Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

It's a system, like the trees in the forest

The forest was wet today. Droplets of water collected in the leaves here and there, and the moss looked a bit brighter green after the rain we had overnight. But the temperature is dropping gradually, the days are getting shorter, and most of the trees are bare. It's hard to tell which trees are dead this time of year. The only thing that seems to be thriving is the lichen and small colonies of mushrooms clinging to the old tree trunks that lay rotting by the side of the trail. 



Saifa kata
Seipai kata
When I'm out in the woods these days, I don't usually think of the forest as an eco-system, though I know it is. I know that when the larger trees fall, after a strong rain or a heavy storm with high winds, they leave a hole in the canopy overhead and the wild grasses, the ground cover, and the acorns lying buried beneath the leaves, some waiting patiently for years, will start to grow in the spring, reaching for the sunlight that's finally been able to make its way through the leaves of the taller trees. 


Suparinpei kata
Seiunchin kata
No, when I'm out walking in the woods these days, I'm just looking for the seemingly random beauty you can find when you go out "forest bathing." Nothing seems so systematic. Everything seems chaotic and haphazard. But, of course, it is a system, just like any martial art, despite what some may imply when they suggest that a style like Goju ryu, for example, is a random collection of kata that come from different sources andwere created by different people at different periods in the past.


Kururunfa kata
Seipai kata
While this may be true (and probably is given that the structure of the Goju classical subjects varies considerably), it does not change the fact that it's a system. The different kata show variations as if they were jazz compositions, as if different composers were given the same melody and told to improvise. One need only compare techniques from different kata to see the variations, to appreciate how different techniques explore similar themes. Certainly there are differences--any given self-defense scenario may vary depending on one's position in relationship to the attacker or, for that matter, what the initial attack is--but the apparent similarity of some techniques and the fact that they are used in a very similar manner (the application or bunkai) underscores the notion that they are all part of the same system, regardless of whether or not the different classical subjects may have had different origins.

Sanseiru kata
Shisochin kata
The key here, of course, is to understand (or "see") the applications. You can't rely solely on the appearance of the techniques. This is admittedly a challenge. We have to first let go of our expectations, which may include not only what the technique appears to be, but also
what we may have been told--in other words, the conventional interpretation of the techniques in question. The problem may be compounded by texts and pictures that seem to record "end" positions; that is, it's difficult to convey in pictures or words what happens in-between the pictures one generally sees in karate manuals or texts which discuss kata, and it's often in the space between one move and the next that we see how a given technique is applied.

Saifa kata
Seipai kata
And you need the whole system. You need all eight classical kata in order to address different scenarios on the one hand and, on the other, to be able to see how to move from one technique in one kata to a similar technique in another kata if the dynamics of the situation change--and they are likely to change. That is, you need to see the similarities and variations in order to alter your counterattack. You may begin with the opening or receiving technique from Saifa (as pictured above), but you have to be able to change to the controlling or bridging technique from Seipai, for example (the bridging technique from Seipai being the technique which follows the Seipai opening technique pictured above). In other words, once you "see" the similarities and variations, you should be able to move back and forth between the techniques of each sequence of moves. This is the way a system works. Of course, you have to also be aware of the sequences. And if you can see the sequences, then you realize that the techniques within a sequence function in specific ways--that is, they can't just mean whatever you want them to mean.

Some have suggested that any single kata is a complete system of self-defense in itself. This is a rather silly notion, as is the idea that any given technique has multiple interpretations or applications. Either one of these notions gets in the way of "seeing" the whole system and being able to comfortably work within the system. Both of these views are short-sighted. Metaphorically, they're like being lost in the woods, failing to see the forest for the trees.







Sunday, November 26, 2017

Things aren't always what they seem

The other day I decided to take a break and head out for a hike up Mt. Tom. I had spent most of the week ripping up the old mat in the dojo and laying down a new wood floor. The canvas cover I  scrounged from an Aikido school years ago was old when I got it, but we needed something to cover the old wrestling mat that looked more like a patchwork quilt made of duct tape than anything else. Patching up the canvas cover had taken a few more rolls of duct tape the past few years, so it just seemed like the time to move back to a wood floor. I had gotten to the point where we had finished cutting and laying down the wood floor, so it seemed like a good time to take a break.

