Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

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.