Bunkai: Chicken or the Egg?!

Published March 5th, 2017 by Okinawa Karate Center

Once I decided to start a blog, the maiden voyage subject matter was an easy choice as it is one very close to my heart in so many ways. The real challenge came to the surface as I began to collect my notes on the subject. That’s when I realized my approach would require more than a single post. Rather than attempting to create an “all-inclusive” post, which would most certainly bore the hell out of some while leaving others wondering how to put it all into context, I will present separate posts, each with a specific intent.

In my “professional life”, one of my roles is translating legal contracts, insurance policy terms and conditions and regulations into language and work processes understood even by the newest employee so they can do their job from day one. In all reality, that scenario is backwards. One of the reasons I am successful at work is because of my Operational background. Because I understand the “nuts and bolts”, I am able to help define policies, procedures and work processes that allows our company to succeed in a global market while protecting our employees, property and the environment. In a sense I am the mechanic and the engineer.

One of the most common reasons for process failure is an unclear definition between the two. Which takes precedence and ownership? This applies to the martial arts more than most realize. Most of us (martial artists) have consistently questioned the validity of many of the techniques taught. On top of that, many still question what they teach their own students. How many times have you ever heard or even said, “That’s how it’s done in our style/system”, or “It’s tradition(al)” or “It must be done that way or else you’re changing the technique”? These are but one single example why so many martial arts schools have dropped” traditional” style teachings including kata. The introduction of “bunkai” into mainstream martial arts was a game changer.

We understand the literal translation of “bunkai” to mean dissect and analyze. Anyone with even the slightest familiarization with Eastern languages knows it ain’t that easy and far from a proper translation. Eastern language is purely conceptual in nature and very dependent on personal experience and application. “Qi” (氣) has at least 31 definitions depending on its application. I had a student a few years ago that was a doctor from Japan who took a research position here in Houston. I asked him what his understanding of bunkai was and his response was earth shattering. “Show your work”. Holy friggin’ moly. A 3rd grader is taught this idea in math class. What could be more simple and direct? But before we continue with this line of reasoning, we have to take a step back and examine the most common idea of bunkai.

My first real initiation to bunkai came in the early 1990’s brought on by the explosion of “pressure point” proponents. Compared to the competition based martial arts I had practiced for my first 20 years, for the first time I began to actually study the inner side of my style. And bunkai increasingly became a part of the process.

The most simplified premise of bunkai was to extract a technique from a kata (quan, hsing, poomse, form) and provide an explanation beyond the assigned nomenclature, e.g. low block, spear hand, knife hand, “X” block, etc. and/or give purpose as to why a technique is performed in a specific way. Overlaying an understanding of “pressure points” and local anatomy and physiology provided missing substance to an explanation. This knowledge, however minor or incomplete, gave rise to an actual examination. Finally, martial artists had tangible resources to look past the everyday “block-punch” karate. And this has largely remained the standard even today. Although progress, herein lies our first dilemma.

For the most part, “traditional” karate is viewed by many as “gospel” and untouchable. Under this thinking, a style’s particular techniques and kata are not subject to scrutiny by anyone. This is the professed idea of a “traditional” martial art. And no wonder. This is the professed idea of a “traditional” martial art. And no wonder.

With competition being the main stay of a majority of today’s martial arts, standardization is key. Shotokan must look like Shotokan, Wado-Ryu must look like Wado-ryu, and so on. When judging at a national or international level within the JKF (IOC Karate) standards, a judge/referee must learn 2 kata from one of the other 3 recognized styles in order to be certified. The intent is for the judge to understand the technical performance of that style so the judge can merit an unbiased score based his/her understanding of the intent of the style.

Another understandable cause for standardization is national and international organizations. A side by side comparison of a US shodan (1st degree black belt) to one from Europe is expected to produce an almost “mirror” image. Teachers (senseis, gurus, sifus, sabunims, etc.) must be drilled on these standards to be able to promote and maintain their style’s idea of a standard. Any attempted step outside those imposed boundaries, for whatever reason, is an excommunicative charge.

