Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Monday, October 09, 2017

On the dojo floor...what of traditions?

New dojo floor.
I put down a new floor in the dojo last week. We pulled up all of the old wrestling mat that we had inherited from the university and the old worn out canvas cover that I had finagled from one of the Aikido schools in town. I nailed down something like 450 square feet of southern yellow pine, sanded it, and then put a few coats of polyurethane on it, waited a few days and we were good to go. A couple of spots where the grain had come up in the sanding, but all in all it looks pretty good. The surprise came when I slipped off my training sneakers and did kata in bare feet. I haven't trained barefoot on a wooden floor in what seems like twenty years. And what with the cold weather setting in soon up here in New England, I will no doubt slip my sneakers back on for the winter.

But it reminded me, once again, of the traditions we practice, indeed take for granted, in the practice of karate. Slipping our shoes off, bowing to the shrine, all of the ritualized ceremony and language that becomes an accepted and integral part of training. Certainly in one sense, we are merely respectfully acknowledging the cultural traditions that gave rise to karate. But does the ritual and tradition overshadow the real martial intent of karate? I think it does for some. The "costumes" become more and more elaborate, festooned with colorful badges and elaborate embroidery of kanji characters that the average student (non-Japanese student) can't even read!

Hojo undo implements.
For some others, who fashion themselves "traditional-ists," the ritual of karate training seems to be focused on hojo undo or supplemental exercises performed with various traditional Okinawan training implements to develop a strong karate body. Some practitioners seem to emphasize this sort of ritualized use of traditional hojo undo implements as if it too satisfies a spiritual need, scoffing at those who put too much emphasis on the study of bunkai, not merely the more modern adjuncts like competition jiyu kumite or the performance of kata for small plastic trophies.

It's confusing; I'm not even sure what tradition and ritual in karate even means anymore. That's why the wood of the dojo floor felt so strange to me, I suppose. I think the last time I trained with any regularity on a polished wood dojo floor was in Okinawa. I suppose it makes more sense to take one's shoes off and practice on a bare wood floor in a tropical climate than it does in New England. But I've also dispensed with the traditional karate uniform, the belt, and, aside from an admittedly though no less heart-felt but perfunctory bow to the shrine, all of the pre-training ritual. I light incense when I have it and can remember, but we don't address each other with titles--no sensei, no sempai, no "osu" or other use of Japanese when a simple English term would suffice. You won't hear "Moku so," "Kiyotsuke," "Hajime" here. Heretical perhaps but since there are only a few of us old guys--all seniors--the ritual seems a bit unnecessary. And as far as bare feet and wearing a karate gi...well, it's pretty cold in New England at least five months out of the year.

Or does the practice of ritual and tradition actually free us, in some sense, to experience karate in a more spiritual way? After all, the practice of kata itself is a kind of ritual. The movements are clearly defined and taught in a very formal manner, with little room for individual differences, and since for most, at least initially, there is little understanding of what the movements mean or how they may be used, there would seem to be little difference between those who practice karate and those engaged in some arcane religious ceremony. A ritual, by definition, is "a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order." Does it make it more or less spiritual if you don't know what the movements are for? After all, if you didn't visualize what you were doing--that is, if we didn't have any understanding of bunkai or application--then we might be more apt to enjoy the act of movement itself, sort of like yoga perhaps. In this case, I sometimes wonder if meaning doesn't get in the way, if understanding bunkai doesn't somehow detract from one's enjoyment of the simple act of movement and exercise, and, in the process, a more spiritual experience.

And yet I wonder if all of this is not a modern overlay, something fashioned fairly recently and tacked onto what was once only a brutally efficient method of self defense. And kata? Merely a record of martial applications and fighting principles preserved in kata form for an ancient population that was largely illiterate.

And yet...there is something about slipping off one's shoes and stepping on the dojo floor, bowing to the shrine, all of the old teachers looking on, the incense burning, and beginning kata. Just kata. Kata for its own sake.

Friday, September 22, 2017

When a tree falls in the forest...and other thoughts on bunkai.

