Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Monday, October 09, 2017

On the dojo floor...what of traditions?

New dojo floor.
I put down a new floor in the dojo last week. We pulled up all of the old wrestling mat that we had inherited from the university and the old worn out canvas cover that I had finagled from one of the Aikido schools in town. I nailed down something like 450 square feet of southern yellow pine, sanded it, and then put a few coats of polyurethane on it, waited a few days and we were good to go. A couple of spots where the grain had come up in the sanding, but all in all it looks pretty good. The surprise came when I slipped off my training sneakers and did kata in bare feet. I haven't trained barefoot on a wooden floor in what seems like twenty years. And what with the cold weather setting in soon up here in New England, I will no doubt slip my sneakers back on for the winter.

But it reminded me, once again, of the traditions we practice, indeed take for granted, in the practice of karate. Slipping our shoes off, bowing to the shrine, all of the ritualized ceremony and language that becomes an accepted and integral part of training. Certainly in one sense, we are merely respectfully acknowledging the cultural traditions that gave rise to karate. But does the ritual and tradition overshadow the real martial intent of karate? I think it does for some. The "costumes" become more and more elaborate, festooned with colorful badges and elaborate embroidery of kanji characters that the average student (non-Japanese student) can't even read!

Hojo undo implements.
For some others, who fashion themselves "traditional-ists," the ritual of karate training seems to be focused on hojo undo or supplemental exercises performed with various traditional Okinawan training implements to develop a strong karate body. Some practitioners seem to emphasize this sort of ritualized use of traditional hojo undo implements as if it too satisfies a spiritual need, scoffing at those who put too much emphasis on the study of bunkai, not merely the more modern adjuncts like competition jiyu kumite or the performance of kata for small plastic trophies.

It's confusing; I'm not even sure what tradition and ritual in karate even means anymore. That's why the wood of the dojo floor felt so strange to me, I suppose. I think the last time I trained with any regularity on a polished wood dojo floor was in Okinawa. I suppose it makes more sense to take one's shoes off and practice on a bare wood floor in a tropical climate than it does in New England. But I've also dispensed with the traditional karate uniform, the belt, and, aside from an admittedly though no less heart-felt but perfunctory bow to the shrine, all of the pre-training ritual. I light incense when I have it and can remember, but we don't address each other with titles--no sensei, no sempai, no "osu" or other use of Japanese when a simple English term would suffice. You won't hear "Moku so," "Kiyotsuke," "Hajime" here. Heretical perhaps but since there are only a few of us old guys--all seniors--the ritual seems a bit unnecessary. And as far as bare feet and wearing a karate gi...well, it's pretty cold in New England at least five months out of the year.

Or does the practice of ritual and tradition actually free us, in some sense, to experience karate in a more spiritual way? After all, the practice of kata itself is a kind of ritual. The movements are clearly defined and taught in a very formal manner, with little room for individual differences, and since for most, at least initially, there is little understanding of what the movements mean or how they may be used, there would seem to be little difference between those who practice karate and those engaged in some arcane religious ceremony. A ritual, by definition, is "a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order." Does it make it more or less spiritual if you don't know what the movements are for? After all, if you didn't visualize what you were doing--that is, if we didn't have any understanding of bunkai or application--then we might be more apt to enjoy the act of movement itself, sort of like yoga perhaps. In this case, I sometimes wonder if meaning doesn't get in the way, if understanding bunkai doesn't somehow detract from one's enjoyment of the simple act of movement and exercise, and, in the process, a more spiritual experience.

And yet I wonder if all of this is not a modern overlay, something fashioned fairly recently and tacked onto what was once only a brutally efficient method of self defense. And kata? Merely a record of martial applications and fighting principles preserved in kata form for an ancient population that was largely illiterate.

And yet...there is something about slipping off one's shoes and stepping on the dojo floor, bowing to the shrine, all of the old teachers looking on, the incense burning, and beginning kata. Just kata. Kata for its own sake.

Friday, September 22, 2017

When a tree falls in the forest...and other thoughts on bunkai.

A single leaf at the end of
a new shoot.
If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it….does it really matter? It will lead to all sorts of unexpected outcomes. The tree will fall. There will be an opening in the canopy overhead. Sunlight will reach the forest floor where it hadn’t, where it had been shady for years. A small seedling will begin to sprout or an acorn lying dormant under a blanket of leaves will feel the sun. The next thing you know, there will be little twig-sized slips of oak or maple or aspen, two over-sized leaves on a slender stick the size of a toothpick. Of course, the grass takes over first, it seems, followed by the weeds and the ground creepers, but the trees are there--a balsam fir or a white pine or a spruce. They each send up these little, central shoots with a more or less symmetrical arrangement of branches. It begins with a cluster of buds at the tip of the shoot. The central bud becomes the trunk of the new tree and the buds that surround it grow laterally into branches. And each year's growth follows the same pattern, unless the deer come and nibble off the buds or the central bud gets damaged somehow. If it does, the tree is programmed in such a way that one of the lateral buds that had been destined to become a branch takes over the role of the central bud and becomes the trunk. 

First entry or receiving technique
from Kururunfa kata.
I've been reading a lot of Bernd Heinrich lately. He writes about birds and trees and running, among other things. I hope I'm not over-simplifying what he says about trees too much, but it's this changing aspect of the new tree that got me thinking about its relationship to the martial arts as I was out in the woods the other day. We approach the study of kata as if it's something sacrosanct, a ritualized performance piece. And yet we look at bunkai as if the movements are so fluid and dynamic that they supposedly have countless ways of interpreting or applying them. This point of view is, in fact, so widespread that it almost seems as though it has fostered the growth of a whole new industry based on seminars and the discovery of new and ever-more-outlandish applications. 
Initial technique from Seipai kata.

So I would suggest that it may be time to simplify things a bit. We could start with a simple statement about the structure of a kata. Kata are composed of different kinds of techniques--entry or receiving techniques, bridging or controlling techniques, and finishing techniques. Each entry technique is part of a sequence, but because of the exigencies of any given situation—how the attacker responds to the initial block or receiving technique, one's balance, the strength of the opponent—you may need to change things up at some point, sort of like the new shoot when a deer comes along and nibbles off the central bud.

