Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Hey, watch out, your hubris is showing!

I'm getting so tired of looking at bunkai on YouTube and not being able to recognize what kata the techniques come from. I mean, how's that bunkai?! Isn't bunkai supposed to be the application of the moves of the kata? I was watching one the other day where this very senior Okinawan teacher was blocking the student's punch--very fast and powerful with good body mechanics and all--but it wasn't any recognizable technique from any of the Goju classical subjects. So I'm not really sure what's going on here.

Opening move of Saifa kata
Then I found another bunkai of the opening moves of Saifa kata. The bunkai wasn't particularly bad; in fact, in many respects it was a perfectly adequate bunkai. The funny thing about it was this disclaimer at the beginning of the video:

"Saifa is not a kata my group practises, but today (22nd of November 2014) I took the sequence to the dojo and we spent 10 minutes at the end of the class collectively exploring the possible uses for the motion."

In fact, it is difficult to find any information about what style it is that this group practices, though I suspect it's Shorin-ryu. And the analysis (bunkai) came not from years of practice in the system of Goju-ryu, but from spending "10 minutes at the end of the class collectively" figuring it out. Oh, that and posting a request for video footage from blog readers who might have their own takes on the bunkai of Saifa. And submissions came from people who practiced Goju, Aikido, Tae Kwon Do, Krav Maga, Shotokan, etc. In fact, someone had even re-posted my own video of Saifa bunkai, and without my permission!!!

End of the opening sequence of Saifa
Is there something wrong with this picture or am I just too Old School and ornery? I mean, why study kata or bunkai that is not a part of the martial system that you practice? Matayoshi sensei used to call these people "stealy boys." What good is it to take a kata or a bunkai without the rest of the system--without seeing how it fits in, without the themes and principles that go along with it? It's like playing at karate.

You practice a variety of kata and the bunkai of a system so that you can understand, both with the mind and the body, the principles of movement that the system is trying to teach. It is the principles of movement that you use and draw from in the instant that you may need your martial art for self defense. It's unrealistic to suppose that in that instant you will be able to call up one particular bunkai from a vast collection of unrelated techniques that you have amassed from watching YouTube videos or attending seminars. And yet year after year, people attend seminars with teachers that bring them new and creative bunkai from kata that their group doesn't practice. Or they practice "systems" that aren't really systems at all, just amalgams of whatever works that some self-professed expert put together.

In all fairness, these bunkai are not necessarily any worse than half the stuff that purports to be from authentic sources, but I can't help thinking that something's missing. And some might argue that this is a fantastic resource, putting up videos of various people's interpretation of the opening moves of Saifa kata. But is this really what martial arts training has come to? Can you really learn a martial art this way? Or is it just another way for some people to create a following and make a dollar? It just strikes me as the height of arrogance: I don't know this kata, but I'll tell you what it means. And on top of that, I'll take a video of myself doing it and post it on YouTube. The ancient Greeks would have called it hubris. You would have been set adrift on the open sea for 10 years, unable to get home. Or maybe you'd have to poke your eyes out or something.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

In the shadow of the teacher

The shrine in the Barn Dojo.
I was watching an interesting video the other day, though perhaps interesting isn't the right word for it. In it, a very senior karate-ka sat in seiza at the feet of the teacher, An'ichi Miyagi, who sat above him in a folding chair. The student was interviewing him ostensibly about training in the old days under Miyagi Chojun sensei and who knew what katas and who taught whom what kata, but what really came through the interview was a sort of unabashed self promotion and a less disguised bashing of Morio Higaonna. It reminded me of a game we used to play as kids. It was a variation of the traditional game of tag, I suppose, because you "tagged" the other person by stepping on his or her shadow. It's actually kind of interesting in that it adds another dimension to the game. You have to not only make sure you avoid all of the other players, but in turning and dodging and weaving in and out of obstacles, you have to be aware of your shadow as well. And your shadow moves as you move; that is, sometimes it's behind you, sometimes it's alongside of you, and sometimes it runs off in front of you.

I'm not exactly sure why I thought of all this, except that I know it had to do with shadows in a metaphorical way. So often, it seems to me, students want to sit in some teacher's shadow, and in doing so, they want to make sure that their teacher's shadow is bigger than someone else's shadow. I suppose this is the whole lineage question. But why do students think that they can bask in anyone else's glory, by association, simply standing in someone's shadow? The extent of one's knowledge or understanding of karate can only be measured on the dojo floor. It's something personal. I'm reminded of Plato's Cave. What if the shadow you're standing in (and it might even be the shadow of "the world's greatest karate master") isn't the real thing?

With Choboku Takamine and
Seikichi Higa senseis.
This video was sort of funny and sort of sad at times, and I found myself wondering what point there was in putting it on the Internet. "Who taught Miyazato" or "Who taught Morio Higaonna"  this kata or that kata, the interviewer asked over and over again. "I teach," An'ichi Miyagi would answer. So-and-so didn't know that kata, he would add, or so-and-so had no "understanding" of that kata. I think the point that the viewer was supposed to take away was that the student, kneeling at the foot of the master, had found the source. He was legitimizing himself by proximity to the real source. Everyone else was not the real thing.

We have guilt by association, so I suppose we also have its opposite, something like legitimacy by association. But then again, neither one is really true, is it? And I am making no judgment here on what An'ichi Miyagi knows or what Eiichi Miyazato knows or what Morio Higaonna knows. Personally, and this is probably obvious to anyone who has read any of my ramblings, I'm not a fan of any of their ideas on bunkai or understanding of Goju-ryu. In my experience of training in Okinawan dojos, they teach hojo undo, junbi undo, kihon, kata, and various forms of kiso kumite and yakusoku kumite. Very little bunkai of classical kata is taught--though this seems to be changing in recent years--and if you don't teach the bunkai to the classical kata, it is very difficult to practice the principles upon which Goju-ryu is based. My teacher once said to me, "Don't follow me. Follow Goju." The teacher points the way. But it is each individual's journey. The only things that lurk in the shadows are paper dragons.