Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Monday, May 21, 2018

Same difference

I remember when we were little, when our parents would let us out and we would roam freely through the woods and fields. They expected we would come home for lunch whenever we got especially hungry. On summer evenings, we had to be in by dark. It was a different world, a different time. When I head off into the woods now, I generally stick to the trail. It might almost seem as though I'm headed somewhere--no longer running for a hollow tree glimpsed off in the distance or following a meandering stream. As long as I'm in the woods, it doesn't much matter to me where I am. I'm just content to plod along in the company of trees, without a hint of the grid-like overlay of civilization's labyrinth of roads and houses. I hear the echo of Bill Bryson's words: "However far or long you plod, you are always in the same place: in the woods," and that's enough. Though I've often felt that I could see the hint of a sneer on Bryson's face, as if he needed to shield himself against the criticism he anticipated from cynical urbanites.

Perhaps he didn't mean to imply anything in the least disparaging. His book, A Walk in the Woods, is wonderfully entertaining, though it seems to find much of its humor in the ineptitude of its protagonists, in the unlikeliness of their shared adventure to hike the Appalachian Trail. Yet I wonder why we should feel so out of place in these primal surroundings, which of course aren't even so primal anymore, now that we've fenced it in and preserved it as a state park or labeled it a conservation area.

The other thing about that quote is that it makes it sound as though it's all the same, that it's all just a bunch of trees, one pretty much like the next. Sometimes I think this tendency to generalize, to smooth out all the rough edges and do away with differences, is quite human. I remember it was almost a common retort when we were children to respond to a friend who might correct something you said with the quick rejoinder, "Same difference." I'm sure that ended it when I was a child, though I'm not at all sure what it really means. But it got me thinking about the ways we tend to treat techniques in kata when they appear to be the same--that is, we assume that techniques that look the same must function the same in kata.

Open hand block from Shisochin.
The open-hand "block" we see in Shisochin is not the same, nor does it perform the same function, as the open-hand technique in Seipai kata. If we isolate the techniques, they appear to be the same, but each technique in kata is influenced by the techniques that precede it and the techniques that follow it in any given sequence. And the logic of this suggests that there may be slight variations in how each is performed--variations that differentiate it from techniques that only appear to be the same. The supposition, of course, is that there is no hard and fast alphabet of techniques that comprise a single system of self defense and that we are then meant to rearrange these techniques--as if we were forming words and sentences from letters--into various kata. Though this is certainly how we seem to think of "basic" techniques when we practice head blocks (jodan uke) and chest punches (chudan uke) and down blocks (gedan uke) and front kicks (mae geri) at the beginning of every class. Perhaps we don't really stop to consider that these "basics" form a very small percentage of the techniques found in the classical subjects of Goju-ryu.
Open hand "block" from Seipai.

It is this bent of mind that tends to divorce kata techniques from their applications or bunkai. The open-hand techniques after the first turn in Seisan kata--turning to the south after the opening sequence of techniques in the front-facing line--are another example of this, I think. After the initial right arm circular block and the left palm strike, the kata moves into a right-foot-forward basic stance while the left arm and left palm is brought down and the right arm and palm is brought up, finishing with the right palm rotated and facing forward. This same technique is done once more, stepping forward into a left-foot-forward basic stance, before pivoting to the right to finish the sequence with the "punches" and kick to the west. In some schools, these techniques are done twice--first stepping with the right and again stepping with the left--and in others, four times, twice with each hand and foot. In either case, the "message" of the kata is that the two techniques are meant to function together; that is, both are part of the controlling technique of the bunkai sequence, following the initial block and attack of the first technique that occurs on the turn. (The repetition of four of these techniques suggests that both sides are being shown or practiced within the kata. Either that or an attempt to bring the kata back to the original starting point at the end, though this certainly does not generally seem to be of any importance in Okinawan kata.)

The second palm-up technique from
Seisan kata just before the pivot
to the west.
The point here, however, is that the second of these techniques (and the fourth, if one chooses to repeat this technique four times) is done a bit differently. In the first of these techniques, the right hand is brought up palm first and then rotated until the palm is facing forward. The second technique is usually done that way also, with the left palm rotated until it is facing forward. However, if you watch some of the older teachers perform Seisan kata, you will see that at least some of them do not rotate the left palm. Rather, the left palm is brought into the chest, only facing forward as it is brought in towards the chest, the movement that precedes the turn to the right (west) to finish the bunkai sequence. The reason it is performed this way in kata by some of the older teachers is that the left palm has been brought up into the opponent's chin (the right has hold of the hair) and as the left palm is brought in towards the chest the opponent's head is twisted in. Then, with the pivot to the right or west, the opponent's head is twisted sharply in the opposite direction.

This, of course, raises a difficult issue. Kata should always inform bunkai. Otherwise we're left with all manner of creative interpretations that don't bear the least resemblance to kata movement. But kata was meant to preserve bunkai or self-defense applications. We have, I think, an innate desire to generalize movement, to homogenize it in order to understand it. But from a certain perspective, there really is no such thing as standard or basic technique, no generic chest blocks, for example, when it comes to the classical kata if each scenario is unique. Certainly there is good technique and bad technique, but the performance of any given technique is really dependent on how it is used in a sequence of kata movements. Occasionally, I think, over time, some of these movements, for whatever reason, have undergone subtle changes--differences have been dropped, rough edges have been smoothed out, until what was once only similar is now seen as the same technique.