Sliding down the back of the arm
and grabbing the head.
For example, if you respond to an attack with the opening receiving technique from Kururunfa, something unforeseen could happen that causes you to change the sequence and instead continue with the initial technique from Seipai kata. That is, from the forearm attack to the neck in the initial technique of Kururunfa, you might straighten out the right arm, pushing the attacker's head down. Then, you might continue with the first sequence of Seipai by stepping through with the left palm-attack to the chin, going on to twist the head. Or, alternatively, from the initial Kururunfa technique, you might drop the right arm down along the back of the opponent's right arm to move behind him, as we do in Seisan.  Once you’re to the back of the opponent, you could continue with this sequence from Seisan, grabbing the back of the head with the left hand and stepping in to grab the chin with the right hand. Or, you could simply grab the opponent’s trapezius muscles from the back and pull him down onto the front knee, as we do in Saifa kata.
Pulling down by grabbing the
trapezius muscles in Saifa.

Kata itself is a repository of technique, and each technique functions differently. But once we understand this, we can take them apart and put them together in different ways, all depending on what happens in any given situation. In that sense, the system of self defense we know as Goju-Ryu becomes both smaller and larger at the same time. It is smaller because it becomes more manageable--there are, for instance, a finite number of receiving techniques and the same might be said of the bridging and finishing techniques as well. In other words, one doesn't need to become a master of what at one time must have seemed like an encyclopedic number of techniques. But it is also larger because if we truly understand the system and its kata then we can see an almost infinite number of ways that the individual techniques can be taken apart and put back together. That is, the entry technique from one kata might be combined with the bridging technique of another kata and the finishing technique of yet another kata. 

So what if a tree falls in the forest. Stuff happens. Another tree will come along and take its place.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Footfalls in the woods and Suparinpei

I was off in the woods a few weeks ago, swatting at black flies and being careful to avoid the poison ivy and the long blades of grass that reached out over the trail, affording ticks an ideal jumping off place from which to latch onto unwary travelers. It was hot--95 degrees F. (35 degrees C.), but the heat index had it at 103 degrees F. Even the birds seemed to be silenced by the heat. Most of the time, all I could hear was the quiet plodding of my own feet as I walked along a trail covered in the remains of last fall's leaves. This was certainly not the "road less travelled." I was following in the footsteps of countless numbers of other hikers who had passed this way. Sometimes I could see the evidence: an upturned rock or the imprint of a boot heel that had sunk unexpectedly in the mud. The trail was wide enough that I could probably have followed it at night, which made me think of that quote by Miyagi Chojun sensei. Not that Miyagi sensei had said it in any of his own writings, but it appears in Memories of My Sensei, Chojun Miyagi, where Miyagi supposedly tells Nakaima that “Studying karate nowadays is like walking in the dark without a lantern.” Of course, nowadays we have battery-powered headlamps, though I doubt if it makes much difference in our understanding of karate.

And yet the trail is wide enough. We would be hard pressed to lose sight of the path--so many karate-ka have walked this way before. What gives me pause, however, are the contradictions in the metaphor: generations of karate-ka practicing diligently, trudging along this well-worn path in the dark.

I was watching a video the other day. It was originally posted a year ago, but, after taking a seminar, someone had reposted it on Facebook. It had to do with the bunkai to the last technique in Suparinpei, the last kata of Goju-ryu and, at least in some symbolic way, the ultimate technique of the system. And, to many, I suppose, it must seem so esoterically enigmatic. 

This was a short video but it was by a very well-known karate researcher--a teacher who has written many books on the history of Okinawan karate, and so must have carried with it some weight of legitimacy, some knowledge of "Okinawan karate secrets."

The starting position had the teacher with his back to the attacker, who had grabbed him by the shoulders with both hands. From there, he showed the response of the defender, which began with a slight shifting rotation of the body to the right which, the teacher said, would provoke a stiff right arm response from the attacker. At this point, he lunges forward and, looking back at the attacker, does "the distraction," a slapping technique with the back of the left hand aimed at the attacker's groin. At the same time, he head butts the attacker and then slides his head between the attacker's arms--who, in the meantime, has not altered his position or grip on the defender's shoulders--and, with his head now coming up on the outside of the attacker's arms, he brings his left forearm down "hard" on the "brachioradialis" before the opponent even "thinks about a choke." Next he attacks with a right nukite into the opponent's throat. At the same time, he wraps his left arm around the attacker's right arm at the elbow, as his right arm grabs hold of the attacker's lapel. Then, dropping down into horse stance, he tightens the restrictions on the opponent's right arm/shoulder and, with the right wrist, the attacker's neck, until the attacker submits.
Entry technique.

So what's wrong with that? It works in the dojo. And it's wonderfully imaginative. But does it look like kata? I mean, doesn't kata face south and then turn to the north? Does it take too long? It certainly takes too long to describe. Is it realistic? That is, why would you ever think of sliding your head between the attacker's arms? Does this sort of bobbing movement occur in the performance of the kata? Why doesn't the attacker move or alter his position? Does it require the attacker, an unpredictable component of the equation, to conform too readily to the defender's expectations; that is, does the attacker have to behave too predictably? Does it fail to take into account the entry and controlling techniques that precede these movements in kata? Or is this just one possible explanation for these techniques in Suparinpei? And if it's just one of many possible explanations for these techniques, is that simply a confirmation that we are indeed still stumbling along the road "in the dark without a lantern?" 

Controlling technique.
Or is it more likely that this ending sequence to Suparinpei borrows both from Seisan and Sanseiru, and that the explanation of the techniques, the analysis or bunkai, simply shows a variation of how the same techniques are applied in each of those other kata? The entry techniques are shown over and over again in the three complete bunkai sequences of Seisan kata: a sweeping, semi-circular right arm block, while stepping 90 degrees off-line into a left-foot-forward front stance, followed by a left straight-arm palm strike to the side of the face. We see the same entry technique here in Suparinpei. The straight-arm "nukite" in Suparinpei is akin to the straight punch at the end of Seisan kata. Then the turn into what is called here the "dog posture," the last posture of Suparinpei, in horse stance with arms bent and both wrists up and fingers pointing down, shows a variation of the same position at the end of Sanseiru, though the stepping is a little different.
Finishing technique.

