Chances are, if you’re reading this post you’ve heard about something called kata. It’s that long choreographed sequence of movements they do in karate? A bit like a dance? Good for demos but not very practical right?
Kata (型 or 形) is often translated as "form" or "pattern/mold", and applied to martial arts (or other traditional arts) describes a codified sequence of steps that should be performed. In martial arts that generally means a sequence of attacking and defending movements, usually for a solo practitioner.
"I don't like it because it's not practical", "there's no point to it", "it won't help on the street": those are some of the most common criticisms of kata I've heard (and read) over the years. They're all valid points of course, but really it comes down to how you train in kata that determines whether it's practical, meditative, or basically just dance.
In this post, I want to talk about kata and share some of the conclusions I’ve reached from my own reflection and research. Tl;dr I absolutely believe kata is an important part of balanced training, and not just something you dust off for demos every 6 months. Why? Because done right, it hones the basics: good form, balance, stance, timing, distance, speed; in a controlled and repeatable way.
Shorinji kempo kata
There are 14 official ‘empty hand’ kata in Shorinji kempo. There are also several unique kata for shakujo, nyoi and dokko (totaling 16 more, that I know of!), and which are a subject for a future post!
Several of the kata are direct single form (tanen) versions of full pair-form techniques (hokei). Ryuoken dai ichi (1) is the single-form of the basic technique kote nuki (ryuoken 2 and 3 are single-form versions of yori nuki, and ryote yori nuki respectively); byakurenken dai ichi is single-form tsubame gaeshi. To emphasise this difference, the forms are often referred to collectively by a different name in Shorinji kempo: tanen kihon hokei (single form basic techniques).
Stances are an important aspect of many traditional martial arts. They serve the purpose of setting up or inviting certain attacks (such as hasso gamae which invites an attack to the middle, or taiki gamae which presents an obvious opening to the head) and so form an integral part of many formal techniques. Many stances were developed from a need to appear intimidating or well prepared in front of a potential assailant, in an attempt to dissuade them from attacking (aiki gamae, manji gamae). In other cases, stances can serve to conceal one’s preparedness with an inconspicuous or more natural looking position (useful for de-escalating a situation while remaining ready if that fails) - such as midare or tate muso gamae.
Being a Japanese martial art, stances in Shorinji Kempo are also an important aspect of etiquette, and like much etiquette relating to potentially dangerous activities like martial arts, are founded in safety. Stances such as kesshu gamae show that the student is paying attention during instruction, and gassho (rei) signifies mutual respect between training partners before starting to practice.
There are 17 formal stances in Shorinji kempo, grouped into two families (Byakuren and Giwa) named for two of the Chinese schools from which Doshin So took much inspiration in founding his system.
Byakuren (8 stances)
Shorinji kempo (少林寺拳法; Shaolin-temple boxing) is a Japanese martial art that was founded in 1947 by Doshin So, a Japanese intelligence agent and martial artist. Through his travels in China before and during the second world war, Doshin So had the opportunity to study with many of the "lost" quan fa (kempo) schools that were driven into hiding following the boxer rebellion; schools steeped in history and with a deep connection to zen buddhism. He also experienced first hand many of the horrors of war, terrible acts committed by ordinary people and soldiers, and on his return to Japan after the war, found a nation defeated and in disarray.
These experiences together impressed on him the importance of an individual's strength of character in how they act and treat others. This motivated him to create a system that would teach both practical self defence and the ideals of mutual respect, responsibility and cooperation to the young people of his country, to help with healing and improving society. His art quickly spread, and today Shorinji kempo is practiced in over 40 countries around the world, and continues to promote self improvement and mutual cooperation through the practice of the martial art.
Shorinji kempo combines elements of the styles of jujustu that Doshin So learned from his grandfather, with many techniques and ideas learned from various quan fa masters during his time in China. Doshin So took these elements, and systematised them, incorporating ideas and changes from his own experience. In many ways, Shorinji kempo is one of the original mixed martial arts.
In choosing a name for his martial art, Doshin So picked one that reflected the spirit of the Chinese arts he had learned (epitomised by the Shorin-ji or Shaolin temple), and would stand out against the classic traditional Japanese arts such as karate, aikido and jujustu.