|The movie Seppuku is constructed around the strategic management of knowledge and memory .|
Where do you put your learning?
Learning in the field of martial arts is an intensely personal process, and in the field of traditional martial arts it is based on the very important relationship between the teacher and student. Having said that, much of the actual learning is something that has to happen alone.
My own experience (leaving aside the continuing and very real frustration that is also an important part of the process) is of a succession of insights of varying importance - sometimes minor adjustments in the way I see things; at other times major discoveries that necessitate a total reassessment of what I have learned. Some of these insights stay with me, at other times, they fade slowly away, leaving only a vague memory of something important.
Kata as a means of storing knowledge
In-depth study in any field, involves not only coming to grips with the material being studied itself, but also organizing and storing that knowledge so it can be accessed later. The growing field of knowledge management attests to the necessity of addressing this problem in some kind of rational way. In traditional bugei, very little of the knowledge was written down in detail. It was learnt and retained in the body, drilled to such a degree that the body habitually moved in ways that were consistent with the teachings, which themselves were contained and passed on in series of choreographed sets of movements generally known as kata.
Of course, kata were not unique to martial arts, but were and continue to be used in a number of disciplines. Like remembering lines of a song, they are an efficient way of storing sequences of movement through memorizing set routines.
They have been the subject of much debate - how effective can pre-arranged drills be in preparing anyone for something as unpredictable as fighting- and not just in the present day... in Japan there were arguments about this two hundred years ago. In Kenjutsu no Fushikihen (On Ignorance in Swordsmanship), written by Kimura Kyuhou in 1764, the writer talks of his teacher, who went to spy on other schools in his area:
"All of them employed paired kata and there were none who had achieved outstanding skill. Among those who showed little understanding were those orthodox teachers who created and taught choreographed patterns. Although it is said this makes it easy to understand and refine the principles of the style, the results should bear this out. They are unable to lead anyone to realization of the principle."
The strong feelings on both sides of the argument attest to both the value and the potential short-comings of the method. However, kata serve other purposes than simply training one through repetition of the movements.
Kata as a memory palace
One of the less noted, but nonetheless important functions of kata is as a focus for the recall of memories. You get out of kata what you put into them, and this is not just the sweat and hard work that is a necessary part of their learning and practice. The process of learning imbues a kata with knowledge directly related to the learning and practice of that kata: nuances of the movements, the principles it embodies, the applications it represents. It also serves as a means of storage for insights that have been gained by a student through personal practice. These may stem directly from practice of elements of the kata, or from other sources which can be applied to the kata.
The performance of a particular movement by your teacher may throw your mind back to some particular point he made when you were learning it, or some other understanding you gained while seeing him perform it. Or when practicing some movement you recall the time your teacher used it to explain some deeper, more far reaching principal or your art. Practicing yourself, as well as watching others practice can bring up whole chains of association, refreshing and reinforcing your knowledge.
The nature of learning a traditional art is such that what you learn from your teacher takes precedence over what you have learned from other sources; indeed subsequent knowledge is filtered and assessed in terms of what was passed on to you from your teacher. In this sense, the reiteration and consolidation of that knowledge is part of the ongoing process of continuing that connection, both with your teacher in particular, and your tradition, the flow of knowledge from past generations. In this sense they form a defense against the ephemeral, the trendy and personal whims.
This is also the reason that symbols are so particular within a particular traditional, or even to a particular teacher within that tradition. The value of a symbol lies in the way it can be tied to your learning - borrowing without understanding this aspect is of little value. Similarly, study of old texts is of limited value for your own practice unless they can be understood and absorbed. However, the additional value gained from reinforcing your own learning through seeing it from alternative viewpoints can be an interesting and worthwhile exercise. This rarely applies to the mokuroku and similar documents of other schools, which are meant, at one level, to unlock these insights. Just the name of a technique, written with all the weight of tradition, and the respect due to one's teacher, could serve as a very powerful adjunct to learning, adding an additional sense of legitimacy to conglomerate of knowledge it represented.
There is nothing particularly unusual in this - leafing through the family photo album produces something of the same effect - but it is a valuable tool for storing knowledge and learning. Unfortunately, this mechanism is no respecter of merit, and could just as easily apply to any series of movements learned in similar circumstances, regardless of their value in terms of the art they purport to be part of.
But that's another story.