A Lesson in Understanding Forms
Part II: The Zen of Kata
As usual, Sensei demanded that we go to our regular spot to eat: the local burger joint. Contrary to what many might imagine, sipping tea and eating a traditional Japanese meal after a hard day’s training was not Sensei’s forte. Sensei preferred a cheeseburger, fries, and a diet Coke. “A martial artist can have whatever he wants to eat – especially after training this hard and for this long. Reward yourself with a burger!” he liked to say. Internally, I chuckled and was happy to have something that satiating after a hard workout like we had just done. I could see that all the years he had spent in the USA had ever so slightly changed him, especially someone who was so intensely Japanese in his ways as a martial artist and a man of Zen.
Once we seated and were served our food, I charged at my food like a hungry barbarian, only to be suddenly stopped by the sight of Sensei eloquently performing his prayers to Buddha Fudo Myoo before he ate. I suddenly felt clumsy and out of sync of our mini cosmos for not doing prayer myself. Sensei immediately detected my sense of unease, and I could tell by the look on his face the brief respite from the intense training was over. Intentionally capitalizing on my exhaustion as he always did, it was time that we move from the physical into the mental testing and training portion of our day. He liked to test my resolve when tired, pushing me to see if I would continue without giving into any sort of ill-tempered responses just because I was worn out. Often times, I found this to be the hardest part of the training.
While we ate, Sensei continued on his theme of the day “Many train improperly for years. They never fully understand the martial arts and fail to fully integrate it into their lives. There is no denying fighting efficacy, but most who espouse that alone fail to understand that the fight is with life itself. That attitude is ultimately short lived, and always ends in disappointment when their youth leaves them. The problem is that they overlook the total person. Everyone eventually succumbs to old age, disease, and death – there is no escape. Therefore you must work on conquering oneself – that is a big part of what the Kata does. If you can see beyond the impermanent world and reach out to truth – then you can understand life as a whole, and rest in truth. There you can unleash your hidden potential as spiritual being. You see, the way of the Buddha is a mind training tool in effect – those that think of it as a religion almost always become lost – that is because it is about realization. Same as it is those who try to just be tough forever. It is a fools errand.”
”You must do away with fixed thinking, or thinking of those illusions that you believe to be permanent – they are not! Look at the way I do Kata – I never do it the same, they are always qualitatively different from each other. The importance is that you must make the art come alive within you. This why I am stressing to you what I did – you must endure the unendurable, bear the unbearable in the Kata, feel the heat so to speak. Anything less, then your Kata becomes a dead form, and you might as well just run around flailing your arms in the air – both are equally useless. From start to finish you must keep your energy and you mind turned on. Once you do this, your Kata will work for you in Kumite, or in any fighting situation, totally spontaneous and fully functional, truly alive.”
Eager to add to the lecture in agreement, ” I can see what you mean here Sensei. I feel that after many years and fighting that I have come to understand.”
“I don’t think you do.” Sensei said looking at me ever so slightly disapprovingly, “This all goes much deeper than you think Will….”
Interjecting, I said “But I have won a lot of fights, many of them for real. Sure I have lost, but I think you’ve trained me to be a pretty good fighter, defeating street fighters and other martial artists alike. All of this, despite what the naysayers have criticized about classic martial arts over the years.”
“That is you ego talking!” Sensei said scolding me.
He continued, “Which brings me to the next point: you. Sure you’ve done well for yourself, and now you’re seeking some kind of approval from me. A warrior does not concern himself with such indulgences such as a need for social approval. That very mechanism lies at the heart of your problems – a need to over examine things through the eyes of the intellect, then seek edification. Sure, the intellect is useful for analysis of in pre and post study, but it has no place in a fight. Fighting is emotional. The moment your flawed thinking creeps in, you’re out of touch with the moment, and that is precisely when your opponent will close to strike you down. I already spoke of this earlier. You need to release yourself from this flawed concept.”
“Yes Sensei.” I said, visibly trying to hide my indignation.
“There is no ‘good dog’ while I pat you on the head in martial arts.” Sensei said, “This is about fighting and realization, not good feelings. Those needs for good feelings trap you into illusion, which is not the Buddha’s path”.
“I’m sorry Sensei”
“No, do not apologize, or defend yourself. Be correct in thought and action. That is the true way to relief from suffering in this world.” Sensei’s tone began to palpably soften as he continued “You have not erred at all here Will. In fact, you had to act the way you did, otherwise you would not have needed the lesson. The only real mistake here would have been to keep…. that inside you so you would not learn the lesson.” Sensei began to smile. “Yes, you have done well, but keep in mind that life defeats all challengers, and that all beings want enlightenment”
I slowly inhaled, leaning back in my chair, I began to study the backs of Sensei’s hands, with scars and all telling a story of heavy bare knuckle combat. I continued my gaze, now looking at his face and seeing the lines of age and wisdom. I wondered about all the places he had been, what he experienced and what he had done, the trials he faced to achieve such and encompassing mastery of the martial arts. Nearly 30 years have past since I first met him, yet he never ceases to continually amaze me. His utter conviction of being truly alive every moment, not to waste a single breath, but to rather cherish it, yet without clinging to it has always been his message. Humbled by these thoughts, I truly questioned myself if I would ever be as good as him one day.
“Ah, I can see you’re in reflection. Good!” Sensei exclaimed with a big smile on his face, “That means I have been successful in getting through to you and in you’re in Kufusuru: a steady state of meditation as you move through all your daily tasks.” Feeling lighter as if he stripped off some sort of heavy cloud over my mind, I bowed to him.
Today, I truly appreciate my Sensei.
Published: June 23, 2017