Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

It's a system, like the trees in the forest

The forest was wet today. Droplets of water collected in the leaves here and there, and the moss looked a bit brighter green after the rain we had overnight. But the temperature is dropping gradually, the days are getting shorter, and most of the trees are bare. It's hard to tell which trees are dead this time of year. The only thing that seems to be thriving is the lichen and small colonies of mushrooms clinging to the old tree trunks that lay rotting by the side of the trail. 

Saifa kata
Seipai kata
When I'm out in the woods these days, I don't usually think of the forest as an eco-system, though I know it is. I know that when the larger trees fall, after a strong rain or a heavy storm with high winds, they leave a hole in the canopy overhead and the wild grasses, the ground cover, and the acorns lying buried beneath the leaves, some waiting patiently for years, will start to grow in the spring, reaching for the sunlight that's finally been able to make its way through the leaves of the taller trees. 

Suparinpei kata
Seiunchin kata
No, when I'm out walking in the woods these days, I'm just looking for the seemingly random beauty you can find when you go out "forest bathing." Nothing seems so systematic. Everything seems chaotic and haphazard. But, of course, it is a system, just like any martial art, despite what some may imply when they suggest that a style like Goju ryu, for example, is a random collection of kata that come from different sources andwere created by different people at different periods in the past.

Kururunfa kata
Seipai kata
While this may be true (and probably is given that the structure of the Goju classical subjects varies considerably), it does not change the fact that it's a system. The different kata show variations as if they were jazz compositions, as if different composers were given the same melody and told to improvise. One need only compare techniques from different kata to see the variations, to appreciate how different techniques explore similar themes. Certainly there are differences--any given self-defense scenario may vary depending on one's position in relationship to the attacker or, for that matter, what the initial attack is--but the apparent similarity of some techniques and the fact that they are used in a very similar manner (the application or bunkai) underscores the notion that they are all part of the same system, regardless of whether or not the different classical subjects may have had different origins.

Sanseiru kata
Shisochin kata
The key here, of course, is to understand (or "see") the applications. You can't rely solely on the appearance of the techniques. This is admittedly a challenge. We have to first let go of our expectations, which may include not only what the technique appears to be, but also
what we may have been told--in other words, the conventional interpretation of the techniques in question. The problem may be compounded by texts and pictures that seem to record "end" positions; that is, it's difficult to convey in pictures or words what happens in-between the pictures one generally sees in karate manuals or texts which discuss kata, and it's often in the space between one move and the next that we see how a given technique is applied.

Saifa kata
Seipai kata
And you need the whole system. You need all eight classical kata in order to address different scenarios on the one hand and, on the other, to be able to see how to move from one technique in one kata to a similar technique in another kata if the dynamics of the situation change--and they are likely to change. That is, you need to see the similarities and variations in order to alter your counterattack. You may begin with the opening or receiving technique from Saifa (as pictured above), but you have to be able to change to the controlling or bridging technique from Seipai, for example (the bridging technique from Seipai being the technique which follows the Seipai opening technique pictured above). In other words, once you "see" the similarities and variations, you should be able to move back and forth between the techniques of each sequence of moves. This is the way a system works. Of course, you have to also be aware of the sequences. And if you can see the sequences, then you realize that the techniques within a sequence function in specific ways--that is, they can't just mean whatever you want them to mean.

Some have suggested that any single kata is a complete system of self-defense in itself. This is a rather silly notion, as is the idea that any given technique has multiple interpretations or applications. Either one of these notions gets in the way of "seeing" the whole system and being able to comfortably work within the system. Both of these views are short-sighted. Metaphorically, they're like being lost in the woods, failing to see the forest for the trees.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Things aren't always what they seem

The other day I decided to take a break and head out for a hike up Mt. Tom. I had spent most of the week ripping up the old mat in the dojo and laying down a new wood floor. The canvas cover I  scrounged from an Aikido school years ago was old when I got it, but we needed something to cover the old wrestling mat that looked more like a patchwork quilt made of duct tape than anything else. Patching up the canvas cover had taken a few more rolls of duct tape the past few years, so it just seemed like the time to move back to a wood floor. I had gotten to the point where we had finished cutting and laying down the wood floor, so it seemed like a good time to take a break.

