Kata As An Esoteric Practice
By Gary Gabelhouse
It was hot that July in Nishinomiya as I hopped from
dojo to dojo—training Japanese Goju Ryu. My improvised gi bag—a heavy
plastic bag—would often leak on the trains from Osaka and Kyoto to
Nishinomiya, and puddles of sweat would issue from the super-saturated gi, and
actually flow as a creek down the floor of the train.
Certainly, this was an unspeakable rudeness, as was my offering up for
grabs my sweat-soaked seat on the train as I departed.
My Lord, but does one sweat in a Japanese July.
The monk tapped politely on the
screen, opened it and asked if I wanted a beeru
(beer) with the evening’s dinner.
bedrock of Karatedo is found in its kata.
Kata are systematic combinations of stances and
postures, hand and foot techniques, blocks, kiai, eye movements and foci, and .
. . visualization (imaginary opponents or circumstances—a sort of
All of the elements of kata have a pattern that
could be portrayed by a grid or pattern on the floor of the dojo.
term Dojo can be interpreted as place
Kata, the very basis of Karatedo, is practiced
again and again under the direction of a teacher or Sensei—one who has gone before the practitioner—on the way.
Such practice is generally in a dojo (regardless of the physical reality
of where one is practicing).
Adherents of the –do
in Karatedo often describe kata as a shugyo or repetitious activity that serves
to unify the mind, body, and spirit of the practitioner.
All religions, with perhaps the exception of some
primitive animist religions, offer prescribed, ceremonial means to commune,
communicate with and/or become one
with a God or gods.
Such ceremonial means or
sacramental ceremony generally combines vocalizations, physical
postures—especially gestures and positions of hands, and a meditative—a
prayerful attitude in which one’s God(s) are invoked.
Most religions or theosophies allow for a spiritual
terminus of the practitioner while they are still alive.
However, such a spiritual terminus is rarely realized by the
practitioner. This spiritual
terminus could also be described as sanctification
or living in a state of grace.
Such is also ascribed as the lot of the Bodhisattva.
One attains a state of grace through long and
demanding practice of the ceremonial elements of and adherence to the religion
or theosophy. The goal or perhaps
better-stated, result of the
ceremonial actions are to become one
with one’s God(s) or achieve a true spiritual enlightenment
Based on those premises, and based on my research
into both religions and Karatedo, I contend that one facet and in fact, the
origin of kata, and hence, Karatedo is of a ceremonial practice to reach . . . a
state of grace—enlightenment—sanctification.
state of grace can also occur on a temporary basis in one’s life...
rapture of witnessing one’s Christian faith;
Shuho and being one with Dainichi
nyorai (Mahavairocara Buddha) in the Mikkyo;
The being one with Shiva through performance of
the Bharata Natyam (a ceremonial dance);
The cradled, loving
feeling as one, who on the last day of Ramadan, just prior to Eid, prays to his
God, committing to more days of fasting;
. . . that moment of true mushin as
one performs and just is in one’s
As a seminary student decades
ago, I was very interested in this state of grace, as well as the correlation of
Christian prayer with other meditative practices.
I was back then an adherent to finding proof of grace—proof of
a transcendent consciousness (now there’s an oxymoron!).
Strangely enough, I did not find proof so much as I found what may best
be described as physiological footprints.
An example of footprints . . .
I wired students’ crania and measured their brain waves and the modal patterns
of their brain waves. The student
volunteers would then pray. Others would practice zazen, some TM (transcendental
meditation). I noticed a distinct
change in brain waves as they would enter deeper and deeper into their
respective meditative or prayerful practice.
Most pronounced was the degree of alpha-wave as well as theta-wave
activity of the students during this state.
Alpha waves are most commonly understood as being prevalent during REM
(rapid eye movement) or dream sleep. Alpha
waves signal an unconscious consciousness, if that makes any sense.
Theta waves are indicative of high emotional states and tend to emanate
from the mid-brain—often causing the subject to have pleasurable feelings.