In one sense at least, I wonder about the realism of techniques that look as if they would only work in the dojo with a compliant partner, the fanciful creations of individuals whose interpretations don't seem to be grounded in sound martial principles. Such inventions--because we are all supposedly "walking in the dark without a lantern"--confuse legitimacy with creativity; we look at these interpretations with a mixture of confusion and awe, and think, "Gee, I never thought of that." But are all creative interpretations equally valid? Is that the point of kata, to foster creativity? I am certainly not trying to denigrate any of these instructors, nor disparage their interpretations, if that's what kata is. But it seems to me that even if we consider it "art," we don't have license to interpret it any way we want. The idea, it seems to me, is not to impose meaning on what seems to be random and arbitrary, but to discover what the artist--in this case the creator of a kata--is trying to communicate.

Even theory in science, for example, is not simply invention; it's based on an understanding of the underlying principles. Have we forgotten what we learned of the scientific method in middle school? We seem to be living in an age where science has been shouldered aside, where skepticism seems to be leveled at scientific inquiry and tabloid journalism has become the norm. Perhaps that's part of the problem. Who are we following on this proverbial path through the woods? Or is everyone simply striking out on their own? Seems as though there should be some sign posts along the way--the martial principles that all too often seem to be ignored. Is this why we are all still stumbling along without lanterns to light the way?

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Does nobody ask why?

It was early Spring and the woods were wet. It had rained pretty steadily for two days. And before that it had been cloudy and drizzling more often than not. The path along the swamp was flooded over and every dip in the trail was damp from slowly drying puddles of standing water. But plants were starting to sprout. In places, ferns and broad-leaf marsh plants hid the rocks and threatened to obscure the trail. Small, delicate looking wild flowers sprang up in places where the sun managed to get through the canopy of new leaves overhead. It reminded me of that part in Robert Fulghum's book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, where he says: "Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup. The roots go down and the plant goes up, and nobody really knows how or why...."

But then I thought, really? Really nobody knows how or why plants send their roots down into the

soil and the plant slowly pushes up through the forest floor? Really? Maybe Fulghum was not looking for a scientific explanation. Maybe it was a sort of rhetorical question--even though it seemed to be a statement--some sort of ontological inquiry and the little plants were only meant to be stand-ins. Inquiring minds want to know.
The slow "punch" from the beginning
of Sanseiru kata.

I thought of this because I was watching a video the other day on the Goju Ryu kata Sanseiru and its bunkai, or at least what was purported to be bunkai. I always thought that bunkai was "the analysis of kata" and therefore had to follow the movements and techniques of the kata. So you can't change the kata movements, it seems to me, when you're trying to explain how they are used. And yet, here was a well-respected teacher of Okinawa Goju-ryu demonstrating his "bunkai" or explanation of the three slow punches at the beginning of the kata, only in his application the punches were not slow at all but fast chudan punches to the opponent's ribs. And the open hand technique that follows the third punch was used to check the opponent's chambered punch--blocking the opponent's chambered fist with the extended palm before he even thinks of punching! And this was followed by a fast punch (though in kata there is no punch of any kind after this open hand!).

Does no one ever ask why the punches at the beginning of Sanseiru are done slowly and the punches at the beginning of Seisan are fast? If the techniques are done differently in kata--slow in Sanseiru and fast in Seisan--shouldn't the explanation of their application be different as well? Is it possible that the "punches" in Sanseiru are not meant to be punches at all? (And while we're at it, what about the double-arm posture? Is this a hold over from the days of the Marquis de Queensbury or is there a message here?) Sometimes I feel like I'm in Bizarro World waiting for Superman to come straighten everything out.

The first technique in Seiunchin kata.
Years ago now, I came across an explanation (read "bunkai") of the first technique in Seiunchin where the defender was stepping back, using both hands to release the attacker's choke hold. The teacher explained that the kata steps forward on a more-or-less 45-degree angle but in application one is meant to step back. I found this particularly confusing. Does that mean that the kata is showing everything in reverse, opposite to what the defender is supposed to do in application?! Rather than searching for some ridiculous rationalization for an interpretation, shouldn't we be questioning the interpretation? Instead of trying to justify things that don't make a whole lot of sense in the first place, shouldn't we simply follow the kata and, in the case of Seiunchin for example, ask what could be happening if the kata is telling us to step forward along a 45-degree angle? (Obviously not a release from a chokehold!)

There is a lot of mystery in the world. There are also things that we just plain don't know yet. But there's also a lot that we can figure out. A good deal of it is just plain logical. After all, the roots go down and the plant grows up...and the wheels on the bus go round and round. Just follow the kata.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Who says so? Understanding kata technique in context

The final position of the
mawashi-like technique.
I was watching a video the other day of a guy explaining three ways to use a mawashi uke or tora guchi--can't remember whether he distinguished between the two or not. But anyway, I was a bit surprised, since I believe that the style he practices is Shotokan, though I suspect his interests are more widespread since he calls himself a "karate nerd." Now when I was young, I practiced a Tae Kwon Do style that was based on Shotokan--same forms and all. In fact, I think the Korean teachers had practiced Shotokan during the Japanese occupation of Korea way back in the early part of the twentieth century. But I also trained a year of Shotokan in England back in 1976-77. And in all that time, I don't remember ever doing a single mawashi uke or even anything that remotely resembled one. So I'm thinking, how can this guy presume to explain the function of a mawashi uke? And the guy's YouTube video had over 29,000 views!

