Aikido: Kata is NOT Waza

Kata is a set of pre-arranged forms (rational movement, forms) used as a training tool in many traditional Japanese martial arts. The kata is a logical pattern of time-tested movements that carry the secrets of learning an art. Through practicing the kata, we become adept at it, and once the kata movements can be done spontaneously and effectively, it becomes waza (natural movement, art/technique). But the kata is not waza.osensei

In mathematical formulas,we all know that the formula will get us to the right answer, but first we have to get 3 things correctly:

(1) we have to know what formula to use,

(2) we have to know the correct formula, and

(3) we have to know how to apply the formula to different problems that that particular formula is intended for.

In Aikido, the  kata is the formula- the tool we use to get the answer, and the answer becomes (Aikido) waza-the spontaneous, appropriate, logical expression or applicattion of the kata. The kata demonstrates the technical mechanics of the techniques, revealing the points for atemi, kuzushi and tsukuri which are needed for the effortless application of the technique, should the circumstances require.

Therefore, it is my belief that Aikido uses the different kata in its teaching system otherwise we wouldn’t have a system at all. The basic movements, as I understand, are kata designed for the partnered training of tori and uke. They are pre-arranged, with a pre-arranged result. And the key to learning Aikido is to discover the rational meaning and connections within the movement of the kata for it to be martially applicable in an actual martial encounter.

Aikido training therefore, is immersing yourself with the forms, for the purpose of slowly unfolding its mysteries until the waza is unveiled within you.

I have noticed that there are Aikido dojos that do not even consider that there is a kata, and they think that the kata is the waza. The kata is just the tip of the iceberg. The mysteries are still hidden underneath. If you practice Aikido in such a way that that you think memorizing the kata will make you martially proficient, I suggest you start thinking very hard about the system you use to understand Aikido.

If we are going to look back at those who came before us, and look at how they did their techniques, although it may look the same, they are not. No Aikido waza is the same. There have been adjustments within the kata to compensate for the speed of the attack, the size of the attacker, maai-their position relative to each other, the changes in rhythm and timing of the attack, the environment, among others. These minute details have all been considered for them to have done their waza properly.

Today, we see the instructors perform the kata in Aikido classes especially to train beginners. In demonstrations however, during randori, we see them performing their waza.

ueshibaIn my understanding, Aikido has both visible and invisible qualities. These are trained through memorizing the  kata (Shu), then questioning kata (Ha), then understanding the kata and performing waza (Ri). (See: Shu-Ha-Ri: The Road to Mastery).

On this note:

If a person finds that his techniques does not work,  he is in Shu. The reason it doesn’t work is because he does not understand how it works.

To use the analogy above, Aikido is the answer. Don’t blame Aikido if you do not understand the question, or if you do not know the formula, or if you do not know how to apply the formula to different problems. Another analogy would be: Aikido is like a pen: don’t blame the pen for your bad handwriting.

The basic forms (kata) are there not to be practiced and taken as everything Aikido is all about as a martial art. It is there to be used as tools for the Aikidoka to understand how to perform the different waza and is not the end in and of itself. The kata  is the beginning from which our knowledge of Aikido can spring from, as such, it is vital, but it is not the goal. For each waza (natural movement) there is a kata (rational movement), but the kata is not always the waza. And the difference between the two is Aiki.

How about you? How did you find your own Aikido? Please share your thoughts.

Mushin: The Mind without Mind

In Japan, there is an expression that goes: “mizu no kokoro” or “mind like water”.

In Japan, there is an expression that goes: “mizu no kokoro” or “mind like water”.

Mushin, translated as “no-mind” or “empty mind”, is a state where the mind is not preoccupied by any thought or emotion. It is empty in the sense that it is unbiased, free and adaptable. Mushin is the essence of Zen; and a core princlple of Japanese martial arts.

In Japan, there is an expression that goes: “mizu no kokoro” or “mind like water”. Mushin is like that, it is like the moon reflected on still water without any ripples and on it’s surface a perfect replica of the moon is reflected, like in a mirror. However, when there are other factors like wind that creates ripples, the image of the moon becomes distorted too. In other words, Mushin is the state when what you observe and what you are become one. The watcher and the watched become the same. When you have thoughts in your mind and your heart, everything is distorted. So you can understand everything and sense everything the way it really is, you have to be completely empty.

Mushin cannot be grasped with the intellect; it must be experienced. In Aikido, the state of Mushin is crucial during a martial situation. The practitioner must “become one” with the attacker for the technique to be effective, efficient, and harmonious.

When an opponent attacks, the Aikidoka should have a mental state that reacts to the situation instantaneously and not through a pre-determined course of action. One should not say, “I’ll do this waza”. Instead, the Aikidoka must respond spontaneously where techniques occur without thought, masterfully manipulating the energy of the attacker, and eventually neutralizing the threat. This state can only occur through constant training. Through training of the body and the mind, you will eventually no longer be concerned with thoughts like “I should do a tenkan here” or “this hand should be on the elbow”, etc.

