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.|
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.|
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.|
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.]