Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Footfalls in the woods and Suparinpei

I was off in the woods a few weeks ago, swatting at black flies and being careful to avoid the poison ivy and the long blades of grass that reached out over the trail, affording ticks an ideal jumping off place from which to latch onto unwary travelers. It was hot--95 degrees F. (35 degrees C.), but the heat index had it at 103 degrees F. Even the birds seemed to be silenced by the heat. Most of the time, all I could hear was the quiet plodding of my own feet as I walked along a trail covered in the remains of last fall's leaves. This was certainly not the "road less travelled." I was following in the footsteps of countless numbers of other hikers who had passed this way. Sometimes I could see the evidence: an upturned rock or the imprint of a boot heel that had sunk unexpectedly in the mud. The trail was wide enough that I could probably have followed it at night, which made me think of that quote by Miyagi Chojun sensei. Not that Miyagi sensei had said it in any of his own writings, but it appears in Memories of My Sensei, Chojun Miyagi, where Miyagi supposedly tells Nakaima that “Studying karate nowadays is like walking in the dark without a lantern.” Of course, nowadays we have battery-powered headlamps, though I doubt if it makes much difference in our understanding of karate.

And yet the trail is wide enough. We would be hard pressed to lose sight of the path--so many karate-ka have walked this way before. What gives me pause, however, are the contradictions in the metaphor: generations of karate-ka practicing diligently, trudging along this well-worn path in the dark.

I was watching a video the other day. It was originally posted a year ago, but, after taking a seminar, someone had reposted it on Facebook. It had to do with the bunkai to the last technique in Suparinpei, the last kata of Goju-ryu and, at least in some symbolic way, the ultimate technique of the system. And, to many, I suppose, it must seem so esoterically enigmatic. 

This was a short video but it was by a very well-known karate researcher--a teacher who has written many books on the history of Okinawan karate, and so must have carried with it some weight of legitimacy, some knowledge of "Okinawan karate secrets."

The starting position had the teacher with his back to the attacker, who had grabbed him by the shoulders with both hands. From there, he showed the response of the defender, which began with a slight shifting rotation of the body to the right which, the teacher said, would provoke a stiff right arm response from the attacker. At this point, he lunges forward and, looking back at the attacker, does "the distraction," a slapping technique with the back of the left hand aimed at the attacker's groin. At the same time, he head butts the attacker and then slides his head between the attacker's arms--who, in the meantime, has not altered his position or grip on the defender's shoulders--and, with his head now coming up on the outside of the attacker's arms, he brings his left forearm down "hard" on the "brachioradialis" before the opponent even "thinks about a choke." Next he attacks with a right nukite into the opponent's throat. At the same time, he wraps his left arm around the attacker's right arm at the elbow, as his right arm grabs hold of the attacker's lapel. Then, dropping down into horse stance, he tightens the restrictions on the opponent's right arm/shoulder and, with the right wrist, the attacker's neck, until the attacker submits.
Entry technique.

So what's wrong with that? It works in the dojo. And it's wonderfully imaginative. But does it look like kata? I mean, doesn't kata face south and then turn to the north? Does it take too long? It certainly takes too long to describe. Is it realistic? That is, why would you ever think of sliding your head between the attacker's arms? Does this sort of bobbing movement occur in the performance of the kata? Why doesn't the attacker move or alter his position? Does it require the attacker, an unpredictable component of the equation, to conform too readily to the defender's expectations; that is, does the attacker have to behave too predictably? Does it fail to take into account the entry and controlling techniques that precede these movements in kata? Or is this just one possible explanation for these techniques in Suparinpei? And if it's just one of many possible explanations for these techniques, is that simply a confirmation that we are indeed still stumbling along the road "in the dark without a lantern?" 

Controlling technique.
Or is it more likely that this ending sequence to Suparinpei borrows both from Seisan and Sanseiru, and that the explanation of the techniques, the analysis or bunkai, simply shows a variation of how the same techniques are applied in each of those other kata? The entry techniques are shown over and over again in the three complete bunkai sequences of Seisan kata: a sweeping, semi-circular right arm block, while stepping 90 degrees off-line into a left-foot-forward front stance, followed by a left straight-arm palm strike to the side of the face. We see the same entry technique here in Suparinpei. The straight-arm "nukite" in Suparinpei is akin to the straight punch at the end of Seisan kata. Then the turn into what is called here the "dog posture," the last posture of Suparinpei, in horse stance with arms bent and both wrists up and fingers pointing down, shows a variation of the same position at the end of Sanseiru, though the stepping is a little different.
Finishing technique.

