Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Monday, July 06, 2015

Very like a cloud...

Clouds rolling in over the tarn
on the fell. (Helvellyn)
So I was thinking about Hamlet the other day. It was in Act III, scene ii, or thereabouts. The conversation between Polonius and Hamlet. The Melancholy Dane says, quite apropos of nothing: "Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape like a camel?" The old man responds, "By the mass, and 'tis like a camel, indeed." To which Hamlet says, "Methinks it is like a weasel." Agreeably, Polonius responds, "It is backed like a weasel." Hamlet then playfully suggests, "Or like a whale," and Polonius knowingly, and famously, says, "Very like a whale." Of course, Hamlet realizes that the cloud in question cannot have all of these qualities--that Polonius is merely agreeing with the poor boy they all think is mad. They humor him for their own ends.
Beginning of Seipai
"jump" sequence.

I thought, isn't that the wonderful thing about clouds, these amorphous, evanescent conglomerations of water droplets; they can be all of these things, because in reality they are none of these things. And we know that. It's a game. We're not hallucinating. We are letting our imaginations play with the world around us. And it's perfectly okay--they're clouds.

But sometimes I think it's a lot like kata and bunkai; people begin to see whatever they want to see in it. Their imaginations run wild with interpretation. And I wonder, when did this begin? Different schools and teachers do things a bit differently in kata. Sometimes these differences are very slight and perhaps insignificant. At other times, however, the differences are pronounced and lead people to vastly different interpretations of application.

The "jump" in Seipai.
One I recently encountered was a discussion of the "jump" in Seipai kata. Some schools teach this as an actual jump--the farther, the better. But it's not a jump. The defender is merely stepping to the outside of the attacker, grabbing (that's the control technique), and unwinding or twisting in a counter-clockwise direction to throw the attacker to the east (assuming the front is north). Why is it not a jump? Because it's connected to the previous technique. Though they look similar--the previous cat stance double punch (and I say that only as a description of what it looks like, not what it actually is) and the cross-footed double punch--the kata is not showing opposite sides of the same technique. Why is it connected to the previous technique? Because the first technique is not lethal by itself, and the second technique (the "jump") doesn't show an entry technique. Combinations and sequences, that's just the way Goju kata were designed. It's a principle of understanding Goju bunkai, if you will.

Foreaarm attack to the
neck in Seiunchin, after
bringing the head down.
And there aren't any uraken (backfist) attacks either, at least not the way they are usually practiced in most dojos--not with the back of the fist or even the knuckles. Whether it's in Saifa kata or Seiunchin kata or Seipai kata or any other of the classical Goju kata, what looks like a uraken attack is really a strike with the forearm. That's why the Okinawan practice of kote-kitai (arm pounding) is so significant, because there are so many places in the Goju classical subjects where the forearm is used to attack.

Knee or thigh kick from
Seisan kata.
And while I'm on the subject of what isn't there: there aren't any back kicks in the Goju classical katas. That doesn't mean it isn't a good technique or even that one shouldn't practice it, only that it isn't a technique we find in Goju kata. Some schools and teachers will show a back kick in Seiunchin because their interpretation of these movements suggests an attack both from the rear (presumably with a bear hug) and the front. The problem is that none of these possibe attacks to the rear are lethal, not to mention the fact that they're not very realistic. Try it. Other schools show a back kick in the beginning of Seisan kata. But again, this is not correct. It is instead a knee or thigh kick to the groin done three times, as both hands are brought up (palm up) and then down as one advances. This is a close-quarters technique.

