Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Are there rules for deciphering kata?

I got a letter the other day from someone who seems to be a sincere and dedicated practitioner of traditional Goju-ryu. I'm quoting this not at all to attack this individual or point of view, but only to respond to the question in a bit more detail.

Here's what he said:

"...if there are universal rules to deciphering Okinawan kata (an assumption that you may not agree with), might exploring bunkai in kata sequences you are not familiar with have the potential to provide insight into deciphering applications from the forms that are in your system?"

I take this to be a rhetorical question, because the person who asked it has spent time doing just that, attempting to decipher kata through the lens of another system. Does it help? Certainly any number of things might jar us out of our comfort zone, a sort of state where the "blinders" of tradition or lineage keep us from "looking outside the box" or "coloring outside the lines." There are many karate practitioners who believe wholeheartedly in the value of cross-training. And I can't deny the potential benefits. I learned a lot about Goju-ryu by training with Sifu Liu, the Feeding Crane master. Heck, I learned a lot about Goju-ryu from training Yang style T'ai Chi. But I didn't learn anything applicable to Goju kata and/or bunkai by studying Tae Kwon Do or Shotokan karate, or watching Wado-ryu karate or Hapkido. And what I did learn from Feeding Crane and T'ai Chi Chuan was a way of moving, weight shifting, relaxation, and power generation that only peripherally helped in deciphering Goju-ryu kata and bunkai.

Stepping back to attack in
Seiunchin kata.
Actually the person who wrote to me pointed out exactly the problem; i.e., the assumption that there are universal rules to deciphering Okinawan kata, that they are the same for all styles. And he was right about how I look at this; I'm not at all sure that the assumption is true. I'm not sure Shorin or Uechi kata conform to the same rules one would use to decipher Goju kata. I'm skeptical because, for example, Toguchi sensei himself (the founder of Shorei-kan Goju-ryu) gets one of these "rules" wrong when it's applied to Goju-ryu, the system that he himself taught. In his second book, Toguchi sensei states three rules for deciphering kata bunkai. One of these "rules" (and I'm paraphrasing) is that stepping forward in kata implies an attack or offensive technique, while stepping back implies a block or defensive technique. But many of the techniques in the Goju classical kata contradict this. It would, on the face of it, seem so simple and obvious and, perhaps, logical--so much so that it would seem to be one of those "universal rules" that would cross style lines. But "rules" (though guidelines might be a better term) come from within the katas themselves; they are not superimposed from outside. That is, it all depends on the structure of the kata, to some extent. There are many ways to structure a kata--repeating techniques on both sides or doing single techniques, only tacking the ending techniques of a sequence onto the last technique, etc. I've mentioned many of these structures in earlier posts. But all katas, even within the Goju-ryu "system," are not structured the same. It's quite doubtful that a single individual put the katas together--they're too dissimilar in structure. For example, some begin with three disconnected techniques, like Shisochin and Seisan, and some don't, like Seipai or Kururunfa. So if the keys or guidelines to deciphering kata really depend on understanding the structures of the different katas, and the structures differ even within a single system like Goju-ryu, then how can a random sampling of techniques from another system altogether help one in "deciphering applications from the forms that are in your [own] system"? The answer for me is that in most cases they can't, unless on the off chance they suggest a different way of looking, a different perspective if you will. And similarly, someone from outside a particular system would have an equally difficult time adequately explaining the techniques of a system that they were unfamiliar with, regardless of whether the techniques looked familiar since the structures would certainly be different.

But supposing, for the sake of argument, that there were "universal rules to deciphering Okinawan kata." Are they written down somewhere for all karate-ka to read? Maybe only senior practitioners or teachers all know them. Except if that's the case, going back to an earlier point, how could Toguchi sensei get one of them wrong or at least proffer a rule that is not universally born out in the Goju classical kata? What kind of "rule" is that? At least you can't call it a universal rule. And if there are universal rules, then why doesn't everyone's bunkai look the same? And if Toguchi sensei meant that these rules apply most of the time and we are only nit-picking a few isolated instances, then why would he have created the two-person sets for the Gekisai kata that contradict so many of the principles of movement and rules for deciphering kata shown in the classical subjects of Goju-ryu (There's a distinction here, of course, between "rules" or principles of movement--like keeping the elbow down and using koshi--and "rules" or principles of deciphering kata in order to discover bunkai.)

