The 108 Steps of Perfection

Karate, kata, perfect form and perfectionism in Japan

Newlands Karate Club, Wellington, New Zealand, 1983At the age of seven, the result of an I don’t know from where interest in Japan, I began learning karate, lessons undertaken at my own insistence, my mother’s weary acquiescence. Perhaps she sensed that it would be either breaking blocks of wood or chopping bones on a rugby field, and thus surrendered to my desire to learn this more refined, disciplined form of violence.

The early eighties were a slightly unusual time to learn martial arts. The Bruce Lee, one-inch-punch inspired craze of the seventies had faded, perhaps on a pair of roller skates, while the ninja craze of straight to video fame had yet to take strangle-hold. I was therefore the youngest student at my local Japanese karate dojo, the only without sideburns or handle-bar moustache, trading punches, blocks and kicks with teenagers and adults who had started learning while the star of Enter the Dragon had still been alive. I had not even been born when Lee mysteriously died.

bruce-leeFrom time to time younger students like myself would join our small neighbourhood group, but few would last more than a fistful of lessons; the iron discipline of stretching, exercise and practicing technique, over and over again, was less attractive than computer games or television, and actual sparring sessions—the tofu and potatoes of martial arts, where long-honed technique is finally put into wrist snapping, high kicking practice—were few and far between. Unlike Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid, few ever graduated from “wax on, wax off…”

Pure Zen Quote from The Karate Kid:
The Karate Kid: Hey, where do these cars come from?
Mr Miyagi: Detroit.

Perhaps all those cranky, letter to the newspaper editor writers are right. Discipline and patience are, high-scores on a Playstation aside, mostly foreign to my generation.

Hanashiro ChomoRather than fighting an actual opponent, karate lessons would culminate in hours learning kata—stylised, dance-like movements performed in a series and, initially at least, in slow motion. Kata is said to represent the technique required to simultaneously fight and defeat an overwhelming number of opponents—a theory of combat put into action most famously by master Japanese swordsman and strategist Miyamoto Musashi. It was a little like learning to swing a golf club or a tennis racket—learning the correct form, through repetition, to master perfection in physical action.

There are around 100 kata in total across the various disciplines of karate, with the ultimate said to be Suparinpei, a word of Chinese origin which literally translates as “108”—the number of actions in this supreme kata. For those who, like the subtle flavours of a sushi roll, prefer to find meanings wrapped inside meanings, the number 108 is not only an “abundant,” “semi-perfect,” “tetranacci” and “refactorable” number in mathematics, but a total of great spiritual significance.

The Spiritual Significance of the Number 108

  • the essence of the Vedic scriptures, considered to be the greatest heritage of India and foundation of Hinduism, are the 108 Upanishads, or writings which expound the philosophic principles of the Vedas;
  • Japa mala used for repetition of mantra contain 108 beads;
  • Hindu deities are said to have 108 names;
  • Many Buddhist temples have 108 steps;
  • The number of sins in Tibetan Buddhism total 108;
  • At the end of the each year in Japan a bell is chimed 108 times to finish the old year and welcome the new. Each ring is said to represent one of the 108 earthly temptations a person must overcome to achieve nirvana.
  • There are said to be 108 energy lines converging to form the spiritual heart chakra;
  • 108 is the sum of “the numbers” in the at times mystical TV show Lost (4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42). I admit that the spiritual significance of this last fact may be questionable…

There is more to kata than grown men practising martial arts in pyjamas—over and over again. How much more? Wax on, wax off, my friend…

Kata and Perfection Through Perfect Form

The word kata, like karate, was born in Japan, and translates literally as “form.” Kata is more than simple outer appearance, structure or method; it is derived, both in word and concept, from shikata—“way of doing things”. Like “the Way” of Taoism, shikata is synonymous with a striving for perfection: a perfect way of doing will eventually reveal a perfect way of being, just as the course of a river wears smooth the jagged surface of a stone.

