Are There Layers To Bunkai?

isshinryuronin

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This is an attempt to redirect a thread that got sidetracked to just a hikite discussion. Although hikite is part of it, a lot more is involved in answering this question and worthy of a new thread. The answer I think is yes and no.

"No" to the original intent of the kata. It is generally acknowledged that kata is composed of responses to a number of specific common attacks (chokes, grabs, punches, etc.) linked together to provide a kinetic textbook, aiding the practitioner in remembering and drilling them. So, the meaning of each technique in a given series would have been unambiguous. The individual series (which would have been practiced with a partner) as well as the full kata was passed on directly from master to disciple, again reducing any chance of misinterpretation. Instruction was private with an element of secrecy and some movements were not obvious to outside observers to preserve the masters' proprietary knowledge. In other words, omote v honto - what you see is not the true thing. I don't think this reaches the level of layering since the practitioner was well aware from the start the true meaning of the technique. It was only shadowed from outsiders.

Since there is always a chance that things may not go as expected, it is reasonable to assume a couple of on-the-fly adjustments (in footwork or target for example) were practiced as well, without changing the stem kata less its integrity got compromised. I don't consider such adjustments a layer of bunkai. Students were encouraged to explore such things on their own.

The confusion really began with the modernization of karate in the 1920's and 30's. During this time, some (dangerous) techniques were actually modified, or at least explained to school age students to be basic moves like turns and blocks instead of throws and joint breaks. Such moves were also not allowed in competition so were further pushed back from the public's consciousness. By the time of the commercial karate explosion in the 60's and 70's and the numbers of not fully trained Western instructors proliferated, kata was seen by most to be simple blocks, kicks and punches against a hoard of attackers from all sides.

As the true nature of old karate was gradually "rediscovered" (though not completely lost by some traditional schools in, and out of Okinawa) we found ourselves with 2 karates; the old and the new. Modern karate is so ingrained now, the way it is taught will not be changed in the near future. The modern (basic) explanation of kata being simple blocks, kicks, punches and turns being taught to lower belts and the "advanced" meaning of the moves being reserved for higher belts. In reality, though, these advanced techniques were simply the basic self-defense techniques for the founding fathers of the art.

So, IMO, this layering in teaching bunkai was not the way kata was designed, but a by-product of dealing with karate's recent evolution. I don't think this is bad. It allows for perfecting the physical techniques by beginners while providing a continuing curriculum for higher belts to understand, master, and appreciate.
 
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JowGaWolf

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This is an attempt to redirect a thread that got sidetracked to just a hikite discussion. Although hikite is part of it, a lot more is involved in answering this question and worthy of a new thread. The answer I think is yes and no.

"No" to the original intent of the kata. It is generally acknowledged that kata is composed of responses to a number of specific common attacks (chokes, grabs, punches, etc.) linked together to provide a kinetic textbook, aiding the practitioner in remembering and drilling them. So, the meaning of each technique in a given series would have been unambiguous. The individual series (which would have been practiced with a partner) as well as the full kata was passed on directly from master to disciple, again reducing any chance of misinterpretation. Instruction was private with an element of secrecy and some movements were not obvious to outside observers to preserve the masters' proprietary knowledge. In other words, omote v honto - what you see is not the true thing. I don't think this reaches the level of layering since the practitioner was well aware from the start the true meaning of the technique. It was only shadowed from outsiders.

Since there is always a chance that things may not go as expected, it is reasonable to assume a couple of on-the-fly adjustments (in footwork or target for example) were practiced as well, without changing the stem kata less its integrity got compromised. I don't consider such adjustments a layer of bunkai. Students were encouraged to explore such things on their own.

The confusion really began with the modernization of karate in the 1920's and 30's. During this time, some (dangerous) techniques were actually modified, or at least explained to school age students to be basic moves like turns and blocks instead of throws and joint breaks. Such moves were also not allowed in competition so were further pushed back from the public's consciousness. By the time of the commercial karate explosion in the 60's and 70's and the numbers of not fully trained Western instructors proliferated, kata was seen by most to be simple blocks, kicks and punches against a hoard of attackers from all sides.

As the true nature of old karate was gradually "rediscovered" (though not completely lost by some traditional schools in, and out of Okinawa) we found ourselves with 2 karates; the old and the new. Modern karate is so ingrained now, the way it is taught will not be changed in the near future. The modern (basic) explanation of kata being simple blocks, kicks, punches and turns being taught to lower belts and the "advanced" meaning of the moves being reserved for higher belts. In reality, though, these advanced techniques were simply the basic self-defense techniques for the founding fathers of the art.

