Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Hey, watch out, your hubris is showing!

I'm getting so tired of looking at bunkai on YouTube and not being able to recognize what kata the techniques come from. I mean, how's that bunkai?! Isn't bunkai supposed to be the application of the moves of the kata? I was watching one the other day where this very senior Okinawan teacher was blocking the student's punch--very fast and powerful with good body mechanics and all--but it wasn't any recognizable technique from any of the Goju classical subjects. So I'm not really sure what's going on here.

Opening move of Saifa kata
Then I found another bunkai of the opening moves of Saifa kata. The bunkai wasn't particularly bad; in fact, in many respects it was a perfectly adequate bunkai. The funny thing about it was this disclaimer at the beginning of the video:

"Saifa is not a kata my group practises, but today (22nd of November 2014) I took the sequence to the dojo and we spent 10 minutes at the end of the class collectively exploring the possible uses for the motion."

In fact, it is difficult to find any information about what style it is that this group practices, though I suspect it's Shorin-ryu. And the analysis (bunkai) came not from years of practice in the system of Goju-ryu, but from spending "10 minutes at the end of the class collectively" figuring it out. Oh, that and posting a request for video footage from blog readers who might have their own takes on the bunkai of Saifa. And submissions came from people who practiced Goju, Aikido, Tae Kwon Do, Krav Maga, Shotokan, etc. In fact, someone had even re-posted my own video of Saifa bunkai, and without my permission!!!

End of the opening sequence of Saifa
Is there something wrong with this picture or am I just too Old School and ornery? I mean, why study kata or bunkai that is not a part of the martial system that you practice? Matayoshi sensei used to call these people "stealy boys." What good is it to take a kata or a bunkai without the rest of the system--without seeing how it fits in, without the themes and principles that go along with it? It's like playing at karate.

You practice a variety of kata and the bunkai of a system so that you can understand, both with the mind and the body, the principles of movement that the system is trying to teach. It is the principles of movement that you use and draw from in the instant that you may need your martial art for self defense. It's unrealistic to suppose that in that instant you will be able to call up one particular bunkai from a vast collection of unrelated techniques that you have amassed from watching YouTube videos or attending seminars. And yet year after year, people attend seminars with teachers that bring them new and creative bunkai from kata that their group doesn't practice. Or they practice "systems" that aren't really systems at all, just amalgams of whatever works that some self-professed expert put together.

In all fairness, these bunkai are not necessarily any worse than half the stuff that purports to be from authentic sources, but I can't help thinking that something's missing. And some might argue that this is a fantastic resource, putting up videos of various people's interpretation of the opening moves of Saifa kata. But is this really what martial arts training has come to? Can you really learn a martial art this way? Or is it just another way for some people to create a following and make a dollar? It just strikes me as the height of arrogance: I don't know this kata, but I'll tell you what it means. And on top of that, I'll take a video of myself doing it and post it on YouTube. The ancient Greeks would have called it hubris. You would have been set adrift on the open sea for 10 years, unable to get home. Or maybe you'd have to poke your eyes out or something.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

In the shadow of the teacher

The shrine in the Barn Dojo.
I was watching an interesting video the other day, though perhaps interesting isn't the right word for it. In it, a very senior karate-ka sat in seiza at the feet of the teacher, An'ichi Miyagi, who sat above him in a folding chair. The student was interviewing him ostensibly about training in the old days under Miyagi Chojun sensei and who knew what katas and who taught whom what kata, but what really came through the interview was a sort of unabashed self promotion and a less disguised bashing of Morio Higaonna. It reminded me of a game we used to play as kids. It was a variation of the traditional game of tag, I suppose, because you "tagged" the other person by stepping on his or her shadow. It's actually kind of interesting in that it adds another dimension to the game. You have to not only make sure you avoid all of the other players, but in turning and dodging and weaving in and out of obstacles, you have to be aware of your shadow as well. And your shadow moves as you move; that is, sometimes it's behind you, sometimes it's alongside of you, and sometimes it runs off in front of you.

I'm not exactly sure why I thought of all this, except that I know it had to do with shadows in a metaphorical way. So often, it seems to me, students want to sit in some teacher's shadow, and in doing so, they want to make sure that their teacher's shadow is bigger than someone else's shadow. I suppose this is the whole lineage question. But why do students think that they can bask in anyone else's glory, by association, simply standing in someone's shadow? The extent of one's knowledge or understanding of karate can only be measured on the dojo floor. It's something personal. I'm reminded of Plato's Cave. What if the shadow you're standing in (and it might even be the shadow of "the world's greatest karate master") isn't the real thing?

With Choboku Takamine and
Seikichi Higa senseis.
This video was sort of funny and sort of sad at times, and I found myself wondering what point there was in putting it on the Internet. "Who taught Miyazato" or "Who taught Morio Higaonna"  this kata or that kata, the interviewer asked over and over again. "I teach," An'ichi Miyagi would answer. So-and-so didn't know that kata, he would add, or so-and-so had no "understanding" of that kata. I think the point that the viewer was supposed to take away was that the student, kneeling at the foot of the master, had found the source. He was legitimizing himself by proximity to the real source. Everyone else was not the real thing.

We have guilt by association, so I suppose we also have its opposite, something like legitimacy by association. But then again, neither one is really true, is it? And I am making no judgment here on what An'ichi Miyagi knows or what Eiichi Miyazato knows or what Morio Higaonna knows. Personally, and this is probably obvious to anyone who has read any of my ramblings, I'm not a fan of any of their ideas on bunkai or understanding of Goju-ryu. In my experience of training in Okinawan dojos, they teach hojo undo, junbi undo, kihon, kata, and various forms of kiso kumite and yakusoku kumite. Very little bunkai of classical kata is taught--though this seems to be changing in recent years--and if you don't teach the bunkai to the classical kata, it is very difficult to practice the principles upon which Goju-ryu is based. My teacher once said to me, "Don't follow me. Follow Goju." The teacher points the way. But it is each individual's journey. The only things that lurk in the shadows are paper dragons.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Idle ramblings and word associations

Practicing Gwa in
Matayoshi's dojo.
It's easy to teach kata, I suppose, and you can pick up lots of bunkai fairly easily off YouTube. Of course, it doesn't mean the bunkai is any good or that the kata is done correctly. So how do you know what you're getting?

Matayoshi sensei was very proud that the tradition of kobudo in his family went back generations. He showed me a family tree once, tracing his family back four hundred years. I'm not sure they all practiced kobudo, but the martial tradition in his family did go quite far back in time. And the point was, as he said, that once upon a time there were many many different martial traditions, but over time they got pared down. The bad ones died off, because in the old days you had to use your martial arts to survive. If
you didn't survive the battle or the confrontation, neither did your martial art. Those who survived passed their systems on to others. The problem is that that same natural weeding out of what's good and what's bad doesn't really exist today; we don't generally use our martial arts in battles or confrontations of the sort that might have been more commonplace in ancient times. Nowadays anybody can put a shingle out and teach martial arts without having to put it to the test, without having anyone question the techniques.

