Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Friday, December 28, 2012

What did he say???

Mabuni sensei shows this as a
block rather than grabbing the
head and kneeing because
one is in cat stance.
Over the holidays, after the feasting and the festivities began to wind down, I sat down for a few minutes and reached for a magazine and chanced upon a copy of the New Yorker from last year. After reading the cartoons, I turned to a short article in the "Hearsay Dept." which they described as "a karma chain set in motion by Lama Pema at the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature." At this gathering of some 300 people (if my memory is not too faulty after a Christmas dinner and a few glasses of wine), Lama Pema whispered a sutra to the first person in line, who then passed it on to the next and she to the next and so on, until it came at last to the end of the line, where, of course, it bore very little resemblance to the sutra that set it all in motion.

The changing gate uke
from the Shodokan
version of Sanseiru
but not found in
many other versions
of the kata.
This reminded me of karate and particularly of the transmission of kata and bunkai--as of course everything reminds karate practitioners of kata and bunkai. But in that I don't suppose we're much different from gardeners or zen Buddhists or motorcycle mechanics.

When I was in Okinawa, we trained in a number of dojo, and the method of transmission always seemed to be the same--through observation and imitation. The teacher did not often "explain" anything, and the words we most often heard were "kore wa ko, desho" or, in a rough translation, "it's like this, okay"; the teacher would demonstrate, and you would do your best to reproduce what he did.

This reminds me of an old article I once came across in Classical Fighting Arts magazine. It was a short article titled "Aikido Memoirs" by Alan Ruddock. In it, he says, "I do not think that O-Sensei actually taught anyone, anything, in our western understanding of the word." He goes on to say, "I never saw any inkling of teaching, instruction, correction, or coaching....He did it; you saw it, and you had to figure it out. He went round smiling at everyone, with no clues, correction, or suggestions" (Vol. 2, No. 11, pg. 46).

Though all schools of Goju
end Sanseiru this way,
some turn to the left
and some turn to the right
to get here--a significant
difference for bunkai.
The implication, of course, is that each individual's understanding of what the teacher is showing, in either case, might vary...and it might vary considerably. You could say that that variation is fine as long as something works (though I wouldn't) or you could say that a certain amount of variation within well-defined parameters is okay--after all, people are all different. But what if some people got it wrong? What if change slowly crept in over time--as it clearly does with the telephone game? What if some things, particularly bunkai, were never taught in the first place, only imagined by the student after the kata was learned because there is very little instruction in the western sense of the word? And then what if the imagined bunkai informed (read altered to fit one's understanding of) the kata rather than the other way round? So, what are we left with? An impossible conundrum? A Gordian Knot? Thousands of teachers and practitioners merely fumbling around in the dark for some understanding of kata and bunkai?

The scenario begs the question of whether all versions of Goju kata (and here one might include Isshinryu as well), regardless of school/kan, are the same. And, of course, whether just any bunkai is good or real...whatever that means. Transmission is a tricky subject and perhaps not always the answer. I used to have a classic old Saab that had an automatic transmission and I could never get anyone to fix it so that it didn't slip. Everyone, it seems, can claim some sort of long-standing lineage--the easiest answer to any questioning of transmission. But the question for me has always been whether the bunkai is based on sound martial principles (see Principles blog post)  and whether it follows the kata. It should be lethal and real--not one of these applications where the training partner dutifully stands still while you apply some dream technique to their outstretched arm or they fall down because you're the teacher. And, since kata is a means of preserving technique, a bunkai should be executed against a partner the same as it is shown in kata--and not just a part of a technique, but the body movement, stepping, etc. Otherwise, you're doing something else. There are a lot of people out there who are very good at doing something else. I don't know what you call something else though, 'cause a lot of the time it ain't Goju-ryu.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Martial arts forums, talk, and such

The place where questions
 are answered.
Why is everyone so damned polite on the Internet? Is it because of a cultural tidal wave of political correctness that we have forgotten how to be critical without ad hominem attacks? Wouldn't the martial arts benefit from some critical analysis, from some peer review? I watch videos on YouTube of people demonstrating kata that are down right horrendous and no one can say anything other than "nice" things. And these aren't beginners. I could understand if it were beginners, but I'm talking about people who have supposedly been training for years. Is it because of a recent case where someone was hit with a libel suit because they had written a scathing review of a business on their blog site? I suppose that would be chilling. Who's to blame? Is society to blame? Or the people with the hubris to put themselves up on YouTube?  Or the teachers who masquerade as experts?