So, IMO, this layering in teaching bunkai was not the way kata was designed, but a by-product of dealing with karate's recent evolution. I don't think this is bad. It allows for perfecting the physical techniques by beginners while providing a continuing curriculum for higher belts to understand, master, and appreciate.
I wonder if the focus of kata changed things. By this I mean the purpose of why kata is done. When I look at martial arts competition kata is done for reasons other than to understand the technique. That must cause some shift. In what is considered as what's basic and advanced. Basic movement vs Basic application. How do judges score kata?
 

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The way I understand it, kata's more nuanced or complex bunkai is what many students refer to as the 'secret scrolls' of kumite and the like. The truth is, there's no secrets. It's merely a question of how much you want to try to get out of kata.

The first level is what you see is what you get. If it looks like a block, it's a block. It should be obvious to the karateka why they are performing each move in the kata.

The next level is the hidden level, where things become more esoteric, to the extent that a block could be a block, or something else entirely, like a choke (I'm just making things up here). It's usually taught to more advanced students, because it makes sense when you have been practicing the moves long enough. I usually think of it as 'aha' moment bunkai, because it kind of clicks and makes sense.

The final level is the application or bunkai you explore for yourself. That is a personal exploration that is likely to develop as many dead ends as it is aha moments. Border cases where an application would work, but only given specific circumstances, etc. It's seldom (my opinion) that deeper exploration finds some basic principle that hasn't been thought of before; the easy one have all been found a long time ago.

The key of course is does it work. If you cannot apply it, it's not a good technique for you. Maybe it's just a bad technique, maybe it's not being taught correctly, or perhaps you're just not doing it right. If a technique can be made to work against a resisting opponent, it's hard to say it's a bad technique.

An example that isshinryuronin will recognize; the rising double block at the end of the first sequence in Seisan. It's a shuffle step forward, both hands rise to upper body blocks, then the karateka pivots on the left foot, performs an X block, strikes downwards, and begins the second sequence. In ordinary bunkai, that rising double block is just that; a block. It covers the center and will protect against a head attack from either side. In advanced bunkai, it's the same, except that when the block is completed and the karateka pivots on the left foot, the right fist can attack the attacker's upper body blow. Is it in the kata? It's not; it's implied. But it doesn't change the kata. The move looks the same either way. There are a bunch more kidden techniques at that spot in the kata, depending on what one wants to do.

Not everyone will spend much time exploring kata. That's fine. It's more like reading an annotated book or taking a class on a given author than simply reading what was written. Some want to know more, some do not.

In my humble opinion, many karateka these days don't really do bunkai at any level. I've spoken to more than one karateka who shrugs when asked "what is that move for" or "how do you make that work?" I've heard people say things they've been told, like "Oh, that's a leg break." It is? Can you break my leg? "Well, no. Maybe. I dunno." Hmmm. Maybe it's not a leg break then.

I think this contributes to people proclaiming that kata is useless. I think a lot of kata, the way it is taught, certainly is useless.

Personally, I think kata is karate. I study bunkai and think about it a lot. If I don't understand a move in kata, I ask, and I don't pretend it works if it doesn't make sense to me. I'm not an expert. Basic bunkai is fine for me, with a tiny bit of the more advanced stuff. Would I use the advanced bunkai in a 'real fight'? Probably not, at least not me. I know there are people who can; I train with some of them.

As to how judges score kata, that's a good question. I've judged kata a tournaments. If it's Isshinryu, I judge it against the kata that we do, but with allowances for the fact that no two Isshinryu organizations do kata exactly the same. I look for the movements, speed, power, balance, smoothness, and what I'd call intent. However, I'm certainly not judging on bunkai at any level; I don't know how I'd do that. I suspect there's a massive difference between kata I might do to demonstrate it, kata I might do in a competition, and the kata I do on my own, thinking mindfully about each move and the purpose behind it.

As you can probably guess, I like kata. It's one thing that mostly hasn't been robbed from me by advancing age. I can't do the double kicks, and kneeling kills me, but mostly I'm good.
 

Kung Fu Wang

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Form is to record information and for teaching and learning only. Form is not for training. You train drills on both sides left and right.

Example of drill training without waist chambering:

 
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JowGaWolf

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I've heard people say things they've been told,
I don't like hearing this. It's like saying "Don't blame me that's how I was taught." I would never say "this is what I was taught" if it's something that I use and know works.