How one steps and turns
is very important in
executing this bunkai
 from Shisochin correctly.
I once learned a bo kata from a friend who trained in a traditional Uechi dojo. As a rule, they didn't do very much kobudo--after all, kobudo is really a separate tradition--but their teacher had taught them this one bo kata. I spent about 30 minutes following my friend through the moves of the kata before I realized that it was Sakugawa-no-kon, a kata I already knew. What confused me was the fact that they had been taught the mirror-image of the kata; everything was backwards. Not that there's anything wrong with doing a kata backwards, but I suspect that the teacher had taught himself from watching a video.

You can certainly learn a lot from videos. We live in a very technological age. I've often heard people say that you can find anything on the Internet. And many people are quite adept at navigating through all of that information. The problem is that some things can't be taught through videos. There are some things I have trouble teaching students in the dojo. You have to see it and realize what you're seeing in order to practice it. You can teach the moves, but not the movement. I'm reminded of some of the principles talked about in the Chinese classics and that can be found in Douglas Wile's T'ai-chi Touchstones: Yang Family Secret Transmissions. Here are a few:

"All the joints of the body should be connected without permitting the slightest break." "Power issues from the back." "At all times bear in mind and consciously remember that as soon as one part of the body moves the whole body moves." "Do not allow gaps." 

This movement from Saifa is really
the start of the third sequence, but
it occurs in-between the techniques
that we usually recognize. We don't
turn and face the opponent to then
execute the hand techniques. The
turns in kata show how to step
off the line of attack.
It's all so poetic and cryptic because it's difficult to teach...and just as difficult to talk about. It's almost as if the phrases are only reminders, only useful if you already understand what they mean.
And the really interesting thing is that the katas--and more importantly the bunkai of the various kata--reinforce this kind of movement. In fact, to do the bunkai to the Goju-ryu classical subjects, you have to move this way. In a way, a correct analysis of the kata (bunkai) demands that you understand the lessons contained within the movements of the kata.The most obvious movements are how you get from one technique to the next technique. But the turns and changes of direction are also important in most cases. As someone once pointed out, an awful lot occurs between the movements of kata. So often I see bunkai that ignores the stepping that occurs in the execution of the same technique in kata, as if the body and the hands are disconnected from the feet. It seems to me that people often content themselves with practicing the hand techniques of karate only. If they use the feet, it's only to kick. The stepping and turning in karate, however, are integral to a proper understanding of bunkai, as well as a lesson in how to move. Without a proper understanding of movement, kara-te really is just "empty hands."

Monday, October 13, 2014

Barry White? What's that got to do with the martial arts?

I was listening to some Al Green songs the other night. Smooth stuff. You sit down with a glass of wine and put your feet up. You know, some Lou Rawls, a little Marvin Gaye, maybe some Bill Withers mixed in, and I was trying to think, I'm missing somebody. Who's that guy with the incredibly smooth, deep voice? Oh yeah, Barry White. You know you can find that guy on Google if you type in "deep smooth sexy male singer motown?" The problem is that so much of it is dated. It's all this incredibly over-orchestrated 70s stuff. You can really appreciate the voice, but forty years later the songs don't travel that well. It's sort of like that movie I got once--The Sword and the Dragon, a Russian-made film from the 1950s that I watched over and over again as a kid. They used to show it late at night, and I would always stay up to watch it. Then I asked for a VHS copy of it one Christmas 'cause I couldn't think of anything else that I needed. Of course, I didn't need that either, which I soon found out. When I got it, I couldn't believe how lame it was. I mean, it was cute and all, but all of the cool special effects I remember as a child--the wind monster and the three-headed dragon--were about as convincing as the original King Kong or Godzilla movies. Things get dated. Nothing exists in a vacuum. Everything is influenced by the time.

Most people do these techniques
from Seipai as an arm-bar instead
 of  an attack to the head or neck.

In the martial arts, of course, this notion that one is practicing an anachronistic art may come up every time one picks up a "rokkushaku bo" or "tonfa." But we also find techniques in kata that suggest one is grabbing hair or a top-knot, and using it to pull the head down, a technique that one might not be able to use all that effectively nowadays. And why practice barefoot, especially in New England? It might have made sense in Okinawa where you could quickly slip off your geta or zori, but how is it realistic in today's world? There's a lot of stuff that's "time sensitive," not just the junk mail they send out with the words "Open Immediately" stamped on it.

Most people use this technique at the
end of Seipai to grab a kick or to grab
the oppoent's wrists instead of
his head.
Just as interesting to me, however, is what effect our world view may have on practicing an art that is so clearly from a different time and place, really a different world. And what occurred to me is this: Perhaps our more modern world view, superimposed over an ancient martial art, has colored the way we view and practice martial arts today. We are looking through a twenty-first century lens at a system of self-defense created for a far different time and place. Is it possible that a martial art that was once developed to protect one in life-threatening confrontations has unconsciously, and perhaps necessarily, adapted and changed to fit into a less violent time, an art that is practiced in gymnasiums and community centers by men, women, and children? Now, I'm not talking here about the development of Gekisai kata and other training subjects during the early years of the 20th century in order to bring karate into the Okinawan school system. I'm talking about traditional or classical kata and how most people practice it--that is, Saifa, Seiunchin, Shisochin, Seipai, Sanseiru, Seisan, Kururunfa, and Suparinpei.

You can find some very prominent
teachers on the Internet who will
show this technique from Seiunchin
as a nukite or shuto attack to
the opponent's ribs.
And the funny thing is you don't have to consciously do much of anything. All that needs to happen is to interpret or analyze kata (bunkai) in a less violent manner. You look for interpretations that match the situation and conditions of your training. In this case, you make all of your bunkai, blocks and punches. It's easy, and much less dangerous, to block the arms of your attacker/partner and punch, generally to the chest, maintaining a safe distance while you're at it. You don't have to "see" the combinations that contain grabs and throws and neck breaks. In fact, all of that stuff is difficult to train with a partner anyway, especially in a commercial dojo, one with potential liability. People don't want to get hurt nowadays. We have other priorities, like making it home for dinner, and getting up to go to school or work the next day. So we preserve the kata and call it traditional or authentic karate. But kata is a series of codified movements meant to preserve the principles of the art and its applications (the bunkai), and if you don't interpret it correctly, what are you left with?

I'm not really sure, but I'll tell you one thing: If you just want to forget about the whole thing and continue to throw some punches and do some chest blocks and throw in an arm-bar here and there and call it traditional Okinawan Goju-ryu, kick back for a bit, put your feet up, and listen to some Barry White...that is, without the 40-piece orchestra, 'cause it's a bit dated. Better yet, try some Al Green or Lou Rawls. That'll take your mind off it.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Chest punches in traditional martial arts?

We were sittin' around the campfire one night, after the horses had been fed and hobbled, and Pokey the cook had heated up some beans, when I turned to Clem and said, "It's awful quiet out there." Clem nodded his head sorta serious like and said, "Yeah, too quiet."
Attacking the head in
Saifa kata.

So I was reading posts on the Internet again.... I ask myself, why do I do that?? I'm reminded of something I once read. I think it was a criticism of the telegraph by Henry David Thoreau. My goodness, what a wonderful invention it must have seemed. It connected the whole country. People in Maine could suddenly talk to folks in Texas. The only problem, it seems, is that they had nothing to say. Radios, telephones, the Internet. I recently got a smart phone. Whenever I text someone I find that the phone is so smart that it knows what I want to say before I say it! It's truly amazing. Or maybe it's because we don't really have that much to say...or that much that needs saying.

