(Robert Arnold believes he was sitting around this circle in the early 1970’s as sensei W.S. Russell conducted a sparring match with Isshin Kempo students at the Bank Street Dojo in Summit, New Jersey.)


Robert Arnold, 2014

      The following speculations arose during a recent online conversation about the relationship between kata and bunkai, centered on the so-called “ninja move” in the kata, Kusanku. I found myself negotiating between two contrary positions, one asserting that the meaning of kata is open to interpretation, and the other that every move in kata represents one true, authentic application intended by its ancient creators. Although opposed regarding the specificity of kata, these two perspectives shared a common understanding that the “point” of kata was defined by its bunkai. I lack sufficient historical knowledge to speak authoritatively about the original goals of kata, and I lack sufficient experience with any kata to claim deep understanding, but it seems plain to me that kata and bunkai are different, and while bunkai is an important component of understanding kata, kata cannot be reduced to bunkai alone. If there is no more to kata than bunkai, and the bunkai is known, then there is no point to kata. This seems untenable to me on face value.

Whereas my knowledge of karate is insufficient to claim authority, I am drawing upon other areas of interest and experience in the arts that have shaped my academic career. From this perspective it seems clear to me that kata is similar to other arts a form of representation that expresses or refers to something in a different form. The meaning or value of a Monet painting of a haystack is not merely in the fact that it is depicts a haystack. There is both much more and much less to it than that. More in terms of how the haystack is depicted in such a unique manner, and less in terms of how insubstantial it is compared to a real haystack and all of its potential practical uses. The point is that the painting and its referent are different. Might it also be the same with kata?

Kata exceeds the sum of its bunkai. Kata is more general than bunkai, and this alone suggests that it is more generalizable. Some contend that this is camouflage, a way of concealing the actual application so that only certain privileged few will eventually learn once granted access into the inner circle of knowledge. Although I lack historical knowledge to support my objections, I find this hard to accept. If the ultimate point of kata is bunkai, what is the point of kata? Is it merely to give something to students to do until they prove themselves worthy of learning the “hidden” point of these exercises, like the wax on/wax off training in Karate Kid? Wasn’t this the conclusion that Bruce Lee reached when he dismissed kata as “organized despair” and abandoned it for direct application practice? Again, my question is not which specific application is the “true” meaning of any part of any kata, but rather if it is altogether proper to reduce kata to specific applications (one or many). What does kata offer than bunkai does not? What is the value of the difference between kata and bunkai?

Isn’t it possible that kata has its own point, or value? If it does, isn’t that point or value related to kata’s unique aspects? One significant aspect of kata is that it differs from specific application. Except perhaps in the most obvious, straightforward cases, such as the opening middle block and counter punch in Seisan, I have never seen a specific bunkai application that was an exact match to a kata. Even in the seemingly obvious aforementioned example of the opening of Seisan, it is generally understood that any block might also be a strike (middle block or back fist?), and the obvious-seeming catch and draw into a cat stance triplet in Seisan might also be a elbow strikes to the rear, or both simultaneously, and although the first two of these sequences is the same in reverse, I have learned different applications for each. Again, this lack of certainty may be mystification or camouflage, but it might also be that kata teaches flexibility and invites interpretation of multiple possibilities in contrast to specific applications. This isn’t the same as saying “anything goes” but it may suggest that kata may give greater emphasis to principles than specific techniques, and exploring the potential application of these principles is one of the challenges of kata.

Even bunkai falls short of fully preparing a fighter for the unpredictable, fluid, chaos of battle. Bunkai responds to a programmed, anticipated attack. The attacker is cooperating with the defender, merely a prop. This is why kumite rarely looks much like bunkai. Perhaps the lack of specificity of kata is in part an attempt to prepare someone for unpredictable forms of attack.

