Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Just because it's a convention doesn't mean it's right!

[I wrote this last month, but I somewhat arbitrarily forgot to post it. But then again, what difference does a day make, or a week, or a month for that matter?]

Welcome to a new year--January 1st--and yet off in the woods the new year looks pretty much like the old one did a few days ago. The blue jays are scolding me as I trudge by on the trail and the squirrels pause to look up and jump behind a tree, waiting to see whether I'm a threat. I've read that squirrels are very territorial, so I suppose these are the same squirrels that were scurrying around last
First technique of Saifa kata.
week, digging up acorns that they had buried last fall. I wonder whether squirrels are really as busy as they seem to be or whether they might be a bit like office workers rearranging the papers on their desks into neater piles, just looking busy in case the boss comes by or the wives ask where they've been all day.

But the days are already getting longer, past the winter solstice. We've turned another page on the calendar. And yet all of this business of time and calendars is a human construct, isn't it? A mass delusion, or if not a delusion at least something that we all culturally have come to agree on; that is, there's little rhyme or reason to any of it, it's just accepted. I mean, we've had lunar calendars and solar calendars and some combination of the two. Not even the seven-day week is
First technique of Seiunchin kata.
anything but arbitrary, something we have just come to agree on. In fact, for a good deal of human history we haven't even agreed upon a 24-hour day. Daniel Boorstin's book, The Discoverers, has an interesting section on all of this. Way back in 1582, they took 10 days out to correct the old Julian calendar that was off by 11 minutes and 14 seconds each year, so really I'm not even sure of the date. And in America, we didn't even accept this restructuring until Colonial times.

Anyway, all of this got me thinking about what we accept as a society, what we take for granted as we carry on with our daily lives. Actually I was thinking about all of this because I had been reading Kazuo Ishiguro's book, The Buried Giant. He describes a medieval England where strangers are  feared and the forests are filled with ogres, and mists shroud the land and bring an eerie forgetfulness. And it's all accepted as perfectly natural.
Initial technique of the first
sequence of Sanseiru kata.

It made me wonder about all of the things we accept in karate without question, all supported and bolstered by the bulwark of convention or lineage or rank. Of course,  we practice all sorts of harmless conventions in the martial arts, from the karate gi to the formalities of seiza and bowing to the shrine and pictures of those teachers who have preceded us to the use of Japanese terminology and the practice of kata. But we also practice what I can only call conventional interpretations of kata technique. And these conventional interpretations (bunkai) get passed on with very little questioning of their practicality, as if we are hesitant to question anything that most everyone else seems to be doing.

First technique of Seipai kata.
And these problematic inter-pretations are everywhere in Goju-ryu. For example: The opening technique of Saifa does
not use both of the defender's hands to pull away from an attacker's wrist grab. Why disconnect from the attacker? The opening technique of Seiunchin kata does not use both hands to release the opponent's choke hold. Why would you step towards someone who was choking you? The opening technique of Sanseiru (after the three slow punches, that is) is not used in order to block an opponent's kick and then grab the kicking foot and muscle the attacker to the ground. Why would you lean forward with your head undefended as an attacker was coming at you and then even attempt to grab a kick? The opening technique of Seipai is not a nukite to the opponent's chest--it's not a nukite at all--nor an elaborate wrist release. Why would you even think of attacking a hard target with the finger tips? And why would you take the time to weave your hands in and out of the arms of an opponent grabbing you with both hands using the techniques that follow it, as the conventional interpretation shows? There is no response to a full-nelson in Kururunfa. Try it sometime against an uncooperative opponent who's bigger and stronger.
Convention suggests that this
technique from Kururunfa is
a release from a full-nelson.

And yet these are all conventional interpretations of kata techniques. The problem is they don't make a whole lot of sense for a variety of reasons: they are too slow or they leave the defender open to attack or they don't really follow kata or they are easily thwarted by the opponent, etc. Their only reason for being is that they are the conventional interpretations, and conventions are rarely questioned.
This is not to suggest that all conventions are useless or without merit. Clocks and calendars are very useful even if they are a somewhat arbitrary means of marking time. But conventional wisdom once suggested that the earth was flat, that there was witchcraft at work in Salem, that you'd catch your death if you walked around with wet feet.

Most of the conventional interpretations of kata, I think, are, at the very least, useful in pointing out some of the pitfalls one may encounter with interpretations of kata, as ironic as that may be. And by example, they can steer us off into better directions, bushwhacking through the woods in search of a better trail.