So I was reading this blog post and it was discussing chest punches in the traditional martial arts. The suggestion was that traditional martial arts show so many chest punches--and when you look at the classical kata of Goju-ryu you will find only chest punches--because, and I'm paraphrasing here, it's safer and teaches one to train "at the correct range" (the poster suggested) and in so doing we are sort of forced into "making [our] training more realistic and practical" and thereby "doing it with reasonable safety from injury."

So let me get this straight. The original creators of kata put in only chest punches because they were safer, right? But if that's true, why didn't they make all of the other quite deadly techniques safer to
Attacking the head in
Seiunchin kata.
practice against an opponent? Actually, I'd rather turn that around a bit. Why preserve something in kata that's not the actual technique? Are the chest punches supposed to be "hidden" head punches--that is, you practice chest-level punches in kata but you're really supposed to raise them to head-level in reality, but that's too dangerous in the dojo so we practice chest-level??? And our dojo partners, what are they practicing? Are they practicing blocking a chest-level punch that in reality would be to head-level and so all of their practice of chest-level blocks is sort of pointless? Boy, this gets confusing. Does all of that make sense? Are you making something "more realistic" and "safer" at the same time? What about it is "realistic"? Is it that we allow ourselves to throw "realistic" punches with full power and speed at someone's chest but not at their face? But aren't we supposed to be practicing control in the dojo as well?

The same blog post prefaced this rather lengthy discussion with this: "I believe the answer is rather more simple.  It's all about training at the correct range...." Well, it is simple, but it's not about "correct range." My goodness, as we get more skilled, we should be able to punch to the face at close range and not paste each other!!!

If you want simple, consider that the closed-fist punches are all chest-level punches because they are to the head!!! It's just that the head has been brought down to that level. In Goju-ryu classical kata, we practice blocking/receiving techniques against the upper-level punches of an opponent. But receiving techniques (uke) are predominately circular, so this may be hard to see at times. And then each receiving technique is generally followed by a controlling or bridging technique. These
techniques generally go for the opponent's head or neck, and, sometimes alone or coupled with a kick, they are most often used to bring the opponent's head down. Once the head is brought down, this is where you will see the application of the straight, closed-fist punch. In order to really see any of this, you have to see that the Goju-ryu classical kata are composed of combinations of techniques--all of the combinations start with a "block" or receiving technique and end with a finishing technique. If you see a straight punch to the chest in kata--as you do at the end of Saifa kata, for instance--you should assume that it's a punch to the head and ask yourself how you got the head into that position. Then back up the sequence until you find the initial block or receiving technique. Simple, right? Well, yes, at least he was right about that.

And with that, I spread out my bedroll, said goodnight to Clem and Pokey the cook, and caught some shut eye, thinking maybe tomorrow we'd come across somethin' a wee bit more interestin'. 

Monday, September 01, 2014

The structure of kata

Upper-level palm strike
from Tensho kata
Here's a thought. Miyagi Chojun sensei begins training with Higaonna sensei sometime around the turn of the 20th century, more than a hundred years ago. After fourteen or fifteen years of training, he takes a trip to China with Gokenki. While they are there, he sees some hand movements that he finds interesting enough to incorporate into a rather simple training pattern--Tensho kata. Now one can imagine that fifteen years of training under Higaonna was probably sufficient to learn whatever system it was that Higaonna taught. One can also imagine that Miyagi sensei did a fair amount of talking and training with Gokenki, by some accounts an influential White Crane teacher. So all of this raises some questions for me. What was it about the techniques we find in Tensho that were so important to Miyagi sensei that he felt it necessary to include in his Goju-ryu curriculum? The assumption is, of course, that there is no need to make a new kata that merely duplicates things that can already be found within the system. So the question is, what did Miyagi sensei feel was missing? Why is there nothing borrowed from Gokenki in Miyagi's system of Goju? What is so unique about the movements of Tensho?
Rising block from
Tensho kata

I wrote about this question in an article for the sadly no longer publishing Journal of Asian Martial Arts (Politics and Karate: Historical Influences on the Practice of Goju-ryu, vol. 16, no. 3, 2007) in an attempt to, at the very least, instigate some discussion of form and structure, and the relationship between kata and bunkai. But there is so much that gets misconstrued. In fact, I was misquoted on a number of forums and criticized for trying to fit Tensho into the mold of a bunkai-based kata--like a square peg in a round hole--instead of seeing it as it was intended to be seen, as an internal training method. I'm not sure I understand how this person--who didn't train Goju and was only peripherally familiar with its katas--was sure what Miyagi sensei intended, or how he was so quick to assess what I knew or didn't know, never having met fact-to-face, but that's the nature of the Internet, I suppose. And while we're on the subject of stuff I don't really get, why limit one's internal training to one kata?  In fact, I'm not sure I really understand the distinction many people make between hard and soft after thirty years of training--they're inter-twined really. Wikipedia tells us that "Sanchin kata...is one of two core katas of this
Upper-level palm strike
that would follow the
rising block
style. The second kata is called Tensho...." I'm not sure I even understand why fundamental but elementary kata--meant to teach stance, breathing, posture and alignment--are called "core" kata. And how can a core kata of a system be one that was created after the fact? A core kata should teach more about the principles of movement and self-defense than either of these, shouldn't it?

Which brings me to my main point here: Why did Miyagi sensei put the techniques of Tensho kata together in the way he did? Supposing my initial analysis to be correct, the first technique of Tensho (excluding the three Sanchin-like punches in the Higa version of the kata) is a right open-hand jodan block followed by a right hand jodan shuto attack. The third technique is a jodan-level palm strike. This is followed by a gedan-level palm strike. The fifth and sixth techniques are a rising block followed by a downward block. The seventh technique is a mid-level outward block, and the eighth technique is a mid-level palm strike. The question is, why not keep all of the blocks and attacks together? That is, why not follow each block with the appropriate attack? Wouldn't this be the simplest and the clearest method of transmitting intent? I know there are any number of possible explanations. Perhaps it flows better this way, etc. But the funny thing is that this sort of "interrupted" structure is exactly what we see--and so seldom recognize--in the Goju classical subjects. We see the opening or receiving technique (uke) done on one side and then repeated on the other side, but the finishing technique only tacked onto the second repetition. This is what we see in the repetition of the double "elbow" techniques in Seiunchin kata, for example. We may even see the controlling or bridging technique without the receiving technique--again, a structure that repeats in a number of the classical kata--and the finishing technique tacked onto the second side or second repetition. This sort of structure is found over and over again in an analysis of Goju kata--it's one of the key principles to analyzing kata and discovering bunkai--but if you're not aware of it, it seems needlessly confusing. If you're not aware of it, it leads to the sort of piecemeal interpretation of kata and bunkai that seems so prevalent on the Internet.
One of four "elbow" techniques
from Seiunchin kata (or is it half
of two "elbow" techniques!?)

