Author: Shihan Graeme

"The traditions of karate are practiced in the katas or technique forms which perfect the grace, consciousness and power of the physical self and spirit." Traditional Karate precept (Kubota)

So you have just joined the local karate club, and you are about to begin learning the first kata on your school’s syllabus. You are about to take the first steps on a long and wondrous journey of self discovery.

The practice of kata is probably the most identifiable aspect of karate training. It is the basis of ongoing study of the martial arts, and a measure of one’s progress. For this reason kata is an integral part of grading examinations. Kata is also a major part of competition in sports karate.

When kata is first attempted, the emphasis is primarily focussed upon correct form; stances, blocks, punches and other strikes, kicks, use of angles, eye focus and so on. Later correct reverse breathing is introduced, along with appropriate application of tension and body focus.

But what is kata? Is it just patterns to be performed to a prescribed level of competence, or is there something more intrinsically important in the study of kata?

Where does kata come from? There are many excellent articles and books detailing the historical development of karate (and indeed all other Eastern martial arts) outlining the sources of kata or forms, and the changes and developments that have taken place over the years. The serious martial artist should seek out this knowledge.

It is important to understand that on the purely physical level, kata embodies the principles and philosophies of the particular style of karate. It represents the essence of the style and clearly differentiates one particular "ryu" from another. In creating kata, the masters of the past did not say "I am going to invent a kata from which fighting techniques may be drawn". Kata came into existence the other way around. The actual fighting techniques and "applications" which that style encompasses were incorporated into a series of movements through which the techniques could be practiced and perfected.

Study of "bunkai" or applications are fundamental to the study of kata and the fighting traditions of the particular style. In early years of study, the student will be taught some fairly obvious interpretations of the kata principles. Later, the student will be able to search for other meaningful applications and in the higher Dan grades, will be exposed to the "hidden techniques" embodied within the kata. These "hidden techniques" actually carry the real essence of the kata, and the style of karate, and can only be satisfactorily passed on by a teacher who has previously mastered the particular karate system. By "master", I mean the minimum of a legitimate 5th Dan.

The martial artist who does not understand the importance of kata may dismiss it as an unnecessary encumbrance, having no particular value when viewed along with all the other essential and demanding components of the fighting arts. After some fifteen years of karate training, the last five being virtually full-time, I never cease to be amazed by karate teachers who dismiss kata training as unimportant or irrelevant. They are not teaching martial arts: they are teaching fighting.

I remember a conversation I had some time ago with a high kyu grade practitioner from a well known style. He told me, very proudly, that their style had changed all the traditional katas "to make them more street effective". I feel very sad for this young man because he really does not understand the true value of the traditional martial arts. Neither does his teacher who introduced this idea.

When the karate practitioner performs kata, he or she is not only doing what so many thousands of other martial artists are doing - they are in fact walking in the footsteps of all who have gone before, and all the past and present masters who have studied and handed down their knowledge and skill. It is accepted that although modern karate is not very old, its origins go back at least sixteen hundred years. The ancient arts were handed down from one generation to the next, undergoing development from each new generation of masters. The essence of the fighting arts were handed down through kata - the living textbook. Without kata there is no karate, because kata embodies the distilled knowledge, skills and philosophies of karate itself.

 It is also important to understand that karate is not just a fighting system consisting of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of techniques, which can be taught and learned rote fashion.

" ............. the essence of the martial arts is that they are not just concerned with conquering an opponent, but with coming to terms with oneself and the universe. In other words, fighting has been transported from an animal instinct into an exact science informed by eastern religious doctrines. ........ Along this "Great Way" of learning, the devotee transcends physical combat to enter the realms of philosophy in searching out the meaning of life. This search for inner peace ............. is the essence of the traditional martial arts. They are a series of stepping stones that lead the adept away from the pitfalls and self-regard of the ego to a wiser, more generous personality, benefiting both the martial artist and society."

This should be enough reason on it's own for the karateka to practice kata daily. If you have the encouragement and guidance of a Master teacher, Kata has potential to lead the practitioner into a deeper and more meaningful level of the martial arts. The martial arts of Japan have always been closely connected to Zen Buddhism, with reaching the stage of Enlightenment being the ultimate goal.

