Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Friday, March 28, 2014

Say what...?

Shuzan held out his short staff and said: "If you call this a short staff, you oppose its reality. If you do not call it a short staff, you ignore the fact. Now what do you wish to call this?" Mumon's comment: ...It cannot be expressed with words and it cannot be expressed without words. Now say quickly what it is. (from The Gateless Gate, by Ekai, called Mumon, in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, compiled by Paul Reps, p. 127.)
This is not uraken uchi from Saifa.

I thought of this story when I recently came across a discussion of a posture in Sanseiru kata. In this particular posture, the kata practitioner is in front stance (zenkutsu-dachi) with the right arm up, elbow jutting forward, and the open left hand in front of the chest. Wait...I think they called it something like chudan-uke/ mae-geri/ hiji-ate. I guess you have to call it something, but the problem is that once you call it something you begin to think of it only in those terms. When you name something, you tend to put things in cubby-holes. Once you name something, you limit the "experiential" identity of the thing. This is particularly true of kata techniques. What I mean is, when you refer to a technique in kata as a hiji-ate (elbow strike), then that's the way you think of it in application or bunkai. What if the name, hiji-ate, is meant merely as a descriptor? In other words, the teacher is using a short hand method of saying, "Do the technique that looks like an elbow attack."
This is not a kaiko-ken zuki from
Saifa kata.
When the T'ai Chi teacher says, "Do the technique that looks like parting the wild horse's mane," he doesn't mean the application is to part a wild horse's mane! 
Nor does he mean that you use that odd bending over technique to search for a needle at the bottom of the sea. Calling a posture a cat stance (neko-ashi-dachi) doesn't have anything to do with its application. Words are sometimes more confusing than if we didn't have the words in the first place. 

But how would you teach if you didn't have the words to describe what you were doing? That's really a rhetorical question, isn't it? Sometimes I think people in the old days used words to intentionally hide what they were doing or at least the meanings of moves in kata. Give a technique a descriptive name--a poetic name would be even better--and someone not in the know, an outsider, might pick up the kata movements but never guess their meanings, the applications. 

This is not gedan barai from
Seiunchin kata.
You don't really need any words to teach karate, I think. You only need to demonstrate--first kata and then bunkai. Words can be misleading. Is there a sokoto-geri in Sanseiru kata or is it a hiki-ashi? Or maybe a hiza-geri? Is there a kaiko-ken zuki (crab shell fist as Higaonna sensei calls it in his first book) in Saifa kata or does it just look like that and you are really grabbing the opponent at the shoulders and pulling them down? Is the name describing the application or simply what the technique looks like? How can you think of it as a pulling technique if you call it a strike? If you call it a uraken-uchi (back fist strike) in Seiunchin, does that become the explanation of the application? Will you be able to see it as a forearm strike if you call it uraken? Is it really a block just because you call it a gedan barai? What we call things
This is not a hiji-ate (elbow strike)
in Shisochin kata.
influences how we look at them; we are tied to language. But we must remember that they are just "words, words, words," as Hamlet says to Polonius. Sometimes I think that words are the biggest obstacle to people understanding bunkai--that and tradition!

1 comment:

  1. A Western version might be Korzybski's saying ''The word is not the thing.' :)