Kata – Two Meanings – Model or Shape

Kyudo as Kata

Kata are a Distillation

Kata are traditional keystones of all martial arts study. Passed from generation to generation, these movements teach the rich history and concepts behind the martial art you study. Kata are the skeleton upon which we hang everything else. They are a distillation of successful combat concepts and techniques.

Too often today, the priority of martial artists is the number of Kata they can do. This superficial skimming of sequence is truly sad. Studying Kata in depth opens you to a world of exciting and inexhaustible study. The number you know is not important; understanding the depth of each is.

Also observed in martial arts today is the separation of Kata from combat. Some feel Kata is unimportant and, therefore, practice only a few fighting techniques almost exclusively, not even bothering to look at what they can learn from them. And yes, they may become good fighters, but they will only attain the skill level that coincides with their physical ability. I will still put money on the person who studies Kata in relation to combat. His progression in skill may be a little slower than the other, but when his knowledge matures, he will be a strong fighter. His ability will coincide not with just his physical skill, but with his knowledge as well. Being a Budoka is impossible without intelligence.

You can look at Kata in several ways including their history and geographical influence, as well as their symbolic, cultural, and practical meanings. Kata evolved over periods measured in centuries. People who succeeded in the realm of combat added their understanding to each generation. Martial art traditions would not have survived to the present day if there were not some important lessons to be passed on.

The Model and the Shape

Kata - two different KanjiThere are two ways to write the word Kata in Japanese and each one is important in its study.

The first implies a model or Mold (see figure). Part of the character uses the radical for “earth”— something that is fixed. If we consider a drinking cup, using a mold when making a cup allows us to consistently form each cup the same way, the same size, weight, shape, thickness, and contours. This Mold is given to you as a beginner. Kata are standardized movement series exposing you to its movements while teaching basic concepts of your martial art. The beginner in the Doing (Gyo) stage of training learns this standard model of movement and techniques. He copies and practices with little thought as to the reasons behind the movements, because he is striving to learn the sequence and perform them correctly.

As you mature in your understanding of Kata, they start to take on a different form. The standard mold is transformed into a flexible shape.  Like our example of the drinking cup, we can appreciate that there are many different kinds of cups. Large, small, delicate tea cups, plastic cups, ceramic cups, glass cups, wooden cups, stainless steel cups, green cups, red cups—the variety is seemingly endless, but they all have the basic principles of a cup. They all hold liquid and usually stand stable on a flat surface. The second way of writing Kata uses the water radical and emphasizes something more flexible and fluid. Cups come in all shapes and sizes, but there is something “cuppiness” about all cups. The Shape still adheres to principles of being a cup.

Graduating from the Mold concept, you now explore the Shape concept or pattern of the cup. This is the Disciplined Training (Shugyo) stage of training. You now see how movements are related, and why they are performed the way they are. Exploring the depth of the Kata, you see new insights into the stances, movements, transitions, and engagement postures (Kamae). You study the applications of techniques (Bunkai), reverse techniques (Gyaku Waza), Variation (Henka), throws (Nage), and even the hidden techniques (Kakushi Waza). You see Duality (Kyo-Jitsu) in each movement and develop  coordination of Energy (Ki) within the body (Kiai) and how to express it to the Opponent (Aiki). The Kata becomes an integral part of you. Now you are studying Kata in the sense of the second character shown.

Returning to Simple

Finally, you return to the simple movement of the original Kata as it was given to you, but now that simple movement has forever been transformed. Although it looks like a simple movement there is now depth and freedom to your Kata like a wide river. There are many kinds of rivers, some are deep, some shallow, some flow fast, some flow slow, some are cold, some warm, some straight, some meandering. They all have something in common, however: they are all rivers and yet they are all different. Kata using the second character is like this.

Both ways of looking at Kata are important. The first gives the solid foundation of transmitting information to new generations of beginners. The second adds depth to the concepts found buried with. A good teacher knows this and teaches Kata using either way based on the student’s understanding and experience.

