|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.
"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.