Kata as the Music to the Eyes

Every Tuesday and Thursday of this semester I would stay in my martial arts class after the last official session over for extra practice with my friends on katas and techniques. We enjoy going over and over different forms, as well as sparring during this hour. Once a friend and I did a long form continuously for a dozen times and we both got tired quickly, first because we have trained for almost 3 hours before that and second, we were trying so hard to completely imitate the movements of our Sensei.

We sat down on the floor. My friend were still examining his hands and making shapes from the kata. I, on the other side, was loosely moving my arms and body. Obviously, both of us were still going through the forms in our heads even though we were taking a rest. The friend suddenly said “Oh man I can’t get this right at all”. “Yeah, neither can I” , I quickly agreed with him. He continued “right! but you seem to pick everything up just fine” , I smiled and shook my head “Do you think you will ever do Seisan (name of the kata we were practicing) perfectly?”. My friend replied “If I practice hard enough and after more times I hope I will”, then he asked the same question in return, “How about you?”.
“No, I don’t really expect to ever do it perfectly,” . My friend looked surprised, but I continued with another question “How do you know when something is perfect?”. He thought for a moment then said “When all the movements we do in our kata are correct and the postures are right.”

My friend is right, but it is only the technical level that we were discussing. If we are trying to practice our form this way, then it will always miss something and will not have the spirit. For example, if you watched your Sensei or Sifu doing the form, were you only looking at the sequence and position of the hand and feet only? When you are watching, what did you feel?

You would think of it like a piece of music. When you first learn how to play a melody, you first must learn the sequence of notes. Once it is done how does it sound when you play it? People might recognize it, but if you compare your melody to an expert musician’s performance you will see there are so much different. So you ask yourself what makes this difference?

It is all to do with the musician’s emotions and how he or she expresses it through the music. This, of course, relates their spirit and energy. Each time they play the piece there will be slightly different because their energy is slightly different. To the untrained ears, we might not hear the changes, but other experts will notice it.

How does playing a melody have anything to do with learning a form? We first learn how to move our bodies to the sequence of the form, thus it is like learning how to play the instrument and follow the tune. That is the technical level. When we play the melody it will lack something and sound stiff. The same will be true of the kata. You will recognize it, but it lacks something. So you have to go onto the feeling of the form and this is about the energy, flow and spirit. Of course, first you have to copy and have to remember the form, the piece of music and its attitude. Without doing this, it will not be the same piece of music, it will not be the same form anymore. In learning form, we have to copy our Sensei. When you have received the kata fully, you start to look at the flow and energy. With these in place, you then start to express yourself through the form. Therefore, no one will be exactly the same. There is no end to this, so you will never have to seek perfection, and this is what makes it an art.

Think as if your master is the finger guiding you to the moon, if you only look at the finger, how do you catch all the heavenly glory ?

Paul Luong
Images are obtained from the WWW or photographed by me. Information is from multiple sources, mainly the quote of Bruce Lee that says
“It’s like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all the heavenly glory”, from teaching of my Sensei, from
reading of martial arts articles, Qi magazines and self-knowledge.