This morning I received an email from someone who asked me: “ why are the kata (martial art forms) so important if they are not even that old? Why does so much emphasis get put on something that is meant to later be forgotten? Would it not be easier to just learn how to fight without kata? It seems like kata is the only thing that the Bujinkan has to offer since we don’t spar or compete… but now you said that the forms are not very old and are meant to later be forgotten after passing your 5th degree Black Belt. I don’t get it and I often lately feel that I want to stop training in the Bujinkan. I feel ineffective after study this art for 3 years. Do you have any advice for someone like me?”
This is an all too common bunch of questions. I have been often asked all kinds of questions very similar to these.
I would like to start with the question “Why are the kata (martial art forms) so important if they are not even that old?”
First I would like to say that some forms in some arts are very old. For example the Kukishin Ryu or the Takagi Yoshin Ryu Jutaijutsu forms are at least 200 years old maybe even as old as 400 years. But some forms such as in the Gyokko Ryu or the Koto Ryu are possibly only 100+ years old. One reason for this is the fact that some schools literally trained armies while some only trained a particular family or even a single warrior.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that forms will naturally change over time. Change is not only inevitable, it is essential for survival. The Kuki family is a perfect example of this. They were Japan’s first imperial navy and trained many thousands of samurai and ashigaru in their family martial arts to invade the Korean peninsula, what is now called Taiwan and mainland China. Due to this the Kukishin Ryu became very formalized and ritualistic. This is how they created a unity among the warriors when they went to battle. Kata or forms are an efficient tool to train many people at a single time. Our modern United States military uses forms to train it’s soldiers even to this day. It is how you pump out mass amounts of ready to fight warriors in a short period of time. Other schools of martial arts were taught in secret, high up in the mountains, for various reasons such as seeking spiritual enlightenment, to prepare rebel forces to implement guerrilla warfare on the controlling power holders or to even take on the magical powers of the mountain and learn to harness it’s energy. These types of martial arts were generally passed on in small numbers and two students of the same master may never even meet each other in their lifetime. So there was no need to have forms that each other would recognize. The training was more personalized and fluid. This is only possible when you have a lot of access to your master.
So, my point here is the age of the form is irrelevant other than in historical context. It does not matter when the form was created. The important point is the unseen knowledge that is contained in that form. Has it been passed on to the student completely? Just memorizing a preset series of movements does not mean that anything has been truly learned. It is the “life” behind these movements that needs to be grasped and that can only be accomplished through hard training with an accomplished instructor. Anyone could memorize all of the movements of a particular martial art in only a few weeks or months. But this does not mean that they have learned anything other than how to do a dance. The application of what is contained in the forms takes many years even decades to master.
Next I would like to take on “Why does so much emphasis get put on something that is meant to later be forgotten?"
I think forgotten is not the correct word to use here. It is like walking. First as a child we have to learn how to walk and work real hard at it to walk gracefully. But later in life we do not walk the same as when we were a baby. We walk with pride and swagger, with laziness dragging and scuffing our feet, with an energetic pace at the workplace and with a kind of coolness when we try to impress a beautiful woman. Our ability to walk has improved and kind of become artistic as it is an easy way to express ourselves. When we age we change our way of walking again as our bodies are not able to support ourselves as they did in our youth. So in my own strange way I am trying to say that it is not the way that you walk that is important but rather that you keep on walking. In the martial arts it is the same. Forms help you learn what you can do to protect yourself from an enemy.
After many years the form will itself fade away and what is left is an ability to defend yourself without relying on a static form or technique. Hence the form is forgotten even though it is being used in a multitude of endless variations. It has taken on a life of its own in a sense. This life is what is important and needs to be passed on from master to student. “Would it not be easier to just learn how to fight without kata?” No. Most definitely not. Everyone learns how to fight naturally. It is instinct. But to become a superior fighter…that requires form and training. Without form you would be constantly getting injured or even injuring your opponent. Every martial art including boxing, wrestling, judo, fencing, etc. uses forms to teach the basics to their athletes and warriors.
“It seems like kata is the only thing that the Bujinkan has to offer since we don’t spar or compete… but now you said that the forms are not very old and are meant to later be forgotten after passing your 5th degree Black Belt. I don’t get it and I often lately feel that I want to stop training in the Bujinkan. I feel ineffective after study this art for 3 years. Do you have any advice for someone like me?”
I will tackle this last portion all at once. As Soke always says… “keep going!” If you pay attention and watch very closely you will notice that Soke very rarely ever teaches kata. He is always teaching at a higher level than that. If you want to attend Soke’s training sessions and truly understand, in my opinion, you must have already gone through many years of training under an accomplished instructor. This is how it should be. He can not always be teaching simple basics anymore. It would bore him to death.
This is the job of the Shidoshi. The problem is that too many of us Shidoshi keep trying to act, move and be like Soke. We do not spend enough time working on the basics nor teaching our students these essential foundations. Keep in mind that with Soke’s way of giving out ranks you must find another way to make a decision on which instructor you will choose. To make your decision based on rank would be a big mistake in this art.
As for sparring and competition…that is for each individual to decide for themselves. Depending on your goals in martial arts, sparring and competition may or may not be needed. If you intend to be able to perform physical combat at a high intensity level, such as in the UFC or in battle duty, you must spar and competition is the tool to judge your progress. If you study martial arts simply because you love it….then no there is no need for such training. Martial arts are for everyone. Not just fighters. It is an art and art is not to be taken too seriously. Even though a form may not be old it still contains a lesson. Each master needs to give many lessons to a student. Forms are the way to bring you to a higher level. When you get there you don’t really forget them…you just don’t think about them anymore. As for not getting it…..DONT SWEAT IT!!!!!!! I don’t want to sound like a braggart or anything but I have been doing this a long time, lived in China and Japan for two decades, am fluent in Japanese and have a good relationship with the headmaster of our art and I still often don’t get it. You don’t have to get it. It is a path and you have a lifetime to walk it. Just enjoy it. If you do not enjoy our art.. you are free to let go at any time. There is no reason to hold on. But if you love it… I promise you will have an adventure. Although I am by no means an enlightened man I enjoy the pursuit of it very much. We need to have something in our lives that gives us meaning. Who doesn’t want to be enlightened???
“I feel ineffective after study this art for 3 years. Do you have any advice for someone like me?”
Yes. If you still feel ineffective after 3 years there is two possible reasons. 1 – You are naturally not suited for martial arts. It is sad but not everyone can be good at martial arts just like any other physical activity. Maybe another activity is better for you such as firearms training. 2 – Your instructor is no good. This is also a very real possibility. As with religion, medicine and politics our art is full of the good, the bad and the ugly. I hope my thoughts have helped some of you. Many of you are long time practitioners and what I have said is nothing new to you but I know there is a whole new generation of new Bujinkan members who want to improve themselves and I hope I have been a help in some small way.
Sean Askew January 12, 2012