Shakespeare's garden.
Rules, rules, rules. There are rules, but they have to be discovered, because they grow organically from within; they can't really be imposed from the outside, and that's what so many people seem to do when they analyze kata. Did anyone ever know the rules? (There's the 64,000 dollar question!) Is there a cultural aspect to the practice of karate that somehow gets in the way? (I often wonder.) Think of the difference between an English garden and a Japanese garden. Walk through an English garden, one from the Elizabethan era perhaps, and you'll see a wonderfully disordered array of flowers and herbs and bushes in no recognizable pattern, lacking symmetry, and seeming to have all of the cacophonous ebullience that one would find in nature itself. Take a stroll through a Japanese garden, on the other hand, and everything is so beautiful and orderly. If you look closely enough, only then do you notice the wires wrapped carefully around a branch to make it bend in a way that will be pleasing to the human eye. Branches are clipped, weeds are plucked, and buds are snipped off. Then there's ikebana. And chado, the tea ceremony. The beauty of form itself. The question is, when considering kata and bunkai: Has the content been somehow sacrificed in order to serve the form? What influence does culture have on how we look at things?

Whether this is an apt analogy or not, one should bear in mind that any true analysis of kata techniques should begin with an understanding of the structure of the kata--how the techniques go together in this particular kata--not a piece-meal explanation of what each technique appears to be doing. You can't do this if you don't know the kata or the system. This slicing and dicing of techniques--what so many people do when they attempt to practice bunkai--is like eating up the individual ingredients off the chopping block before the chef gets a chance to mix them all together into a wonderfully savory feast! You're eating all the same things, and yet it's not the same.

Poached eggs anyone?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Ya can't get they-ahh from hee-yahhh

Goju-ryu posture very similar to the
opening posture in one of the first two
Pinan kata. In the Shotokan Heian
version, the stance is much longer
and much less mobile.

I came across an interesting post the other day on an Internet forum. It was by a guy who was a bit disillusioned but still searching for meaning in his kata--kata that he had been practicing for more than twenty years, I think. He was asking all the right questions, it seems to me: what message was contained in the repetition of techniques in kata? Are there patterns or sequences of techniques, and if so what do they signify? Are there themes that certain kata focus on? The problem was that he practiced Shotokan karate--a style, it seems to me, that is so far removed from its Okinawan origins as to make it nearly impossible to determine the original intent (or original bunkai) of any of the movements that make up the kata.

The stances of Shotokan
are generally wider and longer
than their Shorin antecedents.
After doing a little foraging on the Internet, I found that this searching into the meaning of Shotokan kata is not really new at all. Apparently certain Shotokan practitioners have been bucking the system for years--I'm only hinting at the chilling effects powerful international organizations may have on individual initiative and any questioning of the official line--practitioners like Bryce Fleming, Elmar Schmeisser, Bill Burgar, and John Vengel. Fleming even cites some of my own thoughts on kata analysis in a nicely written article titled "Bunkai: Returning Kata to the core of Karate," though I'm not sure he understood what I was trying to say in every case, which may very well be my own fault, as I'm not sure any of my ideas are applicable to any other art than Goju-ryu. But it is interesting to me that there is an attempt to place kata and the study of kata applications back in the forefront of popular karate study, and Shotokan may very well be the most popular karate style in the world. The problem is, how do you reconstruct the original intent (bunkai) of a kata after the kata has been changed? It's like trying to figure out what Shakespeare was saying in Macbeth after only watching the episode of The Simpsons that referenced it, or as someone once put it, reconstructing the original hits when all you have are the Weird Al Yankovic versions. Well, maybe not quite that bad, but still.

