, boasted 1,000 active students. On any given evening there were three mats teeming with fifty to eighty, testosterone charged males snapping their sweaty gis through grueling two hour classes (sorry, there were no ladies). As a side note, protective gear was in its infancy in those early days. All practices, including jiu-kumite, were engaged barehanded.
One day I found myself awarded a new color strip around my waist and being lectured that kata were prerequisites for mastering the art of karate. That promotional seventh step recognition of shichikyu (yellow belt) initiated me into the ‘warrior dances’ of Asia. I was ushered into an entirely new arena of physical education—rehearsing detailed movement sequences of fifty to one hundred individual actions according to my black sashed taskmaster’s cadence. We practiced what we were told—what I thought was a random collection of punches, kicks, blocks and stance work bookended by perfunctory bows. I almost always performed my kata in a group, on the mat, and in a gi. Each of my Isshin Shorin Ji Ryu Okinawa Te kata, under the late master Robert Murphy, possessed an enigmatic name matching its equally strange composition. Nevertheless, I was into it. But oddly I would learn, decades later, that for all my early sucking, like a hungry young mosquito, I had barely drawn a sake cup’s worth of kata’s martial blood.
I hated the Rubik’s Cube puzzle of the 70’s. I was convinced that I could make a small fortune inventing the Rubik’s Cube Hammer— guaranteed to smash the frustrating little block in one blow. By contrast, I couldn’t get enough of kata’s kinesthetic, multi-dimensional challenge. By brown belt I was hammering away at its truths with six hours of training a day. Granted, it often seemed like I was trying to cram my 6’ 4” frame into a Japanese rice box. Who would ever fight in a cat stance, or want to cock their hips “in unmasculine fashion?” as a student would later comment, or sashay across the floor in funny half moon-shaped steps? Is this really how the Japanese fought? No wonder they lost the war! And why am I turning red as a beet feeling like I’m about to blow a gasket with this toe gripping tension kata? Let’s face it, when you perform an Okinawan kata you are slipping into another person’s body, another time, another culture, and another headspace. That’s why the initial fit can feel so horribly confining. I took some comfort knowing that every other neophyte’s KATA BING seemed to share my robotic struggle to find the right flow. Thankfully, my native intelligence kicked in early telling me that when facing any new relationship the first thing you do is “court.” You spend time getting to know one another. So with open mind and bared feet, I painted and repainted each kata’s embusen with calculated steps (every kata traces a distinct symbol on the ground) upon the dojo’s canvas (mat). Many diehard karateka have described their kata, or aspects of them, as if describing their paramours. “I love Chinto.” “I hate Neihanchi’s leg lifts.” “Wansu apps are so cool!” I once joked that Tatsuo Shimabuku (isshinryu karate’s founder) named all his kata after his former girlfriends for that special love/hate relationship members of the opposite sex are so good at fostering. (In truth, most of Shimabuku’s kata were hand-me-downs from past masters).
If my KATA BING initiated the courtship, my KATA BANG showed my commitment to “marry” them.
KATA BANG 1975
For the average Japanese, the word kata has a broad range of linguistic application not limited exclusively to fighting patterns. Literally ‘kata’ can mean; direction, toward; peace; shape; tideland, lagoon, bay; shoulder.
Wikipedia accurately describes kata as ‘detailed choreographed patterns of movements practiced either solo or in pairs.’ Partnered work lends a whole new perspective to kata. Paired kata makes up the second of the three major pillars of traditional martial arts training. Those three pillars are: the solo form (inward directed focus) , the prearranged partnered form (what I call “success rehearsal”), and the Jiu Kumite, free-form, or free-fighting exchange (outer directed focus). If Kata is the soul of karate, then its bunkai (applied knowledge) is its heart, and free fighting is its musculo-skeletal system.
The mainstream American martial arts community simply calls these choreographed shadow boxings, Form. Other cultures have their respective names. Chinese call such Hsing. In Korean it’s called Hyeong. In India, warrior sets were referred to as Bodhisattva Nata. We must also consider that the concept of kata is not confined solely to the martial arts or even to Asian culture.
