Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

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.


  1. Don't forget thato most of these teachers need this change to sell what they are doing. I always put the example of boxing that doesn't change the guard because they have few combinations that practice to make them better and a change of guard is a waste of time. The street situations are variations of few themes so keep doing the same bunkai to try to do it right in an stress situation is the right thing to do

  2. And then it snows again!