Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Seeing what we expect to see

I am sometimes chided for the bunkai I "find" in kata, as if kata is a piece of clay and I'm molding something out of this amorphous lump of mud. It reminds me of the old Zen parable about a very knowledgeable teacher who one day comes to visit a Zen master. Ostensibly, he comes for instruction, but right away the Zen master can see that the teacher has come to show off his own knowledge or to test the master or some such nonsense. Whatever the case, the master immediately realizes that the teacher has come with a closed mind—that is, he has come with his own set of fully-formed expectations. Nevertheless, the master invites him in for tea. After they are seated, the master begins to pour his guest some tea, but he doesn’t stop when the cup is filled, and the cup overflows, startling the teacher.

Of course at this point everyone—even those who may never have heard the story—can tell that the master will cleverly inform the guest that metaphorically he is like the teacup; he has come already full. And in the mythic world of enigmatic Zen masters, everyone will realize the truth at that moment and experience instant enlightenment…or else the disgruntled teacher will stalk angrily away in search of someone who knows what he knows and is willing to acknowledge him for it. Cynical but perhaps more realistic.

Now I know very few Zen masters, of course, but this same scenario, though slightly varied, happens with experienced martial artists too. Their expectations, however, produce a kind of tunnel vision so that they see only what they have been conditioned to see. Like the old adage about the carpenter who sees the solution to every problem in terms of a hammer and a nail, the karate practitioner who has spent endless hours pounding a punching post (makiwara) tends to interpret all kata in terms of punching, blocking, and kicking. How do we bring an open mind, a beginner’s mind, to the analysis of kata (bunkai)? How do we make sure that we are not bringing a cup that is already full to the table? 

The story is appropriate, as every martial arts teacher is certainly familiar with students who begin with their cups already full. Once and awhile they arrive at the dojo to “test” the teacher, but more often they come in sincerely, even with humility, yet with expectations. Their expectations are filled with preconceptions about karate or just martial arts in general. Sometimes they are able to revise their expectations, but more often than not they just quit and move on, looking somewhere else for something to match their expectations. 

Exercises with the Kongoken.
After all, in Goju at least, there is more hitting with the forearm than with the fist, more kicking with the knee than with the foot, and we generally "receive" the attack rather than block it. Sowhat's with all of the block, punch,  and kick bunkai? When Miyagi sensei saw wrestlers training with the kongoken (large metal oval) on a trip to Hawaii in the 1930s, and then, being impressed with the possibilities and usefulness in hojo undo exercises for Goju-ryu, brought it back with him to Okinawa upon his return, he probably wasn't thinking in terms of blocking, punching, and kicking techniques. But think of grappling and head twisting and it's another story!

Wednesday, May 25, 2016


More typical fighting
posture readiness.
   The thought occurred to me the other day--I suppose I've been wrestling with this a long time--but I found myself thinking about training in the old days, when I used to wear a gi and everything was rather formal. We'd line up according to seniority and then kneel and sit in seiza. "Mokuso!" Of course, it was all very precise, sort of like the Japanese tea ceremony without the tea cups.
   "Mokuso yamae!"
   "Sensei ni, rei!" the senior student would bark out. And, after all the formal bows, the teacher would take over.
   "Kiyotsuke. Rei. Yoi," the teacher would say, pausing between commands as the students responded. And then...
   Then we began practicing kata. But here's where it gets interesting.
   "Kata Saifa. Yoi. Hajime (begin)." Next was Seiunchin. "Yoi. Hajime." And then Shisochin. "Yoi. Kamae. Hajime." You see, there's that extra word--kamae. We used kamae not in the general sense of "posture" or even as a command--"kamae-te"--but in the connotative sense of "ready to fight." We generally understood it as a ready position, but no one every asked why the other kata (Saifa, Seiunchin, Seipai, and Kururunfa) didn't begin with a kamae or ready position. Why don't they?
Kamae posture found
in a number of kata.
   In Goju-ryu, putting aside Sanchin and Tensho for obvious reasons, there are four kata that begin with this double-arm kamae posture and four kata that don't. Each of these four double-arm kamae postures begins with three basic techniques that are repeated. Each of the other four kata begins immediately with a bunkai sequence (sometimes in threes and sometimes not). Why the difference? If all of the kata are part of the same system (supposing for the moment that they are from the same system), wouldn't we expect that they would conform to the same structure or pattern? Well...unless there is a message in the pattern or structure.
   Saifa begins with a  self-defense scenario (bunkai) against a same-side wrist grab (opponent's left to defender's right). Seiunchin begins with a self-defense scenario (bunkai) against a cross-hand wrist grab (opponent's right to defender's left). Seipai begins with the opponent grabbing one's shoulder or lapel. Each of these kata shows defensive scenarios (bunkai sequences) against grabs or pushes, while Kururunfa, it seems to me, shows responses to an opponent's punch. The other four kata, however, show defenses and responses to an altogether different situation--one that begins from a wrestling clinch or, if you will, the posture one sees at the beginning of a Judo match. Just compare the postures.
One of Judo's beginning
   It's almost as if there is a flag or label tacked onto the beginning of the kata, stating "the techniques of this kata begin from a grappling position," and we are meant to apply the entry techniques at least with this in mind.
   So, does this change the way one sees the bunkai of these kata? Does it open up new possibilities? Do we need to re-think the opening "punches" (if that's even what they are!?) in Seisan and Sanseiru or question the "nukite" or "shotei-tsuki" techniques at the beginning of Shisochin? At the very least, we should question why so much of the bunkai people find in the Goju-ryu classical kata looks the same--most of it beginning with two people squared off, facing each other, until the attacker lunges in with a punch--when clearly, just from the way they begin, there is an implied difference.
   It also makes me wonder about the three kata--sometimes said to be older or perhaps more related to each other (Sanseiru, Seisan, and Suparinpei)--having the same beginning "kamae" posture, as if they were based on a more grappling-oriented martial art, something like Okinawan sumo, for instance, though that's just a wild conjecture.
   So anyway, before you start shouting, "No, Goju is about blocking and punching and kicking...after all, it's karate, not judo"....just wrestle with the idea for a bit. I think this is where it starts to get interesting.