So what's with Tensho? This is by all accounts a kata that Miyagi sensei made. In other words, we can supposedly see intentional structure. The stepping pattern and stance work is obviously taken from Sanchin. But supposing I am correct about the applications of the hand techniques--and I'll be the first to acknowledge that I could be wrong--then why put it together in a way that seems at the very least ambiguous, if not intentionally confusing. Here's a thought, though: At least it's confusing in the same way all of the other kata are. What's that tell you?

Monday, August 18, 2014

To kaisai no genri or not to kaisai no genri

How many Japanese karate terms can you say in one minute? I find this annoying--the seemingly off-handed, pompous over use of obscure foreign terms--especially when it comes up in discussion forums. What's the point? Just kidding...everyone knows the point to using jargon. The point is to intimidate or at the very least to establish one's expertise in a subtle way. There are really a number of problems here. Certainly agreed upon terminology can facilitate discussion.  When I say that a poem is a sonnet, I am hoping that the use of agreed upon terms [sonnet] bypasses a lengthy explanation of form and structure. When I ask for a monkey wrench, it's a lot quicker than trying to describe what I need. But karate terminology is not standardized. What you call a te-kube-uke, I may call a kake-uke. And one can't forget that what may be appropriate in Japan may be an affectation in the West. Remember, in Okinawa they're just counting to ten--ichi, ni, san, shi.... The other problem is that what you call a nukite, I may call a shotei. When we call a technique something--anything--we begin, however unintentionally, to assign it a meaning, an explanation, and in this case a bunkai. The solution, I suppose, is simply to describe or explain what's going on. Wait. Would that make things too clear? I mean, would it take all the mysticism out of it?
1st move in Saifa--a dropping elbow.

Just picture, for a minute, the typical dojo. The smell of incense. The quiet. Suddenly a guttural growl: "Mokuso yame." The sempai calls out. "Kiritsu." Then, "Sensei ni, rei." Everyone bows to the teacher. "Shomen ni, rei." Everyone bows to the shrine. "Mon-te ni, rei." Everyone turns and bows to each other. "Mae." Pause while everyone turns to face the front. "Kiotsuke." Everyone stands at attention. Where did all this militaristic formality come from? Was it always a part of Okinawan karate or did it come from the mainland during the years leading up to World War II? But there's little time to dwell on such things, the senior student is barking out commands again. "Sanseiru kata. Yoi." Everyone comes to ready position. Again, that guttural growl that sounds like an angry ronin from an old samurai movie. "Kamae." Everyone steps forward with the right foot and brings both arms up, sort of like Sanchin. Wait, is that a ready position or is it a technique? How do you know whether it's a ready position or a technique? It must be a ready position because the sempai said, "Kamae." No, it's just always been called that...or it's called that because who the hell knows what it is!? Is that really the way someone would ready themselves for a fight, both arms up, sort of like John L. Sullivan or some boxer conforming to the Queensbury Rules??? Couldn't be. Maybe it's a technique. Maybe it actually has a function. But of course that would imply that everything in a kata had a function and you aren't just adopting a pose or performing for an audience. Whoa, that's a pretty radical thought. No, it's not. What's really radical is thinking that everything in kata has multiple functions. That's radical. Call it what you will, but don't call it a whole lot of different things.
Grabbing the head and dropping
the forearm onto the neck
of the opponent.

Actually, that's part of the problem, that we give techniques names. The first technique of Saifa kata is described as an elbow technique. So creative karate-ka (there's those terms again) use the elbow to attack the opponent's ribs or the opponent's own elbow after he has thrown a punch. But if you attack the elbow from the side, it only takes the slightest bend of the elbow by the opponent to frustrate the attack and protect the elbow. If you bring the elbow up and over the opponent's arm, on the other hand, and drop the forearm on his arm, you can easily bring the opponent's head down. The next move is to grab the head, drop back into horse stance (shiko dachi) and attack the neck with the forearm. This, of course, raises all sorts of issues, because in most dojos teachers call this technique a uraken-uchi. The kata looks the same or very nearly when it's done, but the bunkai isuraken or, as I've seen in some cases, a rap to the chest with a backfist, which is just plain annoying.
very different. Which one is right? Well, one should ask which interpretation best conforms to martial principles, which is more realistic, and which is more lethal? The first principle here is to move in such a way that doesn't allow your opponent a second opportunity to attack. It is more realistic because you are using the response of the opponent to your first counter. It's more lethal because you are attacking the opponent's neck rather than giving him a bloody nose with a

And don't call it a mawashi-uke, because most of the time in kata it's not "receiving" anything--it's the finishing technique. Of course, that would take a pretty radical shift of perspective...but it would sure help your kaisai no genri!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

It was a slow news day

I was reading the local paper the other day, and for some reason the 1936 meeting of Okinawan karate masters came to mind. I don't think the connection was with newspapers per se, though the 1936 meeting was sponsored by the Ryukyu Shinpo newspaper publisher and, in addition to the many prominent karate
masters, government officials and newspaper men were also in attendance. That in itself makes you wonder what can happen when the government, the press, and popular opinion are brought together around a  common cause.

Of course the notes to this meeting have long been available in English in a number of books and on-line, and the possible impact it may have had on the development of karate has been a rich source of speculation, written about by many practicing karate people. I have often been amazed that real karate even survived that day, as the pressures of the times seemed to push for the development of a form of karate that could be practiced by school children, a form of karate that could be used more for physical development than self-defense, a form that might, in the process, divorce karate from its very lethal and historical origins. I've always appreciated Miyagi Chojun sensei's very adamant and clear statement that, though he might agree with the development of new kata that could be used in schools, a standard uniform, and a regulation of terms, "the classical kata must remain."

The historical atmosphere that may have fed this desire to use the martial arts as a force for cultural unification or to strengthen the youth of the nation at a time when unity and nationalism were significant concerns on the national and regional political agendas has been written about as far back as George Kerr's seminal 1958 book, Okinawa: The History of an Island People. Perhaps there were earlier books or articles as well. But I wonder less about how historians saw this period than how it was perceived by the average person sitting at the breakfast table, reading the local paper just as I was the other day.

The big story on the front page of my local paper was about an invasion of water chestnuts in the local lake. There was a picture, spread across four columns, of a couple of guys in kayaks pulling up weeds. There was another story about the loss of a dachshund from a "possible" coyote attack. The story was continued on to the back page of the section with a cute picture of the dog. At the bottom of the front page there was a story about the demolition of a barn that will be put off until next summer...when there will probably be another story about the demolition of the barn. Then there was a story of a Cambodian lawmaker who was released from jail after a human rights protest...in Phnom Penh. Inside the paper there was an op-ed piece about how diverse the city streets are, a news item about a tree in L.A. planted in memory of George Harrison that died from an insect infestation, a story on Glendale St. being closed while road work continues, and a story of an untended backpack that caused the evacuation of the courthouse--suspicious because of wires that were sticking out of it--but it belonged to the contractor working on the building. Nobody had made the connection.

I guess it was a slow news day, but it made me wonder what place an anachronistic activity such as martial arts has in the world today. Why does anyone need to learn how to defend themselves with lethal force? Certainly the view of the world we get from movies and television seems pretty violent, and that view may color the way we think about the world we live in if the theories of people like George Gerbner are to be believed. But movies and television aren't real. It's not the Middle Ages.

