Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Forgotten Bunkai or lost bunkai?

Seiunchin kata
"If you look back, the thing that strikes you, if you've got any sensitivity, is that extinction is the most common phenomena. Extinction is always driven by environmental change. Environmental change is always driven by climate change." --Richard Leakey

I was reading the newspaper a couple of days ago and I came across an Associated Press story quoting professor and anthropologist Richard Leakey. It struck me how appropriate this might be when thinking about bunkai and what may have befallen karate in the 20th century. I have often wondered--and been alternately perplexed and exasperated--about the different schools/kans of Goju-ryu and how there are noticeable differences in their kata. Why, if they all studied under Miyagi Chojun sensei or even, in some cases, under Higashionna sensei? Some people have suggested that the katas differ because the teachers are emphasizing different bunkai. But if a kata is meant to aid memory--that is, if the kata itself is a memory aid so that one doesn't forget the bunkai, it doesn't really make sense to change the kata. Rather, I've come to believe, though admittedly on scant evidence, that the different ways of doing some of the katas--there are exceptions--were different ways of doing the same bunkai. But all of that's perhaps neither here nor there.

Seiunchin elbow technique
What Richard Leakey's quote really suggests to me is how quickly things can be lost. I have had four students train with me--out of many, many others--but four who have trained with me long enough to really understand most all of what I was trying to teach them--that is, to intellectually understand not only the katas and the bunkais, but the principles and reasons behind them--that is supposing I know any of this myself, which of course is not the point either. But three of those four people aren't teaching and the fourth one has one student. Now I have taught some of this to others, but they only have a partial understanding of it. My point is--and I don't mean this in any arrogant or egotistical way, as if I had all the answers or as if I was the only one who knew anything--but if this is at all typical of what went on in Okinawa in the turbulent 20th century, how quickly can an understanding of a system like Goju-ryu, for example, be lost?
Seiunchin elbow bunkai

If, as Richard Leakey suggests, extinction is more the norm and preservation the exception, could this be what happened to an understanding of karate in the 20th century? Certainly we have the forms/katas, but the wide disparity in bunkai--in the analysis of kata--suggests to me that perhaps something has been lost. Perhaps true understanding has been lost. Or principles. Or bunkai. The "environmental change" that Leakey refers to in this case would be the atmosphere in pre-WWII Japan. Read the notes of the 1936 gathering of karate masters and how discussion turns to de-emphasizing the martial or lethal nature of karate and turns to stressing physical fitness for the public. The climate and the environment was changing and this may have driven karate to change as well. It may not have died off. It may not be a case of extinction, but it is very likely that something may have been "lost," left to the archaeologists to recover, to piece together from the scant evidence we have, the bones. But it's a guess in any case, isn't it?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Kata themes again?!?

"Seisan seems to be a thematic exploration of the 'sun and moon block.' But one of the problems here is that the Higa dojo (Shodokan) seems to be the only school of Okinawan Goju-ryu that even does the sun and moon block in Seisan kata."

I actually said that. It was a blog post on kata themes. Not that it's wrong, but I was thinking no one who practices Goju outside of Higa lineage/Shodokan people is even familiar with the "sun and moon block." Most of the other schools, I believe, do this short series of palm strikes to the opponent's face--one hand going up to attack as the other hand comes down to block. This is right after the three punches at the beginning of the kata. Now, either of these techniques is very good and effective. But if you're looking for theme, I thought at the time, the "sun and moon block," at least in variation, occurs in some form throughout the rest of the kata. So thematically, the kata becomes a study in the variations on how one can apply the "sun and moon block."
The other block/attack.
The funny thing is that one can look at the "other" block the same way--it too occurs again and again throughout the kata--not so much in variation, but it does occur repeatedly.

So, as has always seemed the case and is a lesson in itself, the structure of Goju katas seems to put basic or thematic techniques, occuring in threes, at the beginning of the katas.

The interesting thing to me is just that implication when one is analyzing or trying to understand kata and its applications--that we should look carefully at the opening techniques. One teacher may put the emphasis on one technique and another teacher may put the emphasis on another.

Again, however, the problem this suggests or the question that begs to be asked--and I'm sure I've brought it up in many other places--is that if you accept this way of looking at the structure of kata, is the principle the same for all of the other katas? That is, are all of the katas of the Goju system structured the same way, with basic or thematic techniques occuring at the beginning, usually in series of three moves? If it differs and some katas don't follow that pattern, does that mean they are from a different source?
Take Sanseiru, for example, which is really the point of this whole ramble, not to give too much away. Sanseiru begins with what looks like three double arm positions, like Sanchin, each with a slow "punch." So if this way of looking at the structure of kata--with opening basic or theme techniques repeated three times--is correct, what does it tell us about the other techniques in Sanseiru, particularly the ones where we see something similar to these arm positions, like in the middle section of the kata? That's the question. How could what appears to be a double kamae position be all that important or basic or thematic?
Middle section block/kick.
Well, if you work backwards from the technique as it occurs in the middle section--turning into a left single arm closed-fist block followed by a kick and then a right elbow--we have arm positions that look pretty similar to the opening double kamae. Now if you apply the principle that turns in kata are used to indicate how one steps off line to avoid and block the opponent's attack, what we now have with this first block on the turn around is an outside block of the opponent's left punch (he's stepping in from the west) with the defender's right forearm and a trapping block with the left arm. The defender's right arm comes to the outside while the left arm is on the inside of the opponent's punch. We now have the double kamae that we see at the beginning of the kata. (This, of course, all happens very quickly in application.) If pressure is applied here, it has the effect of turning the opponent towards you for the kick. (Almost an involuntary movement to avoid the pain.) If done correctly, it's quite uncomfortable for the attacker.
First move in changing gate block.
We see this bent arm blocking position followed by a punch in the last sequence of the kata also, though this "changing gate" block may also only occur in the Higa/Shodokan version of the kata.

Well, anyway, that may be a bit cryptic to describe in words, but that's my latest thoughts on themes in kata. Hope it helps. It would be a lot easier to explain if I had a picture of it, which I don't....but kata and bunkai should really be taught in person, shouldn't they?! What the heck are blogs for anyway?