"Zen Monks in China's Shorin temple and swordsmen in early Japan used "standing Zen" to help discipline, control and strengthen their physical and mental energies. Eventually, this "standing Zen" system of focusing energy on attaining a "stage of Enlightenment" (and physical superiority) was developed into a method of martial arts training known as Sanchin. Anyone who studies Goju-ryu must first use Sanchin to develop proper breathing methods, basic body strength and mental power."

Enlightenment can be achieved by travelling many pathways. However, for those of us studying the martial arts, the conscientious practice of kata offers great opportunities for personal growth and development - but only if we are willing to extend ourselves and reach beyond the purely physical aspects.

Karate means many things to many people. True Karatedo however leads the practitioner who seeks to learn and better not only their life, but that of others, to seek higher fulfilment of the human spirit and potential. This means that they seek to study Karatedo beyond the purely physical level of punching, kicking, blocking and so on, to the point where they can find true growth, peace and self-expression. By ascending to this higher level of human endeavour, karateka with true spirit and desire to progress their art and life will find that the circle turns fully. Their physical karate will take on new spirit and life, and will explode to new levels of power, skill and effectiveness.

Without exploring this higher fulfilment, the practitioner will remain on a single level, never aspiring to true growth and understanding of karatedo. I believe that true karateka seek always to learn and improve themselves by studying life and searching for new knowledge and skills from those who have gone before as well as through their own life and experiences. Karate masters seek to pass this quality of life and experience on to their loyal and dedicated students.

If you are studying karate seriously, then at some point you must consider that there is higher level of understanding and performance that can be reached, particularly as you grow older. Interestingly it is not until you reach mental maturity along with a high degree of physical competence that you realise that there must be more.

It is possible to discover the truths of life through hard and diligent practice over many years. However you must be seeking to discover the higher levels of human potential, not just "doing" karate. Virtually without exception you must have a teacher able to guide you to these discoveries, in much the same way as we have parents who taught us and guided us through our growing years.

If the ultimate goal of martial arts training is to reach the state of Enlightenment or Satori, the question that one necessarily asks is: "What is Enlightenment, and how will I know if I achieve this state?"

Although Enlightenment can be realised in many different ways, for martial artists, it is primarily through vigorous training, including kumite and performance of kata. In my own quest for "Enlightenment", I have been guided by my own Master teacher, Kenshu Watanabe, Shihan, who has guided me onto the path to discover the truths through my own experiences, study and practice of the martial arts. In essence, I had to travel my own path and find my own answers

You will know when you have reached Enlightenment, and then you will know what it is; through your own experience, not finding words adequate to the task of definition. When the time is right, when you have trained, sacrificed meditated and suffered enough, you will be able to find it. As an imperfect attempt to define Enlightenment, we could say that Enlightenment is a permanent state of perfect harmony with the universe.

"Enlightenment means seeing through to your own essential nature and this at the same time means seeing through to the essential nature of the cosmos and of all things. For seeing through to essential nature is the window of Enlightenment. One may call essential nature truth if one wants to. In Buddhism from ancient times it has been called suchness or Buddha-nature or one mind. In Zen it has been called nothingness, the one hand, or one’s original face. The designations may be different, but the content is completely the same.

Zen master Hakuun Yasutani Roshi (1885-1973)

"....To the question "What is Enlightenment?" a Zen master replied, "Your everyday thoughts", while another when asked, "What is the Tao?" answered, "Usual life is the very Tao"."

However, the pressures and affairs of life can interrupt or distract us from the journey towards mastery and self Enlightenment. But this is the Tao too. For this reason we must make every possible effort to continue our training, even through adversity and personal difficulties.

In the words of my own teacher, you have to make the effort, and you must make sacrifices. Don’t make excuses to your teacher for not attending class. Have a hard talk to yourself.

Shihan Watanabe explained that before the martial artist can perform the kata in a state of harmony, thereby experiencing Enlightenment, the performance of the kata goes through two main stages.

The first stage consists of meticulously performing kata over and over again, reaching a stage of perfection with respect to technique, execution, and understanding of the principles embedded within the kata. A time period of around ten years is said to be required to achieve a standard of performance necessary before taking the next step. When one considers that the vast majority of martial artists probably only train one or two times a week, and that even then only a small proportion of time is given to kata training, this first stage can take much longer. Competence is made even more difficult when one considers how many kata a senior student is required to practice

When the student is introduced to the second stage, the emphasis shifts away from the external performance of arms, legs, hips, eyes, feet and so on to concentrating on the correct breathing, and learning how to centre and control the body's power.