So, during meditative practice, the practitioners were evidencing the
brain waves that would best describe their state, in neurological terms as a dream-like consciousness full of emotionality and pleasure.
Basically, I was looking for
physical proof that a state of pure consciousness was a unique
state with physical footprints that
are measurable and act as such evidence. I
read the studies in the Journal of
Physiology (1972) by Dr. Keith Wallace on the Fourth State of Consciousness.
In his studies of yogis he found those footprints of a fourth state of
consciousness. During deep
meditation and at the time of union
(pre-planned cue given by Yogi, just prior to union) he found the following
physiological changes occur:
Serum Cortisol (cortisol is a stress-activated hormone)
Alpha Brain Waves
Basal Skin Resistance
Increased Output of DHEA (hormone that helps in concentration)
Increased Theta Brain Waves At Peak of Practice (Union)
He also found with his wired
yogis, that pranayama (yogic breathing) alone could change the locus of
brain dominance—dramatically shifting and focusing the brain activity to the
Meditation, zazen, and even
prayer seem to have similar patterns of physical and psychological sensations that can be described as pleasurable. In the
many forms of communing, one experiences an euphoric and highly pleasurable
level of consciousness sometimes referred to as an ecstatic
state. During the moment of
merger with what has been referred to as pure consciousness, there is a void of
such feeling. Alexander, Chandler
and Boyer (1989) described that state of consciousness as, “...a silent state
of inner wakefulness with no object of thought or perception.” In their studies of the physiology of such conscious states,
they contend that the ecstasy and void of such states are purely physiological
in nature, and not a product of cultural inculcation. They write, “pure consciousness is conditioned not by
cultural or intellectual conditions, but by fundamental psycho physiological
conditions which are universally available across cultures.”
One can argue the physiological
footprints of such ceremonial practice (meditation, zazen, prayer) are nothing
more than what happens when the body
rests and relaxes. However, in the
Alexander study, a control group of subjects just rested while the experimental
group meditated. While they did
share some similar physiological conditions, the meditators showed markedly
higher blood flow to the brain, and higher levels of plasma arginine vasopressin
(associated with enhanced learning and memory).
As well, mid-brain activity was significantly higher than those who were
just resting, and meditating subjects had high-level releases of mesolimbic
dopamine which was interpreted as the cause of highly pleasurable sensations—a mid-brain reward
to the subject.
In the studies of what’s
termed flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and in research conducted by Arthur
J. Marr (In the Zone: A Biobehavioral
Theory of the Flow Experience) many of these same feelings
are associated with this apparently unique state of consciousness.
The flow experience has been described using the same vernacular of
meditation and prayer—ecstatic. The
flow experience is what’s referred to as scalable—that is, the more intense
the activity (shugyo, perhaps), the more ecstatic is the accompanying flow
So, from a scientific
standpoint, transcendental meditation, prayer, and zazen leave evidence—physiological footprints
of a unique state of consciousness. Regardless
of the differences, there appears to be significantly similar hormonal and brain
chemistry changes as well as significant mid-brain activity associated with
these ceremonial . . . practices. Such ceremonial practices cause the practitioner to
experience both the ecstasy and the void of being in . . . a state of grace or union. Throughout the years then, I have studied
a body of physiological studies and read numerous articles in addition to
conducting my own research. Based
on this body of research, I am relatively convinced that what happens to the
practitioner during prayer, speaking in tongues (or other charismatic Christian
behaviors), meditation or zazen is not only a unique state of consciousness—it
is a unique state of physiology.
And so, too, with kata, one can
arrive at a similar state of grace through repetitive practice on the dojo
floor. It has happened to many of
us, at one time or another—that being
one while performing our kata. Additionally,
kata, for many, is seen as a form of shugyo—which is defined by martial-arts
historian and writer, Charles C. Goodin as, “The austere practice of body-mind
transcendence (where) one enters a state of enlightenment.”
