Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

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!


  1. As you wrote I think almost everyone uses the "block punch kick" combo because they don't the principles

  2. As you wrote I think almost everyone uses the "block punch kick" combo because they don't the principles