Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Friday, March 22, 2013

You have to teach it first

Higa Seiko sensei demonstrating
a technique from Seipai
Is that a problem? Yeah, well, it might be. Now I'm just thinking about teaching Goju-Ryu, for instance, but if you're going to teach it, you need to think about which techniques to teach, and when you're going to teach them. Then there's the problem of what constitutes a technique. That may sound like a silly question, but if a particular sequence in kata involves a number of different movements, where do you break it down? This may not have tremendous implications for kata movement but what about bunkai? How you separate movements in kata may affect how you interpret techniques. What looks like uraken may really be a forearm strike or even an elbow, and yet they may look almost identical when you see the kata performed.

Once you separate the different parts of the movement, you put in artificial pauses or gaps. The sole purpose of the pauses is simply to make it easier to teach, but the pauses may get in the way of understanding how the techniques are supposed to be used. But it's hard to teach a beginner the fluid movement that may be required to execute techniques against an opponent, not to mention one who is attacking with any speed. And yet we teach kata in such a stylized and punctuated manner--as if the important point is to drag the performance out or make sure the judges at a tournament see every nuanced movement.

Once you have the techniques, it's hard to resist giving them names--mawashi-uke, down block, front kick--and it doesn't matter what language you use. Again, the names make it easier to teach. But the problem with names is that the names predispose us to seeing the techniques in a particular way. The names may even mislead us as to their function. The other problem is that when we name the techniques, we tend to homogenize them--for example, we tend to see all of the mawashi-uke techniques as the same, functioning in the same way. It happens with stances too. Stances are much more fluid (and purposeful), but the conformity we use in teaching kata--and this would seem to apply to stances and stepping as well--makes it easier to teach, and especially easier to teach large groups. Maybe that's the problem--the teaching of large groups, the popularization of karate in the 20th century.

Miyagi Chojun sensei overseeing
a large group of students
Then there's built in ambiguity. It's easy to see how ambiguity could be a problem. For example: Suppose the cat stance (neko-ashi-dachi if you're going to name it) is not really a stance at all but merely a teaching indicator. Suppose it was only meant to remind the student that every time there is a cat stance in kata, it indicates where one could kick, either with the knee or the foot. Here's the irony: By suggesting that you could use either one by only showing the cat stance--because if a kick with the foot is shown then a kick with the knee is not and vice-versa--it leaves this particular technique open to interpreting it as no kick at all; as some literalists might put it,  it's a cat stance and it's used to move forward and back, for example. So in order to teach the idea that a technique could be used in more ways than one, the opposite idea is actually conveyed; that the technique is neither a kick with the foot nor a kick with the knee. Again, the fact that we're trying to teach it gets in the way, or to be fair the teaching methodology gets in the way.

I don't know whether any of this was intentional on the part of the old teachers. I tend to think they were doing their best trying to convey something that is difficult to convey. I know it's certainly difficult to put into words. Sometimes I think that the only words one should hear in the dojo are the words that I so often heard in Gibo Seki sensei's dojo whenever we asked any questions: "Kori wa, ko desho?" And then, of course, you'd have to do it.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

What does martial arts have to do with englightenment anyway?

I remember once reading an interesting article (or was it a blog?) about this subject. Or maybe it was a discussion of zen and the martial arts. Some histories make a lot of this connection and many modern martial arts practitioners would certainly like to believe that there is something  more spiritual to their practice, that it's not simply a refined method of brutally dealing with threatening physical attacks. Yet that's exactly the way this one commentator put it; that in ancient times, he argued, martial arts was used to kill in life-threatening situations, and that those trained in it--and he applied this also to the samurai--gave little but a passing nod or prefunctory attention to zen or any other spiritual concerns. Hence his explanation of why in many stories some of these olden-day teachers and martial artists did some unsavory things or exhibited less than exemplary morals on many occasions.

But still, many of us, with fewer battles to fight in modern times, hope that there is a sort of spiritual side to training. As a friend of mine often jokes, "So, after 30 or 40 years of training martial arts, when do we become enlightened?" And with that, we continue to train...in the same way that Kosho Uchiyama Roshi sat zen: "Sit silently for ten years, then for ten more years, and then for another ten years."
But still the idea persists--if you just train long enough, enlightenment will come. So, I'm wondering, what are the lessons of training that if nothing else may "point the finger at the moon"?

The longer you train a particular system, the more you begin to see that all of the techniques are interrelated; that is, they are all connected. Or, from another perspective, the body is connected; when one part moves, other parts move as well. Isn’t this a lesson that should be applied to life?
When we train together, we “listen” and receive the other person’s attack. We don’t formulate our response before the other person initiates an attack. So too, we shouldn’t rigidly adhere to an ideology before we consider the merits and shortcomings of the other side. This also reminds me of a line in the Happo: harmonize any situation without difficulty.

When we train together in partner drills or two-person forms, we say, “It’s like a dance; there shouldn’t be a winner or a loser.” Isn’t this a lesson we should take away from training?

