Author: Reverend Daniel Duplantis
Morio Higaonna, the founder of the International Okinawa Goju-ryu Karate-do Federation once wrote:
“Karate begins and ends with kata. Kata is the essence and foundation of karate and it represents the accumulation of more than 1000 years of knowledge. Formed by numerous masters throughout the ages through dedicated training and research, the kata are like a map to guide us, and as such should never be changed or tampered with (Kane & Wilder, 2005).”
This description is strikingly similar to the way the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the Eucharist, the sacrament by which bread and wine is substantially changed into the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ. It states:
“The Eucharist is ‘the source and summit of the Christian life.’ The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it. For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself, our Pasch (CCC 1324).”
In essence, forms are to martial arts what the Lord’s Supper is to Christianity. It is the spiritual center of its respective art, and to belittle or, heaven forbid, remove this spiritual center is to remove the essence of martial arts.
What exactly is the parallel between kata and the ancient rites of Christianity? To answer this question, one must understand the concept of liturgy. Liturgy, from leitourgia in Greek, can be translated as “public duty.” While private prayer belongs to individuals, liturgy belongs to the Church as a whole. Whether one is Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or one of several liturgical Protestant ecclesial communities, liturgy is the public, communal expression of that denomination’s core beliefs. For these denominations, to take away their liturgy is to take away their communal life in Christ.
The shared mark of liturgy and kata is the shared expression of commonly held beliefs and practices. Just as Higaonna denounces tampering with kata, tampering with promulgated liturgical rites is also frowned upon. The phrase “do the red and say the black” has become the mantra of modern liturgical rubricists referring to the instructions being printed in red and the orations themselves printed in black. In both cases, why is such tampering discouraged, if not outright illicit? It is because martial arts and liturgy do not belong to one individual person, but are a shared expression by which a certain unity is experienced. It is not my martial art, but our martial art.
Finally, what is also shared between kata and liturgy is tradition. Just as kata was developed through the efforts of centuries of masters, so also has Christian liturgical prayer been developed by centuries of research and teaching of pastors. The most ancient rubrics of Christian communal prayer can be found in sources like the Didache and the Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient 1st century documents that pre-date the promulgation of the Bible. Kata and liturgy are more than just tradition, they are gifts of wisdom handed down through the centuries so that the edification once enjoyed by the forefathers can still be enjoyed by their progeny in perpetuity. To this end, careful attention to forms should always be afforded in marital arts training, and great care should be taken so that these treasuries of ancient wisdom will never be lost.