I was thumbing through Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception last evening and came to one of my favorite lines:

“However expressive, symbols can never be the things that they stand for.”

That idea dovetails well into a few thoughts on kata that I’ve been mulling over lately, namely a categorization scheme of the current trends in interpretation, and rationalizations about the role of kata in training (there is an awful lot of variety here, but two sweeping categories can be made: the absurd and the plausible).  Lifting a few ideas from the cognitive science approach to studying human problem solving, it seems like there are three interrelated ways that kata are used within karate (which we will refer to here as schema):

  1. As prescriptive algorithms- performing and applying the kata in an exact way will always yield a “correct solution”(a subset here could be performance only, depending on the group in question)
  2. As heuristics- simple, efficient strategies (rules of thumb) that help us to discover a “correct solution” in training for conflict, or actual conflict itself
  3. As mnemonics- viewing kata as patterns without an inherent meaning, upon which skills developed (discovered) through drills, sparring and violent experiences can be  superimposed where there is a similarity to gestures or across sequences of gestures; the “correct solutions” are arrived at independently, and the kata serves as a way to catalog them

Obviously, an enormous amount of variance is possible among these three schema. Each produces models of fighting and the skills used to negotiate conflict that have a lesser or greater similarity to actual fighting.  The greater the similiarty, the better chance that the skills will be sucessfully applicable in an actual conflict. However, development of these skills and faith in their succesful application in a fight is balanced by the understanding that “symbols (kata, drills, techniques) can never be the things that they stand for.”