Saturday, August 30, 2008

But is it Bunkai?

There was a time when I was a beginner karate was simple, it was whatever my instructors taught me it was. My instructors taught me the same way they were trained on Okinawa.

My early years studying Isshinryu there were no application studies for kata technique. Kata was practiced hard and exact, but not applied. The focus of our karate was in kumite, and the two studies together were good, very good. However in a few short years I was on my own, my study was in my hands.

I began to see articles in the magazines on 'Bunkai' and observed how the Okinawa instructors demonstrated how kata technique could be applied. This was not just not part of my training, in almost all of the various schools I visited it was not part of their training either.

It was very hard to know what Bunkai actually was because I didn't train with the schools using it.

Then I started studying Yang Tai Chi Chaun with Ernest Rothrock, because I had long been interested in tai chi. But as I also was competing and judging in open karate tournaments I began a study of forms from various Northern Chinese systems Rothrock Laoshi had studied to become more knowledgable. These studies continued for years, but as it was only to gain understanding of Chinese systems to judge more accurately, I never pursued the deeper studies.

Ernest did start to guide my martial thinking, he'd pose open ended questions about what something was used for, or why karate techniques were done certain ways and I began to formulate my own understanding how technique study could be done.

At almost the same time I had started competing against Tristan Sutrisno and eventually visited his school and began training in his family practice of Shotokan, Siliat Tjimande, Aikido and Kobudo. Outside of his explosive technique execution, his incredible flow control of his technique and opponents I finally came head to head with bunkai, as he shared his family bunkai studies to his studies.

Tristan's father had studied Shotokan and Aikido in Japan, he had studied the Indonesian arts with his family, and I would suggest these arts became intertwined over the years. He would patiently teach 'bunkai' but in a very different way from how others approached the term.

The public explanation of bunkai was a movement had a use (or multiple uses) when it was applied to an attack.

Bunkai from the Sutrisno perspective was very different, in large part it capture an idea expressed by Demura Fumio in the 70's of Kakushite (or hidden hand) from his Shito ryu background. Demura demonstrated kakushite as an extra technique or two inserted into a kata movement, a surprise for one thinking your defense was studying the kata.

In the case of Sutrisno bunkai this similar but very different. I can only express it as I observed a small part of his sytstem over the years. Essentially each kata had many starting movement points (for the study of his bunkai kata became a menomenic device) and a different string of techniques (applications) came from each point. Essentially the bunkai had little to do with the kata, relegating kata to a very important role, that of movement education.

The Sutrisno bunkai then compounded that for each of the five levels of black belt, there was an entirely different bunkai for the kata, leaving I have no idea how many techinques. These were supported by other training devices, such as incredibly long two person drills using kata technique in a dynamic manner. Nor was it just in his Shotokan study but also in his Siliat Tjimande. Each of his main arts is separate, yet they each intertwined the same time. I've also kept from adding the skills imparted from his koboudo teachings, forms, application studies and two perso drills. Yet another inter-related discipline.

Then all you have to add is unreal explosive movement to great technique and you have a lifetime of study.

The study with Rothrock Laoshi and Sutrisno Sensei were inter-twined over those years. In time I came to understand the depth of the the Ying Jow Pai (Eagle Claw) studies Ernest was concentrating in and in a very different dimension the same patterns emerged. Form studies, very intense complex two person drills, the intertwining of empty hand and weapons, especially leading to how to use the art to set up the opponent for the locking finish.

Both arts touching everything, pressure points, their use in grabbing, in striking, in making an opponent throw themselves away after attacking.

The entire experience helped me frame how I would study my art as I developed my opening structural rules from the pain, the experiences and through observation and sharing.

First if somebody has it they work it. If they have thousands of application studies your training with them will involved thousands of application studies. You won't spend time trying to figure out how to use something, you'll be shown and instead spend your time building skill and then move on to the next step, how to find the strategy and tactics to make those skills of use.

Second a technique application study can be broken into steps that most time follow a specific order. I state them this way:
1. You open into an attack by moving with a block/parry/strike,
2. This is followed by a grab/break/strike
3. This is followed by a projection, throw, leveraged downing of the opponent
4. When tactically opportune this can be followed with a control

It is just a general rule, not meant to be totally inclusive, but a tool to apply kata study against, as I was to define my own kata study.

This was my opening study, with much more to follow later.

I never mastered any of their arts, but I have continued to follow their path on what I studied for decades now, and perhaps I have some understanding of a piece or two.

But the journey will continue.....

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Book Larnin'

I think there is something inside us that wants to capture reality and hold it in our hands.

