Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Friday, April 24, 2015

In an alternate universe...cont.

Entry technique and initial attack
from Seipai kata.
"Wait," I said. "Let's start all over again."
   "Okay," he said. "But let me point out one possible flaw in your beginning premise. You suggested that bunkai came before the creation of kata. But doesn't it really depend on how you look at the relationship between kata and bunkai? Under your scenario it really demands that you see kata as a collection of combinations--not just individual techniques--that shows how one deals with specific attacks by an opponent, from the beginning receiving technique (uke) to the finishing technique."
   "Yes," I said. "I would agree with that. Kata shows--really thematically--how to deal with single aggressive movements by an opponent; how you avoid and receive them, move to control the opponent so he cannot attack again, and how to end the confrontation."
Controlling technique from Seipai.
   "That makes sense, but why would they--whoever they were--put certain techniques together to create a particular kata?"
   "Well, it seems to me," I responded, "that they're part of a system organized around individual themes. I think based on an analysis of bunkai you could make a pretty convincing argument for this. But you could probably just as easily suggest that the katas were created by different people, at different times, though still part of the same system."
   "But just for the sake of argument," my friend suggested, "couldn't you look at kata not as a collection of sequences or combinations, but as individual techniques? Perhaps each technique is itself a receiving technique, in which case there are no combinations or complete bunkais shown."
   "But there are clearly some techniques that are attacks. How," I asked, "would you reconcile those? How could you look at the double 'punch' down attack in shiko-dachi in Seipai as a receiving technique or more pointedly without connecting it to the techniques that precede it?"
   "I guess you're right," my friend said, "but couldn't that technique be attached to a number of other techniques?"
Finishing technique from Seipai
along with the technique which
follows it.
   "Certainly," I said. "One of the end products of studying the combinations in kata, for me, is to see where they can connect to other combinations, sometimes within the same kata and oftentimes with techniques in other katas. That's why we can call it a system. For example, you could take the entry (uke) technique from one kata and pair it with the controlling technique of another kata and the finishing technique from yet another kata."
   "Okay," he said, "so there are an almost infinite number of ways to pair up techniques, but each individual technique should only be understood as having one interpretation, more or less. Is that right?"
   "Yes," I smiled.
   "Why don't more people see that then?" he asked, musing a bit to himself. "I suppose it's more fun to make up a whole bunch of cool applications. And then again, every teacher can be an authority or at least their own expert. And, I suppose, the prevailing opinion has something to do with it--that any technique from kata can mean anything as long as it works."
   "Well, as long as it works in the dojo," I laughed, "where logic doesn't always prevail and few are willing to suggest to the teacher that a technique or interpretation doesn't make sense."
   "So how we interpret kata and bunkai may really have a lot to do with our expectations," my friend suggested.
   "Yeah, maybe," I agreed. "In 1949 there was an experiment set up by two psychologists at Harvard to test people's perceptions when faced with a reality that contradicted their expectations. Students were shown playing cards and asked to identify them as they were flipped over. Most of the cards conformed to exactly what one would expect, but the experimenters had also slipped in cards that one wouldn't expect, like a red six of spades and a black four of hearts. When the cards were turned over quickly, the subjects simply ignored the incongruities, calling the red six of spades a six of hearts, for instance. When the cards were turned over more slowly, the subjects were just plain confused and 'completely flummoxed'" (cited in The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, p. 92).
   "So the real problem when we look at kata," he said, "may be that we tend to find what we expect to find. So what's the solution?"
   "Make sure it's logical. Make sure it's real. Make sure it conforms to sound martial principles."

Saturday, April 11, 2015

I can't believe he said that.

