The relationship between form and substance, between kata and Kumite, is often debated by martial arts practitioners. Which punctually divide themselves in those who are ready to swear and perjure on the usefulness or uselessness of the first as a function of the second. As I see it, these discussions demonstrate just how minority is, in the martial art world, the propensity for speculative thinking and Zen practice, despite being closely related to Budo and oriental martial arts, especially Japanese ones.
But we don’t necessarily have to go all the way to Japan to find examples of the relationship between form and substance. A relationship which, incidentally, is the basis of all Western thought, from Parmenides onwards.
The potter takes the substance (in particular what is most material: the earth, the clay) and gives it a shape, and that shape is the vase. That matter is no longer just clay, but something that comes out of the mere domain of nature to enter the domain of culture: thanks to the shape it has now acquired, clay becomes, that is, a tool, it becomes useful to a purpose and expresses a sense, a function.
To fulfill this function it does not matter that the vase is finished and decorated. It may be not as well. But the potter himself refines its shape, bending its functional need in search of a compromise, a balance with the equally fundamental aesthetic need. He decorates it by drawing, engraving, and painting, in an incessant attempt to grasp its true essence, the idea of a vase that he’s seen in his mind. A philosopher would say that the potter tries to produce the vase “in itself and for itself”. That is, it seeks its “true substance”, what is firm, exact, immutable in it. And, in this process, starting from the physical substance and passing through the form, the potter finally returns to the substance (but a spiritual substance, deeper, truer than the original one) creating something unique and unrepeatable. Here the vase, already in the field of utility, finally crosses a second border to enter the much more rarefied and mysterious domain of beauty.
This is how I personally interpret the Japanese concept of Shu-ha-ri. Shu is obedience to the law of nature imposed by bare matter (imitation). Ha is the first stage of domination over matter, which allows us to transform it (trans, “beyond” + form, “give shape”) for a specific purpose and utility (application). Ri is the transcendence that leads back to a deeper substance: the art of going beyond matter and utility, aspiring to beauty and striving for ideal perfection (expression of the spirit through technique).
It makes no sense to discuss the presumed supremacy of substance over form or vice versa. They are two complementary aspects of the same process of growth and knowledge that chase each other, on an ever more subtle level, like Yin and Yang in Taijitu. The more you study, the more you practice, the more you realize that, like it or not, there is no reality in one if there is not also in the other.