There are other concepts to be gleaned from Kata to help you become not only stronger in technique, but stronger in many aspects of our lives.


Excerpted from:  Budo Theory: Exploring Martial Arts Principles

by Richard Rowell

Kogeki Bobi – The Unity of Offense and Defense

Kogeki  is a term meaning to attack or cut down and refers to offense and Bobi means defense. The term “Ko Bo Ichi” or “Kogeki Bobi” refers to the principle that offense and defense are one. Hundreds of examples exist that can be used to illustrate this concept.

Upper body shifting to defend and attack simultaneouslyOne example that collapses the distinction between Offense (Ko) and Defense (Bo) is Upper Body Shifting (Jo Taisabaki – shown right). Here, the body rotates in defense, and the same rotation drives the attacking punch.  Using this type of technique takes a thorough understanding of timing (Hyoshi) , distance (Ma-ai),  Initiative (Sen No Sen or Tai No Sen) and most obviously, confidence.

Blocks used to deflect an attack are used to break an arm at the same time , seriously degrade the opponent’s offensive capability, and collapse his structure (Kuzushi). In Kendo a number of terms describe the concept of attack and defense being equal by taking the center line where a downward cut is used to both block or deflect the opponent’s sword while striking at the same time. Examples include:

  • Kiri Otoshi – ‘Dropping Cut’ from Itto Ryu 
  • Gasshi Uchi – from Yagyu Shinkage Ryu
  • Hitotsu Tachi – ‘One sword’ from Kashima Shinto Ryu

Offense and defense can be considered as two separate entities, part of a spectrum, or something inseparable.

Short Time Slices Blur Distinctions

At the tactical and technical levels of strategy, smaller and smaller time slices between offense and defense transitions can merge the two. To fight this way requires strong ability, mental fortitude and flexibility, which shows a high degree of understanding. I remember when I was first introduced to fighting using Sanchin Dachi, a very short upright stance. A visiting senior instructor from another Dojo in Kumamoto was training with us. I learned very quickly that close in-fighting is incredibly fast and combined offense and defense at the same time. Punches were sticky and curved around my blocks like a snake only strike and at the same time prevent me from retaking the initiative. I came away with a very important lesson. Never underestimate small movements, and offense and defense really are the same.

There are many other examples of this concept. These short paragraphs do ill justice to the depth of this area of study. Look into your Kata and find it.


Excerpted and adapted from: Budo Theory: Exploring Martial Arts Principles

by Richard Rowell

Understanding Initiative – The Principle of Sen

retaking the initiative - naginata

We live in a cause and effect world, and combat is no different. Combat is a chain of causality. Cause and effect follow each other in another endless dualistic cycle. The concept of Initiative (Sen) as it relates to combat is something worth considering. Sen can mean to precede, precedence, prior, future, or ahead. It has variously been described as Initiative in Budo terminology. To Initiate – to cause or facilitate the beginning of.

What is Initiative?

Several questions immediately come to mind about Initiative:

  • What is the purpose of initiative?
  • Is there advantage or disadvantage to taking the initiative?
  • Do you have to move or attack first to have the initiative?
  • How do we regain the initiative if we have lost it?

I am going to suggest that the purpose of Initiative (Sen) is to gain advantage over your opponent. Conventional thinking suggests that by taking the first step\move (initiative), your opponent is forced to react to you and abandon his own plans at least temporarily. Initiative seems to indicate that by pre-empting your opponent’s actions, you have a higher probability of winning.

Like Boyd’s OODA loop, if you can get inside the opponent’s decision cycle, you Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act faster than your opponent. Which puts him on the defensive, gives him less time/fewer options to react while giving you more freedom. In other words, you spend more time shaping the engagement in your favor and your opponent spends more time detecting and reacting to your initiatives.