I don't like the "play it safe" mentality when it comes to talking about martial arts techniques. The first assumption that I make when I hear this is that they donknow the application and how to use it.
 

hoshin1600

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I will start my answer with a question. Why would there not be different bunkai for different students?
The Chinese taught on at least two levels. The casual student and the "inside" student. Why would those who trained under the Chinese not follow suit.
It's also been said that the okinawans taught the American service men different than other locals, at least at first until they proved themselves.
On mainland Japan the entire purpose of karate was diverted to the war effort. Why would their not be a difference in teaching shirt term soldiers and long term students? If the true bunkai was something that took time to develop Why waste your time on short time students?
 

Bill Mattocks

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I don't like hearing this. It's like saying "Don't blame me that's how I was taught." I would never say "this is what I was taught" if it's something that I use and know works.

I don't like the "play it safe" mentality when it comes to talking about martial arts techniques. The first assumption that I make when I hear this is that they donknow the application and how to use it.
People don't know what they don't know. Most people whom I might consider less than excellent at their karate do not know that about themselves. I've certain seen some substandard instruction, taught by people who were taught by people who were taught by people who were clearly not masters of their craft. Just my opinion. I don't blame students for not knowing they are being taught poorly. You get to a situation over generations of teaching where much is lost and nobody knows it.
 

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No" to the original intent of the kata. It is generally acknowledged that kata is composed of responses to a number of specific common attacks (chokes, grabs, punches, etc.) linked together to provide a kinetic textbook, aiding the practitioner in remembering and drilling them. So, the meaning of each technique in a given series would have been unambiguous. The individual series (which would have been practiced with a partner) as well as the full kata was passed on directly from master to disciple, again reducing any chance of misinterpretation. Instruction was private with an element of secrecy and some movements were not obvious to outside observers to preserve the masters' proprietary knowledge. In other words, omote v honto - what you see is not the true thing. I don't think this reaches the level of layering since the practitioner was well aware from the start the true meaning of the technique. It was only shadowed from outsiders

Agree with this.
 
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isshinryuronin

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I will start my answer with a question. Why would there not be different bunkai for different students?
The Chinese taught on at least two levels. The casual student and the "inside" student. Why would those who trained under the Chinese not follow suit.
It's also been said that the okinawans taught the American service men different than other locals, at least at first until they proved themselves.
On mainland Japan the entire purpose of karate was diverted to the war effort. Why would their not be a difference in teaching shirt term soldiers and long term students? If the true bunkai was something that took time to develop Why waste your time on short time students?
Not sure of CMA, but all these ideas are valid when talking about post 1920's karate when it became popularized and senior sensei no longer handpicked every student as they had in the past. So they had dojo students and home students (often taught privately in the sensei's back yard.) There was no need for such layering earlier as every student was vetted for moral worthiness, dedication to the art and physical determination and so were deemed worthy of the deeper teachings. But even these students often spent years on the basics, learning only one kata every couple of years instead of 5 or 6 as is common today.
 

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I am not arguing any point. John Hackleman speaks on kata, bunkai, etc. He trained some MMA fighters including Chuck Liddell. I don't know if there are any topics for discussion, but this is his view.

 
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isshinryuronin

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When I look at martial arts competition kata is done for reasons other than to understand the technique.
Competition kata is posturing to a large degree. It's done to look good and put on a good show. Especially in "extreme" kata. What bunkai is served by doing a back flip and landing in a full split? Or throwing your weapon in the air, spinning it three times and catching it behind your back? Ridiculous if you think this is real martial arts.

(You see the same kind of thing in military rifle exhibition drill teams. It shows much dedicated practice, great control over the rifle, synchronization of movements and crisp slapping sounds - none of which has anything to do with shooting someone. There is no real "bunkai." I will admit that I like watching it though, so maybe I'm a bit of a hypocrite. I guess it's OK as long as it's not my art.

Even in traditional kata competition there are overly dramatic openings and closings, long pauses while giving the opponent the evil eye (although for someone my age, it gives a chance to catch my breath) and drawn out kiai. Well, that's the way things are.

I do kata keeping the bunkai in mind as I visualize applying it against a real opponent. That's my main concern (looking good is a given so I don't think much about that. ;).) I used to be a stickler for having my feet at exactly 45 or 90 degree angles for whatever stance and my hand position exactly as prescribed and other such things. But now I realize that a couple of degrees or inches usually do not affect the bunkai much. Indeed, looking at clips of the old masters, their stances look sloppy and their overall form a little rough, though I'm sure I wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of their executed bunkai. Their form took a back seat to function. Then, again, they didn't have to impress any tournament judges or audiences.
 
