Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Thursday, September 29, 2016

But is it art? Problems with kata analysis cont'd.

"Well that's a pretty bland title," he said.
The only really neutral
position and the beginning
posture of ippon kumite.

"But this is sort of a continuation, trying to figure out why there are so many problems in finding the bunkai or applications of kata," I said in defense.

"What problems? People are coming up with new and improved bunkai every day. Bunkai is the soup de jour, if you will," he said, dismissing the subject altogether.

Yes, that's part of the problem. Everyone seems to accept the notion that kata is a playground of infinite creative possibilities, a blank canvas where you can draw whatever comes to mind and everyone else will be constrained by the conventions of art or politeness and refrain from criticism.

There are all sorts of problems that tend to influence how we interpret kata--our expectations are only part of the problem. Out of frustration there are many who have given up entirely on the interpretation of kata and scoff at this "trend," as they see it, of trying to find meaning in the kata that they nevertheless dutifully perform day in and day out to the metronomic and almost soporific cadence of the teacher 's count.

Since they themselves were never told what kata movements were for, they reason there is no meaning behind these apparently baffling movements. This rather defensive posture, however, seems to me not only unimaginative but also arrogant and egotistical.

The argument is based on the supposition that there is no way to tell exactly what the original creators of kata intended. But why not? Isn’t this the same cynicism that decries every new scientific hypothesis? How do we verify scientific discovery? To bring logic into the argument at all, of course, may be a bit pointless since a majority of Americans don't accept Darwinian evolution, with all the proof in the world, and, at the same time, believe in ghosts and crop circles with no proof whatsoever. There was a study not too long ago, in fact, suggesting that “we only trust experts if they agree with us” (Nicholson, C. Sept. 18, 2010. Scientific American).

Some have suggested that kata practice has no relationship to practical fighting; it’s merely used to develop speed, power, balance, and control—notwithstanding the rather obvious point that each of these things can better be developed with other exercises and, in fact, are even in traditional martial arts circles.

Admittedly, any analysis of kata that purports to be anything more than a possible interpretation--that is, anyone who suggests that there is, in fact, an original meaning to find--will leave the door open to scathing reviews by a host of self-proclaimed "experts." Kata is, after all, a solo exercise that is meant to mime the movements of paired fighting in the fashion of a boxer shadow boxing. Who's to say definitively what it means? At the very least, however, we should be able to agree that it's not just about blocking and punching. Rather what we see in kata is the receiving and parrying combined with seizing or grappling or tying up techniques, followed by attacks with the open hands, the forearms, the elbows, the knees, and, in many cases, taking or throwing the opponent to the ground. Certainly this might seem as strange as seeing Marcel Marceau performing in street clothes on a busy city street. What is he doing, we might ask? Of course, if it’s “art,” some folks reason, we can interpret it any way we want. That's what art is, isn't it? Why should a martial art be any different? As Marshall McLuhan said, "Art is anything you can get away with."
Okay, but is it art?

Perhaps kata is merely some form of esoteric or yogic movement, never meant to show practical self-defense applications. I've heard teachers say as much. Who knows, perhaps teachers are the problem?!?

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Seeing what we expect to see

I am sometimes chided for the bunkai I "find" in kata, as if kata is a piece of clay and I'm molding something out of this amorphous lump of mud. It reminds me of the old Zen parable about a very knowledgeable teacher who one day comes to visit a Zen master. Ostensibly, he comes for instruction, but right away the Zen master can see that the teacher has come to show off his own knowledge or to test the master or some such nonsense. Whatever the case, the master immediately realizes that the teacher has come with a closed mind—that is, he has come with his own set of fully-formed expectations. Nevertheless, the master invites him in for tea. After they are seated, the master begins to pour his guest some tea, but he doesn’t stop when the cup is filled, and the cup overflows, startling the teacher.

Of course at this point everyone—even those who may never have heard the story—can tell that the master will cleverly inform the guest that metaphorically he is like the teacup; he has come already full. And in the mythic world of enigmatic Zen masters, everyone will realize the truth at that moment and experience instant enlightenment…or else the disgruntled teacher will stalk angrily away in search of someone who knows what he knows and is willing to acknowledge him for it. Cynical but perhaps more realistic.

Now I know very few Zen masters, of course, but this same scenario, though slightly varied, happens with experienced martial artists too. Their expectations, however, produce a kind of tunnel vision so that they see only what they have been conditioned to see. Like the old adage about the carpenter who sees the solution to every problem in terms of a hammer and a nail, the karate practitioner who has spent endless hours pounding a punching post (makiwara) tends to interpret all kata in terms of punching, blocking, and kicking. How do we bring an open mind, a beginner’s mind, to the analysis of kata (bunkai)? How do we make sure that we are not bringing a cup that is already full to the table? 

The story is appropriate, as every martial arts teacher is certainly familiar with students who begin with their cups already full. Once and awhile they arrive at the dojo to “test” the teacher, but more often they come in sincerely, even with humility, yet with expectations. Their expectations are filled with preconceptions about karate or just martial arts in general. Sometimes they are able to revise their expectations, but more often than not they just quit and move on, looking somewhere else for something to match their expectations. 

Exercises with the Kongoken.
After all, in Goju at least, there is more hitting with the forearm than with the fist, more kicking with the knee than with the foot, and we generally "receive" the attack rather than block it. Sowhat's with all of the block, punch,  and kick bunkai? When Miyagi sensei saw wrestlers training with the kongoken (large metal oval) on a trip to Hawaii in the 1930s, and then, being impressed with the possibilities and usefulness in hojo undo exercises for Goju-ryu, brought it back with him to Okinawa upon his return, he probably wasn't thinking in terms of blocking, punching, and kicking techniques. But think of grappling and head twisting and it's another story!