Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Friday, July 12, 2013

Weeding the garden

The rains finally let up this week, at least for a day. The mosquitoes are still horrendous but with the sun out they keep mostly in the shade. Of course I had slathered on quite a bit of deet, so that may have been the reason. But what struck me, as I was pulling out Creeping Charlie and blades of grass and all manner of unidentifiable weeds from around the oregano and rosemary and catnip, is that it always seems as though the weeds take over. Why is it that the garbage stuff seems to proliferate and choke out the good stuff? Is that just the natural order of things? I read some place that when humans are gone from the earth it will be the cockroaches that take over. Of course, in the martial arts it may be different....

So I was watching a kung fu class training in the park the other day. Just a few people doing "animal forms." The teacher had said that they should just practice moving like the animal that they were envisioning. I didn't see anyone trying to be a cockroach though. A few people were prowling around being tigers or leopards or some sort of cats. And, of course, there were the obligatory cranes, though in this case I think they were black cranes, at least they were dressed in black. There were snakes, but they were walking upright too. I guess they were snakes before the Fall. It was sort of entertaining for about five minutes, before it started to get silly and irritating. I mean, these were all adults.

But I started to wonder about Goju-ryu kata. I've had a lot of conversations with people--some not so friendly--who steadfastly and adamantly argue that kata can mean whatever you want it to mean; that is, any bunkai/interpretation of kata movement that works is good, supposedly because the katas were created with this sort of intentional ambiguity. Look on the Internet some time and you will find all sorts of different explanations for the same moves in kata. Is everyone right? Or are most of them wrong?

I started to picture a couple of people fooling around in a park. Maybe one of them is a particularly good mimic. He starts to prowl around like a cat. Pretty soon he really gets into it, especially as he notices a number of people watching him. His friend thinks it's also pretty cool. Pretty soon they've developed a set routine and they call it the cat...or the snake...or the crane. They teach others. One thing leads to another, and slowly, over time, these random, meaningless movements take on a life of their own.

Of course, that's a ridiculous scenario. Kata did not come first, though there are plenty of people out there who think that this is a point as open to debate as the chicken and the egg. Isn't it far more likely--perhaps one should substitute logical for likely--that bunkai/application came first, and then in order to remember particularly good and effective applications they were put into solo routines so that they could be remembered and practiced in the absence of a partner or teacher? It's hard for me to believe that this is not universally acknowledged, but the larger question is, if we accept this: How do we know which applications are the ones originally intended by the kata? Are yours as good as mine? Are mine as good as some renowned teacher who has books and dvds and seminars?

Some would say you can't, since that would be trying to figure out what the original creators of the katas had in mind. But does that close off all of history to us? We unearth artifacts to learn about past civilizations. We apply the scientific method to problems in the universe. We analyze evidence to solve crimes. Why can't we apply logic and a knowledge of martial principles to the analysis of kata? Without it, it seems to me, we are doing a disservice to the garden, letting the weeds proliferate. Without it, the cockroaches will soon take over, and where will we be then?


  1. Sensei,

    I don't know what to think... Recently I had some relatively high ranking students of a near by Goju dojo come take a trial class as their dojo is closing and I went about business as usual training in much the same way we have been in the past couple of years now. I got some looks from my students (like, are you going to share what we do?).
    But I did anyhow since, well...it's what we do. It was a great class (one of my better ones) with tons of energy and everyone really left happy. After class one of the visiting students said to me "very nice class but, why didnt we do any fitness or sparring?" :(
    Either some eyes just don't see or MAYBE people prefer weeeds over cattnip... They are easier to take care of.
    Sad day for me.


  2. Hey Cris,
    That's par for the course. Personally, I think you're teaching a skill and people's personal fitness training should not take up precious class time with the teacher or the opportunity to work with others. You want to do strength training or more flexibility exercises, then come early or stay late. But I suspect that there are a lot of folks who see it as their exercise time. With limited time away from their work desks--or up off the couch--to get in shape. It's difficult trying to be all things to all people--especially if you're trying to fill a commercial dojo--but I suppose that's why stretching and warm-ups and basics in addition to kata and bunkai are so much a part of a regular karate class. The problem is that it leaves relatively little time for genuine teaching/learning and exploration. I guess that's an argument for "regular" classes for most and "advanced" classes for the few that see the difference. Anyway, all the best, Giles

  3. When it comes to science, peer review generally focuses first on the methodology. The criteria and methods applied to the collection, selection and analysis of data (kata) are presented first. Spend the time to explain the development and application of the methods, as it effectively determines the results (bunkai).

    What I think is strange is that so many don't question the process. For example: 'so and so' has XXX years training... ergo...that must be sufficient to validate their kata analysis.