Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Friday, March 16, 2018

The influence of the times

The vernal pools have started to appear along the trail. It's early spring. There are Canada geese overhead. A light coating of snow from the day before has melted and turned the trail to mud wherever rivulets of water run down the slightest incline or an old stream bed crosses the trail. In the summer these running springs dry up, leaving only rounded rocks and boulders in their place as if a glacier receded, leaving behind these miniature finger-like moraines. Actually, this whole mountain, quite surprisingly, was once volcanic. Blackened bits of volcanic rock appear haphazardly along the edge of the woods in the summer when the trail is dry and the leaves have been shredded and stamped to a fine dust by hundreds of hiker's boots and dog paws, eroding the trail another sixteenth of an inch, compacting the ground over time, ensuring that there is a trail immune from the efforts of long-buried acorns and catkins and trailing vines trying to push their way up through the soil.
One of the hair-grabbing techniques
from Seipai kata.

Today, however, there are long wet smudges where a boot heel has so obviously slipped or skidded across the watery surface of a flat rock. These skid marks tend to color my perception of the trail, and I find myself carefully watching where I put my feet, though in reality there are thousands of footprints going up this trail and very few places to mark where someone has slipped or lost their footing.

In the wet places, where these vernal pools appear, there are "social paths" that now meander off through drying woods and ground that seems a bit higher than the trail. A small cluster of beech trees stands at a bend in the trail, each with someone's initials carved in its smooth-barked trunk. It reminds me that this forest which was once a primal wilderness has now been largely tamed. The trails have been cut and the woods is managed to some extent. There are regular forays of bird watchers and dog walkers and concerned citizens looking for non-native invasive species to rip out and cart away. My perception of the forest, and what I should like to call "the wilderness," has been conditioned, no doubt influenced by the times.

One of the hair-grabbing techniques
from Saifa kata. The left hand has
grabbed the hair or topknot.
In some sense, this is like looking at kata through a glass darkly, like looking through an early morning fog that sits in the valley, hiding the river and the woods on the opposite bank, trying to discern not only the movements of someone in a distant clearing doing kata but the reasons for the movements as well, the
bunkai. We are conditioned, it seems to me, to see fighting or self defense in terms of blocking, punching, and kicking. We tend to interpret our martial arts in familiar terms, as something akin to boxing. Everyone is familiar with fisticuffs, dust-ups, brawls--all substitutes for boxing matches of one kind or another. But what if, looking back some two hundred years or so, the times themselves influenced the martial arts of the period? And the irony is that we are left with the outward form (kata) of this ancient martial tradition, yet we attempt to interpret how to use it (bunkai) by overlaying it with a 21st century template. It's as if we set out to trace letters on a stencil where we had accidentally superimposed a sheet of arial fonts over an ornate gothic alphabet.

Of course, much of this line of speculation only raises more questions. There are few easy answers here. Many of the self defense techniques of Goju-ryu classical, or as some say koryu kata, seem to begin from a grappling posture with a variety of techniques against grabs of one kind or another. Was this a response to how people dressed in ancient times? Was punching from the distance of an arm's length less likely and more awkward if one wore loose robes? Was one less likely to kick with the foot if one wore sandals or geta or zori? So many of the controlling and finishing techniques we find in Goju-ryu classical kata seem to show the grabbing of the opponent's hair or topknot or queue, and knee kicks (hiza geri) seem much more prevalent. Do we no longer "see" these techniques in kata because most people nowadays wear their hair short? Does the fact that we wear shoes most of the time make kicking with the foot a better option?

If the martial arts were largely practiced by--perhaps even developed by--the military classes, wouldn't you be most likely to fight empty handed only after you lost your weapon? And in that case, wouldn't you be most likely to charge your opponent, who may still have a weapon, so that his use of that weapon would not be to his advantage? In other words, would I really want to stay at a boxing range, arm's length, against someone with a weapon? Granted, the safest thing to do would be to run away. But if one chose to fight, and one could close the distance safely, wouldn't the ensuing brawl involve grappling?

I think in some sense this may involve the practice of weapons (kobudo) too, and particularly the staff or rokushakubo. Again, this is pure speculation on my part, but if--merely a fanciful hypothesis--practice of weapons was also mainly engaged in by the military classes, wouldn't these long weapons have been pointed or bladed for the most part? And if that's the case, as a more likely scenario, does that change how we "see" certain "poking" or "hooking" or "pulling" movements in different bo kata? That is, if the rokushakubo kata--e.g. Shushi no kon, Tsuken no kon, etc.--were actually first developed to preserve techniques of a halberd-like weapon, how would this change the way we viewed kata, and especially bunkai? This style of bo and these kata were clearly developed to utilize both ends of the staff--either blocking with the front end and quickly attacking with the other end or blocking/parrying with the heel end and quickly attacking with the front end. (This double-ended bo technique, I was once told by a noted Chinese sifu after I had demonstrated Tsuken no kon, was called dragon staff.)

A collection of Chinese bladed
weapons in the Matayoshi
hombu dojo.
But in some kata, the slicing (if that's what it is) or hooking or pulling motions seem to all be executed with one end of the staff. If only one end of the weapon had a hook (like the
nunti bo, for instance) or a blade of some sort (like all of the Chinese long weapons that stand in a rack at the front of the Matayoshi hombu dojo), could this explain the apparent different uses we see of the two ends of the staff? And did the substitution (if that's indeed what happened) of a staff for a more militaristic bladed or halberd-style weapon come about due, once again, to the influence of the times?

