Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Friday, August 28, 2015

Give a man a fish...

The other day I was reading one of the few blogs that I find interesting on the Internet--very opinionated, but honest, obviously heartfelt, and written by a karate practitioner who trains seriously, with little interest in self-aggrandizement. I may not do it justice by trying to summarize the intent of the blog post--I'm sure I can't--but to me it bemoaned one of the seeming shortfalls in a society where everything seems to be at our finger tips, particularly information, that in turn has led to a culture of expectation and entitlement, and how this has all spilled over into the dojo, affecting how we learn karate and more importantly how we expect to be taught karate. In a word, according to this blog post, students of karate today expect their teachers to regularly "feed" them.

I think there's a lot to this. And yet it reminds me of something one of my senior students once said, jokingly, in response to a question she was asked by a junior student: "If you have to ask, you're not ready to learn." I say jokingly, because one might argue that this is precisely the moment when someone is ready to learn--when they are asking the right questions. When I'm teaching kata, I will frequently ask students if they have any questions. More often than not, they will say, "No, just have to do it more." To me, that's probably a very honest response; they don't know enough to know what questions to ask. Once the questioning starts, however, it seems to me that it's my job to "point the way." It's my job to at least explain the principles, to explain why one is being asked to move in a particular way, why one way is better than another way.

Mike Clarke sensei goes on to relate a wonderful little story that Miyazato sensei told him about two fighting birds he once owned. You can read the story for yourself--It's titled "Post 500..."--here: shinseidokandojo.blogspot.com/  You might also find it instructive to poke around in the archives of this blog a bit while you're there. Anyway, Miyazato sensei then makes the analogy to karate training, saying to the author, "If I give answer, you go home and forget; better you learn for yourself through training." Tough love.

But I wondered, as I read that: Are students likely to find the answers? Is that why the Internet is filled with so many outlandishly ridiculous and unrealistic examples of "bunkai"? Are all these people teaching themselves? What is the role of the teacher? Is Miyazato sensei implying that anyone can find the answers with enough training or that each individual's answers, though different, are all correct? Why do we have teachers if the extent of their instruction is to suggest that we find our own answers? Isn't the teacher there, in some sense, to shorten the journey, to share what they have discovered so that the student will surpass the teacher at some point? What would happen if I turned on my GPS and asked Siri for directions and she told me, "I'm sorry, but if I told you how to get there, you'd soon forget, you'd never learn how to read a map. Better to figure it out for yourself"?

Perhaps I'm overstating the case, finding fault where there is none just to make my own point. I'm sure the analogy is not meant to suggest that Miyazato sensei didn't teach or try to "point the way." But so often, I think, there is an implicit paradigm associated with learning in the karate dojo that suggests that one is not training hard enough if one has to ask questions. Do the kata 10,000 times and then you will understand, Grasshopper. Or, don't ask any questions until you have done the kata 10,000 times. But what's to prevent the charlatan from using this clever sort of cover for his own ignorance? A teacher is there to teach--to at least point the way--to explain the principles. If they don't know something, perhaps it's better to just say, "I don't know." If I give a man a fish, I may just whet his appetite for more. He may ask me how I got that fish, and I'll have to show him how you go about catching fish. He may end up being a better fisherman than me, but when asked, he'll say that I once gave him a fish and taught him how to fish.

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.