The woods were damp from the recent rains and the first yellow leaves were beginning to fall. A few trees had come down in the last storm, their roots not deep enough as they stretched out over the outcropping of rocks along the path. I was coming down the mountain on a path that wound its way around a small, rocky crag when I noticed a dog coming up the other way. He paused for a moment just in front of me, sniffing the ground, and as I stopped to pet him I looked ahead to see his owner leap wildly to the side of the path, jumping from one foot to the other, waving his arms frantically as if he were trying to escape a giant spider's web. After a moment he stopped and continued up the mountain. When he looked up, he must have noticed the quizzical look on my face. "Snake," he said. "I hate snakes." And then we both continued on the trail; he going up and me going down, but both of us, I'm sure, on the look out for more snakes hiding on the bare rock, hard to pick out amongst the meandering tree roots.

It reminded me of that sketch on Saturday Night Live with Bill Murray and Steve Martin. They stare
Opening technique of Seiunchin.
straight into the camera and just keep repeating, "What the hell is that!?" Maybe we just don't expect things or maybe things just aren't always what they seem to be. Kata is a lot like that. We see a move in kata and assume that it's one thing because it looks like that's what it ought to be. We think, well, it looks like a down block, so it must be a down block. It looks like a double punch so it must be a double punch.

What we're often missing, I think, is the Tristram Shandy effect, for lack of a better term. Tristram, the title character in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, an 18th century novel by Laurence Sterne, attributes all of his troubles to what happened the moment he was conceived. Just at the crucial point, his mother interrupts his father to ask if he has remembered to wind the hall clock. If I'm remembering it correctly--it's been many years since I last encountered it--the rest of the 500 or so pages of the story and it's hilarious sequence of events can all be attributed to this critical moment, this momentus interruptus, if you will.
Palm up technique from Seiunchin.

Fiction, certainly, but there are connections that are important. Kata is composed of sequences that constitute self defense scenarios. And each sequence is composed of entry techniques (uke), bridging techniques, and finishing techniques. Too often teachers and students trying to find bunkai ignore the sequences, as if the techniques are disconnected and unrelated. I think this is why we don't see the right applications sometimes, why we judge things strictly on appearance rather than a technique's function within a given self defense sequence.

Beginning of the end mawashi
from Saifa.
For example: we might look at the opening technique of Seiunchin and imagine that it must be a release from a two-handed grab or choke hold because both hands look the same--if they look the same, they must be doing the same thing. And the folks that interpret the opening of Seiunchin this way, imagine that the next technique--when the right palm is raised up and the left hand is brought up into chamber--is meant to block and grab the opponent's next punch. This is the disconnect between these two techniques of the sequence. Somehow the opponent must have pulled away from the previous technique in order to punch. But this interpretation works only in contradiction of the age-old martial principle of ikken hissatsu (one punch kill) or is it ippon kumite (one point fighting)? Perhaps it's all the same concept; that is, one should move in such a way as to allow your opponent only the one, initial attack--the one punch being your opponent's, not yours. (They get the initial attack, of course, because "there's no first attack in karate.") Or we might look at the opening technique of Sanseiru (after the three "punches") and imagine that it must be blocking and grabbing a kick because we're reaching down, knee level. Or we look at the end mawashi technique of Saifa and imagine that it's a ridge-hand strike, as many would say, simply because we don't see how it's connected to the previous sequence of moves.
At Mt. Tom looking across
the reservoir. 

It always makes me think of that old admonition about missing the forest for the trees. I suppose it's natural but it's also good to remember that things aren't always what they seem. (And no, it's not common knowledge, nor is it how everyone else looks at kata, no matter how much lip service we pay the old aphorisms we here in the dojo.)



Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Watching kata

Training kobudo in Okinawa
with Matayoshi sensei and
students from UMass.
When I first started training Goju with Kimo Wall sensei, we trained in a fairly large room at the Univer -sity of Mass -achusetts Amherst. The room was probably 20 or 25 feet deep and 30 or 40 feet long, plenty of space, though there were often 50 or 60 of us lined up for training. The space was fine for warm ups and basics—we would generally line up one arm’s length apart, side to side, and a little more than the distance of a front kick, front to back—but it was a little tight if we were doing kata, particularly classical subjects. So we often took turns training. For example, black belts would divide into two groups; half the group would do a kata while the other half sat on the side and watched, and then the other half would do the same kata while the first group watched. 

This was often the way people trained in Okinawa, Kimo sensei explained, because the dojos were generally much smaller than they are in America. But the real point, he said, was so that each person could watch and learn, not just from one’s seniors but also from one’s juniors. The idea was to have an opportunity to check oneself. If one saw a mistake in someone’s kata—perhaps the elbow hadn’t been kept down or the shoulders were raised or tense—one was supposed to use that opportunity to check one’s own technique. It was the teacher’s job to correct the student, but it was each student’s job to correct him or her self. This was, in fact, the way Kimo sensei taught; I never heard him correct an individual student’s mistakes in front of the class. He would always comment to the whole class. “Check your feet.” “Don’t forget to breathe.” “Elbows down,” he would say, even if he had noticed only one person making the mistake. And I would always check myself to see if he was talking about me, and thought everyone else did as well. 

Doing Sanchin in Gibo sensei's
dojo in the '80s.
When we sat and observed kata, Sensei said, “first watch the feet, then the eyes, and then the hands.” Well, I thought, that’s pretty clear, but what am I watching for? Are we only watching for mistakes? If we already know the kata, what can we learn from watching someone else do it, aside from making sure that we didn’t make the same mistakes ourselves when it was our turn? I suppose in some cases, nothing. If all we’re looking for is mistakes, and we don’t see any, then there’s nothing to learn here. But perhaps it’s not really the movements themselves as much as the movement, how someone moves. 

There’s a video I used to watch a lot of a guy doing T’ai Chi saber form on YouTube. His movement was so incredibly natural and fluid that it was hard to tell where one technique finished and the next one began. You couldn’t really see his intent or the moment when the muscles required for one movement gave way to the muscles required for the next movement. In some way it reminded me of something Picasso had reportedly said about painting, something to the effect of, “It took me four years to learn to paint like Raphael but a lifetime to draw like a child.” 

Practicing sanchin dachi
and stepping with the log.
And yet natural movement, for lack of a better term, often seems to fly in the face of what we are led to believe is “good kata” from videos of winning tournament performances. What we usually see is kata performed with exaggeratedly large arm movements, techniques done with excessive dynamic tension, movements that are so fast that the use of the whole body is sacrificed, movements that are so slow that the functionality of the technique has disappeared entirely, and positions that are held (and seemingly admired) for so long that whatever practical use they may have had—particularly in relationship to the techniques that precede them and the ones that follow them—is forgotten. In fact, we seem to be forgetting the whole purpose of kata; that is, to preserve and practice self defense techniques.

I can remember when I first started to train Goju. I would go home and practice walking in sanchin dachi, focusing on balance and grounding and using a crescent step. It felt so unnatural but I was committed to practicing it until it felt good. Nowadays I try to make all of my movement natural, but it doesn’t look very much like the demonstration kata I see at tournaments. There’s very little locked down movement, labored breathing, rigid holding of postures. Some would no doubt say my kata is “sloppy.” Where are the punctuated, staccato movements? the dynamic tension? the deep stances? the loud breathing? the scowling look intended to intimidate the meek? But kata, it seems to me, is not a performance piece, and we’re not role playing. If anything—and if it’s even possible—we’re trying to demonstrate our understanding of kata applications, or bunkai, every time we do kata. That’s hard enough. Oh, and then trying to move naturally. You see, there it is again, Nature. It's always at the heart of things.






