Martial Arts and the Actual Exploration of Mind, Body, and Spirit
One doesn’t need forms (kata, hyung etc) to become a competent and skilled fighter, the advent MMA has definitely established this for contemporary practitioners. However, forms are immensely helpful in realizing the “art” in martial arts.
Many martial arts practitioners rail against the notion of forms being a performance art. “No, these are the sacred transmission of somatic skills from generation to generation!” And so enters the trap of exclusivity that limits reality’s potential!
It’s no secret that for most every form or pattern, there is no set application or interpretation- there is but movement, gross or refined, that is slowly (and sometimes radically) altered overtime. One way to make use of forms then, is to treat them as prompts to exploring conflict and resolution in is physical, psychological, and spiritual planes.
In Japan there is an obscure contemporary form of dance known as “Butoh” (舞踏) that doesn’t involve choreography, but involves expressing a prompt, usually situated within the darker recesses of human experience, if even only indirectly. Unrestrained by patterns, this dance allows the subconscious to become manifest in strange, sometimes frightening, and frequently beautiful ways. I argue that treating martial arts forms similarly, one can unlock almost infinite applications of the choreography of classical forms, reflective of the (frequently thousands) of minds that have composed and upheld them over time.
I’ve taught for years that forms can be a method of meditation that can acquaint oneself to their own biopsycho tendencies in relation to conflict, and even allow themselves to gain a degree of conscious control over otherwise autonomic processes, such as the adrenal response, by means of visualization and embodiment. When this method is adapted to forms practice, especially in the practice of older and more esoteric patterns, less easily interpreted, one can also discover techniques through the visualization of an attacker embodying conflict, that must mesh with the predefined movements of the form.
To this effect, Masaaki Hatsumi Soke has noted “Modern budo students often forget to practice by themselves. I used to practice by myself. When there was no teacher, I found the secret teachings by my own desire.” This is the most advanced level of martial artistry, and it undoubtedly transcends and yet encompasses combative aptitude alone.
Personally I’m unhindered at this phase in my martial arts career with something appearing too soft, too artistic, too cerebral, too esoteric, or too spiritual etc. The martial arts are a unique medium that have always been able to simultaneously uphold each of these things. If we’re afraid of the art in martial arts, we should forgo the costumes, nomenclature, and cultural entrapment and just practice fighting. If we’re afraid of the martial in martial arts, best to take up dance, or painting. True martial artistry is a strange meeting place of the body, the mind, and the spirit, which encompasses, of necessity, the whole of human experience, lest we think plumbing the depths of life and death, peace and conflict, aggression and compassion could be anything less than just that.