Bunkai: "Chicken v. Egg" Part Duex
I was very excited to write this installment, almost compelled, especially after the responses I received on the first installment. I hope this chapter garners as much as the last.
Let’s start with a little personal “chicken v. egg”. April 2017 marks the beginning of my 42 year journey in the martial arts. During this time I have trained with and under some very talented athletes, successful competitors/coaches, motivators, organizers, innovators and even a few visionaries. Some were even good teachers. I am and have been a member of some of the world’s most well-respected martial arts organizations. At the same time, and like most of you, I have come across some real “winners”. All in all, good and bad, helped to develop my path, one way or another.
More importantly than the people that touched (pun intended) and impacted me throughout these first 41 years, are the positive and negative results of some of those relationships. The old adage that “where one door, closes another opens”, is precisely how I got to this point … another sort of “chicken v. egg” scenario. Now …. back to bunkai.
With the understanding that “bunkai” serves to explain the intent of a specific technique with various possible explanations, we must be honest and recognize that not all martial styles have the capacity to offer a legitimate response. Add that some express that the “bunkai” application must look exactly as the technique being examined and the latrine hole quickly fills. To help support that statement, let’s take a different approach to “bunkai”.
Let’s use sparring as our scientific constant and apply this methodology for everything else (variables) we teach. How successful would a student be if the student only “shadow boxed”, or kicked or punched a pad? The answer is pretty obvious. Sparring, as an interactive exercise, must be designed with a specific intent in mind. Sports medicine defines this as "The Law of Specificity". Sparring can develop footwork, but only if practiced with that explicit intent (one of many variables). In other words, it is not enough just to step on to the mat with a partner and go at it. Variables like timing, distancing and other combative postures (first principles) must be introduced at different levels and with partners sufficient to allow the student to succeed yet still be challenged... another sports medicine principle called "The Principle of Overload".
There is an even more important variable. In order to teach and develop a fighter, the coach must first him/herself know how to fight. It’s impossible to teach someone how to “bang” from the other side of a camera view finder or from watching a performance on TV or DVD. Martial arts is about “feeling”. Concepts can be expressed but there is no better teacher than a bloody nose. There is no misconception, no alternative facts, when it comes to “hands on”. So why would kata be taught any different?!
Rather than pulling a technique out of a kata/form and offering an explanation with no relation to the rest of the body on how we got there in the first place, what if we used the real time application (bunkai) to teach the kata? Isn’t that how we teach a kick, or an arm bar, push hands (kakie) or even swing a bat? Under this premise, it is the training partner (ball) that directs our attention and actions.
Extracting a technique(s) from a kata and offering a valid explanation wouldn’t be any different than someone holding a leg extended in the air and offering an explanation. It all depends on the contact area of the foot to the opponent and trajectory of the technique. Same goes for kata.
Ready for some serious “stepping on toes”? What if I suggested that kata is not the most important tool in the martial artist’s tool box… not at least in the context that most teach kata. Kata does NOT teach self-defense techniques or house the founder’s concepts any more than jump rope teaches a boxer how to slip a punch or having Muhammed Ali as a coach will turn you into Muhammed Ali. And to make things worse, I suggest that the kihon (basics) practiced in most dojo are empty and useless except as a possible form of anaerobic exercise. Kata and basics are NOT designed to develop balance, speed, power or any of the other claimed martial benefits. However, kata and kihon are but one method to practice the combative concepts, the real basics, learned against a live opponent.
Besides dividing martial arts between internal and external, there are 2 other basic categories of martial arts; traditional and eclectic. Much like politics, these factions are not very bipartisan friendly. Each presents aspects that “threaten” the very fabric of the other. Where traditional martial arts are seen by most, as tied to the old ways and unalterable, eclectic arts are seen as modern and unrestricted. This, in itself, is the beginning of the dilemma.
So, what the heck does all this have to do with a blog on “bunkai”? Well ... everything. Arguably the most well-known eclectic martial artist of our time and someone who understood this concept of “bunkai” was Bruce Lee. This realization of antiquated practice is what led Lee to develop a system of study based on real time application rather than marching up and down the floor performing physical movements, year after year, all the while knowing none of it would work against a live opponent. Lee did exactly what various other martial art masters had done for thousands of years. And like these other “traditional” masters, he realized no one single teacher, style or methodology was enough. As his eyes opened, so did his mind. So began his “out of the box” thinking and training.
It is well written that Lee “shucked” the restraints of his traditional training to develop a more modern, effective art known as Jeet Kun Do (JKD). Written and oral transmission by Lee himself tell us just the opposite.
Lee professed an emphasis in understanding and studying the details of natural combat, sound body mechanics in motion (kinesthesia), physiology, psychology and more. His wing chun (ving tsun) training provided a sound mechanical base with tight circular angles, straight line delivery, close range fighting, simultaneous use and awareness of horizontal and vertical planes of attack and defense. It was upon his “traditional” training that he was able to identify other legitimate resources and began to build his legacy.