I’m reminded of another line from the Happo: Know your opponent’s hand like your own. I think when we train hard and seriously for a long time, we begin to know ourselves. When we honestly can say we know ourselves, then we begin to know others. This, I think, goes back to the interconnectedness of all things.
A simple lesson in stepping: sometimes it is important to step back. You can’t always be on the attack. It reminds me of something I encountered in T’ai Chi years ago: Invest in loss. I don’t remember what book it was quoted in, but it went something like this: Someone once asked Cheng Man-ch'ing how he became so good at “pushing” (in the T’ai Chi push hands drill). He said he spent seven years getting pushed.

The mind guides the intention or something like that. Some say the mind directs the ki or chi. T.T. Liang said, “The imagination becomes reality.” Shakespeare said, “There’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” In training the martial arts, we train the mind to direct our response. How then should the mind be used in life?
And then there's patience and dealing with the unexpected, and, of course, balance is very important in martial arts and in life.

I think there were some other things, but I have to go train. If I remember them while I'm out training, I'll try to remember to write them down. But I may forget....That's okay. Just train.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Questions one should be asking or another turn at playing devil's advocate

Why do we use different stances? Are some stances just transitional? Do we use shiko-dachi (horse stance) for different reasons than we would use zenkutsu-dachi (front stances)? Shouldn't stances inform how we interpret techniques? If someone is showing bunkai, shouldn't the stances, the steps, and the turns be incorporated into the application of the techniques, not just the arms and hands?

Is the mawashi-uke technique at the end of Saifa the same as the one at the end of Kururunfa? Does the fact that Sanseiru, Seisan, and Suparinpei show some similarity in their final techniques mean anything? (And if you don't see the similarity, should you be asking yourself what you're not seeing?) What about the end mawashi in Seisan is similar? Are the nukite strikes at the beginning of Shisochin really nukite strikes or sho-tei or open hand forearm strikes or merely emphasizing the idea that hands work in opposition in Shisochin, reflecting a basic thematic element seen in the rest of the kata?

Why is there a repetition, for example, of the (quote) "elbow" techniques in Seiunchin, showing them being done four times? Is there really a need for redundancy of this sort in kata? Is it possible that the first two "elbow" techniques are connected and the second two "elbow" techniques are connected? Is it possible that they are not really elbow strikes? And if redundancy is not really necessary in kata, what about the doubling of the "forearm strikes," or what are sometimes referred to as arm-bars, in Shisochin kata that also occur four times? Or are they different because they initiate from a different position--that is, in the first instance the hands are down because of the previous technique, and in the second instance the hands are up because of the previous technique?

What do the kata differences mean when you compare the different schools of Okinawan Goju-ryu? Do the differences indicate a different bunkai or a misunderstanding of what the original bunkai was? And while on the subject of different schools of Goju-ryu, why did Yagi Meitoku sensei feel a need to create additional kata?

Why are some techniques in kata executed slowly while others are fast? Is this an indicator of the kind of attack that the kata creators envisioned; that is, a slower response on the part of the person doing kata to indicate something like the attacker pushing or grabbing--a different kind of energy on the part of the defender--while a faster response may indicate the block and countering of a punch?

In reality, how high are the kicking techniques in Goju kata? Isn't a kick to an opponent's knee much harder for the attacker to block than a kick to the mid-section--the height at which most front kicks are practiced, whether in kata or in kihon training?

Is there really such a thing as a neko-ashi-dachi (cat stance) in Goju-ryu kata, or is it merely an indicator, a teaching aid if you will, to show where there is a kick? Why do we show kicks in Shisochin kata or Saifa kata or Seipai kata and hide other ones--if that's what the cat stance indicates--in the same katas? How is it used in Kururunfa? Is it really just a stance to move backwards, as some suggest?

What does it mean when a technique in kata is repeated twice? What does it mean when it is repeated three times? What about four times? If the purpose of kata is to remember technique, is there really a need to repeat techniques in kata? If the purpose in repeating technique twice is to practice a technique on both the left and right side, then why aren't all techniques in kata done this way?

Why is Sanchin seen as the fundamental kata of Goju-ryu? Is it only the stance, breathing, and posture that are fundamental? Why is Sanchin fundamental when Goju does not seem to be predominately based on straight punches?

Why are many Goju blocking motions (uke) circular? Why do many of the kata show a "block" stepping forward? Is gedan-uke really a block in any of the Goju kata?

What does the pattern of kata mean? If the turns and angles of stepping are not important in kata--since they are so often ignored when people interpret bunkai--then why aren't all kata done in a straight line? Why did Miyagi Chojun sensei use a straight-line pattern for Tensho?

Do all of the katas conform to the same martial principles? Can you begin to understand these principles by looking at the techniques themselves, to see commonalities? Is it enough data to formulate a hypothesis (bunkai)? To confirm a hypothesis?

What would Socrates say? So many questions, so many answers. But if you don't ask the questions....