The most common form of shugyo is seated meditation or zazen, yet many
ascribe to the notion that kata and/or all elements of Karate-do can be
practiced as a form of shugyo. Many
koryu kata are often referred to as Moving
In his book Karate,
by Zenko Heshiki-Sensei, the author reflects on kata as being a form of shugyo
that will carry the practitioner to a higher state of consciousness: Through
the years of practice the trained body will execute every movement with unbroken
no longer knows the difference of mind-body. To get that far, for
the skill to become spiritual, a concentration of all the physical and
psychic forces is needed. This is
the general attitude of the Oriental people approaching any art . . . It is the aim of every artist to achieve such a state of mind, so
that he no longer has to rely on the techniques he has learned, but transcends
into the realm of nature and lives completely in tune with the whole of
Nature and the truth of the whole.
Understanding the physiology of ceremonial practices, I also studied the means
used to arrive at this state of being
and found many parallels between religious practices and theosophies.
There appears a consistent set
of essentials, regardless of the ceremonial practice. Those essentials can be described as: 1) Use of sound; 2)
Manipulation of the body and specific body activity; 3) Visualization, or
Now, I am still studying this
in the context of researching the origins and my
meaning of Karatedo. This is where
I’d like to take you next—the parallels between our practice of kata and the
practice of ceremonial worship and reaching a state of grace or enlightenment.
I’d like to do this by using the historical evolution of Karatedo as it
parallels the evolution of religious practice.
I’d like to start in India. Prior to Buddha, the warrior caste of Ksatreya practiced Vajramukti. Their scriptural basis were the Vedas and later, the Upainishads. They worshipped many deities including the major ones such as Shiva, God of Destruction . . . and Creation. It is taught that Shiva, in his pursuit of godliness had as his means of retaining such godliness . . . the dance or Nata. There were a number of different dances—each an expression of a nature of godliness. Shiva is often seen through the ancient art of Hindu temples as the Nata Raja, or Lord of the Dance. The Anandatandava (Dance of Bliss) is the dance he performed (and captured in art) when assaulted by evil magicians. These magicians set upon Shiva a tiger, which Shiva killed (while continuing his dance). Then they set upon him a terrible serpent that Shiva also killed (while continuing his dance). Finally they set upon him an evil dwarf or gnome upon which Shiva did the Bristol Stomp (of course, continuing his dance). Shiva’s dance included hand mudra—most predominant being the abhya mudra or sign of fearlessness. I find much parallel in Shiva’s dance and Kata.
Hundreds of years B.C. it was
said that the Vedic scriptures were communicated in their totality of meaning by
the Gods in the form of an ancient dance or Natya
Sastra. This dance ceremony
manifested perhaps the oldest ceremonial dance, the Bharata Natyam.
The Bharata Natyam was generally performed by Devadasi or ceremonial
dancers (women—no men) who lived and performed the dance in the Hindu temples.
Clearly, the purpose of Bharata Natyam was to cause the dancer AND the
observing priests to become one with a God.
The Bharata Natyam is an
ancient, physical, auditory and psycho dramatic practice
to become in a state of grace—to become one with a God.
Of course it included a systematic combination of vocal chanting
(mantra); body postures and mudra; and visualization. These three elements not only allowed the dancer to become in
a state of grace, it also facilitated a state of grace amongst the observers.
The series of elements of Bharata Natyam are viewed as gifts given by the
Gods so humans may commune with them—worship them.
As an aside, though related . .
. The practice of Tantric Sadhana (magical practice often confused with worship)
one finds the act of Puja, or meditating on a God.
The elements of such meditation includes three elements . . . the mantra
or Bija Mantra (seed mantra) that is specific to each deity (Important: Remember
this when I discuss Mikkyo); the Mandala or pattern the practitioner meditates
within; and the Rupa or active visualization.
The Rupa includes the visualization and/or performance of mudra—again,
specific for a given deity.
So, prior to Buddha, we saw in
ancient Hinduism a systematic combination of stances, mudra, vocalizations and
visualization used as a means to . . . be with God.
Then along came the Buddha.