But I've seen this happen over and over again; that is, people whose primary style is something other than Goju trying to explain the applications of Goju kata. It seems to me, however, that if you can divorce the technique from the kata--and there are frequently disclaimers stating that the kata under analysis is not one that they personally practice--then the technique can mean anything...or nothing. You have taken it out of context. It's like trying to define a word without seeing the sentence or even the paragraph it is used in. That's why crossword puzzles are often so hard; the words are not always given a context. Context changes meaning or more precisely, I suppose, actually determines meaning. Dr. Johnson, that particularly idiosyncratic lexicographer who gave us the first dictionary of the English language, set about first defining words by making note of how they were used in the books that he read. Unlike a word, however, a solo technique--like mawashi uke, in this case--could literally mean anything you want it to mean, out of context. After all, you're just waving your arms.

I suspect that this teacher is simply providing three conventional applications for mawashi uke that he learned from a Goju teacher or practitioner. In fact, they are pretty standard interpretations. One mawashi uke trapped the arm and then attacked the opponent's trunk and head with two palm strikes. The second example he illustrated was used against two punches, one after the other, and then he attacked the same way with the two palm strikes. And the third mawashi uke began with a same-side wrist grab, broke the grab, and then was used to apply an arm-bar against the opponent's elbow.

So the question is: Could the mawashi uke technique be used this way--that is, in any or all of these ways? It's really a question of grammar or, more properly, verb tense. Could one use a mawashi uke to block and then attack with palm strikes? Could one use a mawashi uke to release a wrist grab or apply an arm-bar? Anything is possible (particularly with a compliant partner, though that's another story for another day). Could aliens have built the pyramids? Could have, I suppose, but in the context of what we know, is it likely?

Mawashi-like technique at
the end of Seipai kata.
In the context of the Goju-ryu classical kata, the mawashi uke can be seen in Sanchin, Tensho, and Suparinpei. A mawashi-like technique occurs at the end of Saifa, at the end of Seipai, at the end of Seisan, and in the middle of Kururunfa (and, in my heretical opinion, three times in the middle of Suparinpei). The mawashi-like techniques all have one thing in common, other than the circular rotation of both hands--they are all done in cat stance (neko ashi). The mawashi uke we see in Sanchin, Tensho, and at the beginning of Suparinpei are all executed in basic stance or sanchin dachi.  The context, it seems to me, determines how they were originally intended to be used. In each of the mawashi-like techniques, it is at the end of a sequence of moves which have allowed you to seize the attacker's head, and in each case the head is twisted with the rotating arms or hands and then, because the defender is in cat stance, a knee kick is executed to the opponent's head. In the case of the mawashi uke techniques, there is little context other than the fact that they are all executed from the double-arm kamae posture--a posture akin to the beginning of a grappling position, which would argue for each of these mawashi uke techniques to begin with a release from an opponent's two-handed grab.

Mawashi uke at the
beginning of Suparinpei.
But the question is: Are the techniques found in a kata meant to be understood within the context of that kata or can they be interpreted independent of their context? This raises much larger issues, of course. Are the kata of a system merely random collections of techniques--in which case, one might ask, why put them into kata form?--or are they part of application (bunkai) sequences? If they are part of sequences--and the easiest way to see this is in the realization that all of the techniques in a kata do not function as ends in themselves--then how the techniques are used in any given sequence illustrates the principles of the style or system. To understand the self-defense principles of the system, then, it is important to understand the applications of the techniques. Some of the creative interpretations of techniques people have tried to apply, taken as they are out of context, seem to violate fairly sound martial principles.

Of course, if you believe that someone created kata (long ago and far far away) with movements that were so generic that they could be understood and applied in a variety of ways, often too numerous to even grasp a fraction of the "application potentials," as some like to call them, then there's little to reasonably argue. And there seems to be a lot of support for this sort of position. As one noted author quoted a legendary teacher: "'None of the movements is restricted to only one application...each application is unlimited.'" The author himself goes on to say that "Anyone who says differently simply does not understand what he or she is talking about." End of discussion....though I would agree to disagree.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Seminar in Italy

View of Florence
About 20 years ago, I stopped teaching the karate club at the university and started training in the barn dojo in back of my house. We put in a 3/4-inch plywood floor and covered it with an old wrestling mat from the university, put up a couple of makiwara posts and a heavy bag, a couple of nigiri game jars, some pictures and scrolls from Okinawa, and began training. At first there were six to ten black belts from the university that were either still around or decided to live nearby for the summer, but eventually, since I had no interest in advertising and trying to run a commercial dojo, it dwindled until there was just me and Ivan. Since there was just the two of us training most nights, we found little need to talk or count out basics or kata. We just trained. Generally, we warmed up on our own and then did a round or two of kata, from Sanchin to Suparinpei and Tensho. Then we would work on bunkai, but again there seemed to be little need to talk. We were both conversant enough with the techniques and observant enough of each other's movement to see what was going on just from the constant repetition of ippon kumite drills we did from the techniques in the classical kata. I don't know how else to say it, but we got to a point where we could almost tell what each other was thinking simply from how we were moving. We varied it a lot in those days when we were first trying to understand the classical subjects.

I was reminded of that sort of silent communication last week, watching my son Noah play soccer or "futbol" as they call it in Italy. We were staying at a hotel near the airport in Rome on our last night in Italy, since we had an early flight home the next morning. We needed to head to the airport at 4am if we were going to catch our flight home to Boston--a grueling 27-hour exodus, counting layovers, that took us from Rome to Istanbul to Boston.

Noah discovered a small fenced-in soccer pitch in back of the hotel and went down to unwind and kick a kid-sized soccer ball around that he found in the bushes nearby. A few minutes later, a group of Italian polizia came by with their gym bags and soccer balls, dressed in shorts and soccer cleats. They came after work to play five-a-side games, only this evening they were one player short. They motioned Noah over and invited him to play with them. There were no words really. The only language they shared was the language of soccer. When I came looking for him, the game was well underway. There were smiles and laughter and high fives. They were good, but the game was played for fun. When Noah had to leave, there were fist bumps and handshakes.