Of course, not all of the movements have been altered, but if one movement in a sequence is altered enough, it will alter how one may interpret the rest of the sequence. Correct me if I'm wrong, since I'm certainly no authority on Shorin-ryu, but if you change a neko-ashi-dachi (cat stance) to a kokutsu dachi (back stance), as Shotokan does with its Heian versions of the Pinan series, it seems to me that you will be hard pressed to "see" the kick (whether a kick with the knee or the foot) in the sequence. And once you change the cat stance to a back stance, the upper body and arms are also re-oriented in relation to the possible attacker, so they may further alter how one interprets the techniques. One could certainly argue, as many do, that there's no guarantee that even any school of Okinawan karate--Goju, Uechi, or Shorin--has preserved the original way that any particular kata was performed; they've all undergone change (though that's just an assumption in itself and with no more certitude really than to argue that nothing has changed). But that still doesn't mean that all changes are equal--that the bunkai you find in Shotokan is as valid as the bunkai you find in Shorin kata.
All of this, of course, begs the question: Are all versions of kata equally valid? Is the Shotokan version of a kata (and by implication the bunkai) as valid as the Shorin version of the same kata? Is the Isshinryu version of a kata as valid as the Goju version of the same kata? What about more minor differences we find in Meibukan or Shodokan or Jundokan or Shoreikan versions of the same kata? Is it all equally valid because you can, with varying degrees of effort and imaginative interpretation, manage to make a bunkai that fits the kata movements? It won't be the same bunkai necessarily, but so what?! You got a problem with that?

Well, yes. I actually think these are troubling questions, though I know they don't seem to bother the vast majority of karate practitioners out there. Explaining kata movement, or at least the debate over it, is as popular among Shotokan practitioners as it is among the practitioners of the various Okinawan styles apparently, at least after you tire of the tournaments and such. And it would seem that the majority of people who practice karate are pretty satisfied with what they're getting. Otherwise, I can only hope, there would be more people out there pointing fingers and declaring that "the emperor has no clothes," because it's fairly obvious that a lot of the bunkai out there is crap.  The problem is that even though you may have a bunkai to explain a technique that has been altered--as the example of the change in neko-ashi-dachi above--in altering the kata, you have not only altered the bunkai, but you more than likely have altered the themes the kata is exploring and probably the principles of the system as well.

And it can get even more problematic than that. Fleming, citing Harry Cook, writes that "Gusukuma, an original student of Ankoh Itosu," (one of the early Shorin masters) said that "Itosu didn't know all the applications and felt that some of the movements [of kata] were just for show" (Fleming). If Itosu didn't know the applications for all of the moves in the classical kata of Shorin-ryu, how did he go about creating the Pinan series of kata? If you don't know what all of the applications are then how do you know which techniques to use in the Pinan series and which to leave out? Are you taking isolated techniques out, techniques that are actually part of sequences? What themes and principles are you going to use as the basis of these new kata if you're not sure of the applications in the first place? If the embusen (pattern) of the original kata don't carry any message that might demonstrate tai sabaki (off-line movement) because the applications are not fully understood, for instance, what message, if
any, will students be able to extract from the "H" or "I" pattern of the Pinan kata? And when you don't understand something, the very human tendency to change it to something you do understand--or create something you do understand--often steps in and takes over. Not to throw all of Shorin-ryu out with the bath water, but the Pinan series forms a large part of the curriculum in Shorin as well as Shotokan schools, so if you are learning to decipher kata through an analysis of the Pinan kata, you see the problem.

I read stuff over and over again from Shotokan practitioners who say that kata has no purpose other than as a performance art, that it's pointless to even look for meaning in kata. And no wonder, given its history. Certainly it's worth trying to find meaning in kata, but if you're practicing an art that is so far removed from its origins, it's going to be a hard slog at best. If you ask me, which of course you didn't, and me being from New England, I'd have to say, "Ya can't get they-ahh from hee-yahhh."