Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

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.