The woods were damp from the recent rains and the first yellow leaves were beginning to fall. A few trees had come down in the last storm, their roots not deep enough as they stretched out over the outcropping of rocks along the path. I was coming down the mountain on a path that wound its way around a small, rocky crag when I noticed a dog coming up the other way. He paused for a moment just in front of me, sniffing the ground, and as I stopped to pet him I looked ahead to see his owner leap wildly to the side of the path, jumping from one foot to the other, waving his arms frantically as if he were trying to escape a giant spider's web. After a moment he stopped and continued up the mountain. When he looked up, he must have noticed the quizzical look on my face. "Snake," he said. "I hate snakes." And then we both continued on the trail; he going up and me going down, but both of us, I'm sure, on the look out for more snakes hiding on the bare rock, hard to pick out amongst the meandering tree roots.

It reminded me of that sketch on Saturday Night Live with Bill Murray and Steve Martin. They stare
Opening technique of Seiunchin.
straight into the camera and just keep repeating, "What the hell is that!?" Maybe we just don't expect things or maybe things just aren't always what they seem to be. Kata is a lot like that. We see a move in kata and assume that it's one thing because it looks like that's what it ought to be. We think, well, it looks like a down block, so it must be a down block. It looks like a double punch so it must be a double punch.

What we're often missing, I think, is the Tristram Shandy effect, for lack of a better term. Tristram, the title character in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, an 18th century novel by Laurence Sterne, attributes all of his troubles to what happened the moment he was conceived. Just at the crucial point, his mother interrupts his father to ask if he has remembered to wind the hall clock. If I'm remembering it correctly--it's been many years since I last encountered it--the rest of the 500 or so pages of the story and it's hilarious sequence of events can all be attributed to this critical moment, this momentus interruptus, if you will.
Palm up technique from Seiunchin.

Fiction, certainly, but there are connections that are important. Kata is composed of sequences that constitute self defense scenarios. And each sequence is composed of entry techniques (uke), bridging techniques, and finishing techniques. Too often teachers and students trying to find bunkai ignore the sequences, as if the techniques are disconnected and unrelated. I think this is why we don't see the right applications sometimes, why we judge things strictly on appearance rather than a technique's function within a given self defense sequence.

Beginning of the end mawashi
from Saifa.
For example: we might look at the opening technique of Seiunchin and imagine that it must be a release from a two-handed grab or choke hold because both hands look the same--if they look the same, they must be doing the same thing. And the folks that interpret the opening of Seiunchin this way, imagine that the next technique--when the right palm is raised up and the left hand is brought up into chamber--is meant to block and grab the opponent's next punch. This is the disconnect between these two techniques of the sequence. Somehow the opponent must have pulled away from the previous technique in order to punch. But this interpretation works only in contradiction of the age-old martial principle of ikken hissatsu (one punch kill) or is it ippon kumite (one point fighting)? Perhaps it's all the same concept; that is, one should move in such a way as to allow your opponent only the one, initial attack--the one punch being your opponent's, not yours. (They get the initial attack, of course, because "there's no first attack in karate.") Or we might look at the opening technique of Sanseiru (after the three "punches") and imagine that it must be blocking and grabbing a kick because we're reaching down, knee level. Or we look at the end mawashi technique of Saifa and imagine that it's a ridge-hand strike, as many would say, simply because we don't see how it's connected to the previous sequence of moves.
At Mt. Tom looking across
the reservoir. 

It always makes me think of that old admonition about missing the forest for the trees. I suppose it's natural but it's also good to remember that things aren't always what they seem. (And no, it's not common knowledge, nor is it how everyone else looks at kata, no matter how much lip service we pay the old aphorisms we here in the dojo.)