It is a real honor for me to be able to share this article write by my senior, but also good friend Peter Giffen, Kyoshi. Peter is IMHO one of the finest karate folk on the globe and he skill is only outdone by his dedidation. You can read more about Peter and his group of RyuSei Canada on their website at: www.ryusei-karate.com/english/what.html . Enjoy this thought provoking article from someone who has walked the path.
Sometimes with my kids' karate class I’ll have a games night and we’ll play broken telephone.
I’ll whisper a message into the ear of one student, who will whisper to the ear of the next in the circle, who will whisper into the ear of the next, and so on.
If I’m lucky my message—say, “the brown cow jumps over the fence”— might only be changed a little when it is said aloud by the last student: “The green frog hops on the road.” But sometimes the message is completely mangled: “My brother is full of snot.” In some instances, the changes happen because students mishear the message. In other cases it’s because young wags deliberately change the message to one they like better.
In many ways the transmission of karate from one generation to the next—teacher to student, teacher to student, in an endless cycle—is like broken telephone. In some cases, the changed message is because talented practitioners such as Chitose Tsuyoshi-Sensei, founder of Chito-Ryu, and Sakamoto Ken-Sensei, founder of Ryusei Karate, change the kata deliberately.
As far as I understand, Chitose-Sensei changed some kata, distilling them to their essence. And Sakamoto-Sensei made changes to kata he practised in order to bring out qualities he found important, deepening their meaning. In neither case did the karateka make their changes lightly. They both spent years mastering the conventional forms before they made deliberate changes to demonstrate their special insights. The situation is not analogous to tournaments in North America in the 1970s, when a yellow belt might demonstrate a form he had created
himself, complete with back flips, and perform it right after the half-time show of scantily clad go-go dancers (I’m not making this up). And he’d be scored well.
Then you have the many instructors who insist that they do the kata exactly as they were taught. I know they believe that, but can it possibly be true? They likely have different bodies than their teachers, different characters and different insights. Though they might do the same movements as their teachers, if they are advanced practitioners, they will bring their unique approach to the performance, so that there are differences on the inside—their understanding, body connection, explanations for the meanings of moves.
If you take this process over a number of generations, it’s unlikely that a modern practitioner’s
performance would look anything like the founder’s. In some cases, the transmission might be broken because one generation’s teacher didn’t pass on vital information about the kata. This has sadly happened more than a few times, in a traditional Japanese teaching approach in which the student is expected to perform a kata repeatedly until they understand its inner meaning. Sadly, this doesn’t always happen, so valuable secrets are lost.
On the other hand, a truly talented practitioner can take a tired old form and breathe new life into it, with his or her insights derived from diligent practice. I don’t think broken telephone is a bad thing. Karate and its forms are a living martial art language, which must constantly undergo change so it doesn’t become a dead language. I’d rather speak English or French or Japanese than Latin, because as frustrating as these languages can be with their exceptions and changing usage, they are living entities that are as exciting as the cultures where they are spoken.
Latin is useful if you are a scholar and like to drink small glasses of sherry at awkward social functions.
At university I had a gifted professor who taught classes in buddhism and taoism. He would typically start a class meditating. Then he’d launch into a deeply insightful lecture which he would deliver without notes or hesitation. One class he questioned us about our conception of karma and rebirth.
What is reborn? He asked. It’s obviously not our bodies. Our minds? Well, in this life we can become old or sick and lose our minds. So the mind isn’t permanent. The same goes for our character. We may think our characters are unique but they can change under different circumstances. So what is reborn?
He asked us to picture a line of matches. You light the first one, and it lights the next, which lights the next . . .all the way down the line. The material in the first match is different from all the others. The flame is also changing all the time, burning different material.
So nothing is the same but there is a deep continuity and connection that runs through the existence of one match to the next. The same is true for the flame of karate transmission from one generation to the next, going into the future, which will be different than the past, but that doesn’t matter, so long as the flame burns.
Author: Peter Giffen.
Originally published in the RyuShu (Vol. 84) - all righted reserved by author.
Okinawan and Japanese Budo
James M. Hatch
International Educator who happens to be passionate about Chito Ryu Karate. Born in Ireland, educated in Canada, matured in Japan