Monday, October 23, 2017

Watching the deer...and movement

I was out hiking on the Lost Boulder Trail a while back, when I spotted a young deer standing stock still about fifty feet up the hill. It surprised me. I don’t know what had drawn my eyes away from the trail. Most of the time, I think, it’s the movements of deer in the woods that you pick up if you’re going to see them at all. From a distance their legs look like young saplings and their tawny coats seem to blend into the backdrop of dead leaves that blanket the hillside. 

As I stood watching, trying to see if there was a family nearby, it sidled forward a few steps and began to nibble on a small mountain laurel, all the while keeping a wary eye on me. After a while, I moved on, heading down the trail which turned and dropped into a shallow gully, but the deer stayed there until I lost sight of it. 

A young Great Horned
Owl watching me.
I think this was on my mind—the idea of movement—because I had recently been reading something Bernd Heinrich had written about owls. He had performed a sort of experiment with a friendly owl that had regularly come to roost on a branch above the clearing by his cabin in the Maine woods. At first, he threw a piece of meat on the ground beneath the tree, but the owl showed no interest in it. But when Heinrich attached a piece of thread to the meat and dragged it under the tree, the owl quickly dove for it and carried it off. Heinrich concluded that the owl responded to movement or, in other words, movement may have been a more important consideration for the owl than sight alone or smell. 

Movement is such a nebulous thing to describe or put into words. I was watching a video the other day of a teacher trying to explain the movement of the waist, or koshi, in karate, as he slowly twisted his hips to one side and then quickly snapped them back. He did this repeatedly, snapping his hips back faster and faster. What I was wondering, though, was how a student construes this advice from this sort of demonstration, divorced as it is from technique. Might it give one the wrong impression about
how the waist is actually employed? That is, by isolating this use of the waist as an exercise, are we
This technique from Shisochin kata
very obviously uses the waist.
thereby giving students the impression that the waist is something that turns independent -ly of whatever technique is performed? I’ve seen students (and quite a few teachers) actually pull their hips back prior to thrusting it forward with an attack. They seem to be doing this as if it is a movement completely disconnected from the block or parry or whatever receiving technique that precedes it. It becomes a three-part movement: first the waist is twisted, pulling the hip back; then the hip is sharply thrust forward; and then the striking hand is quickly thrust forward. One, two, three. 

There’s a disconnect here, I think. What usually happens in kata—where at least in Goju-ryu we find illustrations of application (what we call bunkai)—is that the waist turns naturally with the initial block or parrying motion of the body (the uke or receiving technique). There is a structure to this, usually, because we learn it in Sanchin kata and we incorporate that learned movement in everything, remembering the admonition that “the arms do not move independently of the body.” This, of course, is facilitated by the notion that the first (and certainly instinctual) response to an attack is to get out of the way. Even if we can’t easily step off line, the body turns to deflect the attack or present a smaller target. The simplest way to picture this is to imagine an opponent stepping in with a right punch. The
The start of the fourth sequence in
Seipai kata.
defender turns to block the attack with the left forearm to the outside of the opponent’s right arm. The defender’s waist has naturally turned away, leaving the left hip forward and the right hip pulled back or “loaded.” In the next instant, the defender thrusts forward with a right counterattack. In each case, for both the “block” and the attack, the waist and arm move together. I’ve found that, more often than not, when you try to teach students to use the waist, they will disconnect the waist from the arms and use the arms independently, as if  the lower half of the body doesn’t know what the upper half is doing, and that seems like a lot of needless expenditure of energy. On the other hand, if all of this movement of the waist and the arms is done naturally and correctly, “blocking” and counterattacking takes very little effort. And, of course, this is greatly facilitated by the off-line stepping we see in kata, when, for example, the defender turns to block and counter, placing him or her self at a ninety degree angle to the attacker.

That seems like a rather long digression. I’m not sure what it has to do with deer standing quietly in the woods, not moving, unless it’s the notion that you probably won’t see much in the way of wasted movement when it comes to animals; they generally conserve their energy. We should too.  Oh, that, and learning to move naturally.






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!