In the mid 60’s I became aware of Bruce Tegner’s book on karate, and then karate publications such as Black Belt also developed an awareness of karate’s potential. I even had a book on tai chi that I was trying to figure out before I began my Isshinryu studies in Salisbury, Md.

But there has been very, very little that was ever written that really made any difference in my training. The transmission of karate really only takes place on the floor.

At a few early tournaments I found Steve Armstrong’s books on Isshinryu kata, which never really added a dimension to my own studies, but buying them I became hooked. For decades if I found a magazine or a book I bought them trying to see what I could learn. I’ve probably acquired 600 books and thousands of karate magazines over the years.
A few years ago I gave away and trashed all of the magazines, only keeping a handful of articles (on Isshinryu or on various kata from 1970’s publications). They no longer added depth to my art. To this day it takes an exceptional issue to pike my interest, maybe two times a year.

The books are a more complex matter. I’ve given a solid collection to the Boys and Girls Club if any young people are interested in reading about the arts. I have hundreds in storage in the basement till I figure out where they belong (I can’t throw them away even though they’re of little interest to me anymore).

Then I have a core collection of a few hundred volumes that surround me. Available for research into almost anything. Not that many of the old works are originals, rather reproductions and some of which are photocopies from editions I’ve borrowed to do my own French translation efforts.

The early collection:
Funakoshi Ginchin: The recent translation of ‘Karate Jutsu’
The translation of the Karate-Do Koyan
Motobu's books: Japanese reproduction and Patrick McCarthy translation
Mabuni Kenwa, translations of his 1933-1934 publications
Kobou Jizai Goshin-jutsu Karete Kempo
Seipai no Kenkyu (including the first publication of Bubishi drawings)
Mutsu Mizho’s 1933 ‘Karate Kempo’ reproduction
Nakasone Genwa’s 1938 ‘Karate Do Taiken’ reproduction

The Bubishi Collection: A selection of works published in English, Japanese and French.
The Isshinryu Collection
The Shotokan Collection:
Funakoshi’s ‘Karate-Do Kyumon’
Nakayama’s ‘Dynamic Karate’, and the compete ‘Best Karate series’
Okazaki’s ‘The Textbook of Modern Karate’
Enoda’s ‘Advanced Kata’ series
Harry Cook ‘Shotokan a Precise History’
The Mas Oyama collection including ‘Advanced Karate’
The Nagamine Shoshin Collection
The Essence of Okinawan Karate
Tales of Okinawa’s Great Masters
The Goju Ryu Collection
Hiagonna’s 4 books
The Shorinji Kempo collection
The Aikido collection
Ueshiba K. – Aikido
Usheiba M.– The Essence of Aikido
Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere
Shioda – Total Aikido
And many more
The Tai Chi collection (too many to mention)
The Ying Jow Pai collection (Eagle Claw)
The Chinese collection
BaGua chaun
Chin Na collection
Hung Gar
WuShu collection
The Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming collection (I believe almost everything)
The Charles Joseph Swift translation collection
The Patrick McCarthy translation collection
The Mario McKenna translation collection
The Judo collection
Gleason – Judo Inside Out
Draeger – Judo Formal Techniques
The reference collection
Sells Unante and Unante II
Bishop Okinawna Karate and Kobudo texts
The Korean collection
The Dim Mak collection
The Kobudo collection
Sutrisno Tristan’s ‘Becoming a Complete Martial Artist’
-- of course that’s just part of it --

The books help give a perspective of historical context, but as the years pass and new information comes to light it’s difficult to accept any of them as accurate.

More accurately they are reflections of what the author felt was accurate. That is useful but it’s difficult to any work as the truth.

The core problem of contemporary martial literature is most authors copy from earlier works, without vetting if that information is correct.

A simple answer is the idea that a choke to the neck cuts off the blood to the brain, causing unconsciousness to follow in a short period of time. It’s repeated continually, but if you talk to a surgeon you discover that the choke to the neck is actually stimulating the carotid sinus, and the sinuses are in the body to regulate the bodies blood pressure. The choke across the carotid sinus is interpreted as a spike to blood pressure and in turn the heart stops beating to reduce the pressure, and this is what causes the black out. Surgeon’s use this to stop the heart during some surgical procedures. If the Carotid sinus is pinched off the black out does not occur, for the secondary blood vessels carry enough blood flow to keep the brain active. Often during neck surgery the carotid artery is shut down but the patient is kept aware and talking. [BTW do not take my description as an accurate medical one, I’m totally incompetent to discuss medical matters, my surgeon as made that very clear to me.]

This information is available, but if it’s written in a book it must be accurate so it keeps being repeated.

Likewise stories about history, which have not been vetted by historians are taken as historical truth, especially about an art that was based on more physical transmission instead of verbal transmission, and at that was mostly non-literate, unwritten.

