Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

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.