Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Thursday, August 25, 2011

There are still questions...

Why do some katas begin with three elementary techniques, as if you were practicing basics--Shisochin, Seisan, Sanseiru, Suparinpei--while others begin with what seem to be three techniques showing bunkai/application--Saifa, Seiunchin--and some begin with neither--Seipai, Kururunfa?

Why are some techniques done slowly in kata? Is it because these moves are demonstrating a different kind of sustained application of strength, the kind that would be evident in grappling or throwing? And yet not all slow moves seem to be used in that fashion.

How were teachers able to preserve kata movement without teaching bunkai? Or is that itself an assumption--that is, is it a faulty assumption to presume that some schools accurately preserved kata? And if so, which ones? Or, how do we know they didn't teach and pass on bunkai? There is certainly some evidence to suggest that they didn't. I had a friend in Okinawa, who had been studying for 10 to 15 years, who said he had never been taught bunkai to classical kata. A senior student in Jundokan once told me that Taira sensei spent years trying to "work out" his bunkai for the classical katas, implying that he was not taught them in the dojo by his teachers. Does kata movement get corrupted when there is no reference to bunkai? Or does our natural inclination to "find" bunkai, when none is taught, corrupt the way we practice kata? Conspiracy theorists might indulge in the notion that Okinawans are just not teaching bunkai to Americans. Or others might question this altogether, saying that they have been taught bunkai and their school is very clear about bunkai. But then why does bunkai vary so much? Does kata mean anything you want it to mean provided it "works" in a fashion? If the bunkai deviates from the kata--that is, if how one applies a technique from kata doesn't look anything like it does when one does kata--can it still be called bunkai? Some would suggest that these deviations demonstrate different levels of bunkai. Is it logical that kata--meant to preserve technique--has different levels? Can something be used to show and hide at the same time?

Why do I keep thinking of a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote? "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Was Emerson right or was this just an easy way out of a sticky situation?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Short Power

Liu Chang'I, lineage heir to the Liu family Feeding Crane system (Shi He Quan), will be giving a seminar in Boston on October 15th and 16th. I first met Sifu Liu when Kimo Wall sensei brought him to the states in the 90s. It was an eye-opening experience. If you have never seen real short power, or as Sifu Liu jokingly calls it, "inchy power," you really should try to make it to this seminar or any of the other seminars Sifu Liu is giving on this tour across the states. Sifu Liu is able to deliver power from all points of his body; that is, if you are in contact with his body at any point, he can use his short power to either throw you off or attack. One of the very useful things about this system is that Sifu Liu is so willing to teach other martial artists exercises that will develop this power.

I'm not really interested in proselytizing the obvious link between Goju-ryu and Feeding Crane. I think it's an unanswerable question as to whether Feeding Crane is the real Chinese antecedent of Goju-ryu. There are certainly very obvious similarities--the stance and breathing being just two. But more interesting for me is what light a little bit of training in Feeding Crane can shed on Goju-ryu. One begins to see how to truly relax one's technique and how the power generates from the body's core. Once you can see this (or feel?), it doesn't matter what part of the body delivers the attack--the open hand, the fist, the forearm, the elbow--it's all the same. The other thing that this admittedly very simple understanding of power gave me was--and I don't really know how to put it succinctly--a better understanding of what was going on in the Goju-ryu katas; that is, how the forearms, for example, were used to attack the opponent even though one might not see any significant arm movement. Since the arms are attached to the body and the body moves naturally in kata--either forward, as it does at the beginning of Sanseiru, or 90 degrees to the side, as it does in Shisochin--this forearm can, and quite effectively does, attack the opponent's neck with significant "fa jing," for lack of a better term (though one used by Sifu Liu himself), without any noticeable movement in the kata itself. One begins to see that the application of this short power is everywhere in the classical katas. And it also helps one see that there is very little of what some call "chambering" of techniques in Goju-ryu. A kind of chambering may naturally occur when the body is turning in kata, from one direction to another, where the body really catches up to the arm rather than the arm being pulled back into chamber. But there are also many cases where one should avoid this extra movement that chambering often requires. It leaves a "gap," and the Chinese Classics are very clear that there should be no gaps in one's technique. Gaps leave spaces for the opponent to enter.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Teaching martial arts

There is an old zen parable about a very knowledgeable teacher who one day comes ot 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...blah, blah, blah...the pouring of the tea...blah, blah...it overflows...blah, blah. Everyone's familiar with the story, but it seems to me it's particularly appropriate as every martial arts teacher has certainly encountered students who begin with their cups already full. Once and a while 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. (I wonder if this is also the way most of us live life in general: not looking for challenges, but for things that reinforce, conform to, or reaffirm our expectations.)

This summer I started to teach my nine-year-old son. We did some things when he was seven and a few more things when he was eight, but only this year has he had the desire and the discipline to really begin to learn. And I am constantly amazed at how he learns. I don't explain much, but what I do find is that he is very observant and picks up very subtle movement. Even at this age, when we do Kung Li, or power development exercises, he is able to see where the power comes from and he works diligently on imitating this. I don't know whether it's because he is an inexperienced beginner or whether it's his age and a lack of expectations. A lot of times, I think our expectations get in the way.

I have seen this problem of expectations even with experienced martial artists. 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 that speaks of 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 or makiwara tends to interpret all kata in terms of punching, blocking, and kicking. A Shotokan teacher once asked me what I trained. I said, "Goju-ryu." He said, "Oh, that's a very hard style isn't it?" I said, "Well, actually, the name itself means 'hard-soft style." So which is it, hard or soft? I often have a hard time trying to show people another way of looking at Goju-ryu and the applications of kata. I have been told that I was wrong because my bunkai was not the same bunkai that their teachers had shown them. I try to explain the principles upon which I'm basing my interpretations but the disbelief is still there--they have been told something else, and what I am suggesting flies in the face of what they have been told by their teachers, or by their teachers' teachers. That's another subject: when do we rightly use lineage to justify what we do and when should we question this "blind faith" we have in our teachers?

Wednesday, August 03, 2011


"People generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for." --Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

It's a lot like 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 or 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)?

For example:

This move in Seipai kata (right) is not a lower-level block or a block of a kick, even though the final position is low, as the left hand illustrates the first of these techniques in this picture.

This move from Seiunchin kata (left) (though the photograph shows the hands reversed, that is the non-kata side of the technique) is not an assisted punch, even though that is what it is often called, and that is how most schools interpret the bunkai.

And this move from Sanseiru kata (right) is not a block of a kick, even though the stance is low and the left arm is low and the eyes are focused out front and down, and even though one can find any number of people who say that's exactly what it is...it's not.

How then does one get around this prescribed way of seeing? How can we stop our expectations from informing our thinking? We generally see what we expect to see or what we are told to see, in some cases. Question what you are seeing and apply logic and martial principles (see "Principles," first blog post).