Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Does nobody ask why?

It was early Spring and the woods were wet. It had rained pretty steadily for two days. And before that it had been cloudy and drizzling more often than not. The path along the swamp was flooded over and every dip in the trail was damp from slowly drying puddles of standing water. But plants were starting to sprout. In places, ferns and broad-leaf marsh plants hid the rocks and threatened to obscure the trail. Small, delicate looking wild flowers sprang up in places where the sun managed to get through the canopy of new leaves overhead. It reminded me of that part in Robert Fulghum's book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, where he says: "Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup. The roots go down and the plant goes up, and nobody really knows how or why...."

But then I thought, really? Really nobody knows how or why plants send their roots down into the

soil and the plant slowly pushes up through the forest floor? Really? Maybe Fulghum was not looking for a scientific explanation. Maybe it was a sort of rhetorical question--even though it seemed to be a statement--some sort of ontological inquiry and the little plants were only meant to be stand-ins. Inquiring minds want to know.
The slow "punch" from the beginning
of Sanseiru kata.

I thought of this because I was watching a video the other day on the Goju Ryu kata Sanseiru and its bunkai, or at least what was purported to be bunkai. I always thought that bunkai was "the analysis of kata" and therefore had to follow the movements and techniques of the kata. So you can't change the kata movements, it seems to me, when you're trying to explain how they are used. And yet, here was a well-respected teacher of Okinawa Goju-ryu demonstrating his "bunkai" or explanation of the three slow punches at the beginning of the kata, only in his application the punches were not slow at all but fast chudan punches to the opponent's ribs. And the open hand technique that follows the third punch was used to check the opponent's chambered punch--blocking the opponent's chambered fist with the extended palm before he even thinks of punching! And this was followed by a fast punch (though in kata there is no punch of any kind after this open hand!).

Does no one ever ask why the punches at the beginning of Sanseiru are done slowly and the punches at the beginning of Seisan are fast? If the techniques are done differently in kata--slow in Sanseiru and fast in Seisan--shouldn't the explanation of their application be different as well? Is it possible that the "punches" in Sanseiru are not meant to be punches at all? (And while we're at it, what about the double-arm posture? Is this a hold over from the days of the Marquis de Queensbury or is there a message here?) Sometimes I feel like I'm in Bizarro World waiting for Superman to come straighten everything out.

The first technique in Seiunchin kata.
Years ago now, I came across an explanation (read "bunkai") of the first technique in Seiunchin where the defender was stepping back, using both hands to release the attacker's choke hold. The teacher explained that the kata steps forward on a more-or-less 45-degree angle but in application one is meant to step back. I found this particularly confusing. Does that mean that the kata is showing everything in reverse, opposite to what the defender is supposed to do in application?! Rather than searching for some ridiculous rationalization for an interpretation, shouldn't we be questioning the interpretation? Instead of trying to justify things that don't make a whole lot of sense in the first place, shouldn't we simply follow the kata and, in the case of Seiunchin for example, ask what could be happening if the kata is telling us to step forward along a 45-degree angle? (Obviously not a release from a chokehold!)


There is a lot of mystery in the world. There are also things that we just plain don't know yet. But there's also a lot that we can figure out. A good deal of it is just plain logical. After all, the roots go down and the plant grows up...and the wheels on the bus go round and round. Just follow the kata.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Who says so? Understanding kata technique in context

The final position of the
mawashi-like technique.
I was watching a video the other day of a guy explaining three ways to use a mawashi uke or tora guchi--can't remember whether he distinguished between the two or not. But anyway, I was a bit surprised, since I believe that the style he practices is Shotokan, though I suspect his interests are more widespread since he calls himself a "karate nerd." Now when I was young, I practiced a Tae Kwon Do style that was based on Shotokan--same forms and all. In fact, I think the Korean teachers had practiced Shotokan during the Japanese occupation of Korea way back in the early part of the twentieth century. But I also trained a year of Shotokan in England back in 1976-77. And in all that time, I don't remember ever doing a single mawashi uke or even anything that remotely resembled one. So I'm thinking, how can this guy presume to explain the function of a mawashi uke? And the guy's YouTube video had over 29,000 views!

