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Ryan Danks
Ryan Danks's picture
Is Karate (and most Kung-Fu styles) a Dead Art?

This has been weighing pretty heavily on me the last few weeks. A friend of mine refuses to train in anything related to kata, but he's familiar with the concepts behind them because I've tried to "evangelize" him to our bunkai ways over the last decade or so. Recently, we had a conversation about kata and bunkai, the pros and cons. He acquiesced the fact that kata practice had value, but kept bringing up the point that we don't actually know the original intentions of the creators of the kata because it has been lost to time. Since that is true, I couldn't refute the point. He went on to suggest that the only way to learn karate bunkai at all would be to study other styles and see where movements are similar, but that such an endeavor would be for a karateka interested in exploring their style and the broader world of martial arts.

I've spent the last few weeks pondering the conclusions that we reached in that conversation: that karate and kung-fu styles that we have both studied (as they were originally created) are lost to time, that kata/form training has real value if the original bunkai is known, and that learning other styles in an attempt to reconstruct the bunkai of "dead" (his word) kata is great for the prosperity of karate but not an efficient way of gaining combative skill.

Given that the above is true (and I'm open to hearing refutations for any or all of it), it appears to me that the best way forward (when talking about efficiency, which seems to be the goal of kata in the first place) is to learn "kata-less" arts that teach a certain range of combat (boxing, muay thai, etc.) and create our own kata for the close range movements that require a partner to practice (judo, jujutsu, etc.).

I'm not suggesting that such is the way forward, or that these conclusions are ironclad (as I said, I welcome refutations), but if they are then this makes sense to me. My primary goal is combative skill, but a close second is enjoyment of the martial arts, and I enjoy practicing karate very much.

Any thoughts on this?

Chikara Andrew
Chikara Andrew's picture

I think that as long as the bunkai is studied in a realistic way then the kata is not dead. We cannot always be certain that the applications that we use are the same as those the creators had in mind but as long as they are effective then does it matter?

The belief that karate was originally developed for civilian application means that it is still relevant today. A confrontation on a forest track in Okinawa in the 19th Century is not that far detached from a town alley in 21st Century Britain. I use that analogy as that is where I am from and we are essentially a weapon-less country although the possibility for improvised weapons and small knives is still a possibility, as it way then.

Take Seipai, I consider this to be one of my key kata and whilst we have a fantastic historic record for this kata by way of Kenwa Mabuni’s book I don’t necessarily agree with everything in it. Seipai as a kata remains very well preserved against this historic record, in that there are few if any changes to the form against the photographic record. So we can assume that we are working with the same raw material, the kata, that Mabuni was although the kata was in use within karate circles for at least 50 years before Mabuni published his book.

Iain also has a very good flow drill for his applications of Seipai which show solid combative applications for the movements, still keeping within the form of the kata. Some of these differ from Mabuni’s application, and some of my own, it doesn’t make any of them less effective.

It is true that we could take what we have learnt from kata and teach and record it in different way but this would in my view take it away from being karate.

Andrew

Kevin73
Kevin73's picture

I've seen this debate over and over on the use of kata.  First, it depends on your definition of kata.  IMO all striking arts use "kata" in their training methods.  Every time a boxer uses shadow boxing and practices his favorite combos, he is practicing kata.  

But, kata are so much more than that as well.  Kata were designed as a mnuemonic device.  Something to "spark" your memory so that you could train and remember multiple applications through one motion.  This is why at one point before karate became more public and books were written about it and showing it, the motions didn't have names to them.  Why?  Because when you put a label on human movement it creates and stops any other ideas about that movement.  For example, an inward block can be used as the obvious inward block.  But, the same motion can also be used as a hammerfist strike to your attacker when you are closer.  Now, add that into kata with a step back and you can pin with your other hand and use the inward block motion as an arm break. Etc.  This is why the okinawan masters were so set against changing the movements of the kata.  There wasn't just ONE application to the movement, there were multiples.  If you changed the movement to better fit an application, then the other applications could be lost.

Lastly, I think it is also a more "modern" approach that we think that kata is all you need.  We are rediscovering the two man drills contained within them and the drill based sparring that was used for many years before the more modern sports style sparring approach.  These movements can be pulled out of the kata to practice and give us an idea of a gameplan.  

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Ryan Danks wrote:
He acquiesced the fact that kata practice had value, but kept bringing up the point that we don't actually know the original intentions of the creators of the kata because it has been lost to time. Since that is true …

I thinks that’s an error in thinking. It is suggesting a “frozen in time” view of the development of karate. I know exactly what the applications of kata are. I teach them to my people all the time and practise them endlessly. In know with full 100% certainly what the applications are, they work, and they fit in an enjoyable and effective framework that has kata at its core.

The thinking expressed above suggests that only an historical application is valid. It also suggests that we must endlessly theorise as to what they could have been; even though we have no way of knowing if we are right or not. It’s a dead end, and a road that has no purpose anyway. We need to move on.