The term ‘Form’ however was so general, so ambiguous, and so academic in my early practices that it didn’t give me a single clue to the specifics of any kata I was learning at Bank Street. For me, kata was just a choppy flow of technique (no pun intended). Early on, I did find a helpful analogy of kata being compared to the craft of writing. If an individual technique could be likened to a letter of the alphabet, then a set of kata moves could be analogized to a sentence. Each set/sentence had a beginning and an end. Your invisible opponent attacked and you concluded the attack with successful counter maneuver(s). So I prematurely guessed that an entire kata must be some past warrior’s locomotive essay on the art of “winning a bunch of fights.”
Even during my KATA BANG era I was still only privy to the kata as a means of neutralizing physical aggressions. I had no idea that kata derived from ancient Indian (Hindu) warrior techniques involving particular orientations of mind, breath, and body based upon Buddhist principles, or that kata was used as a dynamic, self-unraveling movement meditation.
Martial author and kendo enthusiast, Dave Lowry, shared his commentary on kata’s meaning by philosophically waxing on and off in his book, Sword and Brush (Shambala, 1995). The kanji pictograph for kata, he points out, is that of “a lattice grid with rays of sunlight penetrating it.” Someone would poke a few holes in the earliest bamboo abodes to let in some light and air. Think primitive Asian window. Kata then is our primal window into the house of personal combat, and for the spiritually inclined, into the bigger picture of human conflict itself. Lowry suggests that non-practitioners of kata can only see this light emitted from the outside, like a peephole into a mansion. But to those who have chosen to live in the kata house, not just enter as an occasional visitor, endless textures and subtleties of light and shadow, and the ethereal qualities of air are disclosed. Lowry suggests that dwelling in kata offers us a special sort of illumination. Of course, we cannot discount the negative experience of those students who get bruised by kata’s shadowy ambiguities and thus exit perhaps, to the simpler drive-up window of sports like MMA.
I entered kata’s kinesthetic room of my own free will, curious about its action furnishings and, due to my youthful naiveté, only seeing its simple functionalities. Kata’s unique environment was generally highlighted by my teachers. “No, the middle block must be higher. “That’s a Seisan, not a Kiba Dachi.” “Yes, the front kick was well placed.” “Faster please, don’t tense. Ah! Too fast! Sink lower.” Most kata students initially feel like an extension of their teacher’s mind. We oblige our sensei like good disciples, moving about in ‘his or her’ airy sunlit action house according to his rules, his pacing, infrequently allowed occasional creative wandering amongst kata’s intractable architecture with our own spirited and rebellious intent.
One day I began to wonder ‘how I would move without my Asian-influenced restrictions. Why do we have to move like these ghostly Okinawan masters anyway?’ An intermediate ranked student, named Dan, asked me recently. “What makes their patterns so special?” How would a kata I create be any different from the early kata craftsmen?” My answer to him was, “far more that you could imagine,” for I had walked down that inquiring road decades ago. I too had once entertained the idea of creating my own kata until I came across a statement from a source long since forgotten that in Japanese Shotokan (once the world’s most prolific system) no one below the rank of sandan would have their kata creation taken seriously by its hierarchy. This raised my suspicion that either there was more substance to kata than I had divined or that egocentricity and politics were no stranger in the dojo and had simply not yet ambushed my youthful idealism.
I eventually reached Sandan (3rd degree black belt). I had become an expert in Okinawan kata jutsu, and a sensei. I could execute, crisp, snappy and lethal forms and guide others to the same. I had collected multiple interpretations and trained hard with partners to assure their worth. I knew my martial history well, and gobbled up Asian philosophy like a bowl of hot Ramen. I could claim nuances that the dojo newbies wouldn’t see for years. Yet, despite my physical and philosophical talents, ghostly fingers from a distant past kept poking my gray matter during practice that I was still in the initial stages of a very long kata journey.
