Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

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"?

Saturday, March 04, 2017

The landscape is a-changin'

A week ago I was out snow shoeing through the woods on trails covered with 18 inches of snow and today the trails are almost bare. Small piles of snow seem to hide in the shadows or lie in under fallen tree on the north side of the hill. The leaves alongside the trail are wet and you can almost smell an early spring. In a few weeks, the landscape will be totally altered once again. The trees will leaf out and the weeds will cover the rocks in the marshy places. Everything will turn green and it will be hard to see off into the woods from the side of the trail. Phoebes and chickadees and wood thrushes will replace the crunching sound of feet plodding through the snow on the trails.

It's not as if the landscape doesn't constantly change--after all it's New England and these are seasonal changes that happen every year--but they seem more noticeable in anticipation, when they're just about to change, or, on the other end of it, in hind sight.

I was thinking about this the other day, as I walked along the trail, leaving the last remnants of packed-down ice in the middle of the trail to walk along the edge of the forest, kicking up the leaves that had been hidden under the snow since last fall. The landscape of the martial arts has also changed quite a bit from its beginnings hundreds of years ago, I imagine. Most people are involved in "sport" karate nowadays, it would seem. But even those who practice more traditional karate--or what they imagine to be more traditional--are probably not practicing kata and bunkai the way that it was originally intended. We live in a different world. The landscape has changed.

Tradition suggests that
this technique from
Sanseiru is used to
block and grab a kick,
but it makes much
more sense  as
an arm bar.
Can we say we are practicing traditional karate if we are not practicing the same way that earlier karate (or "te") was practiced? Is our approach "traditional" if much of what we're training is based on Gekisai kata or other training subjects instead of the core classical kata? I'm not sure I even know what the term "traditional" even refers to anymore, since it seems to be applied in so many different ways.

I'm a pretty strong advocate for the notion that there is one originally intended way to interpret kata and that the original bunkai is discoverable through the application of certain martial principles--that is, the techniques of kata are not open to multiple interpretations, however creative they may be. It can't mean anything and everything. Now I know this is controversial (though why that should be controversial is beyond me)--and I've certainly been through these arguments enough--but I found it rather curious when an editor of martial arts books asked me how I imagined the art (karate) was going to "progress" given my position. That is, he asked, how was Goju-ryu going to grow and change if there was only one way to understand the classical kata? In other words, how was the tradition going to change--and here one should understand that "change" was being used as a synonym for "improve."

Am I missing something? I thought that the very notion of tradition implied that we were attempting to preserve it or, for me, to discover what it was originally, before the landscape changed and the traditions were altered. I was once accused of being an "iconoclast" because of the position I was taking--that is, challenging what passed as tradition simply because the teacher said it or the teacher
Tradition suggests
that this technique
from Seipai is used
as an arm bar, but
it works  much more
sense around
 the neck.
taught this or that application. But regardless, why should a tradition "grow" or "improve"? I think the idea of passing on a tradition like karate (Goju-ryu, in my case) is for the individual to grow within that tradition, to learn and understand the principles upon which it is based and get better at them. The individual practitioner may change, perhaps even become a better person through training, but not the art.

Whenever I get into discussions of this sort, I'm reminded of a Tae Kwon Do teacher (he did Shotokan kata) I once encountered. He had changed the back stance (kokutsu dachi) to horse stance (kiba dachi) in all of his kata because he didn't see the point of the back stance. Horse stance, he said, seemed like a more stable stance. Now, of course, the back stance in Shotokan had itself been changed from a cat stance in Shorin-ryu, I think, but change is not always for the better and certainly change based on a limited understanding (this was a young teacher) is a bit suspect. When you have altered the kata so dramatically, have you retained the same principles? Do you have the same bunkai? Can you create a new tradition?

When I'm explaining an application for some technique in kata, I often find myself showing the "traditional" (conventional may be a better term here) bunkai for a technique, and then explaining why I don't find it to be a particularly good interpretation. Perhaps it doesn't really follow kata movement or it's not realistic for any number of reasons or it requires the attacker to simply stand there with his arm out while the defender applies his technique, all the while ignoring the attacker's other hand. Should we still call this traditional karate?

Perhaps the landscape of the martial arts changed when it moved into the dojo, when teachers started to popularize a deadly martial tradition and average people started stepping onto the tatami mats. And then we put on karate uniforms or judo gi's to formalize the distinction between when we are practicing a martial art and when we are simply living our lives. We incorporate rituals and special language, all of it becoming part of training in a "traditional" dojo.

But I suspect the landscape of the martial arts has changed a good deal over time, just as the seasons alter the landscape of the forests. And as it changes, I find myself still turning to look back down the trail to see if I can see where it all began.