Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Onimitsu2004 on Overanalysis of Kata

Onimitsu2004's latest post talks about how many people try to make their analysis of the fighting applications of kata too complicated. I don't echo all his sentiments exactly, but he makes many good points:

While it's heartening to see a new wave of martial artists launching themselves into analyzing the breadth and depth of kata, it's disheartening to see how they sometimes miss the point because they don't fully understand the science behind the moves in kata. After watching a series of videos, reading some posts on martial arts message boards, and remembering to some of my own early training, I've observed that the latest craze afflicting interpretation of moves in kata is the grappling craze. Every move of every kata can suddenly be interpreted as a grappling movement. Even more alarming is that these grappling techniques are passed off as "the next level" of development.

The more I look at kata, and the more I study the Chibana methodology, the less convinced I have become of grappling applications in certain places in certain kata that I have seen passed off as "advanced techniques." Yes, there are many places in kata where you are clearly grappling with an opponent. But in other places, sometimes a punch is just a punch, a block just a block, and a kick just a kick. I think instructors are beginning to read too much into movements or perhaps too little, not fully understanding the science of the movements. And, thus interpreting or inserting grappling imi when it is not the imi that is called for. And the problem with using the wrong imi is that you miss the proper bunkai (tautological, but true). If a move in a kata is just a punch but not understanding how a punch is to be properly executed in that move of the kata, you might interpret it as a throw instead. Both are diminished in execution; throwing and punching are not the same, and both have a different bunkai.

Read it all.


Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Training at Karate as a Martial Art

Chibana Chosin (1885-1969) was a true Okinawan karate master. Sadly, "karate master" is now such a trite phrase that it can never fully carry the same impact in a reader's mind that it should. Widely respected across Okinawa for his martial skills, he was considered among the last (some say the last) of the "old Okinawan masters" generation. I bring him up because I always have his quote pasted somewhere on my site, which goes as follows:

"In the old days we trained at karate as a martial art, but now they train at karate as a gymnastic sport. I think we must avoid treating karate as a sport - it must be a martial art at all times!"
His words still remain true to this day. They also highlight first and foremost the traditional goal of karate: fighting. That means not sport, or even a specific vehicle for character development(for more on this subject, see my article here). Lest there be any doubt, the quote continues:

"Your fingers and the tips of your toes must be like arrows, your arms must be like iron. You have to think that if you kick, you try to kick the enemy dead. If you punch, you must thrust to kill. If you strike, then you strike to kill the enemy. This is the spirit you need in training."
But what does it mean? What does it mean for it to be a martial art? The answer is simple enough. Don't let the "art" at the end fool you. It is a study of that which is oriented towards bettering one's ability in combat. Yet many people fall short of Chibana's ideal, even though they practice styles or methods of training that still retain a central focus on practical combat. And here is why: "training at karate as a martial art" is a much deeper phrase than an initial read might suggest. However you choose to cut it, karate is a combative skill. And when it comes to skills, as one of my coaches back in high school always used to say, "You're either getting better or getting worse. There is no staying the same." Doug Perry, the North American Director for the Shorin Ryu Shorinkan, has many, many sayings. One of them is "there's no substitute for training". He certainly wasn't the first to say this and definitely will not be the last. Put these two sayings together and you can only come to one conclusion: The only way to keep from getting worse is getting better through continual training.

Believe it or not, I did not just engage in some meaningless tangent to the discussion at hand, nor am I about to do so now.

Many martial artists have stated their reasons for studying the martial arts: social atmosphere, exercise, health, self-defense, tradition, discipline, character development, looking cool, etc. Realistically, it is a mixture of some or all of those aspects. Underlying most of these reasons is another: "because it is fun". However, there are many people for whom enjoyment (for any number of reasons as stated above) is a deciding factor for when and how they train. Even if a person states above all else their purpose is to become a better fighter, they may often "not have their heart (or head) in it today" or "just don't feel like it". In these cases, they usually do not train and prefer to do something else. In other cases, people's lives are very busy and there is not that much time to train, or if there is, they would much rather spend it doing something else. To put it in economic terms, they do not gain much utility out of training and therefore perform some other act that gives them utility.

Bear with me, I am almost there.

What kind of person "gains utility" from training no matter what their mood? A warrior. One warrior, Gurney Halleck from the novel Dune, admonishes the main character Paul Atreides with these words after the latter states he is not in the mood for training: "Mood's a thing for cattle or making love or playing the baliset. It's not for fighting." Chibana Chosin was a real-life warrior. He was known for doing things such as never entering a room before scanning it for potential enemies, even in his own home. If he had such intensity outside of his training, how much more he must have had during it!