Several cycles of this type of engagement, with each one giving you greater and greater freedom of action while reducing that of your opponent, would make it appear that taking the initiative has significant advantages.

Of course, your opponent is trying to do the same to you; like trying to force each other into a corner. If you are in the corner, you have fewer and fewer directions to move. You want freedom in both space (to be able to move) and time (to decide when to move). In the corner, your opponent dictates your movement options and he has a wider grasp of time (he can choose to keep you in the corner, wait for reinforcements, or force you to fight until you are destroyed, break out, or surrender).

Therefore, it would seem that the answer to the first question above is that the purpose of Initiative (Sen) is to gain advantage in the physical dimensions of time and space, mentally, and spiritually while reducing that of your opponent.

Do We Always Need the Initiative?

However, what about the second question? We can see some advantages to taking the initiative, but what about the disadvantages? If we equate initiative with attacking, we are in for a surprise. If we move against a prepared opponent, he will be ready to exploit the Gaps (Suki) inherent in our movement (Ugoki no Suki) or technique (Waza no Suki) that he can anticipate.

For example, if the attack is weak (slow, uncoordinated or at the wrong time), or anticipated (the defender plans for it, or actually depends on it for his reaction), then moving first is not necessarily an advantage.

Attacking is only one of several options to gain freedom of action, but if you are in a corner, it may be the only one left. Winning not only involves attacking, but setting up other opportunities. With an opponent trying to do the same to you, the goal must always be to react or initiate in such a way as to recapture Opportunity and/or Advantage by exploiting Gaps (Suki). A good pool player not only makes his shot, but also sets up his next shot to increase his opportunities and maintain the initiative. If he cannot make the next shot, he tries to place the cue ball in a position that makes it very difficult for the opponent to sink the next ball.

Western military science has always asserted that defense is a stronger form of combat because the attacker is required to move and strike—activities which trade off against each other and expose inherent Kyo-Jitsu cycles that can be exploited. There are many examples in Eastern martial traditions that espouse “Waiting” (Tai). “Be struck to win.”

Some martial styles have predominately advocated one or the other, but in reality there has to be a balance between offence and defence. There is a time and place for each. Higher-level Budo concepts such as the idea that offence and defence are the same thing will be discussed later (Chapter 13 – Kogeki Bobi).

Does Initiative Mean Moving First?

Initiation (Sen) and Attacking (Kogeki) are not the same thing. Like a chess player, you can strategically shape the chess board before the final engagement. In modern parlance, it is called preparation of the battle space, and starts long before the first bullet is fired. To put this into an example of a one-on-one engagement, imagine walking down the street heading to your car after seeing a movie and ahead of you are two unsavory characters.

  • You have already been proactive (taking the initiative) by studying your style of martial art and learning how to fight.
  • You have situational awareness (Kan) to determine that things are potentially shaping toward a bad situation.
  • By moving across the street to a well lit area with several other people, you are less likely to be isolated, position yourself in an advantageous position before any potential combat, and more importantly, dislocate the preferred environment of the opponents.
  • You can elicit support from allies, other people, or get the phone out of your pocket and dial 911 without hitting the send button yet.
  • You can determine which of the two opponents is the highest threat, and target any significant weaknesses of the opponent.

With the above scenario, you have been taking initiative without ever attacking and increased your probability of a better outcome than if you did nothing. You are already applying one of the three main methods of retaking the initiative from your opponent. You are mentally moving faster than your opponent and that leads to tactical speed. So, in answer to our third question, you do not have to attack first to have Initiative.

Because combat is dynamic and fluid, you are not always going to be in a position of maintaining the initiative. Your opponent may be faster, stronger, or have a particular technique that is very strong. You need to dislocate his strengths and apply yours to his weaknesses (Kyo) at the right time. There are several fundamental ways in which the Initiative (Sen) is recaptured during actual combat, and they all involve time. So now we can move on to the fourth question we have postulated about Initiative (Sen). How do we regain the initiative if we have lost it?