Buddhism started in India and
migrated North through Tibet, and on into China. Over the years, Buddhist sects
diverged and one found in them, many of the ancient Hindu trappings of Natya
Sastra and Tantric Yoga—including the systematic mudra, vocalizations or
mantras, and visualization. Bodhidharma
(Daruma in Japanese) an Indian, Buddhist Priest was allegedly
sent by his teacher, Prajnata, to teach the dharma of Buddha in China.
It is thought that Bodhidharma arrived in China about 525 A.D. and had an
appointment with the Emperor of China. It
seems the Emperor was keen to understand this religion of Buddhism.
It is said that Bodhidharma’s practice of Chaan or Zen, did not sit
well with the Emperor and that Bodhidharma was equally unimpressed with the
After this alleged meeting of
India and China, Bodhidharma was said to have retreated to the Shaolin Temple
and, finding the monks being of poor health and preyed on by bandits, taught
them yoga-like exercises and ancient Indian nata (ceremonial dance) to
strengthen them both physically and spiritually.
While there is no proof of this, these nata or exercises are believed by
many to be the seminal practice of what has evolved as Chinese, Okinawan, and
even Japanese martial arts. I must
reiterate: THERE IS NO PROOF WHATSOEVER THAT BODHIDHARMA HAD ANYTHING TO DO WITH
THE SHAOLIN TEMPLE, OR THE MARTIAL ARTS.
So, from India, with its Hindu
and Vedic carryovers, Buddhism reached China and flourished, as did the
ceremonial practices by some sects that included systematized patterns of
vocalization, postures, mudra, and visualization—all with a spiritual purpose.
For hundreds of years, Buddhism and its practices were harbored in
China—with Buddhism being somewhat driven out of India to the South.
One sect of Buddhism is
particularly pertinent to this discussion as it is so closely tied with martial
tradition—that being the Mikkyo or Shingon Buddhism (the religion
Du Jour of the Samurai). This
sect, sharing many elements with Tibetan Buddhism, including the systematized
mudra, mandalla, postures and mantra, came from China to Japan in 816 A.D.
Kobo-Daishi Kukai opened the Buddhist mission in Japan, at the base of
Mount Koya. Around this mission
sprung many monasteries, all practicing the Mikkyo, or Shingon Buddhism.
The basic tenant of Shingon Buddhism is that one may
forego the wheel of birth and rebirth and become enlightened IN THIS LIFETIME.
Enlightenment or samadhi, it is taught, can be achieved within one’s
lifetime through an esoteric and systematic practice of a physical and spiritual
nature. The basis for Mikkyo
includes preset combinations of: Myo (mantra or vocalization), Ingei (mudra
& postures), and Mandara (mandalla—visualization of being within the meditation). The
act of Shuho or becoming one with the Dainichi nyorai (main Shingon Deity
personifying the Universe) includes specific mudra performed in specific
postures, while vocalizing specific myo or mantra and all this while visualizing
the being of the Deity as represented in the mandara (mandalla).
There are a number of other Deities—all of whom may be found through
the performance of specific myo, ingei and mandara.
This Mikkyo practice is a near-perfect correlate to the Puja of Tantric
Sadhana which has its origins in ancient India.
I have witnessed many times
Shingon worship during my respites in the monasteries beneath Mt. Koya. Indeed, when I saw Shingon ceremonies in Koyasan for the
first time, my Goju Ryu kata was what I
saw. Translated, I saw what
looked very much like the kata of Karatedo, being performed so the practitioners
may become spiritually enlightened and live on earth as a Bodhisattva—in a
state of grace.
In my practice and research in
Japan, I studied the Shinto misogi or purification ceremony that included the Kuji no In—a combination of nine words of power (kiai) vocalized
while performing nine mudra. The Kuji
no In has its underpinnings from the Mikkyo and was said to be used in the
Kuji or magic of the ninja. As
well, the Kuji no In was also said to have been used by the Samurai as they
prepared their spirits for battle. The
Kuji no In includes the use of a
mandalla, as well—a grid of nine lines, each line associated with a specific
mudra and word of power (kiai).