So there you have it: no jump in Seipai, no urakens in Saifa and Seiunchin, and no back kicks in Seiunchin or Seisan. But, you say, why do different schools see these things differently? I can only think that when we look up on a wonderfully balmy summer's day we see clouds, and from there it's anybody's guess.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Resurrecting the past

Hanging out with Kimo sensei.
Finally back at it...well, almost. Busy month. Five weeks out from total hip replacement surgery. Lying around. A lot of reading and rest. Of course they get you up to walk a little the next day--miracle of miracles--but still. I mean, they cut your thigh bone off and pound a titanium spike down it. No more running marathons, I guess. Slow and rather lengthy recovery...what do they say, at least three months, though more like six to feel "normal" again? Try to get in a mile or so walk a day and some exercises, but nothing all that strenuous. Still limping a bit, but at some point I should be almost like new. Can't really complain. What the hell, at least I can walk again.

I'm always amazed to discover how integrated karate movement is whenever I get injured. Now, of course, it's the realization of how the waist/hip area (koshi, if you will) is involved in everything you do in the martial arts. We all know this intellectually, but when you get injured you experience it in a very different way--different from when you work on it and use it every day you train if you're healthy. But anyway, the job now--the training for me--is to make a full and healthy recovery. Not an easy task, given how quickly strength and flexibility seems to leave you over the course of a six-month lay off.

Elbow technique from Shisochin kata.
But is it an attacking elbow or is it a
hooking elbow? Is there any similarity
between this elbow technique and the
elbow we see in Sanseiru kata?
The weird thing is that I had this odd sensation that as I slept, so did the rest of the martial world. I look back at the Goju blogs and forums and find the same old stuff, as if nothing ever changes. As if "reuse, recycle, and reduce" were a sound martial arts slogan. How many times can you watch a couple of random guys trying to come up with good bunkai for Gekisai kata? For that matter, how many times can you watch black belts practice Fukiyu or Gekisai kata? How many times can you read a forum post asking for people's opinions about which "gi" is best or which kata is their favorite? Why doesn't anyone question the necessity of the karate gi--and while they're at it, the belts and patches and titles? What does it mean to say that one has a favorite kata? Despite what some influential people have suggested, each kata is not a system of self-defense in and of itself. So we should be asking: what does it mean to practice a system composed of various kata? What relationship do those various kata have to the system as a whole? Are they thematic? Are they related to each other in any way? Could you have an incomplete system where some themes or scenarios or self-defense situations have been left out or lost?

Is this a technique from
Shisochin kata or
Suparinpei kata?
I came across one recent post trying to resurrect an old argument that a number of people seemed to have bought into seven or eight years ago; that there are two groups of Goju kata: one group that Miyagi sensei learned from Higashionna sensei (Sanchin, Sanseiru, Seisan, and Suparinpei), and another group that Miyagi sensei himself made (Saifa, Seiunchin, Shisochin, Seipai, and Kururunfa). If I remember it correctly, the original argument was based on a "cluster analysis" of the different techniques and the seeming difference between the "asymmetry" of the first group of katas and the "symmetry" of the second group. I hope this isn't an over-simplification of their argument. However, the real over-simplification is in suggesting that such a small sample can yield significant results when studied using cluster analysis, not to mention the obvious, that some similarity of technique occurs between both groups. Secondly, there are elements of asymmetry and symmetry in both groups of kata as well. My initial criticism of this study when it first came out was that any comparison of kata without a thorough understanding of bunkai was superficial at best. Many movements may appear similar but function quite differently within the structure of the kata and the application of its techniques. Conversely, many techniques may look quite different but may have essentially the same function in bunkai.

But as I say, this whole argument resurfaced. The suggestion now is that even though Miyagi sensei said he learned everything from his teacher, he actually didn't mean it. In other words, the writer argues, what Miyagi sensei said in public (tatemae) was not what he actually felt in private (honne). He goes on to suggest that there is a cultural component to this.

Forgive me, but to base a scholarly argument on the supposition that what a source said is, for all intents and purposes, the opposite of what they meant seems not just weak but the most circuitous route to a rationalization of an unfounded and unsubstantiated position that I can imagine. When you stop to think about it, it's really quite brilliant! I'm sorry, I didn't mean that.