Sunday, April 22, 2012

Thought experiment

The story goes that what we know today as Karate we owe to intrepid Okinawans who travelled to China to pick the brains of Chinese masters. Later generations of karate masters based their authority and expertise on how close their relationship was to the original travelers to China, which brings me to a joke told to me by my friend, Bob the chef.

It goes something like this:

A new monk, let's call him Brother Al, is assigned the task of copying ancient manuscripts by hand. The original manuscripts, too valuable to be handled by the monks, are kept in a vault where they've been stored for ages. Only copies are available to the monks in the copy room. Brother Al, being a sharp guy, his joining a monastery not withstanding, asks Abbot Bud, most senior of monks,"Abbot Bud, how can we ensure the accuracy of our work if we only copy from copies?"

Abbot Bud ponders the question as Brother Al looks on. Alarm builds in Brother Al as Abbot Bud's demeanor changes from beatific calm to wide-eyed concern. "Good question, Brother Al, mind the other brothers while I run down to the vault." And with that, Abbot Bud hikes up his robes and sprints as fast as his sandaled feet can carry him across the stone floor. Hours pass, no Abbot Bud.

A concerned Brother Al and two other monks, Josephus and Reggy, make their way to the manuscript vault and find a distraught Abbot Bud. A page of illuminated vellum is crumpled in his tight fist. "It was never ib, it was never ib, it was never i frickin b" Abbot Bud repeats, his eyes swollen with tears. Josephus and Reggy steady Abbot Bud while Brother Al smoothes the wrinkled page. "He's right, my brothers," Al reads, "it's e b r, the word is supposed to be celebrate."

I often think kata can be like ancient manuscripts with transposed or missing letters, even missing pages. Here's a thought experiment-if the first transcription of the kata "manuscript" was flawed, how would you know?

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