I'm reminded of that camaraderie as I sit here a week later and think back to the seminar I gave a couple of weeks ago in Villadose, Italy. It was the same sort of thing. I don't speak Italian and few of the people at the seminar would be able to understand me if I tried to explain things in words. Certainly Andrea, who initially contacted me after reading this blog and the articles I had written years ago for the Journal of Asian Martial Arts, could translate for me, but I didn't think lengthy explanations and sentence-by-sentence translations was what anyone was there for. I thought back to the times I had trained in Okinawan dojos where, for the most part, the only instruction that was actually verbalized was, " Kori wa ko, desho'," and it was always accompanied by a demonstration. (I think a rough translation was something like "it's like this, isn't it.") Anyway, I had been invited to give a seminar there by the Villadose karate club (Gruppo Sportivo Karate) with the sponsorship and support of FEKDA (Federazione Europea Karate Discipline Associate). The students were all different ages, from old to young, and from all different styles of karate. But we trained together, shared concepts and techniques, and enjoyed ourselves for two days.

If soccer has its own language and is indeed international, as my son reminded me after his game with the Italian polizia, I think the same might be said of martial arts. There is the silent language of a shared experience and a common understanding, and it is fostered and nourished, I think, through courtesy and respect. And it seems to be something we share as martial artists, regardless of school affiliation or style. So often in these situations, I am reminded of things my teacher, Kimo Wall sensei, would say. I heard them so often that they have become something of a mantra, and in some ways they all have come to mean the same thing.

Open mind, joyful training.
Replace fear and doubt with knowledge and understanding.
Train hard, train often.

Thank you to everyone who came to train. And especially to Andrea and Luigi Ferrari who went out of their way to make us feel welcome! Grazie Mille!

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Well, that's about the size of it.

"Well, that's about the size of it," he said. I realized I hadn't been paying attention. I knew he was summing something up, but I didn't remember what he had been talking about. I was thinking about the conservation area where we found ourselves. I had stopped on the trail to watch a pileated woodpecker and he had been coming up from the other direction when he paused to see what had caught my attention.

The conservation area isn't very big--about 625 acres with over a hundred different bird species and five miles of trails--but it's enough to get away from the sounds of traffic and the general insanity of the world for an hour or two. But as we separated, I found myself thinking about the size of things. After all, the Fitzgerald Lake area is only a fraction of the size of the new Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument that President Obama designated last year, all 87,500 acres, and that's supposedly only 1% of Maine's woodlands. I can't really even picture things that size. All you can say is, it's H-U-G-E.

But that got me to thinking about martial arts stuff and different systems of self defense. I once knew a guy who said he had studied Kempo (that's the only designation he gave it) for five years or so, and in that time he had learned 300,000 forms. Now, I'm thinking, there's no way in hell this is true, so I asked him to elaborate. His first "form" consisted of a head block and punch. His second "form" consisted of a chest block and punch. And so on and so on. Still, 300,000?!

One of the finishing techniques of
Shisochin kata.
I visited a Shito Ryu dojo once where they told me that their curriculum included over 50 kata. The funny thing was that when one of the black belts was asked to demonstrate a particular kata (Seipai), he demurred, saying he hadn't practiced it for quite a while and worried that he couldn't remember it.

And on the other end of the spectrum, we have Uechi with its three classical kata--Sanchin, Sanseiru, and Seisan.

So how big is Goju Ryu? There are eight classical kata--kata of ancient origin that show bunkai and embody the principles of the system--and, of course, Sanchin and Tensho (and a number of other modern training kata developed by various teachers in the 20th century). Each of the classical "bunkai" kata, for lack of a better term, explores a theme or themes of self defense and illustrates
Double-arm receiving technique
of Sanseiru kata.
them with anywhere from three to five scenarios, each sequence beginning with an uke or receiving technique and progressing to a finishing technique. Some of the themes are more obvious than others--like the double-arm receiving technique of Sanseiru paired with a couple of different controlling or bridging techniques and two or three different finishing techniques. Or the five techniques against cross-hand grabs and pushes we see in Seiunchin, though one might also look at the downward forearm strike as one of the themes of the kata since it is used in a number of the sequences.

So how big is Goju Ryu? It's hard to say. Seipai is fairly straightforward with five bunkai sequences, while Saifa has four, though one of the four is a close variation. Kururunfa also has four sequences. And Suparinpei, though it shows three complete bunkai sequences, is largely made up of the repetition of fundamental techniques, various entry and controlling techniques. How do you count fundamental or basic techniques?
One of the grab release techniques
of Seiunchin kata.

And then there's the question of structure. The sort of fragmented (or complex?) structure of some kata, like Shisochin or Sanseiru, makes them difficult to size up. Shisochin seems to show  four release techniques against a clinch or two-handed grab, with one bridging technique and two different finishes, one short and one significantly longer. But each of these sequences can be taken apart and put together in various ways. The structure itself seems to suggest variations. And really it's all about variations. Seisan kata has only three bunkai sequences but each is a variation of the same fundamental techniques--the same entry, bridging, and finishing techniques.

The really interesting aspect of this idea of themes and variations, however, is that once you see them you can not only change from one sequence to another within a given kata but also from one technique to another between different kata, moving from a receiving technique in one kata to a completely different controlling or finishing technique from another kata. So in that sense, Goju Ryu is fairly small, composed of only eight bunkai kata with a combined total of around 30 or so bunkai sequences, but almost infinitely large if you consider how the different sequences can be broken down and recombined, dependent on the dynamics of a changing situation and the exigencies of a given self defense scenario.

Too big? The fact that it is all based on themes and variations--as opposed to its being an encyclopedic collection of individual techniques--makes it manageable. Provided, that is, you can see the forest for the trees.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Where have you been, my blue-eyed son...

There's crap along the trail. Someone left a half-eaten sandwich--still in its sandwich baggie which I'm sure will frustrate the squirrels--tucked in behind a log. It was a beautiful warm weekend so I suppose it's to be expected, but I still don't understand it. Why dump garbage in a place that's so beautiful? What happened to those old admonitions: Cart it in, carry it out. Or, leave no trace. I suppose it could have just fallen out of someone's backpack. Or some ten-year-old didn't like it and tried to hide the evidence. There was an empty soda can a little further up the trail, along with a couple of cigarette butts and a gum wrapper. Highly suspicious and much less likely to suggest an innocent explanation.

