Joined: 17 Jan 2007
Styles: Tae Kwon Do & Yang family Tai Chi
|Posted: Tue Oct 18, 2016 12:10 pm Post subject: Meditation Through Movement
|Forms, kata (型), poomse (품새), hyung, tul, talou (套路)...
Whatever you want to call them, set patterns of movement against imaginary attackers are key building blocks of the East Asian martial arts. But what purpose do they serve? We can talk about them being a simple physical exercise, as being a catalog of techniques and strategies or as an instruction manual for a system of combat. And I think for many practitioners, this is as far as they go with their form practice; they use them as a tool for physical training but nothing more.
For me, though, they serve another benefit. Rather than simply a tool for physical training, to me, forms represent a kind of mental training also and, through repetitive practice, a way of obtaining peace of mind.
So where am I going with this? I believe that the study of martial arts serves two purposes; through regular practice they not only preserve life (in self defense) but they should also enhance life (through physical, mental and spiritual health). The first purpose I think is pretty self explanatory as are the physical benefits, but what about the mental and spiritual health aspects?
Let's go back a step and consider what it is we are actually practicing. When discussing the East Asian martial arts, we can make a distinction between the budo (武道) systems, such as karate-do, judo and taekwon-do, and the bujutsu (武術) systems, such as jujutsu, kenjutsu and aikijutsu. Bujutsu can be translated as "martial craft" or "martial method." These styles concern themselves with effective combat and ending an altercation as efficiently as possible. Budo, on the other hand, means something slightly different.
Budo can be broken down into the roots "bu-" (武) meaning "war" or "martial" and "-do" (道) meaning "path" or "way." Simply put, whilst budo does consider the physical nature of combat, this comes hand-in-hand with a certain philosophy and lifestyle. As such the budo ideal is summarized perfectly by Sensei Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan karate:
|"The ultimate aim of karate lies not in victory nor defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants."
- Gichin Funakoshi
"Perfection of character." What does that really mean and is it really relevant to today's martial artist? What's more, what does this have to do with forms or kata? Is it just a coincidence that the vast majority of budo arts incorporate some sort of form practice?
When we talk about karate, taekwon-do or judo as having a way or path, it helps to understand where the word "Do" (道) comes from. The Chinese pronunciation of 道 is "Tao," and Tao is the idea that there is a fundamental order in the natural patterns and processes of the universe:
|"To illustrate the nature of Tao's place in the universe: Tao is like the brooks and streams in their relation to the great rivers and the ocean."
- Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu
In the classic Chinese text by Lao Tzu, the Tao Te Ching (道德經), Tao is described as being the culmination of all the inner rhythms and deeper currents of the universe. Just as water will always find a way to the ocean, there are always pathways to follow to a goal. These pathways are the Tao or the way. Why spend effort climbing a mountain when a path through the valley already exists? For Lao Tzu, beings which are in complete harmony with Tao act entirely naturally with effortless action or wu wei (無爲). They "go with the flow" and let nature take its course.
To align oneself and be in harmony with Tao, or with nature, Taoism and the related Dharmic religions emphasize the importance of knowing one's self. You cannot change nature but you can change yourself and to change yourself you must first know yourself.
To truly know oneself is to develop a complete mastery over your own mind and body. This can be achieved through disciplined physical practice. As a result, there are many activities in Asia that are carried out according to a Do or way. To one ignorant of Tao, these rigid practices may seem overly formalized. However, rigorous disciplined action results in a balance of mind and body, of yin and yang. In Japanese culture, for example, there are rules governing flower arrangement (kado), calligraphy (shodo) and even the tea ceremony (chado) where this process of meditative training enhances the practitioners mental clarity and awareness whilst developing physical skills.
Take calligraphy (shodo), for example. Apprentice's learn by rigorously copying over and over again the works of their master and other reputed calligraphers until they can reproduce this accurately. Good calligraphy is judged on correct strokes, stroke order, character structure, balance and rhythm, and for any particular piece of paper the calligrapher has one attempt to create. Fluidity is required as any hesitation can be seen, and the characters must flow out of the calligrapher. In order to do this, a true master must first reach a state of "no mind" or "mushin" (無). It is then that they can truly express the meaning of the character.
Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
Forms can be used in the exact same way. At first, martial artists meticulously copy their instructors and try to emulate correct techniques. They try to draw the correct shapes with their arms and legs. They focus on perfecting each little move to get closer and closer to the ideal action as laid out by their instructor. At a certain point, though, maybe when the student feels like they are starting to understand their martial art, they start to adapt the mechanics and tweak the movements to suit their own body and methods, yet they still think upon each movement and how it should be executed. Eventually they reach a point where they let go and the movements flow naturally. Shuhari (守破離), if you will.
|"Before I learned the art, a punch was just a punch, and a kick, just a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick, no longer a kick. Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick."
- Bruce Lee
To me, forms practice is most definitely a way of achieving mastery over myself. I can have had the worst day at work, have 101 things I need to think about or do, yet when I step onto the mat and begin going through the techniques, it all doesn't matter anymore. I can get lost in the movement and just focus on the here and now rather than what has happened or will happen.
I suspect the same is true for a lot of martial artists.
Whilst ultimately what we are doing has a martial or combat purpose, and every technique is designed to disarm, trap and strike, I think it is important also to appreciate forms or kata practice for what it actually is in the present and for the ritual it offers.
Practicing movements over and over again, striving towards some notion of the "perfect technique," spending time looking at all the little nuances and tweaking the movement each time to make it faster, stronger, better. This is physical mastery. You cannot watch a master or kata champion and not appreciate how totally in control they are of their whole body and how whilst every move is deliberate, it is also effortless.
And this is where the mental training and meditation aspect comes in. Forms offer a moment to be able to switch off completely from all outside stimulus and focus on something that you have complete control over: your own body. Eventually after many years of practice you reach that point that the movements flow without conscious thought, that state of mushin where you're not really thinking what you're doing yet are completely aware, this is when you have complete control over both your body and your mind. This is when forms become meditation through movement.
Addendum: I will say that the idea of Tao, of a Do, needn't be at odds with your own personal beliefs or religion. Tao itself is not considered a deity nor something to be worshiped. Tao is more a name for all of the inherent processes that happen in the universe; a sense of what is the right way for things and what is natural. Many religions and belief systems discuss similar concepts, including Christianity and Islam which recognize that there is a nature law to the world. For example C.S. Lewis wrote extensively about the idea of Tao in The Abolition of Man and discussed it as being complementary and part of his Christian faith. Even if you have no particular beliefs or would simply prefer not to believe in Tao, forms practice can still contribute to physical and mental well-being.
"Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it." ~ Confucius