In my own experience this proves to be a most testing and frustrating time. Kata that once flowed now becomes jerky, new tensions are discovered and altogether, one has a feeling that all the years of training have amounted to very little. In effect, one has to learn the kata all over again with the emphasis now on the internal performance of one's muscles, and breathing. One's mental focus is directed inwards at oneself instead of externally, on an imagined opponent.

Up to a further ten years training is said to be required before this approach and the breathing becomes so natural that it ceases to be the focus of the performer's attention. The state of awakening can be experienced on breaking past this point. When the kata is performed in a state where the performer is in total harmony with the eternal life (your true being), the kata takes on new dimensions of power and intensity. Now the martial artist is not "performing" kata, the martial artist "is" kata, the performer and the performance being inseparable, just like the paint on a canvas and the painter and the brush being inseparable from the scene being depicted.

"......It comes out of the body so naturally it looks like you just made it up on the spot. You begin and finish not even knowing you have done it. If someone is watching you, they don’t even see you have done it. It takes years of practice to reach this. There is no instant achievement. The true discipline is something that you live with and which becomes an ongoing thing, a way of life with you."

After some eight years practice of the Goju-Ryu, I began daily practice of the reverse breathing exercises known in Chi Kung as the "Precious Eight Exercises", in addition to my daily practice of Goju kata, particularly Sanchin. After about a year of supplementing my training with these exercises, I was fortunate to be introduced to Zen breathing and meditation techniques by Shihan Watanabe. The practice of these techniques became an important part of my daily training schedule.

Further study and practice with Chinese Tai Chi Master Chui Yuk Lun from Hong Kong took me deeper into the realm of chi kung, and tai chi, which I have also included in my daily training. For me, my karma was right to receive these teachings.

One of the most difficult things to do however, was to incorporate Ki Kung breathing techniques into my performance of kata. I struggled with this until a conversation I had with one of my own students gave me the key.

Some time earlier I had conducted a class in which I had introduced my students to Chi Kung breathing techniques. I explained that the breathing technique being studied was applicable in kumite and kata. It could be also be practiced whilst running. One of my students came to me some weeks later and said that he was practicing the breathing technique, but that he was having great difficulty in applying it whilst running, because he was concentrating on running and found it difficult to concentrate on his breathing as well. As a result, he was having difficulty in doing either well.

I replied to him that he did not have to think about running - his arms and legs knew what to do because he had been running for many years, it was the reverse breathing that was new to him. I counselled him to put running out of his conscious mind and to concentrate on his breathing. Suddenly it dawned on me!

I knew how to perform kata; I had been doing so for many years, particularly in recent times since I had begun full-time martial arts study. I also knew how to breathe using both natural and reverse techniques; I had been practicing kata daily for years and had been supplementing this with Ki Kung, Tai Chi, Ki accumulation exercises and meditation along with Watanabe Shihan's other teachings. I realised that I did not have to concentrate and think about my breathing as I performed kata. I already knew how to breathe and centre my techniques in the lower abdomen and I knew how to drop the tensions out of my body.

I began practicing kata and engaging in kumite in the same frame of mind and using the same mental energy and visualisation processes I employed in Zen meditation, Ki Kung breathing and Tai Chi. My karate improved so dramatically that I began exploring Western behavioural theory, looking for some parallel to my martial arts experience.

In my industrial management training experience I had studied many approaches to the study of human behaviour and motivation. Of all the classifications, theories and processes with which I was familiar, I felt the work of Abraham Maslow offered the closest parallel to the subject. Maslow postulated that all human behaviour is needs related, and that these needs could be arranged in an ascending hierarchy.

At the lowest level, the needs requiring satisfaction first are Physiological Needs such as - food , water, sex and air. The next level to be satisfied when these needs have been met are Safety or Security Needs. This implies financial, emotional, and physical. considerations. The next level is Group Acceptance Needs: the need to be accepted to be loved and to be a part of social activities. The next level is the Esteem Needs: the need for self respect, strength, adequacy, mastery, competence, independence and freedom.