Of course, some would say, it's not nearly as bad as walking around the city. Add to the litter, everything from buildings to bridges to mail boxes and trucks get tagged with cryptic symbols in spray paint, as ubiquitous as a dog marking its territory. But it sort of pisses me off more in the woods. And for some reason, it made me think of something Matayoshi sensei commented on one day in the dojo after I had done a kata. I had stepped back to execute a block, but I was trying to be particularly forceful and demonstrate strong technique--I was young--so I stomped the floor loudly. And I did it again on the other side of the kata, so there could be no mistaking my intention, though in retrospect I'm not at all sure what my intention was. After I finished, Matayoshi sensei told me that one should never be "loud" when executing a block. He said being loud was okay for an attack, but not for a block or when you were retreating. Your opponent would know where you were, he said. Hum...

Returning to the double-arm kamae
after the "punch" in Seisan kata.
I suppose when you think about it, it certainly has wider implications in the martial arts. The more force I put into my receiving technique or "block," the more my opponent can read my intentions. Better to be light. Better that my opponent can't tell where I am or how much force I'm using or what my next move is going to be...until I attack. To me this is one of the ways we can understand " Go and Ju," hard and soft. The receiving techniques (the "blocks" for lack of a better term) are generally soft and relaxed, generally accompanied by off-line or angular movement that doesn't, after all, necessitate a lot of strength. Of course, the attacks are relaxed as well, if you understand the whole idea of using your koshi. But immediately after the attack, again the idea is to disappear, to relax in order to be able to move in response to whatever the opponent does next, sort of like the fast "punches" at the beginning of Seisan kata--they immediately return to a relaxed, double-arm Sanchin posture.
Beginning of the fourth sequence in
Seipai kata.

Or like the beginning of the fourth sequence in Seipai kata, where you are advancing to the southeast corner of the kata with a left block and a right open-hand attack in renoji dachi. The circular forearm block (executed in a clockwise direction) intercepts the attacker's right punch (or grab) and merely moves around it until it ends in a down position. That's why so many see it as a block of a kick, because it ends in the down position. I recently came across a video of a teacher I have the utmost respect for demonstrating this technique against a front kick--blocking and hooking the kick and then grabbing the opponent, sweeping his supporting leg, and dropping him on the ground.

It's funny that most schools see this technique as the block and grab of an opponent's kick. The
Receiving the opponent's attack
 in the fourth sequence of Seipai.
kick would have to be at least at the level of the waist. There's an old saying in Okinawan karate that we never kick above the waist. In fact, the knees are a much better target and are harder to defend. Then there's the principle--seemingly borne out in kata--that we don't kick without having three feet on the ground--one of ours and two of the opponent's, meaning we are holding onto the opponent rather than initiating with a kick. And yet the interpretation of this technique as a block and hooking grab of a kick would seem to require the opponent to initiate an attack with a fairly high kick. Doesn't make a whole lot of sense, not to mention that it's really hard to grab someone's kick in a realistic situation.

But if you're intercepting the opponent's punch on the outside and moving to the inside with the circular motion of the "blocking" arm, it's sort of effortless. Then, without pausing, you step in with the right foot along the outside of the opponent's right leg (in the first of these Seipai techniques), carrying the head with the right hand, and do a sort of judo-like hip throw. And, done this way, it all requires very little physical strength, very little for your opponent to "read." So many of the receiving techniques of Goju-ryu are like this; they don't leave a trace for the opponent to sense where you've been or where you might be going...unlike some of the trails through the woods these days.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

A block is not always a block...

I was sitting on a rock in the woods the other day, taking a few minutes to lament the relentless march of time and the inescapable encroachment of modern life--they're putting up a couple of million-dollar homes not a stone's throw from the entrance trail and I'm feeling like the proverbial curmudgeon complaining about it--thinking what a nice seat I had found there, positioned as it was under the trees. I could replace the old Adirondack chairs with a few of these, I thought. They'd certainly last longer and weather the New England winters a bit better. I was reminded of a boulder on the way to Lake Oscawana with a naturally worn out indentation in it that my mother always wanted to take home and use as a bird bath. It was about five feet high and must have weighed quite a few tons!

The final position of what is sometimes
referred to as the right ridge hand
from the end of Saifa kata.
Of course, that boulder is probably still sitting by the side of the road, where it was dropped some time during the last ice age. And the rock I was sitting on would never really replace a good Adirondack chair. There were no benches in this part of the woods as there was no scenic place to sit and bathe in the natural beauties of the world, someone determined, but it would serve in a pinch. However, it was still a rock, and only relatively comfortable given that there wasn't any alternative. It was still a rock.

And for some reason, thinking about that rock made me think about the old dojo admonition: "A block is not always a block, and a punch is not always a punch." Or, as it is sometimes understood: "A punch is a block and a block is a punch." And I thought, which is it? The two are vastly different if you think about it.
Some have referred to this as a
kamae posture in Seiunchin
and Seipai katas since it is
executed stepping back.

I tried to think of an appropriate analogy. Analogies always help me to understand things a little bit better. For instance, a pie plate could be used as a frisbee. I think they started out that way actually.But a pie plate isn't a very good frisbee, and a frisbee is certainly not a pie plate. I can't imagine any respectable chef serving up an apple pie in a frisbee.

I think it's the same in karate. Take what I like to refer to as the dreaded ridge-hand strike (haito uchi), done with the opposite side of the hand as the shuto attack, with the point of contact on the side of the index finger knuckle of the hand when the hand is brought across, palm down. Some people find this strike beginning the last mawashi technique of Saifa kata. But it's a lousy way to attack anything. Could it be used as a strike, this technique that begins the mawashi/tora guchi at the end of Saifa? Certainly it could, but was that its original intention, given that it's not a very effective strike and probably more likely to injure the person using it than the person it is used on?
The double "punch" from
 Sanseiru and Suparinpei.

