One of the things I had to wrap my head around when I started to do koryu after over a decade of training in shinbudo (the more “modern” martial Ways) was that there were different levels of kata.
Judo, for example, may have harder kata forms that are meant for more advanced study, but they are not clearly demarcated. Nage No Kata can be considered by some teachers to be more applicable to beginners than Ju No Kata, but there really is no formal restriction that keeps beginners from learning the latter, more complex, subtle form. Nor are any of the individual techniques taught in a stratified, restrictive manner; rather they are simply taught from the easiest and most applicable to the more individualistic and complex, according to the individual instructor or the necessities of testing and ranking. In large part, this must have been influenced by Kano Jigoro’s approach to education and pedagogy. He was, besides the creator of modern Kodokan judo (and hence a distant ancestor who laid down the basic DNA for all modern grappling arts influenced by judo), one of Japan’s most important public school educators at the turn of the 20th Century. Kano embraced the open, facts-based, inquiring nature of Western educational theory. Besides training sessions, he would hold lectures on the philosophy, theory and mechanics of judo. By his actions, we see that Kano believed in disseminating knowledge; not just within the new Kodokan style but also distilling important information from the various different jujutsu ryu before they faded away, taking their knowledge with them. He wanted to open up education.
Also, too, karatedo had kata but no real hierarchical structure as I’m about to describe. Some kata were harder, more technically complex, but once you reached a certain level of ability, you would conceivably be able to learn all of them per the judgment of your teacher. I suspect this may have arisen from the very different nature of traditional Okinawan arts compared to traditional Japanese arts. As an Okinawan karate friend related to me, from his interviews with very old karate sensei in Okinawa, before the consolidation of the kata into specific “ryu,” karate was taught more like how the art of sanshin (Okinawan “shamisen,” or three-stringed musical instrument that strikes me as a kind of Asian banjo) was taught. You apprenticed yourself to a master and learned that master’s specialty, perhaps two or three songs that he’s famous for singing. In the same way, you’d study under a karate teacher and learn perhaps two or three kata and the basics. When you reach a certain level, the teacher may tell you, “Okay, you have learned as much as you can from me. Now go study under my friend in the next village. He’ll teach you his own special kata (or song, if it was sanshin),” and off you’d go to work on a couple more kata. Pretty soon, after making the rounds of different teachers, you end up with your own specialty or flavor and start your own little school (a karate or sanshin club), or you would decide you’d rather not be a teacher and go back to studying under a teacher that you really like and whose style and emphasis you want to emulate.
With modern kendo, the standardized Kendo Kata were established by a committee for grading purposes. Everyone learns them for ranking. There’s no “secret” kata only for higher ranks. There is, therefore, only one level and you are judged by your performance per that open and widely understood parameters.
With the koryu, however, there are different ryu whose methods are so different that you can’t compare and contrast one person’s technical abilities directly with another person. Some of the gross body movements may be similar, but the execution and direction, the timing and intent of similar-looking cuts and strikes may be totally at odds from school to school. So I can understand why, in casting about for a standardized set of kata that would unify kendo players or iaido practitioners, you need a system that would hold everyone to the same form and application.
But beyond that, within each koryu ryuha, there are classifications of kata based on your ability to absorb the teachings, on a technical physiological level, and on a mental/theoretical level. Grossly speaking, I am referring to what are called the Shoden, Chuden and Okuden levels of kata.
You will find these general stratifications in all traditional Japanese arts, from music to Noh drama, to flower arrangement to tea ceremony. They may be named differently but the basic concept of levels of stratification remains the same.
In the Urasenke School of Tea, for example, you have Nyumon, a primary certification that allows you to learn the most basic temae, or tea forms (which we could equate to martial kata), then you quickly move from these basics to Konarai (literally, “little teachings”). These lay the foundation skills in the temae. Then, generally speaking, you have Shikaden; an intermediary set of temae, and Okuden, the forms not published or openly taught. What you can be taught depends on your “ranking,” which is somewhat aligned to the level of temae, but not quite exactly, especially at the upper end of the temae.
In most koryu forms, the foundation level kata are classified as shoden, meaning “beginning teachings.” Quite obviously, shoden kata are taught to beginners, and are the simplest to learn, easiest to grasp, rudimentary kata. These kata can also be called Shin (“formal, concise”) or “Omote” (“outward”).
Chuuden, or chuden (just matter of translating the pronunciation into English) are “middle teachings.” They are intermediary in complexity. They can also be called “Gyo” ( “Running”) as opposed to the stiffer, more stylized “Shin.” Sometimes they are called “Ura,” as in “the other side of Omote”).
Okuden, or “hidden” teachings are often referred to as “secret teachings.” While they are limited only to the initiated, the meaning of okuden is not so much “secret” as it is “far in the back or remote part, of a training hall.” In other words, these forms are taught in the far end of a dojo, away from prying eyes at the entrance, in the oku, or deepest recesses of the room. There are also references to this level as being “Soh” of the Shin/Gyo/Soh classification. This is derived from the three levels of Japanese calligraphy, which correspond roughly to structured, angular writing (Shin), more free-flowing script (Gyo) and the hardest: very spontaneous, expressive, free flowing writing (Soh).
