Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Sunday, May 14, 2017

A block is not always a block...

I was sitting on a rock in the woods the other day, taking a few minutes to lament the relentless march of time and the inescapable encroachment of modern life--they're putting up a couple of million-dollar homes not a stone's throw from the entrance trail and I'm feeling like the proverbial curmudgeon complaining about it--thinking what a nice seat I had found there, positioned as it was under the trees. I could replace the old Adirondack chairs with a few of these, I thought. They'd certainly last longer and weather the New England winters a bit better. I was reminded of a boulder on the way to Lake Oscawana with a naturally worn out indentation in it that my mother always wanted to take home and use as a bird bath. It was about five feet high and must have weighed quite a few tons!

The final position of what is sometimes
referred to as the right ridge hand
from the end of Saifa kata.
Of course, that boulder is probably still sitting by the side of the road, where it was dropped some time during the last ice age. And the rock I was sitting on would never really replace a good Adirondack chair. There were no benches in this part of the woods as there was no scenic place to sit and bathe in the natural beauties of the world, someone determined, but it would serve in a pinch. However, it was still a rock, and only relatively comfortable given that there wasn't any alternative. It was still a rock.

And for some reason, thinking about that rock made me think about the old dojo admonition: "A block is not always a block, and a punch is not always a punch." Or, as it is sometimes understood: "A punch is a block and a block is a punch." And I thought, which is it? The two are vastly different if you think about it.
Some have referred to this as a
kamae posture in Seiunchin
and Seipai katas since it is
executed stepping back.

I tried to think of an appropriate analogy. Analogies always help me to understand things a little bit better. For instance, a pie plate could be used as a frisbee. I think they started out that way actually.But a pie plate isn't a very good frisbee, and a frisbee is certainly not a pie plate. I can't imagine any respectable chef serving up an apple pie in a frisbee.

I think it's the same in karate. Take what I like to refer to as the dreaded ridge-hand strike (haito uchi), done with the opposite side of the hand as the shuto attack, with the point of contact on the side of the index finger knuckle of the hand when the hand is brought across, palm down. Some people find this strike beginning the last mawashi technique of Saifa kata. But it's a lousy way to attack anything. Could it be used as a strike, this technique that begins the mawashi/tora guchi at the end of Saifa? Certainly it could, but was that its original intention, given that it's not a very effective strike and probably more likely to injure the person using it than the person it is used on?
The double "punch" from
 Sanseiru and Suparinpei.

I think what they really mean when they say that "a block is not always a block" is that things aren't always what they seem. Take the down block (gedan barai), for example. It just looks like a down block, but in the classical subjects of Goju-ryu it isn't used as a block at all. You could call it a block.You could even use it as a block in some yakusoku kumite drill. But if we base our interpretation of the technique on how it is used in the sequences of the classical Goju-ryu kata, then it isn't a block. And to compound the difficulty--and I would certainly agree that a punch is not always a punch--but then sometimes it's not a block either. Look at the double punch that we find in Sanseiru and Suparinpei. From its position in the sequences of both kata, it would seem to be neither a punch nor a block.

We tend to love cryptic sayings; they seem to hint at unplumbed depths of hidden meaning. I can just hear old Master Po whispering softly into Kwai Chang Caine's ear: "A block is not always a block, Grasshopper." And all he meant to suggest is that it may look like a block in kata, but appearances can be deceiving.

But to say that a punch is a block and a block is a punch...well, it would be sort of like calling that rock there a tree. It's clearly not.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

"Don't hit anyone..."

Sometimes I head off into the woods just to escape. Even here, a little more than a mile from downtown, I can get far enough up the trails that I can't hear the highway. Once and awhile an airplane will fly overhead, but even then, after my initial irritation has passed, I can imagine some sort of primitive connection to the aboriginal people in that old movie, "The Gods Must Be Crazy." Above the canopy of trees, it's hard to see the airplane. Perhaps it's just the flatulence of the gods.

The trees, of course, are peaceful beings. If you walk in the woods often enough, especially in the spring, you can see them come alive again after a long winter. There aren't too many examples of living things that simply exist in harmony with their environment, living peacefully. Trees seem to. Oh, I know trees aren't sentient beings. Of course not. Certainly there's a lot we don't know about our world--it would be arrogant to
Miyagi Chojun sensei.
think otherwise--but I'm pretty sure trees aren't conscious or self-aware, though I'll keep an open mind on the subject. But at least in some imaginative or metaphorical way they present us with a wonderful example of peaceful co-existence, like that tree in the Shel Silverstein book.

I was thinking about all of this because we seem to be living in strange times...though that's only a euphemism for all the anger and nastiness and distrust and aggressively antagonistic posturing. I'm reminded of the words of Miyagi Chojun sensei that often accompany a frequently reproduced portrait of him: "Do not strike others; do not be struck by others." Wonderful sentiment. I think the trees would approve. But this from a Goju master? Is there something just a bit ironic in this statement? What was he thinking?

Receiving technique from Sanseiru.
I wonder sometimes if he was at all bothered by the violent nature of the martial arts and particularly
some of the violent head-twisting techniques found in the classical kata of Goju-ryu. I wonder myself sometimes if there is any way to minimize the violence inherent in the kata. There have been times when I have explained the bunkai of a kata to people and they will say, "We can't do that. I can't break someone's neck if I get into a fight." But it may say more about how we look to interact with other people, I think. We live in an angry age, where everyone seems ready to pick a fight. Is it at all ironic that if we lived in a kinder and gentler age, our self-defense would only be used in life-threatening situations? Or in ancient times when a confrontation really was life-threatening?
Controlling technique from Sanseiru.

But I still think if we adhere to Miyagi sensei's advice, then what we should spend the most time studying and training in the classical subjects are the receiving techniques and the controlling or bridging techniques. If we can really learn the receiving techniques shown in the kata--how to avoid and "block" the incoming attack--and bridge the distance to control the attacker, then we won't get hit and we won't necessarily need to hit anyone. After all, the finishes are easy; the hard part is how to receive (uke) the attack safely and control the situation so that it doesn't go any further. Whether I use a head-twisting technique to break someone's neck or merely throw someone to the ground is really a matter of how much force or intention is put into the technique.

Of course, in this day and age, it's very unlikely that I would be faced with any situation where I would have to make that choice. Well...unless someone were to jump out from behind that big old hemlock tree and threaten me.