Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Wednesday, May 25, 2016


More typical fighting
posture readiness.
   The thought occurred to me the other day--I suppose I've been wrestling with this a long time--but I found myself thinking about training in the old days, when I used to wear a gi and everything was rather formal. We'd line up according to seniority and then kneel and sit in seiza. "Mokuso!" Of course, it was all very precise, sort of like the Japanese tea ceremony without the tea cups.
   "Mokuso yamae!"
   "Sensei ni, rei!" the senior student would bark out. And, after all the formal bows, the teacher would take over.
   "Kiyotsuke. Rei. Yoi," the teacher would say, pausing between commands as the students responded. And then...
   Then we began practicing kata. But here's where it gets interesting.
   "Kata Saifa. Yoi. Hajime (begin)." Next was Seiunchin. "Yoi. Hajime." And then Shisochin. "Yoi. Kamae. Hajime." You see, there's that extra word--kamae. We used kamae not in the general sense of "posture" or even as a command--"kamae-te"--but in the connotative sense of "ready to fight." We generally understood it as a ready position, but no one every asked why the other kata (Saifa, Seiunchin, Seipai, and Kururunfa) didn't begin with a kamae or ready position. Why don't they?
Kamae posture found
in a number of kata.
   In Goju-ryu, putting aside Sanchin and Tensho for obvious reasons, there are four kata that begin with this double-arm kamae posture and four kata that don't. Each of these four double-arm kamae postures begins with three basic techniques that are repeated. Each of the other four kata begins immediately with a bunkai sequence (sometimes in threes and sometimes not). Why the difference? If all of the kata are part of the same system (supposing for the moment that they are from the same system), wouldn't we expect that they would conform to the same structure or pattern? Well...unless there is a message in the pattern or structure.
   Saifa begins with a  self-defense scenario (bunkai) against a same-side wrist grab (opponent's left to defender's right). Seiunchin begins with a self-defense scenario (bunkai) against a cross-hand wrist grab (opponent's right to defender's left). Seipai begins with the opponent grabbing one's shoulder or lapel. Each of these kata shows defensive scenarios (bunkai sequences) against grabs or pushes, while Kururunfa, it seems to me, shows responses to an opponent's punch. The other four kata, however, show defenses and responses to an altogether different situation--one that begins from a wrestling clinch or, if you will, the posture one sees at the beginning of a Judo match. Just compare the postures.
One of Judo's beginning
   It's almost as if there is a flag or label tacked onto the beginning of the kata, stating "the techniques of this kata begin from a grappling position," and we are meant to apply the entry techniques at least with this in mind.
   So, does this change the way one sees the bunkai of these kata? Does it open up new possibilities? Do we need to re-think the opening "punches" (if that's even what they are!?) in Seisan and Sanseiru or question the "nukite" or "shotei-tsuki" techniques at the beginning of Shisochin? At the very least, we should question why so much of the bunkai people find in the Goju-ryu classical kata looks the same--most of it beginning with two people squared off, facing each other, until the attacker lunges in with a punch--when clearly, just from the way they begin, there is an implied difference.
   It also makes me wonder about the three kata--sometimes said to be older or perhaps more related to each other (Sanseiru, Seisan, and Suparinpei)--having the same beginning "kamae" posture, as if they were based on a more grappling-oriented martial art, something like Okinawan sumo, for instance, though that's just a wild conjecture.
   So anyway, before you start shouting, "No, Goju is about blocking and punching and kicking...after all, it's karate, not judo"....just wrestle with the idea for a bit. I think this is where it starts to get interesting.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Hey, Buddy, can you spare some change?

Between a rock and
a hard place...
“Nothing endures but change.” 


I was thinking about this the other day, walking in the woods, looking at the changes of a late Spring--well, that and the techniques of kata and bunkai of course, as I usually do. It's been cloudy and windy and rainy for the past week. I think it was warmer in January or February than this past couple of weeks. I think I had been out on the scooter more in the winter than the last month and a half. But after all the rain, the forest is finally leafing out, and things are changing once again. Though, of course things are always changing, really.

And I realized, tramping through the few leftover muddy pools on the trails after the recent rains, that Goju-ryu itself is all about change. I wonder that the same thought may have occurred to Miyagi Chojun sensei, walking about the countryside or along the shore near Naha. When I look at the Goju-ryu Happo, it seems to me to be all about change: Mi wa toki ni shitagai hen ni ozu. (Act in accordance with time and change.) Even when it talks about the breath, it's really about change: Ho wa goju wo tondo su. (The way of breathing is hard and soft.) Or when it makes these wonderfully inclusive analogies between each person and the universe: Ketsumyaku wa nichigetsu ni nitari. (The blood and veins are like the sun and the moon.) Jin shin wa ten chi ni onaji. (Hearts and minds are like the universe....and the universe is constantly changing.)

First of four open-hand
techniques from
Goju-ryu, after all, is the "hard/soft" style. It's soft when it yields, and it yields when the opponent is attacking. When my opponent moves in, I move back or to the side. Or, as the Happo says, Shin tai wa hakarite riho su. (The feet advance and retreat, separate and meet.) Look at the "blocks" or receiving techniques (uke) and you will see that they are generally circular, allowing the defender to redirect the attacker's force or energy rather than to meet it head on. You see this in all of the Goju blocking techniques. I always liked the way my teacher would explain the fourth law--Mi wa toki ni shitagai hen ni ozu. "Meet any situation without difficulty," he would say--a good thing to remember whether you're practicing bunkai or merely practicing life. It's all about change.

One of the basic techniques of Shisochin is a good example of this. In this technique--the open hand technique that occurs four times in Shisochin and, according to Hokama sensei, the technique from which the kata name is derived--yields by stepping to the side, instead of meeting the attacker head on or, if you are looking simply at the pattern, instead of turning around to face the attacker. (This is the rule that I have often tried to mention: The stepping pattern of a kata shows how to step off the line of attack.) The kata shows this yielding because the stepping pattern shows a 180 degree turn, from the original north to the south. This is the first of these four techniques.

...even a stone yields.
The attacker is coming in from the west with a left punch. The defender (kata side) steps to the side (the turn-around) and at the same time "blocks" the punch with his right arm, carrying it in a circle across and down. This also has the effect, for the defender, of blocking on the outside gate and moving to the inside gate. At the same time, the left arm is brought up in an arc to attack and catch the attacker under the chin or alongside the neck. Then pivoting again, the attacker's head is brought down. And it's all sort of effortless...because of yielding and sticking and following the attack. I mean when you face someone in Goju, it shouldn't look like two bulls facing off in a field, snorting and pawing the ground, or like two trains headed down the same track from opposite directions. And yet that's often what we see in a lot of bunkai or two-person sets when one person attempts to over-power another person with brute force rather than technique based on correct principles. We should really try to change all that.

“Everything changes, nothing remains without change.” — Buddha