In a sense, if you look at the geomantic symbolism, shoden techniques taught when you just have a foot in the door of the dojo. Chuuden are when you are fully engaged and committed to the school, and you are training right in the “middle” of the dojo. Okuden is taught way back in the remotest part of the dojo, taught when you are ready to plumb the depths of the ryu.
There are good reasons why this stratification of kata exist in koryu, and also good reasons why they perhaps shouldn’t in modern shinbudo. The reasons range from the practical (if you have over 450 kata, you’ve got to categorize them in some way or you will have information overload and it all will be a jumble of too many kata!; and cataloging them according to technical/mental complexity is a really logical, intuitive way) to the financial (by charging a fee to be licensed to learn each level, the teacher and the school has a progressive stream of income).
Philosophically speaking, I think modern budo does not like to deal with this Shoden/Chuden/Okuden demarcation because of Kano Jigoro’s influence as a progressive educator. He wanted to modernize traditional jujutsu and he therefore eschewed the secrecy involved in the classification. You learned the techniques and kata when you are able to learn it, and you don’t need a certificate or pay an additional fee to do so. When you have no secrets, then everything is an “open book,” and everyone can contribute to studying the techniques, refining them, and possibly retooling them to work better in contests and training bouts. Hence, you will not see any such classification in judo kata, kendo kata, or karate kata, that I am aware of.
There are also secondary classifications. Betsuden (meaning “separate from the tradition) is a class of kata that are derived from outside the primary, original teachings. You can also call these kata Bangai (“stuff outside”), or Bette (“Separate Hands, i.e., separate techniques). They may have been devised by a headmaster or master instructor based upon existing techniques and then made part of the curriculum, or they may have been grafted onto the system by exposure to another ryu, perhaps in a case where a headmaster studied under a different ryu for a while and received a teaching license and then returned to his former system but wanted to retain what he learned.
Within the Okuden, there are also discreet levels. Their names vary depending on the ryu. Of the ones I am aware of, you have Shinden (kata whose origins are directly inspired by a spiritual vision by the founder, or his lineal successors), Soden (the original kata devised by the founder), Oku-iri (kata that introduces you to the okuden), and so on. Different ryu will have different ways to subcategorize their kata.
The danger I see, however, is mixing the two systems of teaching up. Trying to introduce the Shoden/Chuden/Okuden into modern shinbudo doesn’t make sense. The ship already left the harbor. You can’t change the teaching methodology without messing up the entire integrity of the system. So a koryu wannabe karate studio really shouldn’t just make up classifications for the sake of charging more money for teaching an “advanced” kata like Wanshu or Bassai Dai because the teacher read about it in my blog and thought, “Hey! More money!”
Likewise, breaking apart the classifications to “modernize” koryu just makes no sense. The classifications are there for very good reasons, not the least of which is that it establishes a progressive learning system that makes sense of a full, rich curriculum.
Within the Bitchuden Takeuchi-ryu of my teacher, Ono Yotaro, the attainment of a certain level allows you to first learn certain okuden kata that are called Soden, kata passed down from the founder for over four centuries. When receiving permission to learn these forms, your certificate only lists the names in cryptic, often confusing Chinese characters that give very little clue to their meaning. There are no written explanations to how these methods are done. You are taught these methods only one night a year, on the anniversary of Takeuchi Hisamori, the founder’s death. After other students receive their rank promotions, all the assembled students above a certain rank gather in the dim moonlight and firelight, on the side of a mountain that overlooks Kyoto, and we cooperatively teach the techniques to the newly inducted. Each of us reviews the methods, then we let the newly promoted a chance to try the techniques out, and we go over them, one after another, under the quiet and watchful eyes of our headmaster. In that way, the tradition is passed on from us to each other, as we learn to teach, and the new ones learn the absorb the teachings, in a truly traditional, exclusive manner.
I thought that everything I had been taught at the Shoden and Chuuden level, and even at the first Okuden levels, were now evident as techniques to prepare me for this moment. And yet, the techniques were at first baffling to me. They were simpler, faster, more…dare I say it?…upfront and powerful than anything I had been previously taught. Some of the techniques were so fast and brutal, they negated anything I learned in the previous categories. Yet, perhaps had I NOT been trained towards that moment, what seemed simpler may have been impossible for me to perform even half-way decently because the seeming simplicity hid, quite possibly, precise techniques that would not be possible for me to do without prior training. I know, this paragraph seems confusing. Perhaps it’s because I’m still digesting the implications of learning the Soden and Shinden methods. They were so different, yet so similar, that it felt like a whole new world opened up to my understanding of the ryu.
In a way, too, as you progress from one level to another, from Shoden to Chuuden, your understanding of the methods also change, and at that stage, no doubt they also appear as radical a change of view as what I experienced that night. As I tell my students, think of Shoden as going to elementary school and learning how to write the alphabets. You really need to go through this stage to become literate, and you have to keep practicing. But you also have to graduate from elementary school one day and move on to middle school, and high school, and eventually to Okuden, which is like college. Shinden or Soden? That’s like graduate school and you’re going to get a Ph.D. But if you can’t write, you can’t get very far at all, let alone even the intermediate level.