To achieve this state of Mushin, the mind must be free from any conscious thought; free from anger, hesitation, doubt,  fear and pride. Quoting a famous Zen Master Takoan Shoho:

“When the swordsman stands against his opponent, he is not to think of the opponent, nor of himself, nor of his enemy’s sword movements. He just stands there with his sword which, forgetful of all technique, is ready only to follow the dictates of the subconscious. The man has effaced himself as the wielder of the sword. When he strikes, it is not the man but the sword in the hand of the man’s subconscious that strikes.”


Mushin is vital to the martial artist. It is a concept that liberates the mind from the restrictions of the present situation.

I will leave you with an excerpt from the zen fable Neko no Myojutsu or “The Marvelous Techniques of the Old Cat” (see full story), the old cat explains:

“As soon as there is the slightest conscious thought, however, contrivance and willfulness appear, and that separates you from the natural Way. You see yourself and others as separate entities, as opponents. If you ask me what technique I employ, the answer is mushin (no-mind). Mushin is to act in accordance with nature, nothing else.”

(Please also see: “Shoshin: The Beginner’s Mind“)

Zen Fable: The Marvelous Techniques of the Old Cat (Neko no Myojutsu)

ASHESANDSNOW_03Neko no Myojutsu first appered in Inaka Soshi (The Country Taoist), which is a collection of essays written in 1727 by Issai Chozan in 1727. It has been and continues to be a very popular text among martial artists.


There once was a fine swordsman named Shoken. His home was plagued by a huge rat who roamed around freely, even during the day. Shoken’s house cat was no match for the rat and fled in terror after being severely bitten. Shoken acquired several tough local polecats to combat the rat in a group. They were released in the house, and went for the rat, who crouched in a corner of a room waiting for them to come. The rat lashed out ferociously at one cat after the other and drove them all off. Angered by the abject failure of all the cats, the master decided to dispatch the rat with his sword. Despite his skill as a swordsman, he could not strike the rat- the animal leaped great distances


through the air, moved like lightning, and boldly lept right over the top of the swordsman’s head.

Shoken gave up in exasperation and decided to seek the aid of the Amazing Old Cat from a nearby village. When the owner brought the Old Cat over to Shoken’s house, Shoken was surprised at how ordinary and aged the cat appeared. However, he said, “Let’s give it a try”, and released the cat into the room where the rat was ensconced. As soon as it saw the cat approach, the rat froze. The cat nonchalantly walked over, seized the rat by the neck, carried it out of the room, and turned it over to Shoken.

That night, the other cats gathered and gave the Old Cat the seat of honor. They said to him, “We are all well known for our skill in rat catching, able to handle even weasels and otters, and our nails are razor sharp. However, there was nothing we could do against that rat. How is it that you were able to overcome that giant rat? Please impart to us the secrets of your art.”

The Old Cat laughed and said, “Well, you are all still young and although you have experience in fighting with rats you still have a lot to learn. Before I begin, though, tell me about your training.”

A black cat came forward and said, “I was raised in a family that specialized in training cats. I was taught how to leap over a seven foot screen, how to squeeze into tiny holes, and all kinds of acrobatic tricks. I was an expert at feigning sleep and then striking out as soon as a rat came near. Rats could not escape me. I could catch them even as they fled across ceiling beams. I was never defeated until I met that old rat.” The Old Cat said, “Your training has centered exclusively on technique. All you think about is catching the rat. The old masters taught patterns and movements to enable us to develop good technique. And even the simplest technique contains profound principles. You focus on external technique too much. This causes you to doubt the traditions of the masters and to devise new tricks. However, if you rely on technique too much, sooner or later you will come to an impasse because physical technique has a limit. Ponder this well.”

Next the tiger cat stepped forward and said: “I think that the development of ki(life force) is most important. I have polished my ki for many years, and my spirit is very strong, filling heaven and earth. I could face down my opponents with overwhelming ki and defeat them from the start. I could immediately respond to any stimulus, any movement. I did not need to think; techniques naturally arose. I could freeze a rat running across a beam and make it drop to the floor. That old rat, though, came without a form. and left not a trace. I was stymied.”

The Old Cat replied, “The ki power you use is still a function of your own mind, and thus too self-centered. It is based entirely on your own level of self-confidence. As long as you remain conscious of your ki power and use it mentally to suppress an opponent, you will create resistance. And you will be sure to meet an opponent whose ki power is even stronger than yours. You may think that your ki power fills the universe in the same manner as the kozen no ki (universal energy) employed by the Chinese sage Mencius, but it does not. In the case of Mencius, ki is bright and vigorous. His use of ki power is like a great river; your use of ki power is like a flash flood. We all know the proverb ‘A biting cat gets bitten by the rat.’ When a rat is cornered it forgets life, forgets desires, forgets winning and losing, forgets body and mind. That force is as strong as steel, and cannot be vanquished merely by ki power.”


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