When I was a lot younger, I used to look at every tree, judging whether it was a good climbing tree or not. I know a lumberman who would look at trees and size up the quality of the wood--was it soft or hard, straight-grained or not. The techniques of kata are the same--they're not generic, but rather dependent on how they fit into kata, how they are used within the self-defense scenarios of Goju-ryu kata. Like trees, I suspect, they're all different.

[For a more detailed discussion of these techniques see my book, The Kata and Bunkai of Goju-Ryu,

Friday, May 04, 2018

It was a gray day

Just a short two weeks ago, as I was out walking the trails at Fitzgerald Lake, there was a cold north wind that gusted its way through the tops of the hemlock trees. It didn't feel as though spring was quite in the air yet, though by the calendar it certainly should have been. You could make out small red buds on some of the trees but there was nothing else to really suggest that winter was over except that when the wind wasn't blowing, where the trail widened and there were fewer trees and very little undergrowth, the sun was warm. It might have been fall--the trees were still mostly bare.

I stopped by the edge of the swamp off Boggy Meadow trail to watch a lone mallard drift lazily around the fallen trees. There's usually a lot of activity here. Sometimes you can see turtles hanging out on floating logs and trunks of trees that beavers have felled and abandoned, probably because the trees were too big to maneuver through the maze of stumps and dead trees and branches that have broken off in storms or simply rotted and dropped in the water. The mallard, its iridescent green head catching the sunlight, seemed oblivious to me, but it was in its element and it knew, I'm sure, that I was just a spectator. I'm not sure whether it was the sun breaking through the clouds or the mallard--the only bit of bright color in an otherwise dull gray landscape--that brought my attention to the  grayness of everything around me. There are winterberry bushes with their red fruit and a few flowering weeds here and there, depending on the season, but all of the trees in the swamp, for as far as you can see, are dead, with dead, gray bark--no greens or browns or rust colors here. It all reminded me that most things in life are gray in a metaphorical sense; nothing ever seems simple or black and white, especially, I suppose, when it comes to the applications of kata.
The first technique on the turn from
Seisan, blocking with the right and
attacking with the left palm strike
...or is it another block?

We were fooling around with a different bunkai for the first sequence of Seisan kata the other day, the sequence that begins with the first turn. I had noticed there was something about this sequence that reminded me of the first complete bunkai sequence in Suparinpei, the steps and open-hand "blocks" that follow the last angle technique in shiko dachi to the northeast. I have always assumed that in Suparinpei, the defender is stepping in on an attacker standing in front of him; the first step, with the left foot and left hand coming to the outside of the attacker's right arm and pushing down, and the second step, with the right foot and right hand, coming up inside the attacker's left arm, pushing out. This is followed with another step, bringing the defender's left hand past the attacker's head, kicking with the right, and then bringing the attacker's head into the defender's right elbow attack. Then the right arm comes out and, with the left hand on the chin and the right grabbing the hair or back of the head, the opponent's head is twisted forcefully, breaking the neck.
The beginning of the first complete
bunkai sequence in Suparinpei,
after the last of the four angle
techniques in shiko dachi.

In Seisan, on the other hand, I have always assumed, because it fits with the principles we find in many of the other classical kata of Goju-ryu, that in turning around we are stepping off line, avoiding and blocking the left punch of an attacker stepping in from the west--blocking his left punch with the semi-circular motion of the right arm while attacking the head with a left palm strike. However, if the principle of stepping off line is not one of the things being illustrated by the structure of Seisan kata--if it is more akin to Suparinpei since there are many other similarities between these two kata--perhaps the bunkai or how to apply these techniques in Seisan is also similar to the above section of Suparinpei. If one is simply turning to face an attacker, and the attacker is either grappling with both hands or punching with first the left and then the right, we have something similar to Suparinpei, though initially on the opposite side. If this is the case, the defender would first
The beginning of the head twisting
finishing technique in Seisan.
block with the right from the outside of the attacker's left arm, pushing it down, and then block with the left on the inside of the attacker's right arm. Then, stepping forward with the right foot, the left hand, still in contact with the attacker's arm, pushes or pulls the attacker's right arm down, while the defender's right arm is brought up to attack the opponent's neck with a right, palm up shuto. Then, grabbing the hair (in ancient times, the topknot), the defender would step forward again, pulling the head down, while bringing the left palm up to grab the opponent's chin. The sequence from here pivots to the right (or west), twisting the head, and finally employing the ubiquitous knee kick to finish.

The beginning of the head twisting
finishing technique in Suparinpei.
I'm not sure which is the right answer, at least so far as what may have been the original intent of kata, and in some ways this bunkai and the one I have always practiced (and illustrated in my book, The Kata and Bunkai of Goju-ryu)--that is, stepping off line--are very similar. An awful lot may depend on the kind of attack the moves in kata are a response to, and that's the side that we can't see; all we have is the kata side, the defender's movements. And then there's the question of how this view might alter one's understanding of the other two bunkai sequences in Seisan kata. In other words, rather than showing three variations of the same bunkai or applications, the other two sequences would, if begun the same way, be substantially different. Would that, in turn, change how we thematically looked at the techniques of Seisan kata?

Of course, even so, some ideas may be better than others. Or, it may be simply a matter of personal preference. I don't know. Sometimes there is a lot of gray area in the landscape.