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.


  1. Amazing thought!! Ossu!!

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