What’s with the kata? – Aug 1, 2015, Kim Taylor, Renshi, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan

If the ultimate goal of training is to develop an immovable mind, a mind that will come up with techniques at need and not get caught on what the other guy is trying to do or what you are trying to do, why do the old schools have kata?

I love teaching aikido because I get to make up kata on the spur of the moment. What happens if I do this? I dunno, try it, oh, that happens, go practice that. But I didn’t learn it that way, I learned it through a series of kata that my teacher taught me. It’s just that one day the kata seemed to fall away and now I have trouble remembering them. In fact I have trouble remembering the names of the waza, the movements like kotegaeshi and aiki otoshi and irimi nage.

So why don’t I just teach at the spontaneous level and skip all the time-consuming repetitive stuff, the stuff everyone ought to know without me telling them every two weeks. To a large extent I do, I tend to go down the rabbit hole and drag my students with me. I go into long speeches on the history of this or that kata. I explain minute changes in balance and how to invoke them by breathing in or out while near your opponent.

And the beginners go glassy eyed. Sometimes the seniors have a (not so) quiet word about asking people to do things they haven’t a clue how to do.

Now I’m not claiming to be anything special, just some guy who thinks he’s starting to understand what the old guys wrote about in books. Not like I understood it as a beginner, but maybe now I’m getting a few glimpses about what they were actually saying.

Which means I’m almost happy when grading time comes around in aikido class and I have to teach the kata that the students need for their test. It’s why I tend to concentrate on the kihon in the koryu stick and sword schools I teach. There I can go with the students on a little journey down a small rabbit hole and show them a lovely thing without them getting too lost.

It’s also why I am not fond of a long kata, one where I have to even flicker toward thinking about the next move. That distraction is an irritation.

That’s it actually, “enlightened” teachers and beginners need kata. They need that irritation like an oyster needs a bit of sand to make a pearl. Not that a pearl ever did any good for the oyster but never mind that, it’s a metaphore. What I’m saying is that in order to get to Ri you need the kata of Shu. The Shu stage of Shu Ha Ri is the kata stage. The Ha stage is where you start breaking up the kata into their bits and pieces and say things like “I dunno, try it” and come up with some sort of interesting combination of those pieces (waza). The Ri stage? That’s where you leave it all behind and forget the kata, forget the waza, forget the name of your school and simply deal with whatever there is to deal with. You go from knowing nothing through knowledge to knowing nothing.

Which is something I knew as a beginner, you start with a white belt, it gets black (grubby with use) and then white again (black threads wear off with use). I knew that, but somehow forgot it during all my learning and now that I’m old and forgetting things, I’m starting to remember that I don’t know any more than I did as a beginner. The sickness of learning is starting to fall away as my brain and body start to fail and I can no longer amaze myself with my physical technique. (Is physique the result of physical technique?)

Kim Taylor
Aug 1, 2015

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