Of course the short answer is that most people don't study a lethal martial art...even those who study martial arts. School boy karate was not lethal back in 1936, and it's not lethal now. And most people seem to be practicing school boy karate--just watch the unrealistic demonstrations of bunkai or the tournament kata demonstrations put on simply for show. Even in more traditional schools--ones who may shun sparring or tournaments--the emphasis seems to be more on the study of a certain cultural milieu or some spiritual endeavor that will hopefully lead to enlightenment. We don't study the quite lethal practical applications of kata so much as we train the body and the spirit through the practice of courtesy, breath control, awareness, posture and proper movement; training  one's kiai and me-tsuki; learning to sit in formal mokuso. I'm not saying that these things aren't worthy subjects of study. But when this becomes the focus of your training, then there's not much difference between then and now. Just remember, "the classical kata must remain," and all that that implies. And watch out for the slow news days!

Monday, July 14, 2014

More on karate forums

Sorry in advance for the rant, but I didn't have anything else to write about so I thought this deserved a short comment. (I hope the irony isn't lost there!) 

I was reading a couple of forums and blogs recently. I don’t know why. On one of them, a rather popular site that tends to sometimes lengthy discussions of traditional Okinawan karate--at least that's the way it's billed--the forum regulars were bemoaning the fact that a lot of forums had gone quiet recently, that there didn’t seem to be any interesting topics of discussion, and that this had been the case for months. I could sympathize. Of course, all things go in cycles. I started training martial arts back in the days when Kung Fu was a popular TV show. Heck, I knew students who stayed home to watch David Carradine instead of come to class. But the really funny thing about these forum regulars to me was that in discussing the lack of meaningful discussion topics most of them seemed to come to the
When is a punch,
not a punch?
conclusion that they didn’t themselves engage in or bring up more interesting topics--though they could certainly take some of the blame, I think--because they no longer felt the need; all of their questions had been answered. There wasn’t anything that they were unsure of?!? (Here I actually wondered whether this was also the case of the folks who read my humble blogs, since I so rarely hear from anyone.)

Anyway, how could this be? Who are these people? Is it that they don’t train enough or they have no imagination? What with all of the back slapping and deferential agreement that so often accompanies any discussion on these forums, IMHO it’s surprising that any of them have lasted this long. Most of the time they seem more like mutual admiration societies. I hate to rant, but that in itself raises all sorts of questions for me. For example, if two people practice the same kata differently, however slight those differences may be, doesn’t that raise questions? Who’s right? Why the differences? Perhaps everyone has just agreed to disagree. Life goes on. There is no argument, and no one is wrong because everyone is right. And they all lived happily ever after. Except I have questions, always questions…  Why does the Higa dojo (Shodokan) do Sanseiru one way and Meibukan and Jundokan do it another way? Why do we practice an upper-level punch (jodan tsuki) in most schools when it doesn’t occur anywhere in the classical kata? Why do we practice barefoot in New England? Why do we count in Japanese? 

I guess the answers are probably pretty predictable for most people—something akin to what I read on another forum this past week. At the end of the discussion topic, one forum participant wrote something like this: “Well, that’s what my teacher said, and I see no reason to question him since he hasn’t steered me wrong yet.” And they lived happily ever after.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Kata--teaching model or bunkai model?

The sky is blue and my neighbor's catalpas are in bloom. The swallows are flying back and forth in the early evening, scooping up mosquitoes. I was sitting outside in an Adirondack chair with a glass of wine, having a conversation with myself.
     "So why do we do kata," I asked more rhetorically than conversationally.

     "To remember technique," I answered.
     "Well, there's got to be more to it than that. After all, you could simply write them down."
     "Perhaps they come from a time when people were mostly illiterate."
     "But why not just practice techniques? I mean, why arrange them in these particular patterns?"
     "I suppose each collection--that is, each kata, is arranged around a particular theme. Either that or they come from different sources, in which case we'll never know how or why certain techniques found their way into certain kata. Of course, if that were the case, you might expect a considerable amount of redundancy."
     "In that case," I answered, " let's pursue the first scenario--that there's a method to the madness or at least a theme."
     "Okay, but how would a kata show theme? I mean, I know some people have suggested that katas are based on animal movements--a dragon kata, a tiger kata, a snake kata--but how does that help in understanding kata? At best, it's sort of a cryptic and very Chinese way to describe things like that, almost like a codified and abbreviated way of describing things. I'm thinking there must be other themes that would be more useful."
     "Well, we could look for themes that were based on techniques that seemed to be repeated or prominent in a particular kata. For example, the pushing and pulling that seems to occur over and over in Seiunchin kata. Of course, to see kata this way you would need to accept that there is a natural link between kata and bunkai."
     "Oh, I think you might have to go further than that. I think if you look for themes in kata, you need to see kata as a collection of very specific sequences, combinations of techniques really, that explore different responses to similar scenarios. Variations on a theme, if you will," I suggested. "It might be that a kata is constructed to show different ways to respond to grabs or pushes, or it might show a single receiving technique (uke) with different bridging/controlling and finishing techniques," I continued. "Or it might be as simple as showing open hand techniques or the hands working in opposition."
     "So, not to get too far afield and too nebulous, let me bring it back to the original question then. Why do kata?" I felt like I was badgering myself. It's a beautiful evening, give it a rest a voice said in the back of my mind.
     "No," I said, though I didn't wish to offend anyone. "Let me rephrase the question. Why do kata the way we do them? Why continue to practice kata the same punctuated, stylized, and syncopated way we did when we first learned them? I've even seen kata done that way in Okinawa by very senior students. When you first learn kata, you are trying to commit something to memory, but once you have learned it why not use kata as a means to practice technique. Why continue to do kata as if it were a collection of still photo ops? Why the stiff, robotic movement? Why all the drama with the excruciatingly long pauses and the dynamic tension fit to burst a blood vessel? None of this is realistic. Once we have learned the kata, why not practice it, not to remember sequences, but to execute the techniques in the same way that we would execute them if we were actually using them in a self-defense situation?"
     "Let me get this straight," I said. "You are suggesting that we generally get mired in doing kata the same way we initially learned it, with the same pauses, the same stilted movement--what you might call 'the teaching mode.' Is that right? And what's the other way, 'the bunkai mode'"?
     "Yes," I said, and then I posted them on YouTube.

Sunday, June 08, 2014


The other day I got to thinking about posture. I've never been particularly good at it. I slouch and stretch and gesture and shrug. In fact, I don't think my back's ever been particularly straight, and when I sit down in a chair I'm sure I've done a pretty good job making it worse over the years. And when I'm thinking over a problem, I generally look down, as if the solution is somewhere right under my feet. Of course, sometimes it is, which probably doesn't help. And then, if you study someone like Kanei Uechi, with his dropped shoulders and slight rounding of the back, that sort of compression and curvature seems almost natural for martial arts. Whereas the militaristic posture one often sees in a performance of Sanchin kata--shoulders back, butt tucked under, chin in--seems quite unnatural.
Kobudo seminar at the Univ. of
Massachusetts 1995.