But I've seen this happen over and over again; that is, people whose primary style is something other than Goju trying to explain the applications of Goju kata. It seems to me, however, that if you can divorce the technique from the kata--and there are frequently disclaimers stating that the kata under analysis is not one that they personally practice--then the technique can mean anything...or nothing. You have taken it out of context. It's like trying to define a word without seeing the sentence or even the paragraph it is used in. That's why crossword puzzles are often so hard; the words are not always given a context. Context changes meaning or more precisely, I suppose, actually determines meaning. Dr. Johnson, that particularly idiosyncratic lexicographer who gave us the first dictionary of the English language, set about first defining words by making note of how they were used in the books that he read. Unlike a word, however, a solo technique--like mawashi uke, in this case--could literally mean anything you want it to mean, out of context. After all, you're just waving your arms.

I suspect that this teacher is simply providing three conventional applications for mawashi uke that he learned from a Goju teacher or practitioner. In fact, they are pretty standard interpretations. One mawashi uke trapped the arm and then attacked the opponent's trunk and head with two palm strikes. The second example he illustrated was used against two punches, one after the other, and then he attacked the same way with the two palm strikes. And the third mawashi uke began with a same-side wrist grab, broke the grab, and then was used to apply an arm-bar against the opponent's elbow.

So the question is: Could the mawashi uke technique be used this way--that is, in any or all of these ways? It's really a question of grammar or, more properly, verb tense. Could one use a mawashi uke to block and then attack with palm strikes? Could one use a mawashi uke to release a wrist grab or apply an arm-bar? Anything is possible (particularly with a compliant partner, though that's another story for another day). Could aliens have built the pyramids? Could have, I suppose, but in the context of what we know, is it likely?

Mawashi-like technique at
the end of Seipai kata.
In the context of the Goju-ryu classical kata, the mawashi uke can be seen in Sanchin, Tensho, and Suparinpei. A mawashi-like technique occurs at the end of Saifa, at the end of Seipai, at the end of Seisan, and in the middle of Kururunfa (and, in my heretical opinion, three times in the middle of Suparinpei). The mawashi-like techniques all have one thing in common, other than the circular rotation of both hands--they are all done in cat stance (neko ashi). The mawashi uke we see in Sanchin, Tensho, and at the beginning of Suparinpei are all executed in basic stance or sanchin dachi.  The context, it seems to me, determines how they were originally intended to be used. In each of the mawashi-like techniques, it is at the end of a sequence of moves which have allowed you to seize the attacker's head, and in each case the head is twisted with the rotating arms or hands and then, because the defender is in cat stance, a knee kick is executed to the opponent's head. In the case of the mawashi uke techniques, there is little context other than the fact that they are all executed from the double-arm kamae posture--a posture akin to the beginning of a grappling position, which would argue for each of these mawashi uke techniques to begin with a release from an opponent's two-handed grab.

Mawashi uke at the
beginning of Suparinpei.
But the question is: Are the techniques found in a kata meant to be understood within the context of that kata or can they be interpreted independent of their context? This raises much larger issues, of course. Are the kata of a system merely random collections of techniques--in which case, one might ask, why put them into kata form?--or are they part of application (bunkai) sequences? If they are part of sequences--and the easiest way to see this is in the realization that all of the techniques in a kata do not function as ends in themselves--then how the techniques are used in any given sequence illustrates the principles of the style or system. To understand the self-defense principles of the system, then, it is important to understand the applications of the techniques. Some of the creative interpretations of techniques people have tried to apply, taken as they are out of context, seem to violate fairly sound martial principles.

Of course, if you believe that someone created kata (long ago and far far away) with movements that were so generic that they could be understood and applied in a variety of ways, often too numerous to even grasp a fraction of the "application potentials," as some like to call them, then there's little to reasonably argue. And there seems to be a lot of support for this sort of position. As one noted author quoted a legendary teacher: "'None of the movements is restricted to only one application...each application is unlimited.'" The author himself goes on to say that "Anyone who says differently simply does not understand what he or she is talking about." End of discussion....though I would agree to disagree.