Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Technique in kata and bunkai

"First one specializes in technique till he comes to the end of technique and bases everything on the heart itself--this is the best way of practice." (p. 175)

"When he has completed the training and has accumulated a great fund of practice experience, he moves hands and feet and body without the mind being involved; this is leaving the training methods without going against them, and now there is freedom in using any technique (waza) at all." (p. 161)

I love these quotes--and a whole host of others from this little book--taken from Zen and the Ways by Trevor Leggett. The book is an old paperback from the Charles E. Tuttle Company out of Rutland, Vermont. It's a kind of compilation on zen and different martial arts. It's one of my favorite books on martial arts, though I suppose some might find it a bit cryptic or esoteric.

But I was thinking of this the other day when practicing kata and bunkai with a few other students. I was thinking: we were all doing the same kata, but we didn't look the same. Now when I was younger, I trained in a variety of different schools--Tae Kwon Do, Shotokan, Yang T'ai Chi, etc. And whether it was the fact that I was a beginner or a particular predilection of the teachers, they would all go around, during kata practice, making minute adjustments to students' arms and legs. You might do a technique, and the teacher would come around and move your arm a fraction of an inch, as if you almost had it right but you were off by the smallest amount. As if that would make all the difference in doing bunkai! (Heavy amount of skepticism here.)

Of course, in most of these schools we never did bunkai. Kata was merely an exercise. You practiced stuff I suppose--though it was never explained in so many words--but I'm guessing that aside from the unspoken tradition that one must practice esoteric solo routines when doing Asia martial arts, I suspect that they would tell us we were also practicing the individual techniques that we would employ in the next phase of class--namely, sparring. In fact, in one school I was even told that kata had nothing to do with sparring, and you shouldn't confuse the two!

This is all to say--and this is why I mention these two quotes--that there has always seemed to me to be an acceptable window (for lack of a better word) of difference in how one performs kata techniques. I'm not suggesting that one should change kata. Far from it. But as long as one knows the bunkai, and it is apparent that the way the technique is performed would accomplish the bunkai, then I see no problem with some of the little differences that I see on occasion. Others might say that these differences are changes to the way the kata is supposed to be done. But I don't believe kata was ever meant to be an exercise in aesthetics. Kata is not done for kata's sake. Kata, for me, is not an end in itself.

For example: If someone's rear leg is bent instead of being locked out in zenkutsu dachi, I don't have the slightest problem with it. If someone's front heel is down in cat stance--as long as the weight is on the rear leg--I don't have a problem with it. If someone's arm is straighter or not so straight as someone else's arm in the hammer fist technique of Saifa kata, I don't have a problem with it. All of these "kata problems" usually get cleared up when one explains bunkai. And as long as one's bunkai is performed the same as the kata, what's the problem?! Now there's a potential conundrum.


  1. Thank you Sensei, I like the part where you spotlight the typical way of correcting students, I do this some times when i want to relay a idea of where the focus might be placed in a certain tech... I try to inspire the students imagination while they practice kata. My guess is that some teachers may have different goals and in the end the students end up carbon copies of the teacher regardless of their body type and ability.

  2. Hi Cris, to me the purpose of training is to learn and practice bunkai. The purpose of kata is to learn how bunkai is done. Admittedly, some things need fairly clear and precise correction--like the angle of the arm in Sanchin, which is the same angle we see over and over again in Goju. But we correct to achieve this angle because of its effectiveness in bunkai. Kata without a knowledge of bunkai is just empty movement or dance or a performance art. More important is how the core of the body moves or how we generate power. So much to learn and so much to study. No wonder it takes years!

    1. On Body movement and power generation... Why would you say there are so many schools that practice a stiff robot like karate? Is it possible that shallow training during the popularization of karate could be the culprit or is there something else you find might have influenced all of these styles and practitioners?

    2. Hi Cris, That's a complicated question. In a few words, I think stiff and robotic movement because they tend to view kata as a performance rather than a record of bunkai. Watch any YouTube video of kata performance. Even blocking techniques are held for a second for the judges to admire. In reality, the counter attack would be immediate or even almost simultaneous with the block. That's what I mean when I say "no gaps."

  3. It seems we can deduce that when speaking fundamentally and correcting technique, what is important is how the technique relates to the generation and transition of power and that techniques are not important for their own sake...?
    This reminds me of something my father used to say: ( in his trademark accent ) when you begin, a punch is just a punch. Then one looks for the right technique and angles and how to throw one.... And in the end a punch is just a punch.

  4. Cris, I feel as though I may be in danger of being misunderstood. I would never say that techniques are not important for their own sake. I'm pretty adamant about sticking to kata when doing bunkai. But because we all move a little bit differently and we all have different body types, once a student knows the kata and the bunkai--and I stress "knows the bunkai"--then I don't over correct each little inch of their technique. For example, in the opening sequence of Seiunchin, if they know that they have grabbed the opponent's head/hair with their right hand and their left hand is attacking the throat/chin, then I don't correct whether the left open hand is pointing straight forward or across the chest to the right. But you're right, one of the subtleties of teaching should be to teach how to move the body and the generation of effective technique. And this is something that can't really be conveyed in words or blogs.