© 2012 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved.
I want to share with all our readers an email that one of my students
sent to me after class one night. I have asked Derek (the author)
whether he would mind if I reprinted it here for all of my readers to
enjoy and he said he would be honoured. So I have to give him a big
thank you for allowing me to do this.
As a little bit of background information, at class that night, some of
the students were getting a bit rambunctious. We were practicing Katori
Shinto Ryu sword katas, which are 2-person katas; in essence, you and a
partner. Well, as so often happens in 2-person katas, the practitioners
sometimes start to diverge from the kata. They get excited and pretty
soon, they are trying to best each other. They are trying to “get each
other”. They have a good laugh afterwards, in most cases.
Of course, as the teacher, you’d rather them stick assiduously to the
dictates of the kata. To perfect the art form. It is an art, after all.
Getting too excited and too aggressive sends you down a different path
and the (art) form goes out the window eventually. Form breaks down.
The art is forgotten in the blood lust. Function is all they care about
now. Is the technique functional? Will it allow me to “get him”?
Some students have ulterior motives when practicing kata. For some, it
is the chance to show their dominance or superiority, what I term the
“Alpha male” syndrome. For some others, it is their chance to fight,
albeit in a controlled circumstance. They could care less about the
form. Still others, when they see that their opponent (I wouldn’t call
them partners at this stage) is getting the better of them, they get
similarly wound up and do not want to lose face, so they will try to
“get” their opponent back. Of course, the opponent is thinking the same
thing (“he is not going to get the better of me…”) and so it becomes a
This is exactly what happened. Form had broken down. The blood was
pulsing through their veins and they had lost all sense of what they
were doing and why they were doing it. And the teacher, me, had to give
them a lecture about getting back to the form, back to the art side of
it. Well, that started a deep discussion about the relative merits of
form (the artistic) and function (the application). Some students
argued that art was more important, others that function was paramount.
This email is the result of that evening’s discussions.
So the basic question that was debated that evening was, in a nutshell:
Which is more important: the artistic (the idealized, and often
stylistic, expression of the art) or the functional (what works best/
what is most efficient/ most practical)?
Because in some koryu, like Katori Shinto Ryu for instance, you could
approach it from an artistic/ stylistic viewpoint (form) or from a
purely pragmatic standpoint (function).
Sent: Sunday, December 18, 2011 1:53 PM
To: Douglas Tong
Subject: quick follow-up about bauhaus
Because today’s topic was quite interesting, I wanted to follow up on
what I was trying to put forth. Here's an excerpt from Wikipedia:
"The design innovations commonly
associated with Gropius and the Bauhaus—the radically simplified forms,
the rationality and functionality, and the idea that mass-production
was reconcilable with the individual artistic spirit—were already
partly developed in Germany before the Bauhaus was founded."
So to rephrase the philosophy of Bauhaus as an artistic movement: Art
during the late 1800s to the early 1900s underwent a shift from
ornamental and often individually made crafts, to mass produced pieces
whose aesthetics were harmonious with its function. To an extent, it
can be argued that the Bauhaus school often rejected any ornamentation
that did not lend itself to the function of the object: that though the
form of the piece was harmonious with its use, any aesthetic aspect
came utterly secondary to the use of the piece.
In relation to our discussion about budo, where one practices a martial
form and/or function, we can see how different schools as well as
different personalities vary in philosophy. Where some people approach
budo as an art, others approach it in terms of application. If we try
to detach form from function, or function from form, we often become
blinded to the fact that form and function are two sides of the same
In my view, our group (students of Katori Shinto Ryu as well as of
Yagyu Shinkage Ryu) walk a line between both philosophies of form and
function. In practice, alone or paired, we strive towards idealized
movement during a pre-defined choreography of cause and effect, attack
and counter. As we study and learn, we often slow down, break down, and
disassemble the movements to examine it compartmentally, only to
reassemble it again to be practiced as a whole. This inevitably leads
to questions that arise as to 'why' we do things when 'this would be
quicker' or 'doesn't this leave you open'. It's at this point that the
answers usually boil down to context, as well as trial and error. This
is the classic argument of what is form and what is function.
If you take an excerpt from Musashi's "The Book of Five Rings", he
states that the ninth principal of budo is "do nothing that is
useless". This is often misinterpreted as 'disregard things that look
fancy'. If we filter down the movements to what is quick, we often lose
the lessons in between. It is only through thoughtful and careful
examination with your teacher and partners that one can come to the
With any kata that involve paired partners, we generally strive to work
together to achieve the shared goal of mastering a set of movements.
There will be occasion when personal ego comes into play and people can
fall in to the trap of 'I got you" or "you got me". During practice,
one can often see an opening or a place where a technique (sometimes
incorrectly executed and other times executed correctly, but in a
different fashion) might present an opening for attack. It's at this
moment that the dynamic of personalities come into play. If the pair
works well together and can explore the avenues of possibility, then
the practitioners can grow from the experience. If the practitioners
simply want to 'get' the other person, then there is no growth as the
pair is not working in tandem to achieve the shared goal of mastery of
movement. Instead, the practitioner is stuck in their own mind, lost in
their own self doubt or self-adulation. They've lost the whole point of
This can all be illustrated by the excerpt from "The Sword and The
"When you have exhausted all the
various forms and piled up accomplishments through training and
practice, movements come to exist in your arms, legs, and body, not in
your mind; and whatever you do you do freely, in disregard of the
forms, but not in violating them. When you reach that point, you do not
know where your mind is... ...The forms exist for reaching that state.
When you have acquired them, they cease to exist."
In practicing by yourself and with your training partners, and
furthermore keeping an open mind to any and all possibilities, form and
function no longer matter as they are eventually harmonized into one.
function or form and function?
Mr. Tong has a Master’s in Education in Curriculum Studies.