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Kung Fu Wang

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Competition kata is posturing to a large degree.
Form training can be for:

- combat,
- health,
- performance.

When you are young, you train MA for combat. When you get old, you train MA for health. When you need money, you sell performance MA form video.

When I was in Taiwan, I bought this guy's form video. He did make money of me.

 
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geezer

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I have resisted commenting on these bunkai threads up until now since my core art of Wing Chun conceives of form training a bit differently than what I've seen in the Okinawan, Japanese ant Korean martial arts.

In the main part, we do not teach that the movements or combinations of movements in our forms are designed to have a specific function against a particular attack. We do often illustrate how each set of movements could be applied against an attack, but that is not what they are trained for. Instead I've been taught to look at the postures and movements of our forms in terms of concepts ....focusing on position and movement, structure and energy, or linking the body to generate and dispel force, and so on.

From this perspective, teaching application is just a tool to better understand how these things work. Now since Wing Chun is a cousin of Karate with some common ancestry in older Chinese arts, I assume that at one time both Karate and Wing Tsun once had similar perspectives that have diverged? Does Karate also share this outlook as well? Or are these incompatible perspectives?
 

JowGaWolf

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I have resisted commenting on these bunkai threads up until now since my core art of Wing Chun conceives of form training a bit differently than what I've seen in the Okinawan, Japanese ant Korean martial arts.

In the main part, we do not teach that the movements or combinations of movements in our forms are designed to have a specific function against a particular attack. We do often illustrate how each set of movements could be applied against an attack, but that is not what they are trained for. Instead I've been taught to look at the postures and movements of our forms in terms of concepts ....focusing on position and movement, structure and energy, or linking the body to generate and dispel force, and so on.

From this perspective, teaching application is just a tool to better understand how these things work. Now since Wing Chun is a cousin of Karate with some common ancestry in older Chinese arts, I assume that at one time both Karate and Wing Tsun once had similar perspectives that have diverged? Does Karate also share this outlook as well? Or are these incompatible perspectives?
I would be surprisedif it was different people who train gor applicationare more likely to have similar training and perspectives about training.

What you describe is similar to my perspective of form.
 

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I have never really cared what others thought of kata, and I understand that many forms of karate and other similar kinds of martial art don't use kata at all. I am not critical of these arts or their lack of kata.

What bothers me are the people who took karate for a short period of time as students, learned to perform a few kata, and now boldly proclaim that kata is 'useless in a real fight' or that it is a 'dance' or that it serves no purpose. Their ignorance of kata doesn't make it useless. I don't understand the science of how gravity works, but it works; my ignorance has not caused me to float away yet.

"No one will ever attack me in a kata pattern." No, of course not. Did no one ever tell you that kata is like learning the alphabet? I'll never be asked to spell a word that goes "abcdefg..." but knowing the alphabet gives me the ability to write down actual words. Kata contains fighting patterns, and the student is expected to be able to pull the appropriate parts of it to use in their defense when the time comes. This doesn't seem like a difficult concept to me, but apparently it's too much for some to entertain.

"I don't want to learn kata, I just want to learn to fight." Then take up boxing. The blocks, strikes, kicks, breathing, stances, and transitions encoded in kata ARE how to fight. Not understanding that is the fault of the instruction or the student or both, but not the fault of karate or kata.

"I have no idea what some of the movements in kata are for." Again, that's on the instructor or the student or both. Every single movement has purpose. If you don't understand the purpose, ask. The instructor should be able to demonstrate how it works in at least one way, and it should work against a resisting opponent. I agree that if it doesn't work, it doesn't make sense; but I have yet to find a kata in my style of karate that does not work. Even if *I* cannot (yet) apply it in the way that works, I have had it applied to me, and I firmly believe it's a technique that works. I'm too old to fall for wishful thinking and magic; if it doesn't work, I'm not going to pretend it did.

Anyway, as should be obvious, I love kata. As I age, it becomes less about fighting for me, but it's still great exercise and a great way to explore techniques that could help me do things like keep my balance on slippery ground and yes, defend myself if I must.
 

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I have never really cared what others thought of kata, and I understand that many forms of karate and other similar kinds of martial art don't use kata at all. I am not critical of these arts or their lack of kata.

