"The explanation requiring the fewest assumptions is most likely to be correct."
William of Ockham
So much is assumed in Karate especially when it comes to the subject of kata and their function, this makes even suggesting an alternative nearly impossible regardless of how much evidence is presented. Here are a few assumptions that I encourage everyone to challenge and examine how it affects perspectives and approaches to kata.
1. All kata are for unarmed self defence/fighting.
Where did this assumption come from? one function and one context for all of the antique forms and systems? What about other contexts such as battlefield, policing, body guarding, theatre and stage, spiritual/religious movements and of course salesmen making money!. What about other functions such as weapons (battlefield and also tools for policing and body guarding), control and restrain methods, spiritual practice and embodied performances, stage choreography and artistic pieces including martial dances. The assumption that all kata are representations of the same thing is a very narrow lens to examine forms with.
2. All kata are of the highest quality.
Why assume that the techniques in the kata are of any use? they may not be great representations and solutions to combative problems. Some may have been created by individuals that had never had a real fight not unlike many of the teachers creating endless applications for the forms today. There were just as many wannabees, frauds and scam artists around in Ming dynasty China as there are today. Some kata once understood may not be the ultimate answer to all combative problems as perhaps hoped for. Some techniques may simply have been made up to make a quick buck.
3. Kata have been transmitted seamlessly through an impeccable lineage of noble honest masters.
Alongside the assumptions regarding the content and quality of kata is the assumption that they have been passed on perfectly through an untainted lineage. This also assumes that the individuals that make up the lineage were all great students, practised hard and learnt everything that they needed to know then became the next master in a succession and sought out worthy students to transmit the kata and teachings on to. There are endless possibilities that can corrupt a teaching, such as how students learn and what they ultimately do with the material. Some will make changes or completely reinvent what they have learnt, add other things, alter the function and context, not pass on everything, have varying motives to study in the first place, some will not have understood fully or correctly, mistakes get made over time, changes due to lack of relevant experience and fantasies, dishonesty and so on. It is also worth considering the great shifts in culture, society and politics in China and how that may have effected the practise of martial arts and its transmission. The list could go on and on!!
4. All kata explanations and interpretations are equally valid.
This is one of the biggest assumptions currently fashionable especially with teachers who are dependent on this type of belief to keep the seminars full and the cash coming in. Who decided that anyone could make up whatever they like when interpreting a kata? (and then sell it!!!) It seems reasonable that there was an original intended function to the various antique kata regardless of whether it is knowable or not today. It also seems reasonable that if the original function is not known that the focus of effort on a form should be to try to know and understand the intended function. If for example the original function of a form was for using a pair of sai or a bo then what possible use could that form and those techniques have for escaping a head lock, reacting to a straight stepping punch or a wrist grab?
By challenging the many modern assumptions made about kata a deeper appreciation and insight can be had for the diverse functions, contexts and possibilities recorded over time in the antique forms.
"Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off once in a while, or the light won't come in." Isaac Asimov