The common metaphor for the sequential development of learning is the tree of knowledge, anchored by the roots of its fundamentals and reaching towards the sun. Yet, under more careful examination, the notion is unhinged by its figuration. It’s like asking someone to draw a tree. S/he’ll almost always sketch what s/he sees, what’s above ground. But that’s an imaginary tree, a fantasy of a tree. So much of the real tree is unseen and underground. And constantly changing. The tiny roots of a seedling are nothing like the roots of a mature oak. The tree doesn’t just grow up, in its trunk and branches and leaves. It also grows down and outward in its roots, gaining depth and breadth every day of its life. If it didn’t, the entire tree would cant over and uproot itself, unbalanced by the mass of what’s above. Or the whole tree would merely die.
It’s exactly the same in karatedō. If the practice of kihon is ignored, all advanced techniques fall apart, no matter how much experience or how many years of training a karateka has. You don’t learn kihon as a beginner and then “know” them for life. If you don’t constantly come back to them, they fade away. Yet the function of practicing kihon is more than merely sustaining competence in them.
You learn choku zuki 直突き (straight punch) in your first karate class. But if you train hard for several months, you will perform choku zuki much better than on your first day. And you will start to understand the mechanics of the punch, how the relaxed integration of hip, chest, shoulder, arm, and hand makes your punch faster and harder. You will be able to look back to that first class and see shortcomings of which you were totally oblivious back then.
If you train hard for several years, your choku zuki will get even better. You will start to understand the nuances of movement when your body punches as if it’s second nature. You will punch, not from your arm or shoulder, but from your tanden 丹田, your center. You will empty yourself repeatedly into the strike, and it will whip out and again with a shocking impact that will make your earlier efforts seem ungainly shoves. You will look back to the first months of your training and start to realize the limitations of what you could do and understand, and how that must still be in the case now in ways that remain shrouded, despite your best efforts. You will start to become aware that training choku zuki has changed what and who you are, that the never-ending thwack-thwack-thwack of hitting the pads is like a blacksmith hammering the core of who and what you are. This is exactly how the Japanese sword is forged.
If you train hard for several decades, your choku zuki will get even better. I haven’t trained nearly that long, but I can see it in the masters whose abilities far exceed mine. Two things I do know, though, watching them practice choku zuki over and over again: I don’t know anything about karatedō and I need to train much more.
The practice of karatedō must attend to kihon, because that is the only way that the fundamentals can stay alive, and all of karatedō depends on that life coursing through its practice. The growth of the roots of karatedō deepens and broadens the incorporation of kihon into the body, mind, and spirit. Basics are foundational, but basics cannot stay the same. Everything turns on their ongoing unfolding. As Dave Lowry notes, “The budō are circular. The last teaching is the first. The most esoteric secrets are to be found in the most basic of fundamentals.”
Going back to school, the karate lesson is that the fundamentals are not really the alphabet and spelling and arithmetic. The fundamentals are how we understand ourselves, our world, our learning, and what we do. The nature of teaching is that it changes who we are, but good teaching does more than that. It also changes who we were. It changes the fundamentals. And the real lesson is not that now we are wise and now we know the truth and now we understand our origins. It’s that, given the mixed blessings of good teaching, courage, and openness, our conceptions of our origins, of who we were and where we came from, will keep changing. The roots will deepen and broaden.
This also holds for disciplines. Sociology or philosophy or art or science is not what you were taught in your first undergraduate class. Your knowledge of discipline is grounded in those earliest conceptions, but the task of education is to keep revisiting and reshaping that ground. Never, ever, trust a sociologist who is certain of what sociology is or a scientist who is certain of what science is. At the very best, s/he is trying to teach you an oversimplification of what sociology or science was when s/he was an undergraduate. Any respectable sociology or science will keep its conception of itself contingent and open.
The complicating factor is that the same applies to teaching itself. I can tell you what I think teaching should do, but teaching would be arid and impoverished if could be contained by my grossly limited and flawed understanding. The kihon of teaching need to be kept alive, practiced assiduously but always changing both itself and teacher. Do not, by any means, trust what I say about teaching. But do not, by any means, trust what any academic says, either. Including yourself.