The highest level is the need for Self Actualisation or Self Fulfilment. This is the need within the human being to reach his or her full human potential - to become everything they are capable of becoming.

According to Maslow, very few people ever achieve Self Actualisation and reach their full potential because satisfaction of this need requires a commitment of ongoing effort and excellence that very few people are able or willing to expend. It is understood that when people do "Self Actualise", the brain releases endorphin's into the bloodstream which have the effect of producing a euphoric "natural high". The effect on the human being is so powerful that they are driven to reproduce the conditions thereby experiencing this state again. Maslow says that Self Actualisation Needs are never satisfied and that the highest levels of achievement are reached in striving to achieve continuing satisfaction of this human need.

Self Actualisation in recent years has become known as a "Peak Experience", particularly by sports people.

"Peak Experiences are actual moments of your life when you feel that this has told you something, something has come through your experience of your relationship to the harmony of being."

Here I felt that I had discovered the western parallel to Enlightenment, but whilst I believe Maslow's theory has a place in understanding the drives of martial artists, I found it still fell short of adequately explaining the elusive concept of "Enlightenment".

Closer to "Enlightenment" as pursued through martial arts training is the notion surrounding the concept "sublime", which refers to the experience of powers too great for mere forms of life to survive. Campbell says that "prodigious amounts of space are sublime, that tremendous energy and power is sublime, and in acknowledgment of this, your consciousness expands with the diminishment of your own ego...."

In my practice of kata I discovered a long time ago that the mind is very capable of running out of control. For example, every martial artist has suffered at some time, the situation where unwanted thoughts spring up during the performance of the kata, and the performance is ruined. Sometimes, I would find myself thinking ahead to the next movement or beyond. I would give myself admonishment for a technique or movement performed badly, and worst of all I have given myself quiet but enthusiastic congratulations when I performed a technique well.

I soon discovered that this was the quickest way to lose complete control and as a consequence, following movements and techniques would be totally ineffective and laboured. I needed to overcome these distractions to my performance of kata.

I found the answer back where I had begun. Now I know the reason for my training taking the road it has. The answer lies in the sacrifice and effort in going to class night after night, year after year, travelling and making time to study with my Master, in the "Precious Eight" and Tai Chi exercises, in Ki Kung breathing, meditation and accumulation of "Ki" exercises, and most importantly, in my daily private karate training including tireless practice of kata.

The relentless search for excellence in the performance of kata is an important aspect in the development of "munen muso", the concept of "no mind". Shihan Watanabe has explained that it is through this that the martial artist can approach Enlightenment or "Satori".

I recall in my own karate training that on one occassion I discovered a rather interesting interpretation of a particular kata sequence. I proudly informed my Shihan that I had found a new, and I thought, unique application. He admonished me by saying I had not found a new application at all, because that particular interpretation was not "lost". It was always there, and you cannot find something that is not lost. Now, if I say anything at all, I say I have stumbled over another interesting interpretation that I was previously blind to!

It was not for some time that I appreciated the meaning of my master’s reply, for I now know it to be one of the most profound experiences in my life. Understanding the immense implications of my Master’s words brought me to "Kensho".

"In Japanese, awakening to Enlightenment is called "Satori" or "Kensho". These two terms are often used interchangeably. Although since realization may be sudden or gradual, and more or less profound, it is usual to call limited insight Kensho, and Enlightenment itself Satori or Dai-Kensho(meaning great awakening). A Kensho experience can provisionally be understood in the sense that when discriminative thinking is put aside, there remains an expansive dimension to being, not entirely unknown previously, but which has a significance hitherto ignored. Consequently, the involuntary reaction of anyone for whom Kensho becomes a reality is often one of surprise and amusement: "Of course! How stupid of me!" "

Now with my experiences I have come to live my life in the same way in which I practice karatedo, and in particular, kata.

The focus of one's mental energy and attention is not "external" from the inside looking out, nor is it "internal", focussing attention within one's being. The ultimate focus is everywhere - where one is part of the totality of existence and in complete harmony physically, mentally and spiritually with the universe.

This is the beginning, the middle and the ending of the never ending journey of the martial arts - the Spirit, the Soul and the Heart of true karatedo.


This article was originally published in the November 1996 edition of Australasian Fighting Arts magazine.



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