I think what they really mean when they say that "a block is not always a block" is that things aren't always what they seem. Take the down block (gedan barai), for example. It just looks like a down block, but in the classical subjects of Goju-ryu it isn't used as a block at all. You could call it a block.You could even use it as a block in some yakusoku kumite drill. But if we base our interpretation of the technique on how it is used in the sequences of the classical Goju-ryu kata, then it isn't a block. And to compound the difficulty--and I would certainly agree that a punch is not always a punch--but then sometimes it's not a block either. Look at the double punch that we find in Sanseiru and Suparinpei. From its position in the sequences of both kata, it would seem to be neither a punch nor a block.

We tend to love cryptic sayings; they seem to hint at unplumbed depths of hidden meaning. I can just hear old Master Po whispering softly into Kwai Chang Caine's ear: "A block is not always a block, Grasshopper." And all he meant to suggest is that it may look like a block in kata, but appearances can be deceiving.

But to say that a punch is a block and a block is a punch...well, it would be sort of like calling that rock there a tree. It's clearly not.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

"Don't hit anyone..."

Sometimes I head off into the woods just to escape. Even here, a little more than a mile from downtown, I can get far enough up the trails that I can't hear the highway. Once and awhile an airplane will fly overhead, but even then, after my initial irritation has passed, I can imagine some sort of primitive connection to the aboriginal people in that old movie, "The Gods Must Be Crazy." Above the canopy of trees, it's hard to see the airplane. Perhaps it's just the flatulence of the gods.

The trees, of course, are peaceful beings. If you walk in the woods often enough, especially in the spring, you can see them come alive again after a long winter. There aren't too many examples of living things that simply exist in harmony with their environment, living peacefully. Trees seem to. Oh, I know trees aren't sentient beings. Of course not. Certainly there's a lot we don't know about our world--it would be arrogant to
Miyagi Chojun sensei.
think otherwise--but I'm pretty sure trees aren't conscious or self-aware, though I'll keep an open mind on the subject. But at least in some imaginative or metaphorical way they present us with a wonderful example of peaceful co-existence, like that tree in the Shel Silverstein book.

I was thinking about all of this because we seem to be living in strange times...though that's only a euphemism for all the anger and nastiness and distrust and aggressively antagonistic posturing. I'm reminded of the words of Miyagi Chojun sensei that often accompany a frequently reproduced portrait of him: "Do not strike others; do not be struck by others." Wonderful sentiment. I think the trees would approve. But this from a Goju master? Is there something just a bit ironic in this statement? What was he thinking?

Receiving technique from Sanseiru.
I wonder sometimes if he was at all bothered by the violent nature of the martial arts and particularly
some of the violent head-twisting techniques found in the classical kata of Goju-ryu. I wonder myself sometimes if there is any way to minimize the violence inherent in the kata. There have been times when I have explained the bunkai of a kata to people and they will say, "We can't do that. I can't break someone's neck if I get into a fight." But it may say more about how we look to interact with other people, I think. We live in an angry age, where everyone seems ready to pick a fight. Is it at all ironic that if we lived in a kinder and gentler age, our self-defense would only be used in life-threatening situations? Or in ancient times when a confrontation really was life-threatening?
Controlling technique from Sanseiru.

But I still think if we adhere to Miyagi sensei's advice, then what we should spend the most time studying and training in the classical subjects are the receiving techniques and the controlling or bridging techniques. If we can really learn the receiving techniques shown in the kata--how to avoid and "block" the incoming attack--and bridge the distance to control the attacker, then we won't get hit and we won't necessarily need to hit anyone. After all, the finishes are easy; the hard part is how to receive (uke) the attack safely and control the situation so that it doesn't go any further. Whether I use a head-twisting technique to break someone's neck or merely throw someone to the ground is really a matter of how much force or intention is put into the technique.

Of course, in this day and age, it's very unlikely that I would be faced with any situation where I would have to make that choice. Well...unless someone were to jump out from behind that big old hemlock tree and threaten me.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

It's the clothes, you know.

Practicing Sanseiru.
We actually had snow a week or so ago, five or six inches. That's more snow than we had all last winter. I couldn't resist heading out into the woods for a walk just to see what it would all look like, frozen and cold. But in my rush to get in a bit of a hike before the sun set and the coyotes and goblins came out, I forgot to change out of my old Chippewa boots. They were all oiled up, so I wasn't worried about getting my feet wet, but the soles are pretty smooth and I was a little worried about how slippery the hill trails might be. Generally I subscribe to the notion that there's no such thing as bad weather, there's just the wrong clothes for the occasion. And these were really the wrong boots for walking on slippery winter trails.

It really made me think about clothes and some of the rituals we engage in when we practice martial arts. And it seems to me that all of these rituals--the clothes we wear, the language and terms we use, the ceremonies and titles--tend to invest martial arts practice with mystery and a sort of quasi-religious feeling. I wonder whether the Okinawans themselves view the practice of martial arts the same way that Westerners do? I mean, when we count to ten or use various terms to describe techniques, we learn these words almost as if it is a rite of initiation--we become members of a select group. The same is true of the karate gi. Certainly one could say that these pajama-like clothes are comfortable and loose and durable, but seriously couldn't one also train in sweatpants? The interesting thing about the karate gi, at least the top, is that it seems to be constructed very much like the kimono. So again, I wonder how Okinawans felt putting on a gi to practice karate some 75 or 100 years ago? I don't think it would have felt "special" in quite the same way as it does to a Westerner.

Practicing Sanseiru.
I've trained in Okinawan dojos alongside Okinawans, but I wondered sometimes whether the experience was the same for me and the other Americans as it was for my Okinawan friends. We don't usually wear
geta or zori, so going barefoot inside isn't quite as natural for us. Is practicing karate in bare feet then another sort of ritualized behavior? After all, most of us in North America are not practicing in a tropical climate. 