But that wasn't the sort of posture that I was thinking about actually. I was thinking about the sort of "posturing" that many people in the martial arts put on with as much ease and comfort as they put on their belts and a gi. It's as if they practice this sort of posturing as much as they practice anything else. I'm ranting--I know it and I should stop--but what place does posturing have in the martial arts? And I don't mean just the sort of posturing that comes along with the flamboyant uniforms and belts and the desire that some people have "to be the teacher." Not just the sort of posturing that some teachers exhibit with their titles--renshi, kyoshi, soke--and whatever need it is they have for students to address them as "sensei." I've seen plenty of these. There are plenty of these "teachers" who just like to teach but do very little actual training. How can you teach if you don't train? Why does anyone need a title? Why do we even use the term "sensei" in any culture outside of Japan, since the cultural connotation of the term will necessarily be different? I teach for a living--not martial arts, but English. If someone were to refer to me as "teacher," it would convey nothing particularly unusual or important. But to be a "sensei" carries with it so much more cache, a mystique that's even hard to express, but only in non-Japanese countries.

But there's all sorts of posturing. There are, of course, those charlatans who only attend seminars and then profess to have trained under this or that master. I was at a kobudo seminar once with Matayoshi sensei, where we had invited a number of people from different schools, some from fairly far away. At dinner after the seminar, one teacher presented Matayoshi sensei with a plaque and then asked him to sign this rather large, framed certificate that he had made up before coming. It was a fairly elaborate certificate, suitable for framing, stating that this teacher had trained with Matayoshi sensei or something to that effect. Sensei couldn't read it and was ready to oblige with his signature until someone there actually translated it for him.

But there are also those who adopt a somewhat less aggressive posture. In fact, the posture they adopt is a defensive bulwark against the good and the bad...and, I suppose, the ugly. They imagine themselves as the defenders of the faith. They practice traditional karate. None of this new-fangled bunkai stuff for them! I actually read a piece that suggested this very thing recently--that the study of bunkai is really something quite new and that everybody seems to be jumping on this bandwagon. The writer seemed to take pride in the fact that he didn't; that rather than succumb to this new fad, he would continue to practice "traditional karate."
I grant you there is an awful lot of truly awful bunkai out there. In fact, I've almost given up looking for good bunkai on YouTube. And don't get me started on that guy from England that puts up ten or twelve ridiculous bunkai a week on YouTube. So I understand the annoyance one may have with every Tom, Dick, and Harry putting up their bunkai on the Internet. But to imagine one is somehow above these other people because one doesn't practice bunkai is bordering on the absurd. Traditional karate without bunkai? What does that leave you? Grunting through a hundred basics? Doing push ups and sit ups? Carrying nigiri-game around the dojo floor? Hitting the makiwara a thousand times? Karate is bunkai.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The problem with kata

So...what's the problem? Certainly it's not with kata itself. After all, even in the midst of change--I'm thinking of the 1936 "Meeting of Karate Masters," sponsored by the Ryukyu Shinpo newspaper--Miyagi Chojun sensei was adamant that "the old kata should be preserved without any modification" (translation by Sanzinsoo) No, it's the over-stylization of kata that's the problem. Let me give you an example. You want your kid to draw, so you give him a coloring book instead of a blank piece of paper. What's wrong with that? It provides a little bit of guidance. You can even purchase books that might appeal to different kids--a Spiderman coloring book for one and a Little Mermaid coloring book for another. You can already see where this is going, but the not-so-hidden stereotyping is only part of the problem. I think, at least philosophically, we realize that coloring books restrict creativity. Pablo Picasso once said that it took him "four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child," and I don't think he meant anything like using coloring books.

Stepping up into the first position
in Saifa kata (mirror image).
Kata is terribly restricting--in the way that we introduce it to beginners (and we were all beginners once)--and when you add the study of bunkai, it's sort of like putting the cart before the horse. deriving bunkai from this kind of overly-stylized, restrictive movement is an exercise in frustration, at the very least. Let me borrow a definition from the art world. To say that something is stylized, as kata is, is to say that it is bound by convention and presented in a non-naturalistic form. I should say here that what I'm referring to is not the moves themselves so much as the performance of the moves in kata.

For example: We teach a student the first step in Saifa kata is to advance along an imagined northeast diagonal line with a right step into a long zenkutsu-dachi (front stance). Then the left foot is brought up to the right into a stance that the Japanese call musubi-dachi (heels touching with the feet splayed at 90 degrees), as the hands pull back across the chest. Yet this is a sort of stilted, overly-stylized movement--completely unnatural--that would never be done in such a punctuated manner if one were actually "using" the technique against an opponent. And the problem is that this kind of stylized movement, learned at an early stage in our training, generally informs most people's bunkai as well.

Kicking posture in Saifa.
Another example is the next sequence (after the three opening moves) in Saifa kata. We generally teach students to step out along a northwest angle into neko-ashi-dachi (cat-foot stance), with the left arm up and the right arm down. This position is often held, especially when teaching large groups in the dojo and counting out each movement so that (for whatever logic there is in this) everyone moves together. (Again, uniformity rears its ugly head!) But the unnaturalness and over-stylization should be apparent here. If you were actually employing this technique, you would not pause in cat stance. You would move from the previous position, whatever it happened to be (in this case, shiko dachi or horse stance) and simply kick. In other words, we have overly-stylized the weight transition and turned it into a cat stance. The whole "point," if you will, is to shift the weight onto the left leg so that you can kick with the right. How fast would you do this in reality? Do it fast enough and the cat stance disappears.

Final position in Saifa
before the right hand
is brought over and
down, palm forward.
What about the last technique in Saifa kata, the mawashi uke? When most people perform this move in kata, it looks as though they are pulling back a vine, plucking a grape, and offering it to a friend, all while standing on one leg. How aesthetically charming...and utterly impractical!

Examples just like these can be found throughout the system of classical Goju katas. What are the benefits? Obviously, it is easier to teach the seemingly arcane movements of classical kata when they are broken down--almost like still photographs--and presented in punctuated and highly stylized form, with as little individual variation as possible. But once the movements are learned, all of this stiff, robotic, and metronomic movement should be abandoned. Yet watch any demonstration or YouTube performance of kata! Imagine what kata performances would look like if we taught bunkai before we taught kata. How radical! Let a student practice the technique against a partner for a year before they were taught the solo form. I wonder what it would look like? I wonder if the movements would look more natural? I wonder if the gaps and pauses would disappear? Kata performance might allow for more variation and individuality. The only criteria for judging someone's kata would be whether they understood what they were doing and whether they could apply the techniques effectively. It may take a lifetime to learn to move as naturally as a child, but this should really be the goal.  Bunkai should follow kata, but kata should be done like bunkai. And when's the last time you saw that?

Saturday, May 03, 2014


Speaking of self-defense.... Well, not exactly. But then again maybe there is some sort of tangential relationship here. There was a funny political cartoon in the paper the other day. It was a four-panel cartoon. In one panel it showed a guy holding a ruler along the ground--"proof" that the earth was flat. I can't remember the other two, but the last panel showed a dumb looking guy pointing to a snow flake as "proof" that global warming was just a myth concocted by some idiot scientists. It reminded me of the energy we expend trying to protect our turf, trying to safe-guard what we think we know.
In one sense, the only truly neutral
defensive posture in Goju kata. Akin
to the Wu Wei posture of T'ai Chi,
 it is merely a ready position,
showing neither attacking nor
blocking techniques. 