Excerpted from Budo Theory: Exploring Martial Arts Principles

by Richard Rowell.


“Peeling the Shinogi” – or – How the Sword Ridge Can Teach us to Block

Blocking - taking a deeper look

What is Blocking?

Have you ever considered what blocking is?  I mean really considered what you are trying to accomplish. Is there something beyond the obvious of not getting hit? Are there some common principles or logic that can help us appreciate all those blocks that we see in martial arts such as Karate, Aikido, Kendo, and Iaido.

I’m going start by using three analogies to look at the spectrum of blocking.

Blocking - static defenceWe’ll start with an asymmetrical engagement between a man with a bow and you being a strong castle with thick walls and high ramparts. Your walls can block the opponent’s attacks through sheer mass. An arrow hitting your stone walls will be lucky to make a small chip. In this case, your ability to take punishment is greater than the opponent’s ability to strike. This is one kind of block. This is attrition in military terms – the ability to take more punishment than the opponent. It is combat paid in full. In other words, you block with mass and then counterattack with your weapon. Mobility is not important.

Let’s move down the spectrum and place two opponents with equal offensive and defensive ability against each other. If each is capable of injuring the other with a punch or sword strike, then avoiding the opponent’s attack becomes more critical. Mobility and the approach to blocking become important.

But let’s change the scenario once more. Let’s give the opponent a very strong weapon, in this case, a high powered rifle. And let’s give you a shield made of thin plate steel that if hit squarely by your opponent’s bullet will penetrate and kill you. How do you block now? Mobility and approach to blocking become critical.

In the first scenario, we absorb the punishment and then counter with our own strike.
With the other two scenarios, we can take several approaches to blocking our opponent’s attack.

Understanding Dislocation

One approach is to make the opponent’s attack be in the wrong place or wrong direction. This is called in military science Positional Dislocation. By Shifting (Sabaki) out of the line of the attack, you dislocate the opponent’s attack.

A second approach is called Temporal Dislocation. This approach uses timing to pre-empt or change the tempo of the engagement and manipulates the time dimension to make the opponent’s strength irrelevant. In the martial arts, there are several timing types we use to create temporal dislocation including Initiative After the Intitiative (Go no Sen), Against the Initiative (Tai no Sen) and Initiative before the Initiative (Sen no Sen).

Typically we use both approaches in combination (body shifting and timing techniques). Nothing I have said so far is anything new. In fact, this is a classic example of how our understanding of Hard and Soft Methods (Juho and Goho) change as we increase our experience. In unarmed combat, blocking with a Hard approach tends to give us bruises on the arms and legs, the opponent’s technique bounces off our block only to be free to attack again. Using the Softer approaches of Shifting (Sabaki) and Timing (Hyoshi) we can dislocate the opponent’s attack and position ourselves in both space and time for a strong counterattack. This is the essence of Combining Hard and Soft (Ju Go Awase).

There is a third type of dislocation we can look at and that is Functional Dislocation – rendering the opponent’s strength dysfunctional by blocking or guiding the opponent’s attack. In the third scenario above, you could change the angle of your shield to deflect the bullet. Even though the shield would not take a direct hit, a glancing blow may deflect the bullet and allow you to survive and counter.

Blocking – Putting it All Together

So, what are we really trying to do when we block?  My answer:  we want to avoid getting hit, but equally important, gain tactical superiority by using all three dislocation methods were possible. I remember Sensei explaining that moving out of the line of the attack is blocking (positional dislocation), attacking can be blocking (in this case hastening contact with the opponent before he is ready e.g. Sen no Sen or Tai no Sen = temporal dislocation), and finally physical blocks that guide or trap the opponent and put him at disadvantage is also blocking (functional dislocation).

And this brings me to the concept of Shinogi.


