Kata: Mind & Beauty

In 2000 Sensei Young asked me to design and construct a small book to present to Sensei Mack. The content of which was a transcription, by Dick and Aubrey Wedin, of two taped recordings by Shihan Walter Todd.

Feel free to share, but please do our little school a favor cite us as the source for this article. Hope you enjoy!


Transcribed from a recording by Shihan Walter Todd

First Recording

…the philosophy and different concepts this is the philosophy as I see it as the time when I wrote this, the way I feel about some of the things that are martial arts and if you…miss some of the…and you don’t well here is your chance to get a quick minute sleep. Either way so go ahead and play it and then you can evaluate it for your own. Oh, do you want me to do it? I did go to school, I went to the fourth grade…one touch, play. You have to let me know what volume you can hear.
Notice how subtle this tape is? (tape)…
I would like to speak today on one aspect of the martial arts. Kata, or form more specifically mind and beauty. Kata is the art of actualizing a maximum number of our potentialities for creative living. To perform kata which communicates the feeling of victory both to ourselves and to those who watch our form, is much more than a demonstration of physical prowess and technical excellence, it is a living statement of how well we have transmuted unacceptable aspects of our character. If we can see this point clearly, we shall begin to know the way in which we can train to perfect ourselves in the difficult art of living.

There is a point in analyzing the self defense aspect of kata. For that aspect deals mainly with the instinct of survival. Survival is not synonymous with good character. Yet, it is apparent that the possibility of character perfection rests solely on being alive. Assuming that we reach a point of great skill and physical survival, what lies beyond this level that can change our character for the better? To answer this far reaching question, we must consider two things: first, we must reflect on the meaning of the phrases to have a mind like a moon and to have a mind like water. And secondly, we must try to find out what is meant by martial beauty.

Now both the moon and the water have the capacity to reflect light unless the moon is covered by clouds and the waters tranquility is disturbed by irrelevant waves. Clouds and waves maybe thought of as symbols for a confused mind lacking the capacity to exhibit a “bodying” integrity or true character. On the other hand, the full moon and still water of a pond sheltered from the wind represents a mind which can reflect the meaning of a total life experience. The great teachers in the martial arts, have always turned to nature for examples of a simple and practical way of life that could bring humanity closer to the goal of worldwide enduring peace. Perhaps the thoroughly practical principles which they have formulated seem mystical to us because we have not studied the order and purpose inherent in nature. Whoever loses contact with nature has in reality lost contact with part of himself for man is a part of nature. If we can consciously accept our oneness with nature, we will see all our actions are also part of nature’s actions. Hence, kata is part of nature.

Kata consists of blocking and attacking movements which are expressions of intentions or motives within a frame of reference. Some katas allow for the expression of mental space. Others focus on the expression of emotional. And still others permit the expression of shear joy which accompanies exercise of the body. Each kata is a miniature universal which we, in our imperfection, wage battle to determine if we can succeed in becoming moral beings. Through blocking movements we place limitations upon aspects of our character; which if left unchecked could bring dishonor to our self and those around us. Conversely, attacking movements express the attitude of victory over our imperfections. While to assume a kamae, or stance, expresses our preparedness and our competency to face the task of character perfection. Kata is a method of meditation upon principles which are the basis for harmonious living. Kata is also the expression of those principles and this is why we can move towards an understanding of the meaning of life through kata. Life’s meaning can be experienced better through action than through words. Kata is like a cup, and meaning is like the water which fills a cup. Even as you must have a cup to contain water which can be tasted, so you must have form to contain meaning which can be experienced.

So far, all it has been said about the mental or philosophical principles of kata has been a pointing at rather than a pointing out of the real concept we are trying to express; to abide an inseparability of form and meaning gives rise to a realization of katachi nashi no kata, the form of no form or the shape of no form. This principle is what the great teachers of the martial arts studied constantly through symbols found in nature such as the sun, moon, stars, or the oceans, the clouds, the omnipotent winds of nature. All systems of karate try to capture these natural phenomena in their katas. And the same is true of the Ichi Kiyun No Kata of the Kodokan Judo or the Akinagi of Aikido.

There is no lack of examples of the form of no form. The most advanced katas of devoted budokan are attempts in expressing this principle. However, katatchi nashi no kata is not all that lies beyond skill and survival. There is an infinite number of insights which can assist us in becoming moral beings. Among these is an understanding of martial beauty.