The truth of the dojo floor is things are continually evolving in training a student. As time passes and their efforts increase their abilities, the training must evolve to take advantage of that training. A book might show stance and moves of a kata, but it cannot ever capture what really is involved to learn that kata the first year, the 10th years, the 20th year and so forth. The reality of training is complex and challenging.

The books give a wider perspective how someone is trying to explain aspects of their art to someone else.
The earliest books were not written for Okinawan’s but for the Japanese, and offer a glimpse at what karate was in the 1920’s and 1930’s. That’s not enough but it’s all there is for the most part.

The collection is very personal and valuable to me. I get frantic when I can’t find a volume for weeks and happy when it shows up.

Of course my most valuable collection is the one I create, the decades of notes on studies with my friends and my own research on how things work. I probably have over 25 feet of those notes at this time.
I enjoy the dojo floor best, but in the evening there is something about cracking open a book and reading and thinking. Especiall

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Shaking Tradition – Starting with Tournaments

For the instructor, there isn’t anything we should not take the time to dissect, turn inside out and question it’s use and value to our training.

Nothing that we do is really tradition of long standing. Many of today’s conventions are really recent invention, while being done for 10 or 20 years have no basis from older tradition training. A really good example might be to consider re-thinking karate competition which mostly dates from the 50’s and 60’s efforts onward.

I do think there is a value for some competitive venue at various stages in a karate-ka’s training, but I don’t see most of what has developed really helps us strengthen karate’s roots, the application of karate technique. [For discussion I’m only focusing on competition as used by the older karate systems of study.] Most competition centers around kata performance, sport kumite performance (mostly the stand up trade punch/kick variety), some various pre-arranged bunkai competition and even substance demolition(breaking) competition.

But as I see it the real long term value of training is to work to trust our technique enough to actually be able to use it, and while all of the competition I mentioned has subsidiary values for total karate usage development, there is also a lot that is lacking.

If one really wants to shake things up you need to break up the paradigm and work out a new one.

Why not create a new division combining kata and random application of kata technique.

Perhaps two competitors performing their kata of choice side by side, and the first 1/3 of the score being judged on their kata performance. The next level would be to actually use a kata technique against a random attack. Each competitor would launch a random attack against the other one, and they would have to counter with an actual kata technique from the kata they just performed. The 2nd 1/3 of the score would be on the strength of their attack, and the final 1/3 of their score would be on the counter technique series (with components on use of actual kata technique, and degree of difficulty of the technique performed).

This would require advanced study of kata and advanced application abilities.

Scoring kata performance in air already has standards for judging that ought to be adequate.
Scoring attack likewise would rest on how effective that attack would be do drop their opponent. Fake attacks to take it easy would require very low scores. Hard driving attacks that will hurt if not countered would score higher. As each has the chance to attack the other, it should be reasonable to keep them within limits, for if you over attack, you will in turn receive the same eventually. There could be deductions for excessive zeal leading to injury (and that would require deductions on both give and receiver ).

Scoring defense is where the skill comes to play. How effective is the application shown? How much degree of difficulty is demonstrated by the technique resource. How effective is their ability to counter a random attack (though there may be a pre-arranged range of possible attacks set in the standard, so somebody removing the chair from under the judge and swinging it at the defender’s head can be ruled out).

No reason to apply each kata technique. The goal is to use technique from the kata to actually counter any attack. The defender may only have one answer that fits everything, or they may have a small number, or a really advanced performer might ask the judges ahead of time to select the technique and not let the attacker know which technique will be used to counter any attack they give.

I’m just giving some suggestions, I’m not trying to answer everything, just to show by re-thinking the issue something new and stronger might be possible. It’s never enough to repeat the past. We must always strive to find the strongest and keep it and work to creating even stronger new traditions.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Change is Eternal

I know you've heard 'You can't step into the same water in a flowing stream twice'. The water you step into this time won't be there the next for it keeps moving on.

Our arts are the same. The record shows everything keeps changing and that is the constant.

You can't keep that from happening.

The islands of Okinawa couldn't stop change. For sake of discussion 100 years ago, say 1908, how many Okinawan's were studying karate? 100? 150? We really don't know because it's not documented, but 100 years ago was before the advent of sharing Karate in the secondary schools began.

As far as I've seen there were no Okinawan karate dojo, no uniforms, no organizations, no rank or titles. Your instructor was likely someone who had been training many decades and had made it hard to train with them. Karate was a non-verbal form of communication with a planned dearth of technical terminiology. If you couldn't say it, you really couldn't give it's secrets away, they came only through long training.

Now jump 100 years and you have maybe 90,000,000 people practicing karate world wide. There are dojo, organizations, uniforms and rank and all the rest.