In one sense at least, I wonder about the realism of techniques that look as if they would only work in the dojo with a compliant partner, the fanciful creations of individuals whose interpretations don't seem to be grounded in sound martial principles. Such inventions--because we are all supposedly "walking in the dark without a lantern"--confuse legitimacy with creativity; we look at these interpretations with a mixture of confusion and awe, and think, "Gee, I never thought of that." But are all creative interpretations equally valid? Is that the point of kata, to foster creativity? I am certainly not trying to denigrate any of these instructors, nor disparage their interpretations, if that's what kata is. But it seems to me that even if we consider it "art," we don't have license to interpret it any way we want. The idea, it seems to me, is not to impose meaning on what seems to be random and arbitrary, but to discover what the artist--in this case the creator of a kata--is trying to communicate.

Even theory in science, for example, is not simply invention; it's based on an understanding of the underlying principles. Have we forgotten what we learned of the scientific method in middle school? We seem to be living in an age where science has been shouldered aside, where skepticism seems to be leveled at scientific inquiry and tabloid journalism has become the norm. Perhaps that's part of the problem. Who are we following on this proverbial path through the woods? Or is everyone simply striking out on their own? Seems as though there should be some sign posts along the way--the martial principles that all too often seem to be ignored. Is this why we are all still stumbling along without lanterns to light the way?




Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Does nobody ask why?

It was early Spring and the woods were wet. It had rained pretty steadily for two days. And before that it had been cloudy and drizzling more often than not. The path along the swamp was flooded over and every dip in the trail was damp from slowly drying puddles of standing water. But plants were starting to sprout. In places, ferns and broad-leaf marsh plants hid the rocks and threatened to obscure the trail. Small, delicate looking wild flowers sprang up in places where the sun managed to get through the canopy of new leaves overhead. It reminded me of that part in Robert Fulghum's book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, where he says: "Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup. The roots go down and the plant goes up, and nobody really knows how or why...."

But then I thought, really? Really nobody knows how or why plants send their roots down into the

soil and the plant slowly pushes up through the forest floor? Really? Maybe Fulghum was not looking for a scientific explanation. Maybe it was a sort of rhetorical question--even though it seemed to be a statement--some sort of ontological inquiry and the little plants were only meant to be stand-ins. Inquiring minds want to know.
The slow "punch" from the beginning
of Sanseiru kata.

I thought of this because I was watching a video the other day on the Goju Ryu kata Sanseiru and its bunkai, or at least what was purported to be bunkai. I always thought that bunkai was "the analysis of kata" and therefore had to follow the movements and techniques of the kata. So you can't change the kata movements, it seems to me, when you're trying to explain how they are used. And yet, here was a well-respected teacher of Okinawa Goju-ryu demonstrating his "bunkai" or explanation of the three slow punches at the beginning of the kata, only in his application the punches were not slow at all but fast chudan punches to the opponent's ribs. And the open hand technique that follows the third punch was used to check the opponent's chambered punch--blocking the opponent's chambered fist with the extended palm before he even thinks of punching! And this was followed by a fast punch (though in kata there is no punch of any kind after this open hand!).

Does no one ever ask why the punches at the beginning of Sanseiru are done slowly and the punches at the beginning of Seisan are fast? If the techniques are done differently in kata--slow in Sanseiru and fast in Seisan--shouldn't the explanation of their application be different as well? Is it possible that the "punches" in Sanseiru are not meant to be punches at all? (And while we're at it, what about the double-arm posture? Is this a hold over from the days of the Marquis de Queensbury or is there a message here?) Sometimes I feel like I'm in Bizarro World waiting for Superman to come straighten everything out.

The first technique in Seiunchin kata.
Years ago now, I came across an explanation (read "bunkai") of the first technique in Seiunchin where the defender was stepping back, using both hands to release the attacker's choke hold. The teacher explained that the kata steps forward on a more-or-less 45-degree angle but in application one is meant to step back. I found this particularly confusing. Does that mean that the kata is showing everything in reverse, opposite to what the defender is supposed to do in application?! Rather than searching for some ridiculous rationalization for an interpretation, shouldn't we be questioning the interpretation? Instead of trying to justify things that don't make a whole lot of sense in the first place, shouldn't we simply follow the kata and, in the case of Seiunchin for example, ask what could be happening if the kata is telling us to step forward along a 45-degree angle? (Obviously not a release from a chokehold!)


There is a lot of mystery in the world. There are also things that we just plain don't know yet. But there's also a lot that we can figure out. A good deal of it is just plain logical. After all, the roots go down and the plant grows up...and the wheels on the bus go round and round. Just follow the kata.