We as humans have perhaps the most diverse range of methods to communicate compared to any other animal species on earth. We can use physical gestures, sounds, facial expressions, bodily reactions and even smells!! (Queue fart jokes...)
It is only natural that we would utilise some of these methods to transmit knowledge in Karate.
First, we introduce the technique - auditory, then we show the technique - visual, then we correct the technique – kinesthetic.
Simple, right! Then why do we not see everyone doing techniques exactly the same?
One factor is everyone is inherently different, even if only slightly so. The other factor is communication between humans has an inherent flaw.
Effective transmission of knowledge strongly relies on the people communicating to make themselves easily understood, and those being communicated to not misinterpreting.
Some of us in the world are fantastic communicators, able to depict emotions, life stories, anecdotes and wisdom; often through works of art in literature, painting and music.
Some of us are also quick to understand and piece together the information being delivered, doing the best not to distort what is being conveyed.
In an ideal situation both Sensei and Student will be able to communicate and understand each other with great ease and harmony.
In this modern age of superfast communication we still fail as humans to communicate effectively. The downside is war and suffering, the upside is new and innovative ideas - Karate is a microcosm of the Human endeavour to transmit knowledge and ideas, some of which cannot be easily expressed.
Karate today, especially in the western nations, has a lot more talking than the “traditional” Karate practice of Japan. We can now freely turn up to a Dojo, train amongst a group of peers, discuss our thoughts and techniques with each other and ask questions of the Sensei.
So far so good. But what about in the past?
Some might like to believe that it was all do and no tell, and this might be true for a particular period in Karate history, however, in looking further back I feel that the relationship between student and Sensei was always one of showing, practicing and discussing technique - perhaps this was why many were proficient in their practice in what seems a much shorter time than practitioners today, that and the lack of TV to watch at night.
What I am really interested in is the culmination of all these ways of communicating which produces something distinctive, but in no way unique.
I am talking, of course, about Kata; a mnemonic device allowing the transmission of all that Karate has to offer to be imparted from Sensei to Student.
Each Kata is a complete fighting system, and in karate it covers a lot more than the obvious deflecting, punching and kicking. That's something for another topic.
As Gichin Funakoshi stated “It would take more than one lifetime to discover all the applications from Naihanchi kata.”
It’s also pretty great at being used for self-development as well, so one day, the Sensei isn’t needed anymore.
But why do we have so many ways of expressing the same Kata? (Not including those altered for the sake of the practitioner)
Because all that we hear and see are being passed through a filter in our brains that does it’s best to interpret the world. The filter contains memories of past experiences, knowledge, emotions and other trailing thoughts.
This is why Shoshin (初心) - beginner's mind - is so important for learning in the Martial Arts.
Learning without preconceived ideas and knowledge we are able to take in what is being taught in the least filtered way.
Are there any solutions for continued learning, once Shoshin has inevitably ended?
One solution dictates that we must train diligently, and unquestioningly, under one Sensei for a long length of time – some even requiring loyalty for your lifetime.
Yet this will never stop the “issue” of misinterpretation.
In my humble opinion, it is from learning from a range of Sensei, at a certain stage in your personal karate development, that we gain the most.
Not only are we given another perspective of a techniques application and execution, but we are helped to understand our previous Sensei’s teachings.
I believe that these diversities and varied interpretations brings the most out of Martial Arts practice. So long as we are continuing to learn the principles, not simply techniques.
It also shows that we should embrace the differences and diversity of our species, instead of attempting to maintain “purity”.
Studies have found that a homogenous nation may well show a happier life overall but with less creative development potential. Do we want a “happy” karate practice, or one that pushes the creative boundaries.
A podcast I was listening to spoke about diversity in languages, it referenced the biblical story of the tower of Babel.
For those that don’t know, it was a collective effort by humankind, post Great Flood, to build a tower to reach the heavens. God, noticing this amazing feat, decides to scatter everyone around the world and confound their speech so that they could no longer understand each other. And thus the tower would not be completed.
This story can be either taken as a way of understanding why we speak different languages - if you want to take it literally, or it can be read as a story explaining what triumphs we could achieve if we all could communicate effectively.
In the podcast a linguist stated that Languages change in the same way and as quickly as cloud formations in the sky - shaping and reshaping in all directions.
So, if I could make myself clear for a second, go and become your cloud; form, separate, reform and develop along with your environment, do not be embarrassed by your uniqueness, and embrace each other’s uniqueness!!
Shu-Ha-Ri already tells us this is the path to true knowledge of all Arts - Karate included.