Although I lack the historical knowledge to claim that any of this was by design or intended, there is some correlation with other traditional Asian arts that lends some support by analogy. It is generally understood that the goal of traditional Japanese Sumi-e (ink wash painting) is not to realistically reproduce the appearance of a subject, but to “capture its spirit” through minimalist simplification, providing a more general implication of its essence. The highly schematic form of haiku poetry achieves a similar effect. In contrast to the abundant specificity and detail of Western epic poetry such as the Iliad, a haiku expresses a universal feeling, proportional to its simplicity. The sound of the frog splashing in the summer pond in Basho’s well known verse is not intended to depict a specific frog at a specific time in a specific place, but rather to evoke a general memory and feeling of summer, anywhere, anytime, through that simple image. These examples suggest that simplicity, lacking specific detail, is more able to “capture the spirit” of a subject. Could it be the same with kata? Rather than a mystified compendium of camouflaged specific applications for unique combat situations, revealed by the master to the select few, perhaps kata shares a similar a lack of specificity and simplification to capture the “spirit” of combat situations that can be explored and interpreted in a variety of ways.

These examples exemplify the principle that less can be more. One can marvel at how much can be suggested through the elegant simplicity of a single brush-stroke or few words of haiku. It might take a lifetime for a painter to paint that simple, elegant stroke, or find those few words to express a timeless idea. Perhaps kata is similar, providing a suggestive framework, open to and inviting interpretation, rather than a rigid compendium of specific techniques, yet veiled for some reason. And just as the value of a Monet painting (influenced by Japanese woodcuts, coincidentally) is in how it is painted more than by what it represents, the value of kata is in the outward expression and inner experience of kata as a performance, and as a discipline of repetitive practice. Monet painted many paintings of haystacks.

As many martial arts masters have taught throughout history, practice is its own goal, for its own sake, the journey, not the destination. Kata seems an ideal platform for such practice. Kata demands physical coordination, balance; teaches movement, focus, concentration; and more. Kata, however well understood, can always be performed better, and perfecting kata is an analog for the ultimate perfection of the self. Like the Zen archer, the kata practitioner, after long practice, might become one with the kata. Of course I do think bunkai is relevant in the study of karate but by being specific, it seems limited in contrast to kata, and different in its aims. The difference between bunkai and kata should be appreciated. Saying this doesn’t make kata merely a meaningless dance, any more than a master sumi-e painting is a mere collection of brush strokes. By the same token, identifying kata with specific applications seems as short sighted as saying that a Wu Zuoren painting of a panda is just a panda, or that Monet painting is just a haystack. These are masterpieces because all the ways they are not what they depict, as unique expressions of skill, perception, emotion, knowledge, etc.

Wherein does the art of the martial arts, and karate specifically, lie? Is it in the certainty of bunkai, or in the uncertainty and ambiguity of kata? Is it in our answers, or in our questions? In the presumed (or claimed) known, or in the uncertain unknown? Is it knowledge, or the pursuit of knowledge?

When I started karate practice in the 1970’s there was no YouTube. The only katas I saw were the ones I could see for myself, mostly those I was taught and performed by my instructors and dojo-mates. Coming back to karate recently, I am amazed by what one can see on Youtube: katas of all variations. The variety of same-named katas in different styles and among different practitioners is astounding. Does this variety suggest a failure of proper understanding? If there is one “correct” or “true” form, then perhaps so, but I hope not. Isshin Kempo, the unique style I have studied, is closely related to Isshin Ryu. YouTube has made it possible for me to see Isshin Ryu’s legendary founder, Shimabuku, performing katas. These videos of films shot in the 1960’s and ‘70’s are very interesting. The master appears to be walking through the katas in a very schematic, casual, almost lackadaisical fashion. With no context we are left to speculate reasons for this odd performance. Perhaps he’s old and his mobility is limited, yet he seems quite fit and agile. Perhaps he is trying to conceal or camouflage the real meaning of the kata from the uninitiated through this simplification, but then why bother to film the katas at all? Or, perhaps this simplification is related to his mastery. It seems to me that Shimabuku has reduced the katas to their most basic, simplest essential forms. Could it be that after many years of development and practice of these katas, Shimabuku has found their essence or “spirit” in the simplest possible terms, expressing the greatest variety of possibilities, not reducible to any specific application?

To those who seek specific answers to the true “meaning” of kata in specific bunkai, I say “more power to them.” For myself, for now, I am content with the struggle to achieve greater fluidity and precision in my performance of kata, and the endless possibilities for exploration and insight their practice offers to deepen my understanding. 

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