I’d suggest that a practical approach is the way to go. I have analysed the kata and I know what the applications are (for me and mine). I teach those applications as part of a holistic system. I am not stuck in “historical analysis paralysis”.

All martial arts evolve. As an example, the MMA of today is radically different from the MMA of twenty years ago. No one suggests that only historical MMA is true! The measure is what works (which is what all martial artists should measure by).

In the karate world, we looked at our kata and many have found they had massive value in making karate as holistic as possible. We are now running “Karate 2.0” which grows from it historical roots, is in full accord with its historical roots, but it is still living and growing.

The leaves on my apple tree this summer will not be not the same leaves as last year, but they originate from the same source. Karate has had its “winter” – where there was no bunkai (leaves) – but it’s now time for karate to grow again. The leaves are back! Not the exact same leaves, but ones that serve the exact same purpose. Ones that naturally grow from branches (kata), that in turn grow from the trunk (karate), which it turn grows from the roots (the nature of combat).

The MMA of today is different from the MMA of the past, but it shares the same roots. The Boxing of today is different from the Boxing of the past, but it shares the same roots. The Judo of today is different from the Judo of the past, but it shares the same roots. The Aikido of today is different from the Aikido of the past, but it shares the same roots. What should karate be any different?

The karate of today is different from the karate of the past, but it shares the same roots. We have our karate (complete with our understanding of how kata works for us) and the past masters had theirs. I KNOW EXACTLY what the applications to all the kata I practise are. Pragmatism and practicality is what gives us validity; not an unplayable game of historical snap.

Ryan Danks wrote:
that learning other styles in an attempt to reconstruct the bunkai of "dead" (his word) kata is great for the prosperity of karate but not an efficient way of gaining combative skill.

My students don’t need to reconstruct anything. I don’t give them that kata and say, “you work it out”. I give them the kata and a load of functional combative drills that go with it. I’ve done the hard work for them. I want them to question my conclusions, and do their bit to see karate to continue to evolve, but they are given our bunkai every bit a solidly as any other system imparts its basics to new practitioners.

No one walks in to a boxing gym to be told, “I don’t know, you work it out”. They have a structured syllabus designed to develop skills over time. The coach knows where he wants the student to be, and he has a path marked out to get them there. It’s the same for me (and all those like me). They are taught bunkai in exactly the same way the person new to boxing will be taught to throw a jab.

My kata is not dead. It’s living and breathing and it as just as effective a way of gaining combative skill as any other well-structured system. The thinking expressed by your friend is based on two false assumptions:

1 – Modern takes on kata, no matter how useful or practical, are of no value because only historical applications are valid.

2 – No one has reached any worthwhile conclusions on how kata should be applied and everyone has to start from the beginning and ignore all the work done before.

Both are false.

1 - Function is the measure, so modern applications have validity because of their function.

2 – Decades of work have been done on bunkai. There is no need to endlessly start at the beginning. MMA has come a long way in the last 20 years, and so has the understanding of kata. No one tells MMA people that they must “put it together from themselves” because we knew there are people who have learnt and can teach modern MMA. It’s the exact same thing with karate. We know the applications (our applications) and we can teach them.

Ryan Danks wrote:
Given that the above is true (and I'm open to hearing refutations for any or all of it), it appears to me that the best way forward (when talking about efficiency, which seems to be the goal of kata in the first place) is to learn "kata-less" arts that teach a certain range of combat (boxing, muay thai, etc.) and create our own kata for the close range movements that require a partner to practice (judo, jujutsu, etc.).

That would be right … IF you assume that no one has anything of value to teach in karate, but the other arts have. The Judo coach teaches judo based on all the work done by others up until that point. Why should karate be different?

You may get a judo coach who teaches 1960s judo, but most would prefer one has not ignored the last 50 years of development. Same with karate. You could find a teacher who teaches 1960s “bunkai free karate”, but better to find one who teaches 2016 karate, who has not ignored all that has been happening, and who has a good understanding of bunkai. There are lots of them around, and even more with every year that passes.

There is already a full generation of karateka who have never practised karate without bunkai at its core. Just as there is a generation who have never know martial arts without MMA.

Ryan Danks wrote:
My primary goal is combative skill, but a close second is enjoyment of the martial arts, and I enjoy practicing karate very much.

I’ve always said that, for me, my martial arts need to be both “life enhancing” (fun!) and “life preserving” (combative skill and health). For me, karate is the methods that fits those two requirements most effectively. It is functional, enjoyable and I can do it for the whole of my life (albeit in differing ways).

If you like your karate, then own your karate. If the bunkai you were taught / practise / teach is working for you, then that is all the validity it needs. No need for an historical stamp of authenticity. The classical judo of Kano is not the same judo we see in the Olympics today. That’s how it should be. No one screams that some of the techniques used are not “historical” and therefore not valid. They work, and they share a root, so it is judo.