I can walk off in the woods and pretend that I've left civilization for a time. I can sit on a log under a leafy maple tree, and if I'm quiet enough and up-wind, a deer might wander by or an owl might perch in the same tree. But as I walk up the mountain, I see a tree that fell across the trail last week carefully cut in thirds, its pieces rolled to the side to clear the way for us wilderness hikers.

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

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Patterns or structure of kata

Snow showers. I'm not even sure what that means, but they left a light, powdery coating of snow on everything. A dusting, they call it. The trail cuts a white, meandering path through the woods, and even the rocks along the path catch the snow in places, like white shadows clinging to small indentations, protected for the moment from the winter sun or gusts of wind. It almost looks as though no one has passed this way, no footprints to mark the trail and scuff up bits of leaves and gravel. I might be the only one who has passed this way, at least today, because, of course, it's a trail. Someone made it, carved it out of the forest, cut saplings and cleared brush.

I'm thinking metaphorically again, walking along the trail, mentally practicing kata, thinking about bunkai and imagining the other side, the side that's so hard to picture; the attacking side. This sort of metaphorical thinking reminds me of that book by Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Or that line from Il Postino where Mario asks Neruda, "You mean then that...the whole world is the metaphor for something else?" And with a abashed look, Mario says, "I'm talking crap." And Neruda says, "No, not at all."

Someone made kata, these patterns of movement that we use to remember techniques of self defense, that we use to learn the martial principles of movement. But the patterns are confusing and seemingly as haphazardly composed as a meandering trail heading off into the woods. No two trails exactly the same. No two kata alike in structure, conforming to the same rules one might use to decipher their patterns. And yet someone passed this way before, left marks, however faint, that would point the way, like trail markers, and explain how we might go about figuring out these seemingly arcane and esoteric movements.

Are they arcane and esoteric? Certainly they are, to us, a bit anachronistic, in a way, a part of a cultural milieu and time period when one might have needed to defend one's life, fighting to the death with lethal techniques, as anachronistic as many of the techniques that seem to depend on one grabbing the topknot or queue of one's attacker. But esoteric? The effectiveness of most techniques, arguably, is based largely on their simplicity, not their complexity or the difficulty one might have in learning them. The difficulty lies mainly in trying to explain movements and techniques that we can only half see. With kata, we only see the defender's response to an attack. We can only imagine the other side, and this often influences how we interpret the techniques of kata.

And whoever created these kata, certainly did not make it easy. If a single person put the techniques of these kata together--I'm thinking of the classical subjects of Goju-ryu from Saifa to Suparinpei--then I would expect the patterns to be as uniform and predictable as the set of Pinan kata or the Gekisai kata of the 20th century. But they're not. Seipai kata, for example, is largely asymmetrical--with at least the first three sequences not showing any repetition--using the left hand to "block" and the right hand for the initial attack (which is also true of the fourth sequence, though that sequence is repeated on the other side). Each of the first four sequences--there are seemingly five total sequences, though the fifth sequence shows a variation, in part, on the other side--is shown in its entirety; that is, with an initial receiving, a controlling or bridging technique, and a finishing technique. This is not the same pattern we see in Seiunchin, for example, which, aside from its set of three opening techniques in shiko dachi, repeats most of its techniques on both the right and left sides--that is, in response to a right or left attack--whereas Seipai only repeats the fourth sequence. But even in Seiunchin we have a pattern that is "interrupted," where some of the sequences, unlike most of the sequences of Seipai, only show the final techniques tacked onto the second or final repetition. This is true of the opening sequence of moves, the high-low techniques in shiko dachi, and the "elbow" techniques--that is, the first sequence, the third sequence, and the final sequence.
Core receiving technique
from Sanseiru when used
with the stepping turn.

Sanseiru kata, on the other hand, shows significant repetition in its middle section, repeating this "core" movement--chest "block," kick, "elbow," "punch," kick series--three times, and using an opening sequence that is merely a variation of similar techniques. And Seisan is entirely different again, showing three variations of what is essentially the same bunkai in the three sequences that follow the opening series of repetitive basic techniques--the three punches, three circular blocks, and three palm-up/palm-down techniques with knee kicks followed by a grab and kick.

There are so many structural variations, in fact, in just these four kata that it certainly seems to suggest different origins or sources, and it certainly adds to the difficulty one has in trying to understand the original bunkai of the different kata. And yet, different kata structures do not change
The bridging technique
of the final sequence
in Sanseiru.
the basic martial principles involved, and these principles are retained regardless of which kata one is looking at or which structure has been used to string together the techniques of the kata. In fact, one of the more interesting aspects of this structural awareness, "seeing the pattern" if you will, is perhaps a sort of radical realization that at least some aspects of the structure of any given kata are completely arbitrary.

This may seem heretical or at the very least blasphemous, but it's merely another way of seeing the sequences of a kata, another way of practicing kata bunkai. For example: If we take the first sequence of Seiunchin kata described above, we see that the first two opening shiko dachi techniques are incomplete, with the finishing technique only attached to the third repetition--this is the push forward with the "supported punch" and elbow attack. If we attach the finishing technique to the first of these steps into shiko dachi (same as the third) and/or the second of these (on the opposite side), we are not really altering the intent of the kata. We're merely illustrating it in another way, completing the sequences that are only shown in part. We could do the same thing with the core double arm receiving techniques of Sanseiru, attaching them to the open hand bridging techniques we find towards the end of the kata.

Certainly what we find is that the flow of kata that we have become accustomed to is interrupted, but the real intent of kata is to act as a repository for self-defense techniques, not to be practiced as a performance piece. In fact, the less we see kata as a performance piece for winning trophies at tournaments, the more we may begin to understand its patterns, its structure, and thereby its bunkai.

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