Herein lies the difference between those who train for fun and those who train for skills. Too many people focus on how much fun they get out of training while they do it instead of how much they value the combative skill acquired. Don't get me wrong, having fun during training is acceptable and certainly helps the effort required for continuous training over multiple decades. I certainly do and recommend it. Yet whenever you feel yourself not in the mood to train, remember what it is you are training for: fighting skills. This is more than simply having "discipline", although it has much to do with it. It is continually making the decision to either be someone who practices karate or a warrior who trains at karate as a martial art.


Monday, November 14, 2005

Shorinkan Lone Star State Karate & Kobudo Seminar (and random thoughts)

This will be long, so bear with me (all the handful of you who even read this). It is partially a summary of a camp I attended this weekend and partially a collection of various thoughts I have about karate at this point in my life.

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the Lone Star State Karate & Kobudo seminar held by Renshi Charlie Dean, who did a great job in assembling a great amount of talent to attend the first seminar like this he has organized. The guest instructors who attended were Kyoshi Doug Perry , Kyoshi Chris Estes, Kyoshi Pat Haley , Kyoshi Eddie Bethea , Kyoshi Sean Riley, Kyoshi Noel Smith (all from Shorin Ryu Shorinkan) Hanshi Ron Lindsey (of Matsumura Seito...and where the heck is his website?), and Kyoshi Mike Arnold (the first teacher of a good many great karateka such as Chris Estes and Sean Riley). As is typical of camps of this nature, the amount of skill assembled was truly amazing. Many karate camps bring guest instructors and high-ranking people from various places, but it is truly rare for them to have this much talent in old school, combat effective arts like this. Like the Matrix, one has to experience it to understand what it is. Unlike the Matrix, the people assembled are more than just for show and have a deep understanding of fighting. I constantly get this impression, but the vast amount of people doing martial arts have no concept of the gradations of skill present among high-level practitioners. I have talked to so many people who believe their instructor is "the best" or "one of the best", but they have never met more than a handful of instructors to which to compare them to. I have had the unique opportunity to see a wide smattering of instructors (those I have trained with and those I have merely met or watched) and the difference between is striking, even between those who are "good" and those who are "great". Most people just can't comprehend it. But I digress...

I have said it before and I will say it again. One of the advantages of a large organization (there are certainly disadvantages in some respects) is the ability to have camps like this and to meet various people in and out of our system. Out of the fifty or so people which attended, there were a good many visitors from other systems which only added to the mix. But it really does help to maintain quality control. Our North American director, Doug Perry, makes a point to visit a good number of these Shorinkan camps every year and that really allows him to keep a handle on how good (or bad, like me) people are in his organization. But apart from skill levels alone, it really is a great social networking device to create relationships that will lasts over the many miles and years that everyone's karate career will take them. It is always nice to be in the presence of those who bring a smile to your face simply by seeing them. Having them be extremely deadly martial artists (no matter how cheesy that sounds) is a plus. As always, it was great seeing Kyoshi Doug Perry again, who truly opened my eyes at how deep the rabbit hole goes (I'm just full of Matrix analogies today...or is it Alice in Wonderland...) in karate. And all the other North Carolina crew, such as Kyoshi Chris Estes and Richard Church. But I'm going to end up naming everyone I've met in Shorinkan over the I'll stop. I would be totally amiss if I didn't mention that I got to see Kyoshi Sean Riley again. He was the instructor I met up in Colorado. Much to my eternal regret, we never knew he was outside of Denver until December of my senior year, so my time with him was quite limited. All the same, it really did change the whole direction of my martial arts career, and that isn't just something said for dramatic effect. He was the one who arranged my first trip out to North Carolina to train with Kyoshi Doug Perry (which was all free, including my hotel for the stay...of course I had to pay for my transportation out there, but Doug Perry refused to accept any money for tuition and bought me and Terry, who went there with me, a great many meals). That trip expanded further my awareness of the depth truly existent in karate and the ability to maintain cross-country karate relationships and development if I were so inclined (which I am). Much like I am greatly indebted to my first karate instructor Mark Staal, I am deeply indebted to Sean Riley. Bottom line: a great many friends and teachers there.

And now my thoughts on Hanshi Ron Lindsey. Like Kyoshi Perry, you can tell this man lives and breathes martial arts. There is a huge difference between those who have simply spent many long years practicing karate and those who have spent many long years learning and improving their karate. He is without a doubt one of the latter. I was greatly impressed with his skill and knowledge and his reputation as one of the best traditional Okinawan karateka and preserver of the "old ways". We were very fortunate to have him attend our seminar and he added a lot. Like a student of his I got to meet last August at the Shorinkan Camp in North Carolina (Phil Koeppel), he was excellent in efficiency and deadly tactics which are simple to do and hard to master. I only hope to get the opportunity to learn from him again in the future. He puts on a great many seminars which I wish to attend.

