Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Monday, January 19, 2015

Enlightenment and the martial arts

I have a close friend whom I don't see all that often, but we go way back. I mean we've known each other for thirty years or so, and we train together whenever we do manage to get together. We've been to Japan together and Okinawa, and we've gone on weekends to the Zen Mountain Monastery. Our interest in Zen Buddhism did not naturally come about because of a shared interest in the martial arts, I don't think, but rather from a similar spiritual interest. We would often have long discussions about books on Zen or how one might reach enlightenment through the practice of the martial arts. These discussions have not been as frequent in recent years, but then, what with family obligations and all, our visits have not been all that frequent either.

Yet every time I see him he always asks me the same question: "So, are you enlightened yet?" We always joke and laugh and leave it at that. Perhaps it's just a conversation starter, much like asking about the weather. Perhaps it's nothing more than a harmless attempt at re-establishing that erstwhile spiritual connection, sort of a reminder that we haven't seen each other for a long time. But the next time he asks me that question--"Are you enlightened yet?"--I'm going to say, "Yes. How about you?"

I'm not exactly sure what this will lead to, what sort of reply one can have to that. Some questions certainly are never meant to be answered. I suppose one needs to laugh heartily and say, "Oh, come on," as if to imply, "Hey, who are you kidding." Or, "Get out of town." But this all comes down to a real philosophical problem for me, and one that I see quite often in the martial arts. Simply put: If you ask me whether I have reached enlightenment or not, and I say that I have, who are you to say that I haven't? That is, don't you have to know what enlightenment is yourself to know whether or not someone else has or hasn't reached it? Well, I suppose, unless enlightenment is something like pornography. Then, I guess, to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, I'd have to say, "I may not know how to define it, but I know it when I see it."

This all comes up for me when people tell me that bunkai can't just be one thing or have one right answer. My response is usually, "Why not? Why can't it?" They suggest that each movement in kata has multiple interpretations or applications. I agree--since I always try to be accommodating--but, if I might be so bold, only one of them is correct. What I'm really waiting for is for them to start their response with "You can't be right because...." And what follows "because" would be an argument based on the supposition that I have violated logic or clear martial principles, not "because" my teacher said so or "because" it's not the bunkai we use at our school or "because" it's not what I saw on the Internet or "because" how could you know, you don't even speak Japanese. When I say that the bunkai of the Okinawan classical kata is all about going for the head, I just want someone to prove I'm wrong. It shouldn't be terribly difficult to point out where a particular bunkai errs. I see it all the time. One of the most egregious errors is when techniques purport to be bunkai and then don't follow kata movement. Another is when the attacker seems to be frozen in time, holding his punch out there in mid-air, allowing the instructor to apply some fancy technique, while out of deference not hitting him in the face with the other hand (the hand that he dutifully holds in chamber). Yet another I often see is when the supposed bunkai does not finish the opponent; it looks more as though it would annoy the attacker, rather than make sure that you weren't attacked again by the same person. (I would give specific examples, but it generates too much hate mail, and that's not my point.) Watch bunkai on YouTube sometime and see if it satisfies these simple tests. And then tell me how logical it is for the creators of kata, whoever they might have been, to have created kata where the techniques could have multiple interpretations and bunkai can be whatever a fertile imagination can come up with.

In the meantime, if you ask me if I know the real bunkai to the Goju-Ryu classical kata, I'll tell you, "Yes, I'm fairly certain about most of the classical kata," but I'm still training and learning. If you ask me how I know, I'll tell you that it conforms to good martial principles, follows the kata exactly, and is realistic. It's also self-referential as any good system might be. If you ask me whether I've reached enlightenment yet, I'll tell you, "No, not today. Tomorrow, maybe."

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Hey, hold on, Buster!

Against a grab in Seiunchin.
When I was young, I used to wonder why we trained against grabs. I mean, who gets grabbed by the wrist? And how likely is that anyway? I'm thinking, how oblivious to the situation do I have to be to be standing there and let some guy reach over and grab hold of my wrist?! Imagine the scenario: We would train against a cross-hand wrist grab (right to right), the same side wrist grab (left to right or right to left), the lapel grab, the shoulder grab (either hand), the double wrist grab, the double lapel grab, the choke hold, etc., etc. I used to think, what do I care if someone grabs me. I'll just punch him in the face or use both hands and whack his ears. After all, I thought, they're at a disadvantage; they've committed themselves to an attack, and they're already using one hand, or better yet maybe they're already using both hands. I was really into punching and kicking. But that's all I was familiar with, that's all we really used in doing ippon kumite and the Shorei-kan kind of two-person bunkai to Gekisai kata, Gekiha kata, and Kakuha kata. We trained to be stronger and punch faster. And maybe there's nothing wrong with that. Of course, the techniques we used against all of these different grabs had nothing to do with the classical Goju katas. The techniques we practiced were a kind of generic jiu-jitsu.

At the time, I didn't think that the classical kata of Goju-ryu actually had a lot of defenses against pushes and grabs. We didn't really practice bunkai to classical kata very much. Like most dojos, I suppose, we did a lot of basic drills, and much of it was centered on the Gekisai kata because beginners and seniors trained together. One of the problems in many dojos: everyone trains to the lowest common denominator. Then they tell you it's not what you train that separates a junior from a senior, it's how you train. Yeah, okay.

Against a grab in Saifa.
In Okinawa I met students that had been training in traditional dojos for ten or fifteen years, who said they didn't know any bunkai to classical subjects. Of course, that wasn't strictly true; we used clearly recognizable classical techniques (a few anyway) in one, two, or three-step drills. But looking back, I'm not sure I would have called them bunkai either; rather than a focus on an analysis of the movement in the kata, they were more of an adaptation of kata movements to different scenarios. And sometimes the techniques bore no resemblance to any kata moves.

Of course, at some point most people begin looking at classical kata, trying to find bunkai. The problem is that you generally find what you're looking for. We had been trained in block, punch, kick karate, and so what we found in exploring the applications for the classical subjects were block, kick, and punch applications. When this sort of training begins to seem elementary, as it certainly did, we latched onto that oft repeated dojo rejoinder: A punch is not always a punch, a block is not always a block. This road led us to that enticing morass of martial arts mumbo jumbo where anything could mean anything. I started finding grab releases everywhere. At this point, almost anything could be used as a grab release--especially if you're working with a compliant compatriot. Only much later did I realize that Goju-ryu classcial katas actually hit more with the forearms than they do with the fist, kick more with the knee than they do with the foot, and there are a lot of responses to grabs. I mean, designed specifically for grabs. Why?

Against a grab in Seipai.
I don't think people initiate attacks with a wrist grab, but they do block and then grab, and this is the way we train the grab responses in the Goju-ryu katas. That is, when we train against grabs--like the first technique in Seiunchin, for instance--the attacker punches, the other person blocks and grabs, and then the attacker executes the appropriate kata technique against the grab. This is the reason, I believe, there are so many applications against grabs in the Goju katas; Goju is a close-in fighting system, and as soon as you "cross hands" with an opponent, you need to respond to the opponent's "touch," whether that's an actual grab or the opponent is merely "obstructing" your arm. You have to respond to the block or grab before you can move into controlling the opponent and then counter-attacking. In this sense, the "touch" of the opponent on my arm or my shoulder or my chest is the same as a grab. Someone may not initiate an attack with a grab--because, after all, what was I doing while they took the opportunity to grab me?!--but pushing and grabbing are certainly as likely to happen in any confrontation as blocking and punching.