There is a strong argument, of course, that we pay homage to Okinawa and the source of our karate by adopting the clothing, the language, and the rituals. I think there's certainly something to be said for honoring our forebears or preserving the traditions and acknowledging our roots, but how does it affect what we do? Do the clothes make the man, as they say, or do the clothes make a person's experience something other than it is? Would we be practicing the same martial art if we were wearing shoes and sweatpants, counting and giving commands in our native language, and, heavens, at all cost avoiding bowing to the shrine? Would it change anything if the commands were, "Ready? Form 13. Begin."? Or form 18 or 36 or 108?

I guess my question is, how does the adoption of all these essentially Japanese things affect the way we view our martial arts? Don't get me wrong, I loved learning all the esoterica--from how to fold a gi properly to all the correct terms for things as simple as standing with the feet shoulders' width apart to the etiquette of titles and bowing. But how does all of this--fairly familiar routines for an Okinawan--affect someone who's not from Japan or Okinawa? It seems to me that some of this at least has nothing whatsoever to do with learning a martial art, and in fact may get in the way of the
strictly martial aspect of the art.

In some ways, it strikes me that this is a by-product of our modern culture. We dress in certain ways in order to identify with an activity. And it's almost as if we do this to broadcast this identity to everyone else. If we bike, we find ways to spend a fortune on biking clothes, as if we are convinced that we need to dress and look the part in order to engage in the activity. And the same is true of almost any athletic activity you care to name. There are special sneakers or shoes for each activity--whether it's running or weight lifting or soccer or cross-training or T'ai Chi or even just plain walking. Gone are the days of a good pair of canvas Keds or Converse All-Stars for all occasions. And we have special clothing to go along with the shoes. And of course there is a special language to learn as well. All sort of weird when you think about it. 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

That's what we call y'ur basic basics

First day of Spring.
I was out snowshoeing the other day. The snow wasn't particularly deep--I think there was six or eight inches on the wooded trails--but the snowshoes made it much less of a slog. Part way up the trail I ran into an old New Englander walking his two dogs, and since the dogs were running free and charging down the trail at me, I stopped to say hello to both the dogs and their owner. And, as often happens it seems when you stop to talk off in the woods, one thing led to another and before you know it I'm getting an introduction to the trees of New England.

"That there is your basic hemlock," he said, pointing ahead to a large tree by the side of the trail. "And that over there is your basic black birch. And most of those down across there are your basic quakin' aspens." By this time, though, the dogs were off down the trail and he decided to head off after them, and I set off in the opposite direction.

I walked the first two mile loop and then, feeling energetic, I set off to run the second loop. But what I found myself thinking about was your "basic" tree. Now I know his use of the word "basic" was just a manner of speaking, but it got me to thinking about a video I had seen a few days before. The video lasted about ten minutes. There were four old men (I feel as though I can say that being one of that older group myself) in gi's and black belts doing basics. They did 20 counts each of sweeping kicks, front kicks, short punches, single forearm blocks, double forearm blocks, and chest punches, over a hundred of those, and then more double punches. The video was labeled "Basic training." And that's what got me to wondering. Why is this basic training?

Your basic block and attack from
Seipai kata.
Now admittedly, this was Shorin-ryu training, which I know next to nothing about, but it wasn't so very far from what we would see in any other dojo training any other style of karate. And maybe that's the problem: Shouldn't the training of basics train one for what is fundamental to the art or the system or the style? That is, if the essence of a martial system like Goju-ryu is contained within the classical kata--fairly obvious, I think, since Miyagi Chojun sensei seemed to suggest that the classical kata were the only things sacrosanct in the system (witness his statements at the 1936 meeting of karate masters sponsored by the Ryukyu Shinpo newspapers)--shouldn't the "basics" reflect the tenor of the classical kata? Why not take basics straight from the classical subjects and practice those instead of these generic basics we so often see at the start of any karate class? For each class one could select a different technique, one from each of the classical kata, for instance, and repeat it 10 or 20 times, with the added benefit that students would be practicing the technique on both sides. When we generally move to that part of class focused on classical kata, we do each one once or twice. That means some techniques, since there are many single techniques in the classical subjects, may be practiced once or twice in class. Multiply that times the number of times a student trains the kata and see how long it takes to get to 10,000, that magic number of mastery in any physical activity according to the journalist Malcolm Gladwell.

The longer I live, the more language seems to befuddle me. I'm not at all sure I know what basics or kihon waza are. The head block ("jodan uke") we see practiced so diligently doesn't occur in the classical kata of Goju-ryu. Of course, we see it in the Gekisai kata, but those are certainly more generic karate kata, "school-boy kata" as they are sometimes called, so how is that fundamental or basic to the practice of Goju-ryu? And when you really begin to look at the classical subjects, there aren't that many straight punches either, certainly not the preponderance of straight punches that their seemingly endless practice in basics would warrant. And why that particular chest block? And the down block? Does it change how we practice basics if we find that the down block is always used as an attack in the classical subjects of Goju-ryu? And there are probably more knee kicks in the classical kata than kicks with the foot.

Your basic block and attack from
Seisan kata.
So why does this sort of basic training still persist? When I first started training, we would practice these basic punches and blocks hundreds of times each class--we often counted around the dojo for each basic, sixty students counting to ten for each blocking or punching or kicking technique. We got very good at basic blocks, punches, and kicks. And there is certainly something to be said for developing a good stance and foundation or good body mechanics. But why the emphasis on those particular techniques, techniques that one finds in Gekisai Dai Ichi, even if one has been training for five, ten, or twenty years? Is that the essence of Goju-ryu? Are there fundamental lessons to be learned here, even though the techniques themselves have very little to do with the classical subjects? If these basic blocks and punches constitute so much of one's training, won't that affect how one sees kata and bunkai? Won't a student's interpretation of kata (bunkai) simply be a reflection of one's training? That is, if it's all block, punch, kick, that may be all one sees in kata. Is there such a thing as a basic karate kata (and here I'm asking about only the classical subjects)? What would it even mean if someone sitting at a traditional embukai were to lean over towards his neighbor and say, "That there is y'ur basic karate kata"?