A few years ago now, after I had written about Seipai kata and how one might look at it based on pretty clearly delineated principles, the article became the subject of a forum discussion for a brief period of time (after all, everything is brief nowadays). One person wrote the following: "I am not convinced it is the answer to the kata, if there is one, but it does create a way to hang all the kata together and decipher them with some fairly simple tools." Not convinced? There aren't any answers? What more do you want?

Another said, "It is a good foundation, but I prefer my own methods, although his [me] are quite interesting....I do think we will see a lot more of this because so few have a better solution. I think many will copy it. It will become something some 'old man' taught me, or 'something I found' type of thing for many teachers." Yes, perhaps that's the problem; we each prefer our own methods, even if those methods seem to defy logic. Even if there may be a better solution offered.

Another seemed quite receptive until his sensei weighed in on the matter. He said, "When my sensei saw the article what he questioned the most was, how did the opponent get into the position he was in to begin the technique....What Sensei questioned in this article was not the technique, but rather, how did he (Giles sensei) get the opponent to enter like that, and what are the chances of being able to reproduce it." I found this comment the most perplexing. For simplicity's sake, we showed all of the attacks as right or left straight punches. In actuality they could be punches, grabs, or pushes--it doesn't really matter. In addition, all of it is based on the well-founded Okinawan karate principle that the defender should move in such a way as to allow the attacker only the one initial attack. I even proposed that the kata shows you how to move this way. The techniques all start with the 'uke' or receiving technique (the "block" if you will, though many of the blocks are accompanied by a simultaneous entry technique). What was this "teacher" looking at? The attacker got into that position by attacking!?!

Another critic had a problem with the analysis because, he said, "many of them can't be reasonably practiced safely." That's true, but what does that have to do with whether an analysis is correct or not? The kata is what it is. You don't change bunkai because it's too deadly.

Another person questioned this analysis because "karate practice should be balanced in many ways." He believed that kata not only taught one how to attack but also how to block. (Didn't I show blocks and moving out of the way?) The same person went on to say that "many techniques work in two directions, meaning my attacker could be behind, or may be in front of me." What? I don't follow that. Did he mean that the first technique of Seipai shows a response against a front attack and a rear attack at the same time? What about the second sequence? How is the front kick an attack to the rear?

Perhaps the most novel defense against the article came from someone who suggested that I was imposing an "a priori" analysis. He said, "In the beginning, there was only movement. The evil was introduced in this world when the creator wanted to explain them...." Heavy stuff that. Not really sure what it means though. In the beginning, I suppose, there was just the random movement of the stars and the planets until someone came up with the idea of gravity. I think he was supposing that I was forcing a theory on the material and then attempting to come up with bunkai to justify the theory. Quite the contrary, I think we only formulated the theory or principles after experimenting with bunkai, after finding the techniques that were the most effective and made the most sense. It is only then, after working things out on the dojo floor, that one begins to see the principles behind the techniques, and then the principles begin to offer a sort of confirmation for how one is looking at kata. Isn't this something like the scientific theory that we all learned in school? That is, we first accumulate data (kata) and then begin to analyze it (bunkai). Only after much trail and error (and we are continually revising and refining our bunkai) do we even begin to formulate theories.

For the life of me, I can't figure out criticism like this except as a rather transparent effort to retain one's status in the dojo. When we feel threatened in any way, the ego runs to our defense. Whatever happened to open and honest discussion? I was once called an "iconoclast" as if it were a terrible thing to be. (My attacker, rather smugly, I think, saw himself as a defender of the faith, if a somewhat blind defender in my opinion.)

Now I remember the other two panels in that cartoon. One showed this guy from the 17th century pointing at a bird in flight, saying, "If gravity is real, explain that." And the other panel was a guy from the 19th century holding a bible, saying, "If evolution is real, explain this." It was a pretty funny cartoon. It was by Adam Zyglis. It reminds me so much of kindergarten when someone challenges you and you just hunker down behind your little Maginot line and hurl taunts at the other side: "Yeah, well you're stupid." I'm not sure it's the best defense though. I think real self-defense is something else.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Hojo undo

Hojo undo, or supplementary exercises, in Okinawan karate are
Using the forearm to attack in
Saifa and Seiunchin katas.
usually done with a variety of old-style implements one often sees in a traditional dojo. You can make them yourself or employ various modern substitutes to effect the same results. To me, however, the one caveat is that the implements and the training one employs should be used to develop or strengthen the techniques one sees in the classical katas. In fact, one could argue that everything one does with respect to hojo undo training should be practiced with that in mind; how the exercise benefits one's technique, one's ability to perform the techniques we see in kata and bunkai. So, as blasphemous as it may sound, training on the makiwara (punching post), for example, as ubiquitous as this tool is in traditional karate dojos, seems to me to be rather low on the list of hojo undo practices. There are many other techniques in the classical kata of Goju-ryu that actually seem more common or at least as deserving of supplemental training as the straight punch (tsuki). (Though, of course, the straight punch is not the only technique one can train on the makiwara.) What about training implements to develop one's forearm strikes? Or something to work on strengthening knee kicks? Or twisting motions to develop the mawashi techniques?

Using the knee to attack the head
in Seiunchin kata.
I suppose one could rely solely on kote-kotai (arm pounding) to develop one's forearm strikes. But there are implements one can also use. I have a couple of saw horses in my dojo. When Sifu Liu, the noted Feeding Crane master, saw them, he suggested I round the edges on the top 2 X 4s a bit and use them for arm pounding. He thought the height was just about right for that.

The iron geta can be used to develop leg strength for knee kicks, but some sort of horizontal kicking post would also be good. I've sometimes also used a medicine ball held in two hands for working on knee kicks--gruesome thought, but a fairly good approximation of the opponent's head in many of the techniques/bunkai we see in Goju classical subjects.

Using the grip to pull the opponent
down in Saifa kata.
The gripping jars (nigiri-game) are good to work on grip strength, of course, which occurs everywhere in Goju classical subjects, but there's also stick bundles. You get a handful of those three-foot skinny bamboo tomato stakes and put them in a cloth bag. You can twist them and work on splitting them with your fingers while gripping them. My teacher used to have us work in pairs twisting belts (obi) for the same effect.

The kongoken is another useful hojo undo tool. Legend has it that Miyagi Chojun sensei saw it being used by wrestlers on a visit to Haiwaii and decided that it would be a good addition to the arsenal of Okinawan training equipment. It's a large, metal, elongated oval. It's heavy and perhaps a bit ungainly looking, but it would be a good way to train the use of the arms and hands in applying mawashi techniques--most of the mawashi techniques that we see in the classical katas are not for blocking, but rather twisting the head and neck of the opponent.
Using the grip and twisting strength
of the arms against an opponent's
head/neck in Seipai kata.

Another tool one could use in a similar way is the sashi-ishi--a large, round stone or concrete ball with a wooden handle through it. Since there is also significant weight here and the grip can be alternated, it can provide excellent resistance training for the mawashi movements so important in Goju-ryu finishing techniques.