A single leaf at the end of
a new shoot.
If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it….does it really matter? It will lead to all sorts of unexpected outcomes. The tree will fall. There will be an opening in the canopy overhead. Sunlight will reach the forest floor where it hadn’t, where it had been shady for years. A small seedling will begin to sprout or an acorn lying dormant under a blanket of leaves will feel the sun. The next thing you know, there will be little twig-sized slips of oak or maple or aspen, two over-sized leaves on a slender stick the size of a toothpick. Of course, the grass takes over first, it seems, followed by the weeds and the ground creepers, but the trees are there--a balsam fir or a white pine or a spruce. They each send up these little, central shoots with a more or less symmetrical arrangement of branches. It begins with a cluster of buds at the tip of the shoot. The central bud becomes the trunk of the new tree and the buds that surround it grow laterally into branches. And each year's growth follows the same pattern, unless the deer come and nibble off the buds or the central bud gets damaged somehow. If it does, the tree is programmed in such a way that one of the lateral buds that had been destined to become a branch takes over the role of the central bud and becomes the trunk. 

First entry or receiving technique
from Kururunfa kata.
I've been reading a lot of Bernd Heinrich lately. He writes about birds and trees and running, among other things. I hope I'm not over-simplifying what he says about trees too much, but it's this changing aspect of the new tree that got me thinking about its relationship to the martial arts as I was out in the woods the other day. We approach the study of kata as if it's something sacrosanct, a ritualized performance piece. And yet we look at bunkai as if the movements are so fluid and dynamic that they supposedly have countless ways of interpreting or applying them. This point of view is, in fact, so widespread that it almost seems as though it has fostered the growth of a whole new industry based on seminars and the discovery of new and ever-more-outlandish applications. 
Initial technique from Seipai kata.

So I would suggest that it may be time to simplify things a bit. We could start with a simple statement about the structure of a kata. Kata are composed of different kinds of techniques--entry or receiving techniques, bridging or controlling techniques, and finishing techniques. Each entry technique is part of a sequence, but because of the exigencies of any given situation—how the attacker responds to the initial block or receiving technique, one's balance, the strength of the opponent—you may need to change things up at some point, sort of like the new shoot when a deer comes along and nibbles off the central bud.

Sliding down the back of the arm
and grabbing the head.
For example, if you respond to an attack with the opening receiving technique from Kururunfa, something unforeseen could happen that causes you to change the sequence and instead continue with the initial technique from Seipai kata. That is, from the forearm attack to the neck in the initial technique of Kururunfa, you might straighten out the right arm, pushing the attacker's head down. Then, you might continue with the first sequence of Seipai by stepping through with the left palm-attack to the chin, going on to twist the head. Or, alternatively, from the initial Kururunfa technique, you might drop the right arm down along the back of the opponent's right arm to move behind him, as we do in Seisan.  Once you’re to the back of the opponent, you could continue with this sequence from Seisan, grabbing the back of the head with the left hand and stepping in to grab the chin with the right hand. Or, you could simply grab the opponent’s trapezius muscles from the back and pull him down onto the front knee, as we do in Saifa kata.
Pulling down by grabbing the
trapezius muscles in Saifa.

Kata itself is a repository of technique, and each technique functions differently. But once we understand this, we can take them apart and put them together in different ways, all depending on what happens in any given situation. In that sense, the system of self defense we know as Goju-Ryu becomes both smaller and larger at the same time. It is smaller because it becomes more manageable--there are, for instance, a finite number of receiving techniques and the same might be said of the bridging and finishing techniques as well. In other words, one doesn't need to become a master of what at one time must have seemed like an encyclopedic number of techniques. But it is also larger because if we truly understand the system and its kata then we can see an almost infinite number of ways that the individual techniques can be taken apart and put back together. That is, the entry technique from one kata might be combined with the bridging technique of another kata and the finishing technique of yet another kata. 

So what if a tree falls in the forest. Stuff happens. Another tree will come along and take its place.