My Kata-Bang blossomed at Sandan, years after I had bumbled through my first form and well into a solid, full time teaching career. I had survived three teaching regimes at the same dojo. Each one had morphed my kata performance and expanded my understanding. This was mostly due to the different foci of my sensei coupled with my own maturation into a martial man. I was staking my claim by sweat and blood living daily within a small community of eight forms.
KATA BOOM 1990
It arrived as a sudden, lightening bolt awareness. I caught a glimpse of something strange, yet immeasurably powerful, a spark of intuition illusive to my intellectual grasp. It was like hearing thunder for the first time as a child. What kind of power could shake my sensibilities so forcefully? Why hadn’t any one mentioned this before? Had I been dreaming the whole time, asleep at my own art? Had I just been playing with toy blocks, kicks and punches? Had I forgotten that kata had been forged in blood by the elite warriors of Asia—real men faced with real life and death issues? It’s strange, at first, to realize that that there are degrees of wakefulness after we have roused ourselves out of bed in the morning, and that there are currents within currents in the sky above and in the oceans below. I discovered time and again that the surface of a kata often conceals its depth and dimensionality. This fact arrived as a deafening, yet silent Zen BOOM, a one-handed thunderclap only for trained ears to detect. Many tuned in Asian ears even today are not telling the West what they hear. And those who do shout their martial truths from the mountaintop find their voices falling on the deaf ears of the entranced beginners in the Western valley below. When my third eye opened from its crusted superficial slumber I saw that Kata was far more than what it appeared.
The essence of Okinawan kata is a form of “deep see” diving, not for the faint hearted. Traditional Okinawa Kata is not just a clever set of self-defense techniques or surface formula for self-protective fitness. Kata is not just a ‘physical’ art. Its composition leaves us with an acute puzzle of the essence of life and energy, and the fundamental principles and cycles of movement, upon what we Buddhists call the sanmitsu (three mysteries of body, mind and vibration). Kata are the Tao’s well-placed steppingstones for the ancient and modern Doka (Way follower). Okinawan Kata has become my warrior persona’s sun-baked island bible.
In the West we suffer from a peculiar myopia regarding these imported traditional treasures. This has made it difficult for us to access from them what we cannot see. This problem is compounded with a general fixation on kata’s superficial values.
However, for those of you who proudly claim months or years of kata experience, or simply find the idea of kata study compelling, stay tuned. Of revelations to come; Sanchin kata’s remarkable best kept secret from the Western world; how some forms are actually five-in-one; how the cat stance is an extraordinary energy receiver; why it really does take ten years to master a traditional form (and is worth the effort); why isshinryu and other Okinawan karate systems are loosing their ancient kata legacies; how authentic power is cultivated through proper kata practice; how every punch and kick packs two completely different types of impact; how certain kata align your body polarity; how the mind is awakened by degrees with calculated kata work; how the Chinese monastic masters used forms as a trinity of mudras, mantras and mandalas toward enlightenment; how the simplest of kata actions move waves of hidden and influential energies; the real mystery behind kata named after numbers with a multiple of three; why the ancient masters used feng shui as an extension of their kata tactics; discover the five layers of form work and why most of the world’s masters work only within the first three. This is just a hint at the amazing wisdom inherent in our forms.
Grand assertions, I admit. Could be a Joisey boy trait. We do get around in this progressive part of the country. But I will back up each and every statement in works to come. I’ve spent forty-four years watching the sunlight and shadows interplay through the immovable lattice of the venerable kata houses of Okinawa. My spirit has happily come to dwell, to meditate, and to rest in these splendid rooms. Having been truly moved myself, I hope to offer students and new readers some refreshing ideas on how to make your own kata more luxurious.
Cinch your belts. A kata revival is afoot. Kata Bing, Kata Bang, Kata BOOM!
Christopher J. Goedecke, Shifu, is a career martial arts teacher and Bodhisattva Warrior monk and author of The Soul Polisher’s Apprentice: A Martial Kumite About Personal Evolution. For more information visit our web site at www.isshinkempo.com