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The Why of Bunkai: A Guide for Beginners
#1
Article
Two thousand years ago wise men sought Christ, wise men still do.

Techniques are situational, principles are universal.

Fast as the wind, quiet as the forest, aggressive as fire, and immovable as a mountain.

He who gets there first with the most...wins!

Minimal force may not be minimum force!

We don't rise to the occasion...we sink to the level of our training.


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#2
As an example, the opening movements of Pinan Shodan demonstrate a shoulder lock as just one possible bunkai. Now, that shoulder lock could be used from standing, such as from a grapple or on the ground. It demonstrates the principle of the lock with the actual application varying to the situation. This means that during training the instructor avoids the 'grab my wrist here' method of teaching. Rather, after demonstrating a typical application as demonstrated in a portion of kata the in-depth exploration begins. So that movement shows a shoulder lock. Okay, how can be best employ that technique? What are some ways that aren't 'typical'? What are the follow up moves that are possible? 

This is where the rubber meets the road. Kata is often thought of as a class-filler that is used to get to the next belt level. Just a collection of pre-arranged movements. When thought of in that way...boring! Useless! Waste of time!

However, there is another way to view kata. As techniques, principles and strategies in physical movement. So, using the shoulder lock bunkai from Pinan Shodan to continue my example, we can begin using it by rote as a beginner's teaching tool. From there we can progress to alternate ways to use that shoulder lock (such as on the ground). From there we can move to making it part of a fluid response to an attack. The mistake is assuming that the movements have to be just as exact in real life as they are during an attack. Early masters weren't idiots. They knew fights are chaotic, dynamic, hot messes that only look cool when both sides are choreographed. Thus the bunkai simply shows a template by which the kata designer wished to impart a particular technique and/or concept. Often in a particular order they wished it to be taught in. 

This is why many karate masters felt that all of karate could be learned with just one, or just a few kata. Uechei Sensei was one of those IIRC. Viewing kata as just a collection of pre-fab movements one would be hard pressed to think they could learn all of karate. Viewing it as a catalog that can then be delved into deeply it is easy to see how a single kata, and surely just a few would last you a lifetime of training because within one kata is striking, grappling, ground defense, joint locks, cavity pressing etc. 

Sure, one could ground fight or punch without learning kata. But a lot of time, energy and thought went into the development of many kata (but by no means all the 'newer-learn-a-form-get-a-belt). It preserves the essence of the art as it was developed so it's worth the time to learn so that it can be passed on to future generations. Not the only means of teaching an art, but it is an effective one if taught properly.

Let me go a step further with and example and then real world application vs. a resisting opponent.



Horse stance and chambering the fists on the hips. From a casual observation it's 'are you kidding me stupid'. Right? I mean...who drops down into a horse stance and fights with their fists chambered on their hips? 



Except...it really isn't for punching someone in a fight. But if that's the way your taught, and then teach someone else, who teaches someone else....well, that's what you figure it has to be. But it isn't.



Let's look at the horse stance through completely different glasses: When someone moves their leg, let's say the right one so that you drop into a horse stance...what did you accomplish? Well for starters you've lowered your center of gravity and given yourself a more stable base. Okay, that's not a bad thing and could be quite useful. But what about the wacky hip chambering thing you always see with the horse stance? After all, it's in all the line drills right? Visualize this, keeping in mind that typing this isn't the same as actually standing with you on the mats demonstrating it while I teach. To chamber our fist on your hip, you're first extending your hand/fist in front of you. Why? What if we're grabbing something in that outstretched hand? Say the persons belt, shirt, arm, coat or whatever. Point is that we've grasped 'something' on the other person or the person themselves. Now visualize what happens next as you chamber that fist. Your fist corkscrews as you bring it in. Kinda like if you have something or someone in that fist and now you're drawing them into your center of gravity...particularly if you're dropping your own center by extending one of your feet. Not a bad way to off-balance someone that either interferes with what they were trying to do or sets you up for doing something to them or both. Taking someone off-balance is a nice way to set them up for all kinds of 'other stuff'.



As a practical application, I'm doing this constantly on duty to bad guys or folks that may become bad guys if given the chance to remain on balance. I'm grasping their shirt or belt or limb and lowering my center of gravity to take them off-balance. Usually to set them at a position of disadvantage, say, for cuffing or to set up a take down to cuff them in a prone position once I've established positive control over them. 



So the 'horse stance' could well be a very stupid waste of time, or a basic and very sound principle that we use all the time without thinking about it after we've learned the principle. Depends on how it's taught. From a grappling perspective, trying to off-balance someone is a very basic principle that is taught early on. It is a foundational principle upon which a ton of other principles are taught. So it is interesting that the 'horse stance' is taught so early on in karate, indeed as early as 'basic' line drills. Which means karate is also a grappling art in addition to other things. Interesting that you see it in kata as well which means that the principle, learned early on, is part of the technique/concept of the movement. 
So it really is the perspective in which you view something as to the actual value of the content that you derive from it.
Two thousand years ago wise men sought Christ, wise men still do.

Techniques are situational, principles are universal.

Fast as the wind, quiet as the forest, aggressive as fire, and immovable as a mountain.

He who gets there first with the most...wins!

Minimal force may not be minimum force!

We don't rise to the occasion...we sink to the level of our training.


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#3
To get a black belt in my school, students have to learn twelve kata. But all along a am telling them to find two or maybe three that seems to really flow for them and delve into the practical applications.
Martial Arts done well leads to a more virtuous life because everyone is fighting something.

"If your eye is single, your whole body will be full of light.  But if your eye is evil, even the light that is within you will be darkness.  If the light that is within you is darkness, how great is that darkness?"  (Jesus of Nazareth)
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