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.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. It would be great to hear suggestions on how to practice Bunkai that takes us from novice to intermediate and hopefully on to advanced levels of practice.
    Usually we train individual techniques (from the bunkai) ippon kumite stile and then try to launch into full pledged bunkai practice if time allows... Time usually does not...
    I sometimes feel I may have the right idea on a bunkai, but relaying this to students is always a challenge even if they seem to have a good grasp of the kata.
    Thanks for the Blog

    1. Hi Cris, Not sure what you mean by suggestions on how to practice bunkai. All of the things I have been writing about principles of kata analysis/bunkai have been suggestions on how to practice. And as to levels of novice, intermediate, and advanced...I don't subscribe to the idea that there are different levels of bunkai. I know this is a bit controversial, but I do believe that you can find bunkai that conforms to basic martial principles and replicates kata and is more lethal than most of the stuff you see out there...and if it fits those criteria it's probably what was originally intended. The other aspect you mention is individual techniques. Certainly the techniques of kata can be trained this way, but the Goju kata, at least, are composed of sequences or combinations--entry techniques, bridging or control techniques, and finishing techniques. Look for the sequences in each kata. Each kata has only about a half-dozen sequences. They start with a block or receiving tech. and usually end with the opponent down. Often the individual katas are constructed around a theme. But within katas and even between different katas you will find variations of techniques, that's why it's a system. Look for how the defender (the one doing kata) moves off the line of attack (the kata shows this). It's lethal, so at some point in the sequence the Goju practitioner will attack the opponent's head. Cat stance means there is a kick (foot or knee) implied. If you have any specific questions about moves in kata let me know. Hope we can get together face to face at some point in the future, preferably in Miami where it's a good deal warmer than it is here today. All the best, Giles

  3. Thank you Sensei,
    I gather that since the the end goal is to practice the lethal techniques found in Kata, then that is exactly what should be practiced. I guess my question was from a pedagogic stand point and for some reason I assumed there was some other way than by simply doing it.
    Now that you mention it... I do have a question on Shisojin that I'd like to run by you. If its ok with you I'd like to make a short video to show what it is we are doing...
    You and yours are always welcome Sensei, we would love to have you in Miami Dojo. Ive already started prepping the Misses about the potential visit or trip...
    I'll email you with the video this week.
    All the best,

    1. Hi Cris,
      I will look forward to seeing Shisochin video. Coincidentally, I've been thinking about Shisochin a lot for the past few weeks. And I'm curious to see which version of classical katas you are doing. I see from your website that there are many Shodokan/Higa versions of katas, which is what we do here.
      All the best,

    2. Why the heck are my replies showing up in these skinny columns??? Anyone have any idea what I'm doing wrong?

    3. Testing...I think it's because making a comment using the 'reply' formats it automatically...as if using a subheader.