It’s quite common to hear a person remark that a form or technique is beautiful. Yet, when we ask for definition of martial beauty no one is exactly sure if a single or collectively acceptable meaning can be stated. Of course, not everyone is concern in answering the question. In fact, some people completely side step the problem and speak of beauty as technical excellence. Yet, however valuable technical excellence may be, there is always a hint of “mechanicalness” to it. Also, technical skill is usually categorized as efficient rather than beautiful. Yet, some technicians exhibit both skill and beauty. So we must try and determine what is meant by skill as well as by beauty; for they may not be identical. But they sometimes occur at the same instant.

For an example, the traditional judo hip throw, o-goshi will suffice. What do we mean when we say that a judoka is skillful at o-goshi. Specifically, that he exhibits preciseness in conforming with the physical laws which governs o-goshi And what is meant by skillful o-goshi which is also beautiful? …we witness a phenomenon which…such a phenomenon is not a property of physical technique it is not the appearance of the technique that is beautiful, it’s the way or the manner in which it is made to appear that is beautiful. Of course, many will argue that o-goshi is beautiful when ever it is performed correctly. Yet, no one would seriously argue that a robot performing o-goshi exhibits more skill and beauty than Mifune Kyuzo who is an outstanding judo master performing the same technique.

Hence, beauty is not a property of techniques or objects as such, rather beauty is a particularly human flavor of truth expressed through the medium of form. So when we say we saw a beautiful o-goshi, we mean that a person performed o-goshi in such a way that it exhibited the personal beauty of its performer. Thus, martial beauty is the expression of a truth that is in our hearts and minds in forms of motion that relate to war. And to the problems of life and death on all levels of awareness.

So it appears as if we end up where we started. As if survival is the starting point and the goal of all martial arts. Perhaps this is the truth. Perhaps the martial arts have no purpose beyond being martial. Yet to reach this conclusion, we must find necessary reasons for not believing that. He who knows the truth of the body can then become to know the truth of the universe. But should we find in the end that we reject this idea in favor of survival, we must still consider that there is a power within us born of integrity. To find this power and utilize it for the enrichment of all life even though our own lives maybe lost in the process, that is the meaning of budo.

Thank you for allowing me to share these ideas with you.

Second Recording

Today’s talk will be on the functional goal of karate katas. It’s in vogue these days for many teachers to say that katas, or forms, in karate are not important. It’s a shame that these teachers never knew the true meaning of karate. They throw away the meat and keep the bones, thinking they have the true essence of karate. They forget because the katas have been passed from one generation to another evolving from crude to polished jewels of physical, mental and philosophical interpretations. With each generation adding its share of wisdom and sometimes falling; nevertheless, the truth is still there for those who wish to see it.

Then there are some teachers who think they can simply make up their own katas which are very crude by comparison because they don’t understand the polishing effect that each generation has had on a kata.

It’s one thing when a true master creates a form with the above understanding and when an average teacher tries the same thing lacking this knowledge. In order to understand our katas in karate correctly, the student must capture the spirit of the kata. This means the student must know not only the sequence of the moves of a kata but understand the correct meaning of the techniques. Keeping in mind that katas are primarily teaching a method of self defense. One of developing unification of body and mind. The student should endeavor to search for basic ways to interpret kata.

If the student makes it too complex he will not capture the spirit because it will be too abstract. To tell a student to do a movement in a kata as an exercise but differently in practical application is incorrect. Because a student in all probability will do the kata more frequently than the practical application or the bunkai. Thereby turning and perfecting his auto reflexes incorrectly to the situation. This is doing the student a disservice and is a perversion of true karate. It’s more logical to teach the techniques as realistically as possible within the framework of a kata. So the student can capture the technique with a true fighting spirit. Then, if he wishes to do it as an exercise, no harm will be done. He will still develop his auto reflexes correctly while doing the kata.

The teachers of the past were not trying to teach the techniques in a weak or abstract manner. When katas are passed down from one generation to the next, a movement or meaning can be mistaken or altered due to human error. For this reason, you can not understand kata with only one perspective. Katas were created to make karate easy to learn not more difficult. The student must learn to apply common sense in training. In doing this. he can capture the true spirit of the kata. Only then may he gain insight in the true nature of karate.

This passage was transcribed by Dick & Audrey Wedin at the Central Washington School of Karate. Every effort was made to make an accurate transcription of this recording, however, the quality of the tape was poor and some of the information was regrettably lost.

Design by Zane Kinney, Rodeo City Graphics
Respectfully presented to Sensei Morris Mack,
by Sensei Sue Young
March 11, 2000