Add the world of competition on “traditional” karate and we have our first main contradiction as there is an obvious influence on a particular system or style’s technical performance based on competitive rules. This would suggest a further impact on a style’s combative or self-defense techniques and philosophies. Within traditional karate competition, bunkai is mandatory in 3 person kata. Unfortunately this bunkai, like the kata itself, is performance designed. I will discuss this in further detail in one of the following segments.

Let’s not limit this to “traditional” systems. The US is full of systems and styles less than a few decades old. In some sense, these styles are no better or worse than their Japanese or Korean counter parts. In all reality, this is pretty much the same path that the Japanese, Chinese and Koreans took when they openly instituted the martial arts into their respective cultures. They took what was once a viable civil defense art and adapted it to fit their social and economic needs. Americans took those very same arts that were not culturally their own and further adapted them to fit their needs … again, based heavily on competition.

Okay, so I’ve laid some ground work for my continued ramblings. What in the heck does the tile of this piece mean, “Chicken or the Egg?” This has a much furthering reach than just a piece on bunkai, which is why it will take more than a single post to complete this thought.

If we use the earlier expressed premise that bunkai is an extraction of a technique from a learned kata, then that would infer that bunkai is dependent on the preexistence of a kata. From this view, bunkai would be categorized as the “egg” with kata being the “chicken”. So if bunkai is taught as an “after thought” what was the basis for the creation of the kata in the first place? We’ll come back to this thought in a moment.

Let’s make some simple common sense investigations to see what other factors might shed some light on this topic. Firstly, would not the question of the chicken and the egg with regards to bunkai be influenced by which came first, the “master” or the kata? The obvious answer is the master. But the “master” of what? Well, fighting of course. Assuming everyone is agreement with that statement, I will proceed.

Let’s step outside the boundaries of the Eastern style martial arts and use boxing as our model. But wait you say … there is no kata in boxing. ANNNNNNNGH (game show buzzer). So disappointing Grasshopper. Mitt practice is a form of “kata”. What about shadow boxing? Pre-arranged partner drills. Already, the wheels are starting to either turn or come to a screeching halt. This turns bunkai on its head in that boxing is based entirely on application and so much more inclusive.

Generally, when someone attempts to extrapolate meaning from a single technique it is usually focused on the position of the hands/arms. That is like taking the letter “w” out of a word and trying to give it value. Or taking the word “whip” out of a sentence … that same sentence out of a paragraph and so on. In all these cases there is little or no context: nothing to attach an intended expression. So many variations and applications of the word whip. Let’s see how easy it is to assign intent to the word “whip” … two different books using the same word but with instant application: Duff Goldman’s Dessert Cookbook and 50 Shades of Grey. Context would seem to have high value.

So we agree that context has merit. But context is limited to a person’s depth of understanding of the subject matter. In the beginning of the “pressure points era” there wasn’t a great deal of corroborated information on the subject. We scrambled to find anything we could that would shed more light on our new found love. But we soon found any information to be far and in between. Fortunately there were some very well-known and established Chinese martial artists/authors on the subject of martial applications using TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine). However, little did we know just how much further down the rabbit hole this paradigm would take us.

Arguably, for me, the greatest benefit from studying outside my parent style and reading tons of resource material was the change in my perception of the martial arts. As I continued to study and practice, the “walls” and restrictions fell around me. I was encouraged to step outside the proverbial box …what harm could it do? Context is once again colors the picture.

Other than my then current karate and “pressure point” teachers, there were 2 distinct teachers that affected my continued studies and training more than any. Those two gentlemen were Professor Remy Presas (Modern Arnis) and Professor Wally Jay (Jujutsu). From day one these great masters taught fighting application. Both Profs. Presas and Jay came up in very “traditional” styles. Like my full contact and boxing training, they taught if it didn’t work in “live action” either find out why and fix it … or toss it out. “Tradition” has no place in the ring or street. That simple. Application, application, application.

All and all, what I began to realize was that the competition based style I was practicing lacked as a support mechanism for a “science” based system. Most would think that since I was practicing an “American” style, I would have all the “arbitrary availability” to do as I see without the short leashed constrictions of a standardized system.. ANGHHHHHHHight. Wrong again Grasshopper.

With that, I leave to begin composition of Bunkai: Segment #2 TBN.

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