I studied Sumo and watched the Yoko Zuna’s perform their dohyoiri (the dohyo or Sumo ring is seen as a mandalla) purifying ceremonies—replete with mudra. Yet I kept coming back to how all of these religious ceremonies relate to our kata—and hence, give one explanation of the true nature of our Karate-do.
With the help of Shingon
priests, we began to explain my Goju Ryu kata in terms of mudra and Mikkyo
practice. I would perform a kata,
and then we would analyze each movement of the kata and determine if such
movements within the kata had significance or similarity to Mikkyo practice.
The results were intriguing. For
example, in my version of kata Seisan, seventy percent (70%) of the movements
were either exactly or highly similar to the mudra performed in Mikkyo practice.
Tensho seemed a continual performance of Mikkyo mudra.
As well, the body posture of the kamai and for that matter, throughout
the kata seamed consistent with Mikkyo practices.
However, the priests were somewhat baffled by my kiai, for it made no
sense to them—they suggesting the use of a real
word of power or myo rather than just a bellow
or kakegoe (shout) of, what they perceived, as a nonsense
Each mudra and its associated hand technique in kata, had a meaning. An example: The finish of many Goju Ryu kata include a mawashi uke, with the practitioner pressing the open palms forward—one hand pointed up and the other down. This is exactly the same hand movements of the Abhya Mudra and the Varada Mudra—mudra meaning fearlessness and having compassion. In terms of mudra the end of many kata means, “I am fearless (of you), but have compassion (for you).”
These two mudra appear to be amongst the most prevalent in religious practice, and are, perhaps, amongst the oldest. Effigies of the Sumerian God Pazuzu (circa 3500 B.C.) have been excavated. When viewing these effigies, it definitely appears Pazuzu is performing the classic Abhya and Vara Mudras. Interesting enough, Pazuzu is a God associated with the protection of health.
Also with regard to mudra, in
the kata Shisochin, the hand that wipes up the arm with the two fingers pointed
like a gun is exactly as a mudra that symbolizes the sword of enlightenment,
which cuts away all delusions. Also,
when one finishes kata Shisochin, one assumes the hand positions that are
exactly as the Buddhashramana Mudra—the gesture of renunciation and being beyond misery.
Kata: Worship Or Self Defense? One Explanation . . .
So, it appears there are many correlates between
kata and the ceremonial and worshipful practices of the world’s religions.
Yet, before we can embrace kata as being based in ceremonial practice, we
have to explain and account for the martial connotations found within our kata.
More specifically, how can a formula
for enlightenment and worship evolve to a martial art? Please
consider this as a possible paradigm to resolve this apparent dichotomy . . .
What if . . .
From Egypt and Greece and Rome, via Macedonia,
came a series of ceremonial practices used to commune with . . . pick a
word--God, pure consciousness, etc. and thus attain a higher state of
consciousness that is uniquely different than our normal states of wakefulness
and dreaming. What if those
ceremonial practices involved . . .
. . certain sounds;
. . specific body positions ;
. . use of meridian-specific massage and palpation involving hand positions;
. . use of self-referenced imagery--a psychodrama as it were;
. . use of images as a focus of meditative intent.
And what if these ceremonial practices were known
only to the shamans of the Indus Valley's pre-vedic culture ruled by a
three-faced god (precursor to Shiva). And
the years went by, and those ceremonial practices were taught to adepts, Shamans
and later Arcaya . . . then, the Vedas and later the Uppainishads are laced with
these ceremonial practices.
And let's just say those times were characterized
by the common reality of ancient times with bad men hurting other men in order
to steal from them—sometimes referred to as habitual acts of violence.
And what if Shamans and later priests were sometimes confronted by such
bad men . . . what would the Shamans and Priests do?
What did the Christians often do in the Roman arena?
What did monks do in Tibet as their monasteries were ravaged and their
fellow monks killed or tortured by Chinese soldiers?
Religions both contemporary and ancient usually teach that in times of
great personal peril where one is confronted by his or her own certain death, if
possible . . . you pray, meditate, experience the union . . .