Blocking - ShinogiThe word Shinogi has two Japanese homonyms (words sounding the same but with different meanings) that can give us an avenue to further explore the concept of blocking.

  • Shinogi can mean the ridgeline of a sword or blade.
  • Shinogi can also mean to endure, stave off, or pull thru—even to survive bad times.

So how do these two words allow us to explore the concept of blocking?

Blocking - ShinogiTo a beginner, a block is a reactive thing. Your opponent strikes and you react. We stick our sword out to meet his attack with little consideration of the blade—we just don’t want to get hit. If you use the cutting edge to block, your blade is going to become chipped and dull in very short order. As we gain experience, we learn to use the side of the blade (the Ridgeline or Shinogi) to deflect the opponent’s strike. Not only does it provide more surface area to catch an opponent’s strike, but it also preserves the offensive capability of your sword (the cutting edge).

Using the Shinogi

Leaving Positional and Temporal Dislocation to the side for now. Let’s examine aspects of Functional Dislocation using a block.

Catching the Attack

Blocking - different types

For a block to work we have to intercept the strike or attack somehow. So let’s look at an example that is the opposite of catching an attack. A modern fighter pilot does not want to “catch” an all aspect air-to-air missile. It will ruin his whole day. So what does he do?

When an enemy fighter fires a missile (think of this as the opponent punching or striking with a sword), the defending pilot immediately has to make it difficult for the attacker’s missile to hit him. The best way to do this is to make the tracking solution for the missile to be as complicated as possible. This means pulling as hard as you can into the missile so that you are at ninety degrees to the missile flight path (A). This makes it harder for the missile to hit. The pilot is using positional dislocation to defend against the missile. If you are familiar with Body Shifting (Tai Sabaki) this is a great example.

With blocking, you want to do the opposite. You want your arm or sword to intercept and make contact with the attack before it hits you. One way is to let it hit you or your blocking arm, surviving the hit, and then countering (B). Like our castle example above.

Another way is to cushion the attack (C). If you are a hockey player, one of the first things you learn in receiving a pass is that if you put your stick out stiffly, the puck hits your stick and bounces off, thereby making it more difficult to control the puck. You learn to give a little and cushion the pass in order to catch and control the puck. Another example would be tossing a water balloon up in the air and catching it. If you do not want the balloon to break, you catch the balloon more gently—giving in as you make contact.

A third approach would be to hit the attack as you sweep your block in front of you, making contact and deflecting it (D). Sweeping your arm across in front of you perpendicular to the attack is precisely the wrong approach because it maximizes the chance that you will miss contact (like our fighter pilot trying to avoid a missile A). Any miscalculation in timing results in you being hit. Most beginners try to hit the punch or strike out of the way in this manner, and may even be successful, but this approach does not ensure tactical control of our opponent. In unarmed forms of fighting such as Karate, this is no different. Our blocks meet the opponent’s punch with the aim of hitting the opponent’s arm out of the way, but as we learn rather quickly, if the opponent bounces off our block he is still free to continue his attack, sometimes with the same arm.

By angling the blocking surface as it sweeps across (or is stationed) in front of you maximizes the chance of you intercepting the attack and deflecting it (E) and gives longer control of the deflection.

Another approach is to use the width of the blocking object like the prow of a boat or wedge and force the water to either side allowing the boat to move forward with as little drag as possible (F). Using the Shinogi is like this.

There is a Japanese term “Shinogi o kezuru” to “peel the shinogi.” The phrase describes a closely fought contest between two opponents, but the idea is to use your sword so that the attacker’s sword glances alongside the Shinogi rather than meeting it straight on. The nice thing about using this type of thinking during blocking is that it can be done within the full spectrum between defense and offense. You can receive a strike completely defensively and let the strike angle off like rain hitting a roof and running down the eaves. It can also be used to deflect an attack as you attack. Like rowing your boat upstream—the water is deflected as you move forward.