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

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Rhythm and timing

Deep into winter the weather has suddenly turned--a few days of above average temperatures--and I find myself thinking about fall and the changing seasons. The snow has melted, mostly, and out on the trails it looks as if it might be early spring or late autumn. No foliage, of course, but the leaves covering the forest floor make it look like another season, one not so still, as if the forest is holding its breath, everything waiting for the next nor'easter. Of course, winter will come back, but not today.

Today, I can wander up familiar trails, with no ice pack to hinder my way or boggy, mud-covered patches to look out for. And, as I often do, I turn onto the Pines Edge Trail off the Boggy Meadow Road that leads up to a trail called the Middle Path. Very zen. Though I suspect the name really came from the fact that the trail runs all the way up the middle of the Fitzgerald Lake conservation area. It's actually one of my favorite trails here, not because of the name but because it's so varied. It passes through swampy areas and up over rocky hills, through patches of mountain laurel, and down through pine forests. I've encountered a large pileated woodpecker here, ducks, frogs, water snakes, and a host of chipmunks scurrying over the leaves and peering out from hollow tree trunks.

A few months ago, I passed a large, bald-faced hornets nest hanging from a small sapling by the side of the trail. It looked like a giant Halloween mask. The hornets (Dolichiovespula maculate) were hard at work, carefully building the paper walls, spiraling outward, making it larger and larger. One could marvel at the effort--each one working for a few minutes before returning through one of the openings as another came out to continue the work. But I wondered who was overseeing this monumental effort. Was there a structural engineer? Did the hornets understand the dynamics of the situation, the stresses involved? What would happen in a torrential rainstorm? The nest already looked too big for the sapling where it hung.

When I returned a week later, most of the nest lay on the ground. Only a few small scraps of the papery nest still clung to the sapling. And the hornets were nowhere to be seen.

I don't know whether it's a romanticized notion of the natural world or not, but I tend to think that a tree knows innately what it needs to do in order to survive. That birds don't need to be taught where to get their food. Squirrels seem to know they need to amass enough nuts to make it through the winter months. Some people even think that the wooly bear caterpillar can predict how harsh the winter will be with its arrangement of black and brown stripes. I don't know, did some errant child take a stick to the hornets nest or did the hornets simply make a mistake, a miscalculation?

I was thinking of all this because it speaks to a kind of awareness of things, all things, that there's a rhythm to life, something like the seasons we experience in the world. And if you're not aware of it, it can get you into all sorts of trouble, or at the very least throw a monkey wrench into your plans.

I was listening to an interview of Charlie Gabriel on the radio the other night. If you're not that familiar with him, he's a jazz clarinetist, but he also occasionally sings, and they played a version of him singing "I'm gonna sit right down and write myself a letter." What struck me was his phrasing, his rhythm and timing. All the best jazz singers seem to have this incredible sense of timing, an awareness of the music and the other musicians they're playing with. Listening to Charlie Gabriel, it struck me that so much of life has to do with this sense of rhythm and timing. If you watch a game of soccer (futbol), you can sometimes, if the players are playing well, get a sense of the rhythm of the game. When you drive down the highway in heavy traffic, there's a rhythm to the flow. There's a rhythm to words and a rhythm and flow to walking down the street on a crowded sidewalk.

Receiving the opponent's punch
from Saifa kata bunkai.
There's a rhythm to karate as well. And if you don't have the rhythm right or the timing, you're dead.You can watch kata sometimes and see dead, stagnant places, places where there's no flow. But you really notice it in doing bunkai with a partner or ippon kumite or yakusoku kumite. When you do it correctly, you meet the opponent in a sort of synthesis of movement, as if you are both a part of the same movement, just a movement that's a bit more complex than either would be by itself. There's no gap or dead space waiting to be filled, there's no starting and stopping. When it's right, it looks as if it's natural, as if it's the way it's supposed to be. The counterattack follows, without effort, in the wake of the block. The block begins almost as soon as the opponent's attack, and meets it before the attack has finished, so that the energy of the attack is dispelled and redirected.

I don't really know how to describe this in words that don't make it all sound so needlessly cryptic and esoteric. It's just simply that there is a rhythm to both kata and bunkai that's important to be aware of. It reminds me of something that Toyama Zenshu sensei told me once many years ago in Okinawa. He was holding a piece of rice paper with Japanese calligraphy on it. It was a beautiful example of the art of Shodo. But then he turned it over--and of course you could still see the whole character quite clearly from the other side of the rice paper--just like kata, he said. Of course, that's a bit cryptic too, I suppose.