Hojo undo training is important, but one should remember to keep it functional. Despite the appearance of techniques in kata--and one should always remember that the appearance of techniques in kata may be quite different from their actual applications--Goju-ryu is largely comprised of forearm blocks, grabbing, grappling, forearm attacks, knee kicks, and head/neck twisting techniques. This is what we want to develop with hojo undo training--that is, it's not simply to develop strength per se. In fact, a reliance on physical strength often makes one's Goju-ryu too "Go"--often appearing too hard and rigid--and gets in the way of truly understanding what is meant by "hard and soft."

Friday, March 28, 2014

Say what...?

Shuzan held out his short staff and said: "If you call this a short staff, you oppose its reality. If you do not call it a short staff, you ignore the fact. Now what do you wish to call this?" Mumon's comment: ...It cannot be expressed with words and it cannot be expressed without words. Now say quickly what it is. (from The Gateless Gate, by Ekai, called Mumon, in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, compiled by Paul Reps, p. 127.)
This is not uraken uchi from Saifa.

I thought of this story when I recently came across a discussion of a posture in Sanseiru kata. In this particular posture, the kata practitioner is in front stance (zenkutsu-dachi) with the right arm up, elbow jutting forward, and the open left hand in front of the chest. Wait...I think they called it something like chudan-uke/ mae-geri/ hiji-ate. I guess you have to call it something, but the problem is that once you call it something you begin to think of it only in those terms. When you name something, you tend to put things in cubby-holes. Once you name something, you limit the "experiential" identity of the thing. This is particularly true of kata techniques. What I mean is, when you refer to a technique in kata as a hiji-ate (elbow strike), then that's the way you think of it in application or bunkai. What if the name, hiji-ate, is meant merely as a descriptor? In other words, the teacher is using a short hand method of saying, "Do the technique that looks like an elbow attack."
This is not a kaiko-ken zuki from
Saifa kata.
When the T'ai Chi teacher says, "Do the technique that looks like parting the wild horse's mane," he doesn't mean the application is to part a wild horse's mane! 
Nor does he mean that you use that odd bending over technique to search for a needle at the bottom of the sea. Calling a posture a cat stance (neko-ashi-dachi) doesn't have anything to do with its application. Words are sometimes more confusing than if we didn't have the words in the first place. 

But how would you teach if you didn't have the words to describe what you were doing? That's really a rhetorical question, isn't it? Sometimes I think people in the old days used words to intentionally hide what they were doing or at least the meanings of moves in kata. Give a technique a descriptive name--a poetic name would be even better--and someone not in the know, an outsider, might pick up the kata movements but never guess their meanings, the applications. 

This is not gedan barai from
Seiunchin kata.
You don't really need any words to teach karate, I think. You only need to demonstrate--first kata and then bunkai. Words can be misleading. Is there a sokoto-geri in Sanseiru kata or is it a hiki-ashi? Or maybe a hiza-geri? Is there a kaiko-ken zuki (crab shell fist as Higaonna sensei calls it in his first book) in Saifa kata or does it just look like that and you are really grabbing the opponent at the shoulders and pulling them down? Is the name describing the application or simply what the technique looks like? How can you think of it as a pulling technique if you call it a strike? If you call it a uraken-uchi (back fist strike) in Seiunchin, does that become the explanation of the application? Will you be able to see it as a forearm strike if you call it uraken? Is it really a block just because you call it a gedan barai? What we call things
This is not a hiji-ate (elbow strike)
in Shisochin kata.
influences how we look at them; we are tied to language. But we must remember that they are just "words, words, words," as Hamlet says to Polonius. Sometimes I think that words are the biggest obstacle to people understanding bunkai--that and tradition!

Friday, March 14, 2014

The geese are flying south

The geese are flying south--either that or they're lost. After all, it's well into March, and it's still colder than Flick's tongue musta felt on the schoolyard flagpole. I'd say that's a funny kind of thing that only happens in movies except that I read a story in the local paper the other week about how the Easthampton fire department had to be called when a kid got his tongue stuck to a pole (2/12/2014, www.gazettenet.com). Anyway, we had stuffed the car about as full as we could get it with duffle bags and food and boots and extra clothes, and bungeed the skis to the roof rack and headed up I-91 to the White Mountains when I started to think about ducks and geese and all. I wasn't wondering what happens to the ducks in Central Park in the winter or anything quite as literary as that, but it did occur to me--watching those geese or ducks or whatever they were...could've been crows, I suppose--it struck me that we're often headed off in all different directions.

At some point, we debate
the arc of the strike, the
sweep of the foot, the
position of the open hand.

But if you don't know the
bunkai, what does it matter?
I mean, everyone's headed off in different directions; we're not all in the same place at the same time. One student may be working on perfecting his kata. Maybe sanchin dachi is new to him, and he's trying to make sure there's only a hand span's distance between his feet while keeping his front heel in line with the toes of his rear foot. For another student, these stances feel more natural--perhaps she's been training for a few years already and she's more concerned with natural movement than precise movement. She may be working on koshi and proper body mechanics. Other students, off to the side perhaps, are working on bunkai. They have practiced kata for years and they're now at a stage where the most important aspect of kata is for it to have meaning.  They experiment with different applications. In fact, they collect bunkai. It becomes a sort of obsession. The kata they thought they had mastered now becomes an encyclopedia of possible applications. Each movement of the kata has an almost infinite number of possible applications. Viewing videos on the Internet only confirms this view of kata. It's really amazing--who created this stuff, they wonder!? There are a lot of students in this place, at this point in their training. It's the bread and butter of a lot of traditional dojos. The students, or the teacher, are always coming up with new applications to practice, new bunkai to master. Sometimes they will even create levels of bunkai--different applications for the same kata moves but reserved for different "levels of mastery" all in a not-so-subtly designed effort to retain students, I suppose. They even attend seminars with teachers from different dojos or different styles to learn new bunkai. And this is where some students and teachers get stuck.

Students will argue about the angle
of the lower hand or the height of the
horse stance or whether to step in on
a 45 degree angle or a 30 degree angle.

But if you don't know the bunkai,
What does it matter?
But off in the corner, there's someone who's wondering how all of this stuff fits together. No one creates something that can mean ANYTHING. What are the principles behind the kata, behind the bunkai? Katas must have themes that tie the different movements together. In order to be able to really USE a system of self-defense there can't be an infinite number of applications. Perhaps he begins to notice that all the moves in kata don't seem to be the same kinds of movements--some seem to be blocking moves, some seem to be controlling or grappling moves. She begins to question some of the bunkai she sees others do. This bunkai is not realistic. That bunkai only works on a willing partner. Another bunkai doesn't follow the kata. Still another one doesn't follow good martial principles. Another one leaves the defender in an exposed position. Another one is too complicated. Another takes too much strength. And on and on. The questions are good, but they're only the beginning.

The geese are flying south and I'm driving north, into the mountains. We're all headed somewhere...just not at the same time. "Are we there yet," my son asks? You can tell where people are by the questions they ask. Sometimes you can tell by the answers they give. In martial arts, you can usually tell by watching someone's kata. But their bunkai is a dead giveaway.