Thinking about Shinogi gives you whole new ways to explore Kata and understanding of blocking beside avoiding being hit, such as:

  • Dislocating your opponent (positionally, temporally, or functionally),
  • How blocking can be used defensively and offensively,
  • Using blocks in combination with Shifting (Sabaki) and Timing (Hyoshi),
  • How Shinogi can be used to increase tactical control of the engagement, and finally,
  • How blocking be applied using both Hard and Soft Methods (Ju Go Awase).

Exploring the concept of Shinogi and learning to ‘Peel the Ridgeline” teaches us how to endure, pull through and tide over in many ways in and out of the Dojo.


by Rick Rowell

Terrain – A Tactical Analysis Of The Competition Area

Competition - tactical analysis

For the competition minded, a tactical analysis of the match areas for Karate, Judo, or Kendo can yield some interesting insights to how to deal with an opponent. The competition area is flat and usually square so there is no terrain to hide in or use for cover, but there is terrain that limits or enhances movement. If you have studied the game of Go then you will be able to appreciate corners, edges, and the center in both defence and offence.

Often in competition, you see two contestants circling each other, or one circling the other. Sometimes when the clock is ticking down, the person that is ahead in points circles to avoid combat and wastes time to win the match. The person that is behind wants to force interaction to try and catch up, but lets his opponent win at his strategy of letting time run out.


By eliminating opportunity for your opponent to circle, you can immediately and effectively limit the opponent’s freedom of movement to half the competition area (if he declines to attack) simply by shifting to cut off the circling (see figure). By shifting, you are using the edges of the competition area to support your flank and limit the opponent’s movement to that side. He is forced to circle the other way, attack or withdraw. Edges can also be effectively used to limit a strong opponent’s to attack on his preferred side (left or right).


A few more shifts and you can maneuver him into a corner. When your opponent is in a corner, he has to divide his attention between you and the match area boundary, which invites a mental Gap (Suki) that can be exploited if you chose to attack.

In a corner, two sides restrict movement. Your opponent has two options; he can either attack, or avoid. Avoidance can take two forms, 1. He can step out of the match area in which case he will get penalized, or 2. he can try to slip out one side. Using maneuver and just offering combat by shifting to block the opponent’s circling means you have degraded the opponent’s freedom of maneuver. Further degrading it into a corner now allows you anticipate a reaction—coming at you, stepping out, or in a moment of indecision your chance to attack. Depending on the opponent and his strength and weaknesses you can choose to attack or counterattack based on your preference.

Competition - tactical analysis

Using the center, edges and corners of the match area tactically.


Taking the centre of the match area can create a psychological advantage right from the start.  It also does not impede you because you are not affected by edges as much as the opponent who is forced toward them. Competition area geometry of the  at the tactical level can have great effects on the outcome of the match if you can capitalize on it—but first you must be aware of it. There are other ways to analyze the competition area tactically, I leave it up to you to discover.

Considering Terrain

One factor that we typically loose sight of in the Dojo in Tactics is the effective use of terrain. Not all combat is likely to occur in an area were there is a clear unobstructed area to maneuver, and terrain can be an advantage or disadvantage, depending on how you utilize or fail to utilize your environment.

Take these ideas outside competition and consider how your environment can create advantages and disadvantages. Edges such as a wall can limit movement but also protect your back in a scenario with several opponents. Many Kata consider confined spaces, such as using a sword in a narrow hallway.

Terrain is a major consideration in modern tactics, why should it be any different in the martial arts? There are literally countless examples of using terrain to advantage during combat. As one example, 17th century swordsman Araki Mataemon used a bamboo grove to his advantage while fighting Yamada Shiryukan who specialized in the Kusari-Gama (a sickle with a chain and weight attached). Yamada could not use the chain and weight effectively with all the bamboo stems and died at the hands of Araki. Mataemon functionally dislocated the Kusari-Gama’s advantage by luring his opponent into the bamboo. He used terrain to his advantage.

