Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Thursday, May 07, 2015

What's wrong with Sanseiru?

The kick-elbow-down punch combination
occurs only on one side in Sanseiru. But
you can always take techniques out of
kata to practice the other side.
   Recently I decided it was time to make some changes. I realize I'm a bit late. After all, it's already the beginning of May and most people have long since made and abandoned their New Year's resolutions. Most people have moved on to newer and better things by now. Smart phones, smart televisions, smart watches. I'm going to wait a bit 'til they come out with a smart hat--one that can think for me and keep my head warm in the winter and dry in the rain.
   So anyway, I was thinking about what sorts of improvements I could make around the house and I noticed the old crab apple tree was looking a little unbalanced. I mean it would probably do better to cut the thing down as it's home to more ants than birds, but I'm attached to it. The problem is that when you look at it straight on, the left side doesn't match the right side--it's asymmetrical--so I'm thinking of taking the chain saw to it. 
   Of course there might be more pressing problems. I was cleaning up the yard the other day, putting things away, and I noticed my son's football lying around. Now I don't know too much about football, but what's with the whole oval shape? A ball's supposed to be round. It's supposed to roll. So I started to think that might be a good project--make a round football. I mean people are improving things all the time--that's just what we do. My son showed me a cool invention the other day: an umbrella that used jets of air instead of a cloth canopy to keep the rain off. It looked like a big microphone or flashlight, but the battery that operated it--and I have no idea whether it was strong enough to work in a real downpour--the battery charge only lasted thirty minutes. And what happens to those poor souls walking next to you that get sprayed with the water getting blown sideways by these jets of air from your clothless umbrella? On second thought, maybe that proves the old adage: just because you can do something, it doesn't mean you should.
This technique illustrates one of the
differences between the Shodokan
(Higa) version of the kata and the
Meibukan/Jundokan versions.
   Anyway, I paused in my ruminations and resolutions to sit down and get caught up on some blog posts and forum discussions. I came across one where the teacher had decided that the Goju kata Sanseiru was puzzling because it was so
unbalanced or asymmetrical. Of course, all of the Goju-ryu classical subjects are unbalanced and asymmetrical to some extent, so I wondered why Sanseiru particularly bothered him. But at any rate, he decided to "correct" the problem by putting in extra movements--doubling up single techniques--to make the kata more balanced and then post the performance on-line. To give him his due, this was just for training purposes. I'm sure he was not suggesting that the kata be permanently modified just to satisfy some human craving for balance and harmony.
   But of course the most obvious question one might ask is: why does a kata need to be balanced? A kata is not a performance piece. I think too often in modern karate practice we treat our karate--and particularly the execution of kata--as if it were a performance. But kata is, above all else, a repository of technique. It contains the principles and self-defense techniques of the system. To superimpose an artificial construct of balance on kata is...putting the cart before the horse...it's pounding a square peg into a round hole...it's analyzing kata through the distorted prism of our own petty biases...I don't know, but it ain't right.
The final technique of Sanseiru only
occurs once in the kata. The structure
implies that its mirror image could be
attached to the same preceding
techniques on the opposite side.
Is there a need to repeat it then to
satisfy our need for visual balance?
The real lesson: Know Thy Structure.
   Rather than trying to make Sanseiru a more balanced pattern, we should be asking what the three "punches" at the beginning of the kata have to do with the rest of the kata. Or why there is a repetition of three block-kick-elbow techniques in the middle of the kata. Or what relationship the open-hand techniques have to the rest of the kata, so much of it closed hand. Or how many entry techniques there are. Or how many finishing techniques. What if some of the apparently distinct sequences do not actually show an entry technique but instead begin with the controlling technique because of a unique structure to the kata? Heck, it would be better (and more instructive) to ask what significance there is to the differences in the Jundokan/Meibukan version versus the Shodokan (Higa) version of Sanseiru. These are difficult questions to answer. They take years of trial and error (bunkai) and much open-minded thought and experimentation. Perhaps that's why people look for balance, because not having the answers to these questions makes one feel a little unbalanced, a little uncomfortable. Geez, the very fact that a kata is not balanced suggests that there are combinations of techniques that go together in less than obvious ways, doesn't it?! Like, you show the controlling technique on both sides of the kata and then only tack the finishing technique on to the end of the second series. It's not about balance, it's about understanding the structure.
   Being a little uncomfortable can sometimes be a good thing, though, which is why I think I might just leave that long, scraggly, awkward and unbalanced limb on the crab apple tree...at least until the insects get the best of it or a storm comes and takes the whole thing down. On second thought, maybe I'll just cut it down 'cause all that stuff about balance in kata and trees doesn't have anything to do with karate anyway.

