Reflections on Kata and a True Karate Master

Chinen Teruo Sensei

A ‘calm mind’ and ‘trained body’ allows the real efficacy of ‘karate kata’ to emerge from the shadows. In ‘kata’ the state of mind that we call ‘zanshin’ is described as one of restful alertness.  From the calmness defensive techniques can be applied as circumstances demand; the ‘karate-ka’ can explode into action and fell, disable, or control an opponent.

‘Kata’ is far too often decried by many modern day ‘karate-ka’ as ineffective, or ‘just dancing’. We hear remarks such as ‘but it is not real’, and hear references made to an old karate movie of the 80s that has re-emerged on modern TV. Little do people know the true value of the encyclopaedic ‘kata’.

It is my understanding that the ‘karate-ka’ of old used the ‘kata’ to practice the incorporated karate techniques. ‘Bunkai’ or what I sometimes refer to as ‘kata no kumite’ was emphasised as ‘application’ and not ‘presentation’; i.e., ‘function before form’. Today it appears we seem to conversely practice ‘form before function’.

Our systemised ‘kata’ are taught in tiers, novice, intermediate, and advanced – the Shitei, Sentei and the Tokui triumvirate. With time the ‘novice kata’ appear to become easier with practice; this is an incorrect perception as over time what was once ‘simple’ can become incredibly difficult. It is when we realise this that the life-long journey really begins to come to fruition.

I vividly recall once having an overnight stay and subsequent conversation in Eugene, Oregon, with a true karate master – Chinen Teruo. Staying overnight at a student of Chinen Sensei’s house we spent many hours talking as Chinen Sensei knew my own Sensei well. He even made me a Japanese breakfast in the morning. I was a Nidan, he was a Nanadan and master. But he ensured there was some form of equality, such was his humility.

I remember hearing that Chinen Sensei’s uncle who he resided with lived near to Miyagi Chojun Sensei – the legendary karate master . Chinen Sensei trained for a few years learning karate ‘techniques’ from Miyagi Chojun Sensei, likely in his house or garden.

Chinen Sensei apparently did not know what ‘kata’ were at the time, but as a young child he was extra-ordinarily fortunate to have been taught the techniques of ‘karate’ as ‘bunkai’ and ‘oyo’ – the very fundamentals of karate as they were probably originally intended.  When Chinen Sensei began learning with Miyazato Eiichi Sensei (a senior student of Miyagi Sensei) he was shown formalised kata and realised that he already knew the movements. 

This had an impact on me as I had learned in the opposite manner – ‘kata’ first then application. Today, particularly in the Shoto styles we learn the ‘kata’ and then are ‘taught’, or ‘steered’ to find the meaning of the techniques hidden within them.

I have had some fortunate encounters with many legendary ‘karate-ka’ and piece by piece it all starts to fall together.

I am now in my latter 60s, debilitated in many ways with arthritis, asthma, cardiac and other conditions; but the kata remain, I continue to explore their meanings.

A senior student of mine recently said to me: “The key to karate is in this whole sequence you have covered the past, nearly 2 years. I feel that you are on the cusp of a eureka moment very soon. The teachings you have received through your lifetime are converging fast. It is not the end of the journey but the key to a door. Can’t wait for the other side of it.”

Perhaps I will arrive and find that door like my Senseis’ and Senpais’ had hoped. They did, after all, take me to the mountain! I was told to find my own way to climb it.

I retain a small treasure from Chinen Sensei (other than the stories and knowledge he imparted)as he presented me with his own judges whistle, one that I use and hold with extreme pride. I would like to think that every time I judge a ‘kata’ or ‘kumite’ in ‘Taikai’ some of his spirit continues to be imbued in me.

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