The idea kata must not change never even worked on Okinawa, they changed continually. The record of the variations on them from instructor to instructor are very plain to see. The only modifying force was the smallness of Okinawa itself, and the press of the other karate adepts against your own performance.

But spread those small, intimate practices world wide, and the lack of smallness and familiarity led directly to a wide open free for all of what karate represnts.

Change is Eternal, don't fight it you can't stop it. But we can try and understand the pressures behind change, try to look at the past more clearly and in turn try to choose wisely which changes our efforts will represent.

Friday, August 15, 2008

When your art becomes your own.

Back in 1978, Charlie Murray explained to me "The first 20 years your art is your instructors. After 20 years the art is yours." I've found that is very true. How you make it yours is never ending work, asking why over and over and then finding answer to the question.

In all of my studies understanding kata, kuen, hung or form is central.

Kata first presents us with a shape to move inside, and that movement becomes an expression to enter into an attacking situation. In time we learn to move more efficiently, we learn to relax allowing our center to drop and our power to increase, we learn while central, kata is still only a part of the answer, and we learn to return to our kata day by day as we change day by day ourselves.

Each technique in a kata is a tool on its own. An expression may be the step, the block, the strike or other movements, or combinations of them. The pieces are the tools we use. The kata combines pieces and in turn becomes much more than the parts.

Kata are not the way we fight, but the way we shape our energy release as we move. The shape of the kata provides a staging area for many advancing studies. Exploration of the role of breathing, exploration of technique execution timing, exploration how the units of the body combine to become a whole.

In time when the art becomes our own, we can do less, but we're learning more day by day. The paradox of life.

I'll be returning here as time passes.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Difference between Water and Stone


Mary Oliver wrote in her poem ‘The Leaf and the Cloud’, “Everyday – I study the difference between water and stone.”

There are so many different images that presents.

The water lies in still water for a few millenia and in time, at the surface event level does the water assume characteristics of stone, or does the stone assume characteristics of water?

At what point is our art that of stone, unyelding and solid?
At what point is our art that of water, flowing and formless?

Is there a difference, or are they different aspects of the same?

Consider the study of kata, is it the unmoving nature of a technique executed that is the weapon, or is it the movement between techniques, the soft and fluid that is the weapon?

Let us think on this more.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

I’ve been the beginner learning my right foot from my left.
I’ve been the student learning the tools of my craft.
I’ve been the practitioner increasing the scope of my skills.
I’ve been the adept taking responsibility for the breadth of my art.
I’ve been the instructor.

I guide the beginner.
I focus the student.
I encourage the practitioner.
I explore with the adept.
I draw out the instructor.

My vision is without bounds.
My abilities are less.
History but one tool in my arsenal.
My studies have been vast, but my grasp of the circle is small.

I’ve found friendship and betrayal, joy and sorrow and loneliness.
And the utter certainty that I cannot pass my entire vision along.
None can walk my way, and their efforts are driven by their own needs.
Especially as I cannot take their freedom but can point the way.

I remain the beginner as my body must be faced anew each day.
I remain the student learning the tools of my craft.
I remain the practitioner seeking to increase the scope of my skills .
I remain the adept trying to hold the sea in my arms.
I am the instructor.
I am senior.

Perhaps I’ll be like Prufrock.
“I grow Old, I grow Old,
Shall I wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled?”


Isshin as focused concentration goes hand in hand with Zanshin as global concentration.

The more we focus in great detal on the small, the more we focus in great detail on the large, together define our limits, moment by moment.

I practice/research/study/teach my private isshinryu practice of bushi no te isshinryu these past 35 years.

I practice/research/study and at times teach yang long fist tai chi chaun htest past 30 years.

My practice was formed by Tom Lewis' Isshinryu; by Charles Murray's Isshinryu; by Ernest Rothrock's arts of Yang and Wu Tai Chi Chaun, Pai Lum, Sil Lum, Tai Tong Long and of course his Faan Tzi Ying Jow Pai; by Tristan Sutrisno's Shotokan, Aikido, Tjimande and Kobudo, by a close encounter with Sherman Harrill's study of Isshinryu; and of course many times many friends sharings.

My life is defined by my family, supported by Marueen my wife and my children Victor Michael and Caryn Alyssa.

And of course the drive that makes me practice tai chi on my driveway at -20 degrees f., drive through ice storms and blizzards to train, practice at midnight, in pouring rain, in dense fog, to scream at my french dictionary as I've translated books from the French for my friends and otherwise find incredible texture and depth from my efforts.

I hope I can share my thoughts on the very small and the very large, my isshin as well as my zanshin, my concentration on my art, my life.