   "So, let's start with an acceptable premise for both of us, since we come from very different
Pointing the way, from Seipai kata.
But the attack is coming from your
left, not the front, and the left hand
is the primary "blocking" hand.
traditions," I suggested.
   "Okay, what would you suggest?" he asked.
   "Well, how about the idea that the techniques we see in bunkai came before the creation of kata--that the ancients, whoever they might have been, found techniques that worked in either combat or self-defense and then only later put them into kata in order to have some way to remember them or some sort of solo practice method."
   "Yes, but the katas have all been changed, or at least we should probably assume that the katas have all changed since that's human nature, and anyway different schools do katas differently, so that alone suggests katas have been changed, and it would be a fruitless endeavor to attempt to discover the original intent of the katas," my friend countered.
   "That may be true," I replied. "But the reason I'm suggesting this is that, if true, it would imply that each technique originally had only one interpretation or suggested application. If there are differences in how katas are performed it suggests two things to me: one, that some people altered kata to conform to their own erroneous ideas about bunkai; or two, some of the changes are actually insignificant and merely show slight variations of how one might apply the same bunkai--that is, as long as they conform to the same martial principles, perhaps both ways of doing the kata are correct. In any event, the way to unlock the keys to the bunkai is to find the principles that they all conform to."
   "That's exactly what I'm saying," my friend immediately countered. "If multiple bunkai could be correct, then a better principle might be to say anything that works is a correct bunkai." Wait, is that what I said?
   "Anything?" I asked, incredulously. He nodded and smiled. "But it has to follow the kata, doesn't it?" I asked.
   "Why?" he replied. "Just because the kata shows a forward step, does that mean you can't step back? I once asked my teacher, the venerable Poobah, the same question. Do you know what he said to me? He said, 'do you have a problem with stepping back?' I said, 'no, Sensei.' "
   "But it's not just that," I said. "Your bunkai for that particular move in kata"...we had been sharing our interpretations of various kata techniques..."well, in kata your right hand is on top, and when you do your bunkai your left hand is on top."
   "So. You should be able to do it either way."
   "That may be, but the way you're showing it isn't the way it's shown in kata, and besides, you're stance is wrong as well."
   "Well, my teacher explained to me that for bunkai the body can be divided into quarters: above the waist, below the waist, the right side, and the left side. You can use the techniques independently or together, and they don't have to necessarily conform to exact kata movement."
   "But bunkai means to analyze kata, so it would seem to me that if you're not sticking to kata movement--and that would include not just the hands and feet but also the stepping that's shown in kata--then you're not really doing bunkai," I said, as gently as I could.
   "Well," my friend suggested. "In all my travels and research, I've come across two schools of thought on that. One is that you stick to kata movement as closely as possible, and the other is that it's okay to deviate from kata because what you're really doing is studying the principles of movement. Two schools, two different opinions."
   "Yes," I said. "But one of them is wrong." I couldn't stop myself. "At least that's what I would say. But I'm not sure I really understand what you mean. Isn't the kata teaching principles of movement? If you deviate from kata movement, then you're not really getting the message, not really learning the principles the kata is trying to teach." At this point I didn't really expect much of an answer.
   To this he responded by demonstrating a technique from kata against one of the other students. It conformed to the way he did kata, but it didn't conform to sound martial principles. "Why didn't he hit you with his other hand when you did that?" I asked. "One of the principles of bunkai that I always look for is whether or not the opponent is in a position to initiate another attack after your initial "uke." In this case, the technique is applied against the opponent's left arm, but the opponent is still in a position to reach you with his right." So I asked, "Why doesn't he hit you with his right?"
   My friend was quick to reply, "Well, hopefully, he doesn't know the bunkai."
   Did he really just say that?

Disclaimer: My apologies to anyone if this sounds familiar. Any similarity to conversations with anyone, living or dead, is purely coincidental. In any case, this imagined conversation is only meant to illustrate the difficulties one often encounters in trying to find the original intent behind the kata of Goju-ryu...the bunkai.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Mirakian Sensei...a sad farewell.

At a Feeding Crane seminar with
Sifu Liu hosted by Mirakian Sensei
at his Watertown dojo.
I was greatly saddened to hear this week that Anthony Mirakian Sensei passed away. Sensei Mirakian was one of the early pioneers of karate in American, bringing authentic Meibukan Goju Ryu to America and his home state of Massachusetts in the early 1960s. He was truly a kind, extremely generous, often brutally honest, and incredibly knowledgeable man, and, what many who knew him may remember most, a wonderfully entertaining story teller. He seemed to have crossed paths with everyone in the martial arts, and he remembered it all. I enjoyed his stories and always looked forward to talking with him whenever I made it out to Boston. He will always be an example for all of us in the martial arts, and I'm sure he will be greatly missed by so many people whose lives he has touched. My condolences go out to all his friends, his students, and his family.