Japanese garden pathOver the course of centuries kata evolved to the point where there became a perfect way of doing everything. Every facet of existence in traditional Japan was perfected, down to the arrangement of food upon a tray or flowers within a vase.

Kata however is more than a purely physical concept, more than action or object of the human hand. Zen Buddhism, which entered Japan from China in the 12th century, introduced into the national consciousness the insight that perfection has an inner component as well; that mental training was just as important, if not even more so, than physical mastery in achieving the perfection of any skill.

Illumined by the the influence of Zen, mastery of kata came to mean the attainment of a meditative oneness with the action or discipline practised. A painter would seek not just to paint, but become the brush upon the page; a swordsman become one with the sword in hand.

“Early in their history the Japanese developed the belief that form had a reality of its own, and that it often took precedence over substance. They also believed that anything could be accomplished if the right kata was mentally and physically practised long enough.”
Boyé Lafayette De Mente, Kata: The Key to Understanding and Dealing with the Japanese

Kata, the correct, harmonious way of doing things, links the inner and the outer in Japan—it links body and soul, man and the gods. The inner order, which the Japanese call “heart,” is linked directly to the outer, cosmic order by correct form—the spiritual realm manifested in the physical through perfect action.

“To the Japanese there was an inner order (the individual heart) and a natural order (the cosmos), and these two were linked together by form—by kata. It was kata that linked the individual and society. If one did not follow the correct form, he was out of harmony with both his fellow man and nature. The challenge facing the Japanese was to know their own honshin, “true” or “right heart,” then learn and follow the kata that would keep them in sync with society and the cosmos.
Boyé Lafayette De Mente, Kata: The Key to Understanding and Dealing with the Japanese

Japanese Zen stone gardenJapanese will not accept a minimum standard as a goal; rather they expect absolute perfection—nothing is considered finished or complete until perfect. Which of course, lofty Zen masters aside, is near impossible for the average mortal to achieve. Hence the Japanese expression Kiga Susumanai—“my spirit is not satisfied.” Trapped between the inflexible postures of kata and insurmountable heights of perfection, Japanese are said to suffer constantly from this chronic spiritual dissatisfaction, a deeply felt discomfort at their inability to be perfect in everything they do:

“This spiritual discomfort burns in “pure” Japanese like an undying flame, constantly spurring them on to do more and do better…”
Boyé Lafayette De Mente, The Japanese Have a Word for It

The Path of My Own Perfection

I was not born Japanese, and have spent no more than ten days there in this life, but the quest for kata and perfection rings true in me without cause or reason, speaks if from an instruction manual to self lost before birth.

My path to mastering kata in this life however, quelling the dissatisfaction of imperfection was neither straight nor direct, for I never did get that far with karate. I studied for three years, attained a purple belt and attended, without notable success, a solitary tournament—the experience literally of getting kicked in the face. An extended period overseas then saw my burning desire to acquire a black belt, and I presumed, the eventual attainment of mysterious insight and powers, thwarted.

But desire for martial perfection was not lost so easily, and I am to this day, somewhat impracticably and yet to defeat a group of opponents with my bare knuckles and toes, dissatisfied at my imperfection in this particular kata or form. I guess there will be another lifetime…

Life, the greatest teacher and master of them all, doesn’t give up easily when there is a lesson to learn, and some decade after ceasing lessons in karate I discovered the practise of meditation, first introduced briefly in those childhood sparring halls. In meditation, I found the kata of perfection I had always been seeking, a perfection requiring a form and method within.

“If we say that someone’s body is perfect, then we are just giving an overall view. But when we say “perfect perfection,” it means that each cell is perfect; everything that is inside that body is perfect. Perfect perfection is the perfection of the entire being. Whatever the being has and whatever the being is, is perfect.”
Sri Chinmoy, excerpt from Philosophy, Religion And Yoga.

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