Form follows function.
It’s an architectural maxim that says a building’s looks should be predominately determined by the function of that building. It’s the architectural way of saying that you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. But some designers can’t leave well enough alone and feel the need to over-embellish, try to make their projects something they aren’t -- like hanging too many ornaments on a Christmas tree. There is an elegant effectiveness found in simplicity. Compare the interior of a traditional martial arts dojo with Elvis’ Graceland. I rest my case.
But I’m not writing this essay about architecture. I’m writing about the simple elegance, the shibumi, of the martial arts. Too many times, practitioners – particularly the less experienced – want to embellish what is there, much to the detriment of the art. These arts were formed by a millennium of alchemy, in which the impurities, the things that were superfluous or simply didn’t work, were burned off in the process of finding the precious core. Like nature, it evolved and is still in the process of evolution. We shouldn’t attempt to add anything to such a thing of beauty. At least not consciously.
Unconsciously, we cannot help but add our own subtle nuances to the art over our years of continual practice. Our collective learning process has passed it on from student to teacher and it continually bears the stamp of our collectivity over time. That’s why it evolves, even as we try to maintain what we perceive it to be. It changes even though we try to preserve it. That in itself is a Zen koan.
“The way…who will pass it on straight and well?”
Funakoshi himself changed many things about the art of Okinawa Te in order to popularize it to the Japanese. But he also strove to protect and keep what he felt was its immutable core.
Form follows function.
I see students attempt to embellish kata when they really don’t yet have a solid understanding of what they are doing. Understanding the bunkai oyo, the applications of the kata, helps us to understand that embellishment is unnecessary, whereas practical knowledge is essential. It is true that some applications are hidden within the movement of the kata. In Goju-ryu, for example, there are instances where what is shown is the polar opposite of the intended application; a holdover from the days of secret practices when what was shown was purposely meant to confuse any rivals or enemy who might be watching.
But predominately, form does follow function, and breaking kata down reveals the simplicity beneath the surface, simplicity so elegantly effective, we need only to work to understand it, not to embellish it. Embellishment seems to come from our insecurity about comprehension. When in doubt, add something. I would advise that when in doubt, dig deeper into the simplicity of the movement.
The best practitioners perform many linked, simple movements with such fluid grace that they appear to be complex. The novice thinks it cannot be simple, because of the appearance of complexity, and therefore attempts to add flourish to his own performance. That is like trying to add a moon roof to the evolved lines of a cuneiform.
The same thing happens in kumite. The best fighters often do quite simple things very well. It is the fluidity of their linked movements, just as in kata, that appears to be more complex than what is really happening. The founders of karatedo realized that movements requiring anything other than gross motor skills would be ineffective under the adrenaline dump of true combat. Therefore, they kept moves simple. The effectiveness comes from the continual practice that internalizes these simple but effective response movements until they appear to be both complex and effortless. They are neither. They are actually simple moves practiced continually with focused effort. That is the only way.
So next time you feel the urge to make your kata a little prettier, or your kumite more flashy, take a breath and look for the beauty of the simplicity. Keep it simple but deep.
Yours in the Martial Arts,