The use of terrain in combat includes, barriers limiting the opponent’s movement or protection against the opponent’s techniques. You can use terrain to hide your entire person or just part of your body etc. You may even find some of these ideas in your Kata. Karate Kata show ways of using sand, rocks, farm tools, boat oars and even turtle shells as ways to use the environment and terrain to your advantage, as well as night fighting and fighting on boats.

Application of some of these techniques include fighting along narrow pathways between rice paddies. Iaido has Kata that reflect limitations imposed by the environment, such as narrow hallways, obstacles overhead, and even friendly noncombatants. Even some Engagement Postures (Kamae) in Iaido are related to environmental constraints (e.g. Hasso no Kamae and Waki no Kamae).

Practice in different environments to get used to the variation in terrain. Not all fights will be in areas that are free from obstruction or allow freedom of movement. Think about how your martial art uses these ideas in relation to individual techniques, tactics, and a combination of both.

by Rick Rowell

Check out Budo Theory: Exploring Martial Arts Principles  for more ways to improve you martial journey.

Without Reason, Inconsistent, Wasteful – Muri, Mura, Muda

Without Reason (Muri), Inconsistent (Mura) and a Man Without a Horse (Muda)

Principles (Ri) and Practice (Ji) are a dynamic pair of terms familiar in Buddhism, but also used in Budo. Ri is a principle, reason or truth—a higher order of understanding.  Ri comes from inspiration, intuition and inductive reasoning. This book is about Riron, or ‘Theory.’Muri Mura Muda - Ri Ji kanji definition

Ji is a concrete thing such as a particular technique or movement—it is a manifestation of Ri. Principles (Ri) of combat distilled from engagements and experience are transformed into concrete things such as the Kata you study, a particular technique, or stance. Both Principle (Ri) and Practice (Ji) are indispensable. You can have all the understanding in the world, but if you cannot apply it, then you are crippled. Conversely, having all the ability to do something, but having no idea what to do is equally crippling. Behind each and every technique is an underlying truth, principle or reason. If you find the Principle (Ri) it will make your technique stronger. By practicing technique, you may discover the truth behind it.

No Reason, Inconsistency, and Not Using Your Horse – Muri, Mura, and Muda

While training in Japan, one morning I was introduced to some terms that I had never heard before. While practicing Basics (Kihon) and Kata, Soke would look at me and say “Muda” or “Muri.” I questioned him about the terms, but he only gave a brief explanation. I think he wanted me training during the morning workout. With my curiosity piqued, I pinned him down after lunch and got an explanation of what turned out to be everyday expressions to the Japanese, but which opened new doors to my understanding of Karate.

In fact, these three words were probably a significant driver for me to pursue the research presented in this book. These three terms are used to describe different ways time and resources are wasted. They are even used in automobile production plants like Toyota to help streamline their operations, but they offer a very penetrating way to look at your martial art.

No Reason/No Principle – Muri

If you try to do something Without  Principle (Muri), you are trying to create result with no structure.Muri - definition and Kanji
As an example, trying to reproduce an exact copy of the Eiffel tower by nailing a bunch of 2×4’s together, would likely end up in failure. If you understood the concept of compressive loads of such a tall structure, and understood the limitations of 2×4’s, you might have a better chance of being successful. You would make larger beams from boards nailed together near the base to support the compressive load of the structure above. Alternatively, you could opt for a material that would better support these kinds of loads.

Doing something Without Reason (Muri) is like trying to create the maximum potential in a punch without understanding simple things like proper joint sequence, stance, hip rotation, or that you have to close your fist, etc. To force a result with No Reasoning (Muri) is ultimately wasteful, tiring, and totally dangerous against an experienced opponent, because he will find the Gaps (Suki) in your armor and exploit them.