Now what if you were a priest familiar with those ceremonial
practices discussed earlier, and you are confronted by a bandit--a bad man
wishing to hurt you or worse. And
what if you had no weapon or would not use a weapon, even if you did have one,
and/or you were old and creaky.
It would appear--you were dead meat.
So, what if you as the priest, knowing your goose was
cooked, began to perform those ceremonial practices--making the weird sounds,
making the weird gestures--exuding a strange energy. What if . . .
Understanding those ancient time--times of the
belief in magic and myth--superstition and ignorant fear, most bad guys would,
in my opinion, be pretty threatened by a priest throwing the mojo
at them (at least that may have been their perception).
Even in relatively recent times, the evil eye and witch signs caused
great fear and trepidation amongst common people.
So I guess what I'm analyzing is this paradigm:
A priest knows ceremonial practices for the purpose of, let's call it
merger with pure consciousness;
The priest is confronted by a bad guy who thought to do him harm and steal from
him--visit on him an act of habitual violence;
3. Knowing he is in deep
weeds, the priest folds his secular hand and performs those ceremonial
practices, as he was taught to do at times like this;
weird-shit-per-mile index goes way over the top from the bandit's
perspective and wishing to escape a curse or worse, the bandit takes a powder.
5. The priest, perhaps
unknowingly, had just defended himself through ceremonial practice.
go by . . .
. . . and the ceremonial
practices are still taught, and in fact, have been added to by other cultures
who had a heritage of other ceremonial practices albeit for the same purpose. There is a habituation to and perhaps a waning fear of those
ceremonial practices amongst bad men. Perhaps
a bad man, drunk or psychotic killed a priest despite the mojo
the priest was doing. And perhaps
nothing bad happened to the drunk or psychotic bandit--he didn't disappear in a
thunder-clap, didn't turn into a jackal--nada.
And perhaps that event . . . quietly got around . . .
The next bad man, and the next
after him, take greater spiritual risks
and now the mojo doesn't work to
protect as it did. And what if
during an assault, the mudra, the chi or kundalini enabled the priest to
physically contain and subdue the would-be assailant?
What if his hands were in a position to ward off the strike to the head,
the kick to the groin? What if his
hands were in a perfectly dynamic attitude to grab and throw the assailant to
the ground. Does not the ceremonial
practice, again pose a means of . . . self defense?
more centuries go by . . .
These practices--these kata becomes only a
curriculum for . . . self defense. After all, wasn't it always so?
Music is made up of strategically placed parts of
both sound and silence--substance and nothingness. And when we see the leaf on the tree, is it because of its
reality and substance as a leaf, or is it the nothingness of the empty space
surrounding the leaf?
then, is the reality of karate-do . .
What if . . . ?
So now, as I reflect on what I
have experienced—what I have learned—what I have seen with my own eyes . . .
I believe that one very
important element of Karatedo as found through our kata, is its use as a means
to change our spiritual angle of flight
and thus results in our living in a state of grace—or state of high
consciousness. I think the seminal
kata had their basis in the ancient and ceremonial dance of India and in the
asanas and pranyana practices of yoga. Many elements of such practice—the
mudra, the mantra, the mandalla--were retained as it migrated North through
Tibet and into China and finally over to the Ryu Kyus and Japan—and into our
dojo in the Americas, Europe and Africa. As
it evolved and migrated, the basis for our kata retained at least bits of the
ancient systems of enlightenment. I
believe that such archetypical kata,
through systematic use of vocalization, postures, mudra, and visualization,
performed within a mandalla can change the biology of our
brains, the vision of what we deem real,
and our apriori separation from things Godlike.
Could not kata, and hence, Karatedo, be a systematic means to achieve . . . spiritual . . . ? Or is it really just a paradigm of self-defense and martial strategy? I suppose that one could point to the evolution of the rock to a nuclear warhead, as being the same as the evolution of the ancient ceremonial dance and yogic practices of India to the Te of the 19th century in Okinawa. It’s your mind, your body, your spirit . . . you must choose for yourself.