“Using no way as way” is the most popular translation for JKD (截拳道).This would suggest that the success of JKD is not being subject to the usual restraints of “organized” (traditional) martial arts. He furthered recognized that competitive martial arts added a whole new set of restraints. This, in my humble opinion, is another case of canned worms, which I mentioned in the first installment.
An alternate translation to JKD is, “Having no limitation as limitation”. This translation, like Lee’s JKD, requires a more cerebral introspection. And while many may see Lee as the beginning of the modern martial artist, the same was said of others like Matsumura, Soken, Kusanku, Qiniang, Chen, Man and Musashi in their day. These masters did not succumb to the single minded path of training and development that we follow today.
Bruce Lee and other innovators have one very important thing in common; they “owned” the “basics”. Without a thorough understanding of the details within the details, one can only mimic movement. This is modern kata …mimicked movement and ill perceived intent.
Seiyu Oyata, who is widely accepted as openly introducing kyuso (pressure points) to the US and arguably the rest of the world, was much like Lee. He, like the others I listed in this and my previous blog, did not teach a style but rather they presented a system of study of various experiences and an expanded knowledge, unrestricted by any style infused doctrine. At the same time, Oyata, like Lee and the others, understood that only by understanding the limits of man could he extend his limits. Oyata presented an alternative to the usual "empty hand" translation for Karate. Oyata offered that "empty" could be replaced with "vastness". By developing oneself mentally, physically and morally, one would be have the vastness of those resources and be “without limits”. A very profound parallel to Lee’s intended JKD philosophy. Both Lee and Oyata’s alternate definitions offer great insight and incite a deeper review of everything.
Lee and Oyata studied the totality of their world, not just the technique in front of them. They examined a technique almost to a molecular level. Their martial art became more quantum-esque. To understand how to deliver the perfect punch, one must study the interconnectivity of the feet, legs, hips, torso, front, back, left, right, joints … total cause and effect as well as effect from cause. This same scientific methodology is applied to professional sports and is what allows Tiger Woods to drive a golf ball 300 yards landing it inches from the hole.
My Goju-Ryu teacher, Shihan Luis Morales, had the privilege to train with two very distinguished Shorin-Ryu teachers during his most recent visit to Okinawa in 2016. The content of their teachings was based on the principle of “koshi” (腰). “Koshi” literally translates to the waist; back; lower back; lumbar; hips. What Shihan Morales soon came to realize was that the “koshi” he understands is much more than just a part of the body or hip movement applied to karate techniques. “Koshi” is “the” most important area of the body and training concept in the martial arts from which all techniques and subsequent trainings are built.
Go to any fitness gym, yoga class, football training session, boxing gym or personal trainer and you will find “koshi” training. In today’s fitness market, “koshi” is known a “core training”. Core exercises focus on the entire torso and are designed to strengthen these stabilizing muscles. Examples of core exercises are crunches/situps, side bends/side crunches, leg raises and reverse crunches. These may or may not be supplemented with weights or partner assisted. While important as part of an extended quality of life, these exercises are static and isolate a specific muscle group (upper or lower abdominals, obliques, lumbar, iliopsoas group, etc.) and focus on strengthening, thereby offering limited benefit.
“Koshi” training in the martial arts is “dynamic” in nature involving body movement. But here we begin to enter into a multitude of contradictions. Unlike Western core training, which focuses on strengthening, “koshi” focuses on relaxation and flexibility. Relaxation requires a different kind of strength … a strength free of tension. The “Silk Reeling” exercises found in taiji are a classic example of “koshi” training and is the root of "fajing"or explosive power.
The two Okinawan masters further suggested that kata and basics are simply “templates” and must continually expand and evolve. This will require more than applying the technique on an opponent. It will require the student to feel and “listen” to the body … are certain joints stressed, are the muscles functioning with little exertion or are you having to “muscle” through the technique, are the right muscles engaged? In my opinion, this is the intent of “bunkai” and can be taught from “Day One”.
During discussions with a long standing martial colleague, I expressed that many experienced martial arts’ teachers, even considered as experts, do not “walk the talk”. I call this “Karate Rhetoric”, in that their “karate” does not match what they “preach”. Surprised that I would insinuate that some of these experts might be “wrong”, he asked if I would say that directly to them. My response was “Absolutely”.
This is by no means an insult or disrespect. It is exactly what they charged me with all those years ago; to question everything and everyone. To do my own research and accept only proven success and to understand that self-imposed failure is essential. I always start a seminar or teaching clinic with the disclaimer that I will never tell anyone that what I do is better than what they do. I ask them to show me “theirs” and then I will show them “mine”. And as they stand back up, they tell me which one is better.
Bunkai is the Uber app of kata. Not only must you know the origin and destination points, the app must be able to map the journey, identify any trouble spots and suggest alternative routes. Even then, the driver and the passenger must remain engaged to offer something different than what Google maps presents on the screen.
The End… of Part Duex. I have some notes compiled for at least one more installment, maybe two. To that, I received some suggestions for other topics in some of the responses on my first chapter. I welcome your responses and comments directed to email@example.com. Subject: BlogI