I recently had the relatively rare opportunity to reconnect with my kobudo Sensei. Over the course of a Saturday morning, we worked through Kumi Bo Ichi and Ni and Oshiro no Kon, as well as Chibana no Sai and Toyama no Tonfa. All of the kata needed corrections, mostly minor, but when it came to Chibana no Sai, I discovered that I’d been doing the kata incorrectly for the better part of a year, and teaching this incorrect version to our students .
To make a short story longer, I was dismayed to be told by Sensei that I had inserted a movement at about the mid-point of the kata and removed one at almost the end. It was an honest mistake, and was seen as such by my Sensei, thankfully. We obviously took some steps to correct my mistake, with the understanding that I would then make the appropriate corrections with our students.
Body memory being what it is in martial arts practice however, eliminating the substitution and including the correct movement at the end required a lot of work, as much mental as physical. I definitely needed to be “present” during the practice of the kata. If I “Zenned” out, I automatically reverted to the incorrect presentation.
Karate teaches, among many other valuable lessons, the lesson of humility. A couple of days later, during our kobudo class, I had to apologize to the students, and to tell them that I’d made a mistake with regard to what I’d been teaching them all this time. And at that point, their own corrections began. As an interesting aside, the young ‘uns were able to pick the corrections up faster than the adult students.
So, two lessons learned, one physical and one intellectual/emotional. Those two lessons alone were worth the time spent in receiving the corrections and then imparting them to our students. However, for me, the exercise wasn’t quite done yet.
I started thinking about how I had mis-remembered what I’d been taught. From Rei to Rei the kata was essentially the same: overall techniques, embusen, the spirit of the kata were, more or less, preserved. Somehow, though, I had “learned” a movement that wasn’t taught to me, and had forgotten one that was. There was no conscious decision on my part to change what Sensei had transmitted to me, but somehow the process had happened.
This led me to wonder if, over the course of martial arts history, this hadn’t been a more common experience. It’s relatively easy today to keep in touch with our instructors. Seven hours by automobile is an hour by air. Youtube, and all of the other methods of internet accessibility make long distance communication instantaneous. In the past, though, before plains, trains and automobiles, a journey of any distance might take weeks or months.
So, I wondered, what would happen if a student had to travel a great way to gain instruction from his or her Sensei, and then must return home bearing that knowledge. Obviously, the student would spend days, weeks, possibly months with their teacher before making the return. One assumes that the depth of training involved during the stay would preclude “mis-remembering” what they’d learned.
Having said this, what if, once safely returned home, the student did indeed “mis-remember” one small but crucial piece of the kata? Not deliberately, because that’s an entirely different argument. It’s not as though the student could sit down at a PC or pick up the phone for clarification of questions, even if they knew enough to ask. For that matter, questions in written form might take months between the sending and the receiving of the answer.
And, I wondered, what if that student, armed now with his or her “memory” of the incorrect form, and practicing it thus, trained others to do it that way? At this point, all unknowing, had a “new” kata been made, or a new “style” been developed, purely on the basis of a mistake?
Any martial artist who’s been in the game for any length of time recognizes the political “family feuds” that exist within styles. These feuds have led to individuals or factions splitting off to create their own version of their particular style. Distinctions are made on as little as the “correct” hand position of a technique in the same kata done by two different organizations. This isn’t my argument.
Based on my own recent personal experience, I believe it’s entirely conceivable that certain stylistic variations have come about simply because of “mis-remembering” kata.