Traditions aren’t Fossils – Oct 10, 2015, Kim Taylor, Renshi, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan

I just read in a paper all about how the traditional martial arts (as opposed to MMA) were unchanged from far back in history. Nothing could be further from the truth, no more than oil portraiture is unchanged since Leonardo, photography requires wet collodion, or carpenters use framing hammers to build houses.

I love my nailguns, I’ve got a brad gun that’s battery powered. Best thing ever, I even tried it on the styrofoam I had to put back on my shop ceiling after changing the garage door. Didn’t work (duh) so I had to go back to my hammer and foam nails… hated that.

Traditional martial arts use kata that have supposedly remained unchanged for centuries (like Tosa Iai). Or a set of kihon that have stayed the same for three generations, out of which kata are created each practice (like aikido). They may use teaching methods (shu ha ri) that are similarly stable and they may have the same aims now as then. The founding statement of Tosa Iai (MJER in my case) contains the same goal that I seek through my practice. But every generation of these arts learns their core secrets for themselves. Each student learns what they learn based on what they bring and what they were taught. That the generations learn similar things at the end of the day is a testiment to the teaching method and the underlying purpose of the practice, but the art itself changes as much as anything else done by humans.

The kata of an art are chapters in a book, the book being the art itself. Those chapters, unlike a chapter in a textbook, contain variable information. This is my point, so pay attention now. A written textbook, if written well, will convey the same knowledge to everyone who reads it. Passing an exam won’t be easy if you somehow read something different from the rest of your class and your professors.

This isn’t the way a kata works unless your instructor, someone like me, runs off at the mouth and tries to force you to his understanding of the kata. I love the sound of my own voice and I figure I’m pretty clever so I like to explain every twitch. I’m a lousy sensei because of this (although I’d probably make a decent math teacher… might not get very far through the curriculum but by gum the students would know why the times tables work).

A kata is an exercise, a woodworking project perhaps, or a recipe. It’s a vessel out of which you pluck understanding of how to make a fancy corner joint, or how you put yeast and sugar together to make bread rise.

That understanding varies depending on what the student brings to the project and what the teacher says about it. The combination creates a guided journey to a principle. Here are the four ways to make this corner joint, here are historical examples of each, now you go and make one on this box of such and such a size and use. The student then produces a box that is either beautiful, beautifully ugly or meh.

Kata are taught in a process described as Shu Ha Ri. You keep, break and then leave them. Keep means to copy the kata as you are taught it, memorize the dance steps and reproduce them. Use this recipe for sticky buns and produce some sticky buns that match these sticky buns. Most people never get beyond this stage.

Break means to break it down, to get inside the mechanism and understand how it works, push the envelope and see where it works and where it breaks down and more importantly, where it is strong. Want a box for bricks? Maybe a glued 45 degree joint isn’t the best choice for your box. Want sticky buns? Maybe using vinager instead of sugar wasn’t a good idea.

Leave means to leave the kata behind. If you have figured out how things work it isn’t hard to create other things that look the same but aren’t the same. Your finger jointed box for bricks is a very strong joint due to a combination of lots of surface area for the glue and side grain vs end grain. Maybe you can use the same finger joint to create a bridge span or a beam.

Each generation of students will extract information from a kata and derive the core principles, but that generation will get something extra… we hope. Each teacher will build on the knowledge of the prior generations. Don’t forget that the process involves both a kata (unchanged for centuries) and a sensei (changing all the time). It’s the combination of the project and the guidance that creates the understanding.

In some cases, woodworking for instance, a third factor comes in, we now have urethane glues for our joints rather than our traditional boiled hide and hoof or rice pastes. Stronger glues can mean stronger joints… or it can mean lazy joints I suppose. In the martial arts world we tend to ignore technical changes, we don’t use titanium swords for iaido practice because they don’t contribute anything to the process. For a similar reason we don’t use guns even though they are much more efficient than blades for killing. One could make gunnery a michi, in Japan they certainly have and in the west we have the “quick draw” handgunning that iaido is always compared to.

But killing isn’t the point, nor is winning a duel in the back alleyway using Niten Ichiryu or winning a bar fight with aikido.

To summarize, the teaching of martial arts is traditional, it has persisted for centuries and those who teach it are careful to maintan that traidtion. But each student learns for themselves from the kata presented, so what is learned will change with each generation, perhaps even with each student. The art is traditional, not fossilized.

Kim Taylor
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