Not the dreaded ridge-hand
at the end of Saifa kata.
And I'm not even talking about bunkai! There's some pretty silly stuff out there. I know it's been said before--and I do think the Interent has the potential to be a wonderful resource--but there's no filter on it. Perhaps the problem is that there are many many karate practitioners out there who subscribe to the view that there are many applications to every move in kata. Or as it says over and over again in Kane and Wilder's book, The Way of Kata, "more than one proper application exists for any given movement of any given kata....Anyone who says differently simply does not understand what he or she is talking about." Of course there is some ambiguity here. What do we mean by "proper application?" But, for example, do we mean that the final technique in Saifa--the mawashi uke if you will--can be used to break someone's double-handed grab? Or as a push? Or as a ridge hand attack to the opponent's ribs? Sure you can use it in any of these ways, but is that what was originally intended? 

This sort of view is only a small step--a little sliding step if you will because it's a slippery slope--from the notion that a technique can mean anything. And it's not too hard in the confines of the dojo--with a compliant junior student--to make anything work. Or to change certain aspects of the technique shown in kata and say that you're showing variations or hidden techniques or oyo bunkai or the more advanced levels of this that and the other. People say all manner of things when pushed into a corner. But whatever the bunkai, it should be logical, lethal, and conform to the principles of martial movement. It's easy to dismiss bunkai that isn't based on sound martial principles.

And to some degree, the same thing applies to kata. You can "see" the bunkai in a good performance of kata. I would argue that some of the performance kata one sees on the Internet may be appealing to the eye of the inexperienced--excessive use of dynamic tension, moves that are held too long, overly large and sweeping arm movements--but they only underscore the lack of any real understanding of bunkai on the part of the demonstrators. Okinawan karate, if done properly, is probably not very pretty to look at--certainly not very stylish or flamboyant--but it is effective.

So rant aside, what I am suggesting is that martial arts needs some critical rather than polite discourse. We need to argue with each other and scrutinize. We need to debate and defend and be a little less thin-skinned or politically correct. I think everyone would benefit from more open discourse.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The Seventh Principle...in no particular order

Don't look at the final position to explain a technique.

I think this happens a lot when it comes to interpreting kata--that is, people tend to look at the final position of a technique to explain its application. It's almost as if they are looking at still photographs in a book. Where does the fault lie? I'm actually not sure one can assign blame in this case. Karate is a movement art. In order to learn it, we follow the instructor, moving from technique to technique, stopping at the end of each until we begin the next. But we need to keep in mind that what is really important is often what happens between techniques--how we get from one position to the next.

Seipai kata
This technique from Seipai is not a block of a kick, even though the final position shows the left hand in a gedan or down position. From the previous position--with the left hand "chambered" on the left side at the ribs--the left arm moves in a clock-wise circular motion, crossing the centerline, ending in the final position that we see in the photograph. Most traditional interpretations show this as a block of an attacker's left front kick--as if someone is going to initiate an attack with a front kick to the midsection. The right hand is often sa id to be a block of the same attacker's left punch. So the attacker, supposedly, has attacked, rather awkwardly one can imagine, with a left kick and left punch. If we remember to look at the entire movement or how one gets to this position, however, we see a circular block of the opponent's right punch and a right open hand attack. The block is a kind of "changing gate" block that first blocks on the outside of the opponent's attack and then, because of the circular nature of the block, opens the opponent for the counter.

Sanseiru kata
Neither is this technique from Sanseiru a block of a kick as many have suggested, even though this "final position" might suggest that the left forearm is blocking a low front kick. If you try to block a front kick this way, however, chances are the opponent is going to punch you in the head--that is, unless they are quite compliant and agreeable. But if the technique actually begins before you think it begins--which is usually the case--then you will find an effective arm bar.

Which all goes to suggest that nothing is really hidden...but things are not always what they seem.