The “Meditation Cats” Story and the “Blind Alleys” in Martial Arts

In the history of Mankind, a cursory fact or the reaction to false or inaccurate information often became a consolidated habit without anybody realising it. Even though the above is mostly the result of a misunderstanding and it is due to a superficial attitude or the need to conform, its outcome ascends to indisputable truth, pseudo-sanctified and handed down over time


In Martial Arts, there are plenty of these situations both at a theoretical and anthropological level, and from a technical point of view. This short article aims at raising questions and reflections. Let’s start with telling a nice little story…

The “Meditation Cats”

Some time ago, in China or Japan, there was a large Buddhist monastery famous for its teaching and meditation sessions. The abbot was an old and wise priest well ahead in the Way of the Buddha. One day, while walking in the monastery garden, he found a small kitten and took it with him.
The meditation of the old monk was formidable and was not disturbed in any way by the kitten moving or playing. The kitten often crouched between the legs of the holy man and, snoring, accompanied him in the practice.
When the cat grew up and began to explore around, he began to sneak into the meditation room where the group sessions were held and here disturbed the concentration of the younger monks and even of some of the elderly.
So the wise abbot, even if reluctantly, arranged for the cat to be tied up outside the room during the collective meditations.

Time passed and each time there was a meditation session, a young monk tied the cat with a rope leash to a pillar outside the hall.
More time passed and the abbot, very old, died.
His brethren continued to care for the cat and to tie him outside the hall during meditation practice.
More time passed and the aged cat went to join the ancient abbot at the Source.
The young monk who had to tie him up during the practice found him curled up in one of his favourite corners.
Out of breath, he rushed to the new abbot to give him the news.
The abbot looked at him and said, “Go straight to the market and buy another kitten to tie outside the hall during meditation!”
It became a carefully respected tradition in the following centuries…

The meaning is quite clear, isn’t it?


The readers can try to find out how many and which “cats” are hiding in the disciplines they practice. The periods in which more kittens are adopted are those characterised by change, modernisation, adaptation; or when exercises and “educational” series, produced to be simple passing supports for more complex techniques become immutable pillars of their own where the practitioners are secured and bound.

I am going to point out some of these “cats” at different levels that I discovered in disciplines that I practice or have practised, or that I know well.

Let’s take Karate. There are two aspects that most practitioners of this discipline consider “very ancient” and unquestionably basic features of the discipline itself: closed hands techniques in Kata and “control” in combat (Randori or Shiai).

Let’s start with closed fists in Kata. Most of the Kata originating from the Okinawan schools involved open hand techniques for hitting or parrying. Clenched fist attacks using Seiken were rare within forms and can be seen by studying an unmodified original form. The closing of the fist and the replacement with this technique of the many open-handed ones in traditional Katas was carried out at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries by Anko Itosu, for the mass diffusion of the discipline in schools. He aimed to avoid injuries, accidents, confusion and broken techniques. Itosu invented the Pinan/Heian series for preparatory purposes as well. This series then has remained to hang over students even if, more than likely, there was no longer a need for it.

With the use of closed hands, all the specific work of contact, leverage and grabbing for projections was progressively lost. Today, as a result, Karate students, no longer educated on the subject, borrow projection and control techniques from Jūdō and Aikidō, often in a superficial way, to use in demonstrations or improvised Bunkai.

Control in combat

Originally there was no free fighting practice. There were forms of Randori with an established attack, as done in the paired Katas. The habit of “holding back” the final blow or attack was already present in Bujutsu or Jū Jutsu paired Katas; more than likely, this system was inspired by it and applied to free combat in Karate, except that attributes of the attacks in terms of movement and counter made and make effective control difficult. In traditional Japanese martial arts are provided various types of protections for safety. The pioneers of sports Karate, however, perhaps considered them too expensive or useless, and this misunderstanding, smuggled as a fundamental and ancient point of the discipline, went on for a long time, causing countless accidents and distorting results, and still influences the practice. It is a typical example of our topic.


