The Hand Grenade Parable

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The Hand Grenade Parable

Postby HanshiClayton » Thu Dec 18, 2008 8:45 pm

This essay has been on my web site for years. I put a condensed version of it into Shotokan's Secret, Expanded Edition.

Here’s a strange object from the shelf of my office. I use it as a flowerpot to display a spray of small flowers. It is round, hard, hollow, and surprisingly heavy.


So I hand it to you and tell you to think of as many uses for it as you can imagine. Go ahead, make a list of all the things this heavy, hollow ball might be good for.

And you make a list...

    Obviously it is a flowerpot.
    And a paperweight.
    And it is a ball. You could play croquet with it.
    It is hollow, and with a little experimentation you can use it as a one-note flute. Aha! It is a meditation device.
    And it is heavy enough to use as a counterweight on a coo-coo clock.
    You could use it as a hammer to smash open walnuts.
    You could paint it with a map of the world and use it as a globe.
    You could paint it red or green and hang it on a Christmas tree as an ornament.

At this point I stop you. No no! I forgot to tell you that this thing is a weapon. Figure out how to use it as a weapon!

So, after some thought, you might continue...

    I could hold it in my hand and smack somebody in the nose with it, like a “yawara ball.”
    I could throw it in their face as a distraction, or drop it on their foot.
    I could drop it in a sock and use it as a blackjack!
    I could string two of them together with clothesline and make a bola!

Those last two suggestions are very creative ideas, and would actually be very lethal, effective ways to use this heavy, hard ball as a weapon.

Very creative! Very effective! You have thought of multiple applications for this object, and two of them are lethal weapons, just as instructed. What a high level you must have!

And now that we have found so many interesting applications for this object, let’s see what it looked like before I stuck the flowers in it.


Once you realize that the object is really a hand grenade, suddenly you can imagine only one application for it. When I ask you how to use it, you’re going to tell me to pull the pin and throw it at the enemy foxhole. You are not going to tell me to drop it in a sock and crack someone’s skull with it. You wouldn’t dare suggest using it for croquet.

Why not? Because the real application is so dramatic and so vicious and so effective that it absolutely trumps the make-believe applications.

When you first start out in karate, the kata moves are completely baffling. You can’t recognize the purpose or application of more than just a few of the moves. A person at this level often asks us for “the meaning” of a specific move. We smile knowingly, because we know it is naive to think that a move has only one application!

As your level grows, you develop a library of applications. Eventually, one reaches the point where every move has multiple possible applications. People are impressed by this level of mastery, and teachers are often judged by how thoroughly they know the many different applications of one move.

But this is not the highest level of kata interpretation. There is a higher level. At this level we realize that each kata teaches a specific set of skills, and each move presents one specific skill for us to learn. There was originally one correct interpretation of each move. When you find it, it makes the other interpretations look as silly as putting flowers in a hand grenade.

So when someone shows you an application, ask yourself, “Is that a flowerpot, or is it a hand grenade?” And don’t be fooled by the pretty flowers.

There is one correct interpretation of each move. People who offer multiple interpretations have not reached this level yet.
Bruce D. Clayton, Ph.D.
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