Being unreasonable mentally and emotionally also leads to waste. Being unreasonable in letting go of baggage leads to all sorts of unhappiness. Being unreasonable in interactions with people by always trying to get what you want leads to alienation. You are missing the Principle (Ri) and trying to force a result (Ji).

Muri is a great concept because it suggests that you should look at your technique and examine it in several ways:

  • Is the technique beyond your current capabilities?
  • It allows you to search for the reason or principle behind the movement or technique.
  • If you understand the reasoning behind one technique, it may have wider application to others (using inductive reasoning).
  • By analyzing your failure you can find the principles behind your technique

When my Sensei says “Muri” to me now, I understand it means I haven’t found the principle or meaning behind it, or that it is currently beyond my capabilities. He has given me a gift, because he has pointed to the root of my problem—understanding the Principles or Reason (Ri) behind the technique.

Inconsistency – Mura

Mura can refer to an Inconsistent movement, action or way of thinking.Mura - Definition and Kanji

As an example, imagine thinking about eating ice cream when you are trying to deliver the hardest punch you can. This seemingly trivial example is used to illustrate that the mind and body are inconsistent. Other examples are hitting before you finish your step forward and separating the components of the body so they are not in synchronization.

Stepping forward with large upward and downward motion wastes time and detracts from your main purpose, which is to translate your body forward.  Punching hard with my right hand and weak with my left is Inconsistent (Mura). Acing your art class and not your math class is Mura. Telling someone you will meet them at 3:00 pm and not showing up until 4:00 pm is Mura.

Applying a principle using one technique and not another is a great example of Mura. The message here is to learn to be consistent in technique and application—to deliver a proper execution at any time and any place that you choose in the circumstances you find yourself in.

Not Using Your Pack Horse – Muda

Muda refers to doing things in excess of what is needed, which could involve time, energy, length of the movement, etc.Muda - definition and Kanji

It was only when my Sensei got a Japanese dictionary and showed me the characters that I understood its meaning. Muda literally means “No Pack Horse.” This does not necessarily mean that you do not have a horse, but that you have one and are not using it. It is like you are carrying a heavy bag on your shoulders while your horse walks beside you unburdened.

An example of Muda might be using a Shifting (Sabaki) motion that is too large.  When the opponent steps in with a punch, you step back too far to be able to counterattack quickly.

Muri, Mura and Muda give us a means to analyze our technique. Next time you are sweating in the Dojo and just cannot figure out what is wrong, ask yourself if it is Without Principle, Inconsistent or Where’s the horse?

Muri, Mura and Muda are ways that let you examine the practical application (Ji) in each and every technique, action and movement. It goes well beyond just your martial art. Wasting time and resources are important concerns for runners who want to make an efficient stride, and power skaters to increase the efficiency of their leg strokes. You can use these three concepts to analyze relationships in your life, how much you eat and why you fail at calculus.

The key is to search for the Principle (Ri) behind the technique. This entire text is about Ri. If you glimpse the Ox in one punch out of a thousand—work to make it two, then three. Reduce the inefficiencies and understand the principles and, as we will see, the ultimate journey ends with Ri-ai—a unification of principles.

Miyamoto Musashi had something to say about understanding the difference between Ri and Ji—and the truth that they are inseparable:

“…if popular ways are examined with the correct principles, it can be seen that those which lean toward the long sword, those that use the short sword as their principle, those which lean toward the strong or the weak, and those which are attuned to the overall picture or the fine details are all distorted and prejudiced.”

For my part, I tend to be a man with a horse who does not know how to use it.

Principle and Practice Are One – Ri Gi Ittai

In reality, Ri and Ji cannot survive without the other. Each is part of a dualistic pair with the other. One who has collapsed this duality and integrated both Principle and Practice has attained a high understanding of Budo. Ri Gi Ittai is one of a number of unifying principles in Budo.

Excerpted From: Budo Theory: Exploring Martial Arts Principles

by Richard Rowell