What bothers me are the people who took karate for a short period of time as students, learned to perform a few kata, and now boldly proclaim that kata is 'useless in a real fight' or that it is a 'dance' or that it serves no purpose. Their ignorance of kata doesn't make it useless. I don't understand the science of how gravity works, but it works; my ignorance has not caused me to float away yet.
Hey, I get it. But on a meta level... not specific to whether kata is or is not valuable, but more to your underlying point... gravity is demonstrable, consistent, and clear. You don't have to understand it to appreciate the effect. In the same way you can see the direct line between a car engine and a car moving down the road. You don't have to be a mechanic to appreciate the result. The connection is clear and consistent.

Kata... the connection to any application is squishy and indirect, at best. Whether you see benefit or not... heck, whether there is benefit or not... to suggest that kata is as clear and predictable as gravity is grossly overstating things.


"No one will ever attack me in a kata pattern." No, of course not. Did no one ever tell you that kata is like learning the alphabet? I'll never be asked to spell a word that goes "abcdefg..." but knowing the alphabet gives me the ability to write down actual words. Kata contains fighting patterns, and the student is expected to be able to pull the appropriate parts of it to use in their defense when the time comes. This doesn't seem like a difficult concept to me, but apparently it's too much for some to entertain.

Okay. Here's the problem with this alphabet analogy that we hear so often. At what stage do human beings learn the alphabet? How long does it take a person to learn the alphabet? My kids picked the alphabet up before they were in school, and it didn't take long. Heck, they learned to read before they were in 1st grade. What they spent most of their lives doing was reading. And the more they read, the better at it they became.


"I don't want to learn kata, I just want to learn to fight." Then take up boxing. The blocks, strikes, kicks, breathing, stances, and transitions encoded in kata ARE how to fight. Not understanding that is the fault of the instruction or the student or both, but not the fault of karate or kata.

"I have no idea what some of the movements in kata are for." Again, that's on the instructor or the student or both. Every single movement has purpose. If you don't understand the purpose, ask. The instructor should be able to demonstrate how it works in at least one way, and it should work against a resisting opponent. I agree that if it doesn't work, it doesn't make sense; but I have yet to find a kata in my style of karate that does not work. Even if *I* cannot (yet) apply it in the way that works, I have had it applied to me, and I firmly believe it's a technique that works. I'm too old to fall for wishful thinking and magic; if it doesn't work, I'm not going to pretend it did.

Anyway, as should be obvious, I love kata. As I age, it becomes less about fighting for me, but it's still great exercise and a great way to explore techniques that could help me do things like keep my balance on slippery ground and yes, defend myself if I must.

I appreciate your passion, but there's not a lot of meat on these bones. If any failure is the fault of the instructor and/or the student... and any success is because kata is perfect... the entire discussion becomes emotional. You love it. And more power to you. But kata is nothing like gravity.
 
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JowGaWolf

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I understand that many forms of karate and other similar kinds of martial art don't use kata at all. I am not critical of these arts or their lack of kata.
Karate without kata? I would like to see how that works out. I can see that it's possible if one is teaching pieces of it but if it's being taught as a system then I would like to see what that produces
 

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Karate without kata? I would like to see how that works out. I can see that it's possible if one is teaching pieces of it but if it's being taught as a system then I would like to see what that produces
Kata teaches movement, balance, timing... there is absolutely no reason why everything in kata cannot be taught without the actual kata. For example, none of the TKD forms teach a full turning back kick, a superman punch, or a jump front snap kick. That doesn't stop students from learning the techniques.
Forms are just a tool. A way of teaching and learning. They're good for solo practice. They are absolutely not the be all and end all of MA training.
 

Kung Fu Wang

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Karate without kata? I would like to see how that works out. I can see that it's possible if one is teaching pieces of it but if it's being taught as a system then I would like to see what that produces
In the past 2 weeks, I have drilled one of my self-creation forms.

1. Uppercut, palm strike (Xing Yi Pi Quan).
2. Downward parry, jab.
3. Side block/grab/pull, cross.
4. Upward block, punch.
5. Downward block, double punches.
6. Fron toes kick with punch.
7. Front heel kick with punch.
8. ...

The 16 moves sequence contain:

- Front toes kick, front heel kick, roundhouse kick, side kick.
- Jab, cross, uppercut, hook, overhand, back fist.
- Arm block/grab/pulls.

Can I teach a beginner with my self-creation form? I think I can. Since within 16 moves short form, all the basic punches, block/grab/pulls, kicks are included, I believe it can be more valuable for a beginner than to teach him a TMA form.

I truly believe the best MA solo training should be like this video - no forms but drills.

 
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