Like most all Okinawan karate instructors worth their salt have stated, he really emphasized the sad fact that the "old ways" are disappearing even on Okinawa although there is a small but hopefully growing presence of the "old ways" in America. He also stated (and I have heard this elsewhere) that one day Okinawans will have to come to America to learn the old ways. Nor did he hesitate to state that the vast majority of what is marketed and mass produced as karate did not work. Confirming again what I have heard from so many in the early generation of karate in America, he remarked that the youngsters of today (I still consider myself one) have such a unique opportunity in learning much of the old ways of Okinawa. We have the chance to learn them from people speaking the same language and who often had to learn the vast majority of their understanding themselves. As my instructor Sam Ahtye always says, people like me are so fortunate to be exposed to concepts they only were able to pick up after so many years of experience. I, for one, feel this unique opportunity is also a heavy responsibility. Many of these older karateka will not be here forever. Hanshi Lindsey joked that he was going to live forever or die trying, but the sad fact is, when they pass on the world of karate will not only be losing great people in the personal sense, but also in the terms of aggregate skill and knowledge. Paul Weed, who I've had the pleasure of meeting last summer during a Karateforums get together (ironically attended by myself, him and another individual who barely have a presence there anymore), likes to cite the death poem of karate master Hohan Soken: "I have taught you all I know.There is no more I can teach you.I am a candle whose light has traveled far.You are my candles to whom I have passed on my light.It is you who will light the path for others.Today I see around me the lights of Shaolin.The flame of tomorrow,My task is done, soon my flame will end.Teach the true spirit of karate-do and one day you may enter the Temple of Shaolin". Like any tradition, it runs the risk of dying out. And however lame this sounds, I want to ensure my life serves to stoke the flame of old karate rather than simply being a cheap candle bulb you can buy at Wal-Mart. These candle bulbs have the form of a candle just like modern karate and what goes around calling itself traditional karate has the form of old Okinawan karate, but they are never the same.

Finally getting to the seminar, I attended the seminar on fighting techniques given by Ron Lindsey, the various kata applications and fighting concepts seminars given by all the kyoshi (they rotated around), a seminar on a tekko kata (Onimitsu2004 would get on to me and say correctly they are tecchu being used in a tekko kata) and tanbo kata given by Doug Perry, the Yakusoku kumite class and a bo application class given by Pat Haley (who is great with weapons and their applications). There were a few other classes held but they ran at the same time others did. Despite this being the suppposed meat of this entry, I've not much to say other than I learned a lot...maybe I'll touch up on some actual tactics and concepts later. This post is way too long already.

Demonstration night was nice. Various kyoshi did various kata. I was actually voluntold to do a demonstration, so I ended up doing Hamahiga no Tonfa. I only messed up two or three times, but that was more the sequence of the kata rather than anything blatant like dropping the tonfa. Since most people didn't even know the kata, I guess I was somewhat safe...of course all the really good people were able to critique me on the basis of either knowledge of the kata or just knowledge in general, but I think I did "okay". Kyoshi Perry called me up to do it first (he was just calling off names from the list). He asked me if I was doing something, and then told me to be the first one (about one minute before the demonstrations started). I wasn't nervous or anything since I was doing what I do many times a week anyway, but I wish I had something greater to contribute. Anyway, that was obviously not the highlight of the demonstrations. Sean Riley did the Chinto kata in a mirror image (in other words, right and left directions and techniques were all reversed) and then did it completely backwards (as if someone pressed the rewind button after completion). Yeah, he's good. Chris Estes did the Takemyoshi no nuntebo dai ichi and Kyoshi Perry did Rokkishu after the audience pressured him to do something. Even people who visited from other styles who probably had no inkling they would be doing a demonstration (like me) did kata, so that was nice.

Another thing I gained from the camp was being introduced to the Shorinkan group in Austin (200 miles away) so I'll probably make a trip out there once a month or so. It'll be good to keep my kata in standard and prevent bad habits (different from personal interpretation) from creeping in. Having spent the last year driving twice a week to Sam Ahtye's dojo which was 114 miles away from me, I'll probably do more of the same albeit with much less frequency.

Well, this entry is certainly ending with a whimper rather than a bang. I suggest martial arts minded people check out Onimitsu2004's latest entry as he has apparently reached a great milestone in his growth in karate. I am envious and my blood burns to fight him once again when I think about how much training and development he has experienced. I guess that's just the Rohirrim in me.