Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

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."