Friday, April 24, 2015

In an alternate universe...cont.

Entry technique and initial attack
from Seipai kata.
"Wait," I said. "Let's start all over again."
   "Okay," he said. "But let me point out one possible flaw in your beginning premise. You suggested that bunkai came before the creation of kata. But doesn't it really depend on how you look at the relationship between kata and bunkai? Under your scenario it really demands that you see kata as a collection of combinations--not just individual techniques--that shows how one deals with specific attacks by an opponent, from the beginning receiving technique (uke) to the finishing technique."
   "Yes," I said. "I would agree with that. Kata shows--really thematically--how to deal with single aggressive movements by an opponent; how you avoid and receive them, move to control the opponent so he cannot attack again, and how to end the confrontation."
Controlling technique from Seipai.
   "That makes sense, but why would they--whoever they were--put certain techniques together to create a particular kata?"
   "Well, it seems to me," I responded, "that they're part of a system organized around individual themes. I think based on an analysis of bunkai you could make a pretty convincing argument for this. But you could probably just as easily suggest that the katas were created by different people, at different times, though still part of the same system."
   "But just for the sake of argument," my friend suggested, "couldn't you look at kata not as a collection of sequences or combinations, but as individual techniques? Perhaps each technique is itself a receiving technique, in which case there are no combinations or complete bunkais shown."
   "But there are clearly some techniques that are attacks. How," I asked, "would you reconcile those? How could you look at the double 'punch' down attack in shiko-dachi in Seipai as a receiving technique or more pointedly without connecting it to the techniques that precede it?"
   "I guess you're right," my friend said, "but couldn't that technique be attached to a number of other techniques?"
Finishing technique from Seipai
along with the technique which
follows it.
   "Certainly," I said. "One of the end products of studying the combinations in kata, for me, is to see where they can connect to other combinations, sometimes within the same kata and oftentimes with techniques in other katas. That's why we can call it a system. For example, you could take the entry (uke) technique from one kata and pair it with the controlling technique of another kata and the finishing technique from yet another kata."
   "Okay," he said, "so there are an almost infinite number of ways to pair up techniques, but each individual technique should only be understood as having one interpretation, more or less. Is that right?"
   "Yes," I smiled.
   "Why don't more people see that then?" he asked, musing a bit to himself. "I suppose it's more fun to make up a whole bunch of cool applications. And then again, every teacher can be an authority or at least their own expert. And, I suppose, the prevailing opinion has something to do with it--that any technique from kata can mean anything as long as it works."
   "Well, as long as it works in the dojo," I laughed, "where logic doesn't always prevail and few are willing to suggest to the teacher that a technique or interpretation doesn't make sense."
   "So how we interpret kata and bunkai may really have a lot to do with our expectations," my friend suggested.
   "Yeah, maybe," I agreed. "In 1949 there was an experiment set up by two psychologists at Harvard to test people's perceptions when faced with a reality that contradicted their expectations. Students were shown playing cards and asked to identify them as they were flipped over. Most of the cards conformed to exactly what one would expect, but the experimenters had also slipped in cards that one wouldn't expect, like a red six of spades and a black four of hearts. When the cards were turned over quickly, the subjects simply ignored the incongruities, calling the red six of spades a six of hearts, for instance. When the cards were turned over more slowly, the subjects were just plain confused and 'completely flummoxed'" (cited in The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, p. 92).
   "So the real problem when we look at kata," he said, "may be that we tend to find what we expect to find. So what's the solution?"
   "Make sure it's logical. Make sure it's real. Make sure it conforms to sound martial principles."