A feature of contemporary Kendō in Randori and Shiai‘s practice is to define three fundamental targets for slashing, to be attacked in descending trajectory only: Men, Kote and ; plus one target only for the jabs or Tsuki, the Knot. Furthermore, in this practice, all permitted actions have to be performed with the weapon only, including pushing when at close contact. This selection comes from two main re-organisations carried out at the turn of the 20th century and after World War II. Before Kendō, there was a similar activity called Gekken or Shinai-Geiko, that had a number of rules and made use of protections. For example, Tsuki could be directed at various levels, there were attacks on the legs, armpits, diagonal slits and uprights. You could also kick, cut down, throw from the hip, hit or push with the Tsukagashira, block and use the opponent’s helmet or bib to subdue them to the ground. At first, it was established a limitation of the targets to the four points indicated above and, after the war, the hand-to-hand combat was eliminated altogether.

There are some Koryū schools such as Hokushin Ittō Ryū or Tennen Rishin Ryū that still practice Gekken with target extension and melee techniques. It would interesting if the Kendō Federation considered an experimental and alternative type of competition, to verify if it is not possible to have a different vision than the one that was established at the time – an obviously “definitive experiment”. 


What we know as Seitei Iai no Kata is a series of “new” Kata, developed by a group of experts from the Kendō Federation. Their aim was to balance the abuse of Shinai in the practice of the discipline and to understand the diversity between this “bamboo blade” and a real sword. Those Katas date back to the late 1960s and have introduced a practice – in my opinion, and not only in mine – that is excessively aesthetic and rarefied. They are used as compulsory forms for the international federations managed graduation exams and, as such, they greatly condition the very different forms practised in the traditional schools: it is a “contamination” of sorts that results in flattening and sterilising the art. Another example of how new practices become immovable “traditions”…

The practice of the Seitei Iai no Kata might make sense as a didactic instrument for the Kendōka. If one is interested in learning Iai, however, it is highly advisable to choose one of the traditional schools, which are now quite widespread, where the teachers present the “old fashioned” Katas. It should be emphasized that traditional schools also have paired forms and other exercises, where the individual katas are applied, which is indispensable for a complete study. There are no such forms of study in the Seitei-Kata sector.


The violation of the contents established by Kanō sensei has produced numerous “dead ends” which are difficult to deal with today. Apart from the increasingly bizarre and choreographic changes brought to the competition regulations and the “easy” attribution of the Ippons for simple rolls or counter-rolls, the Katas have also been reduced to aesthetic series to be evaluated for their external visual rendering.

As a consequence, many are convinced that Katas are static catalogues of “moves”, that some of them are obsolete (Kime no Kata and Koshiki no Kata) or intended for women (Jū no Kata) and some are even unknown to students and instructors (Seiryoku-Zen’yo-Kokumin-Taiiku-no-Kata). As you can see, some dead ends have been created where the correct teaching of Kōdōkan Jūdō is no longer at home.

Is it wrong to think that one should reconstruct the teaching of Kanō sensei (what Mochizuki sensei called the “Great Teaching”) and let it function as it should? Even at the cost of letting go of the now abundantly discredited Olympics and all the consequent cheap little theatre?


The Aiki Nage or Kokyu Nage

This type of technique is one of the most debated and contested topics in Aikidō as reformed by the Aikikai after the death of Ō Sensei. Mochizuki sensei claims, as a witness on the field, that these techniques do not constitute the exact “desired” execution of something pre-established from the beginning by those who perform them. Among the many of Morihei Ueshiba sensei’s technical executions, the Aiki Nage effect was authentically achieved in a few and almost random cases in which the action was particularly powerful and successful. The same applies, perhaps in even smaller percentages, in the daily practice of teachers and students. In several instances in which Ō Sensei’s Uke seems to fall due to an Aiki Nage, in reality, they made a voluntary and anticipated fall to escape the iron grip of the Master in which they were ending, resulting in an immediate and abrupt lever or a not exactly “soft” throw. From these (and other) misunderstandings produced from watching Aikido footage, arises the current abuse of Kokyu Nage where, in most cases, Uke “gives” the projection to the partner preventing them, in fact, from noticing their mistakes or really completing the technique.

The above are just a few examples …

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