Arts like judo, BJJ, MMA, etc are constantly evolving and developing new methods that build on old ones. Ironically, that’s what happened “traditionally” too. My take on and use of kata can’t be fully historically validated (although they are in large part), but that’s an irrelevance to me, just as such things are an irrelevance to BJJ, MMA, etc. As Funakoshi said:

“Time change, the world changes, and obviously the martial arts must change too. The karate that high school students practise today is not the same karate that was practised even are recently as ten years ago, and it is a long way indeed from the karate I learned when I was a child in Okinawa”.

Why should this process stop? The karate of today has some highly effective applications and training methods for bunkai. Does it really matter if they have an historical stamp of 100% authenticity? If so, why? It does not matter for any other art, so why karate? And it never mattered in the past – Funakoshi was not seeking an historical stamp of authenticity for the karate of his time – so why does it matter now?

So long as what we do works for us, is beneficial to us, and is enjoyable for us, then I would suggest that all is good.

The “tree of Karate” is healthy with new leaves unfurling, working, and benefiting the tree. It should not be a concern that they may or may not be the same leaves from before the winter.

Ryan Danks wrote:
Is Karate (and most Kung-Fu styles) a Dead Art?

The new leaves are a sign it’s far from dead :-)

All the best,

Iain

genkaimade
genkaimade's picture

Just to throw in my 2c, I think I have come to a conclusion on this over the last few months. I take everything said above, and agree with Iain (it's difficult not to, when does he ever not speak sense on these issues!), but I think there is something we have to be aware of. Namely, I think we have to remind ourselves that the "investigation" of bunkai is only as useful as the practical results it produces, and the great mistake is to spend all one's time "investigating" bunkai sat in front of books/the computer etc. as opposed to actually putting the findings into effect. It annoys me to no end that youtube (and the internet more generally) is now flooded with half-assed attempts at being inspired by the likes of Iain, Patrick McCarthy et al., with a thousand different variations on the first three movements of every kata, but with no evidence of ever having properly pressure tested the ideas, or of these now-investigated movements/drills actually becoming the main part of practical training.

So I suppose the thing that I would add to this discussion is that "traditional", form-based, "styles", are dead in a lot of places, and if the majority of your training is not spent actually practically doing things in a relatively "live" environment, then yes you're almost definitely not getting the most out of your time. On the other hand, if you're lucky enough to be training like, for, example, Mr Abernethy, then your style is alive and kicking, and kata is enormously useful, and practically essential.

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

The purpose of kata is to be template for Karateka to learn, use, and eventually interanlize combative lessons of physiology and physics. For this, what is needed is a holistic understanding of the art and the purpose of kaa, as well as having the required understanding of those physiological and physical principles.  Indeed, if someone believes that kata all had very specific movements with specific attacks etc. in mind, that is a "dead" (or at least dying) approach to kata. However, we have writings from old masters, and our own experiences ,disputing that kata was ever supposed to be used like that int he first place.

The old masters also, would have been pracitcing a dead art if they practiced that way, that is actually just bad training, being that prescriptive.

e wrote:
So I suppose the thing that I would add to this discussion is that "traditional", form-based, "styles", are dead in a lot of places, and if the majority of your training is not spent actually practically doing things in a relatively "live" environment, then yes you're almost definitely not getting the most out of your time. On the other hand, if you're lucky enough to be training like, for, example, Mr Abernethy, then your style is alive and kicking, and kata is enormously useful, and practically essential.

This is true I think. I've found that when you've been lucky enough to have (or pursue, or both) functional Karate training, most people are not familiar with it, and will automatically assume you are doing the "3 k" approach, in which frankly, Kata is mostly for show.

Anyway a style being alive or dead is entirely up to the practiitoners, if the art lives in the skills of the practitioner, it is alive and kicking, if it is more of a museum or preservation piece, it died a long time ago, if it was ever alive in the first place.

So, I think your whole premise is off.

e wrote:
I'm not suggesting that such is the way forward, or that these conclusions are ironclad (as I said, I welcome refutations), but if they are then this makes sense to me. My primary goal is combative skill, but a close second is enjoyment of the martial arts, and I enjoy practicing karate very much.

Combative skill at what? Combative skill learned as acompetitive Judoka is completely different from comabtive skills learned as a boxer, combative skill learned as a RBSD practitioner, combative skill learned as a bouncer, combative skill learned as a wrestler, etc.

Combative skill is not one thing, it is a spectrum, and you need to know what kind of skills you want to train for.

Dod
Dod's picture

David Gilmour was asked about the biggest breakthrough in his guitar playing and he answered something to the effect of:  when he became comfortable with his own style and stopped being concerned about playing like other guitarists.

Maybe even if we knew the favourite applications of the old masters we might reject them for our own favoured variations. 

It’s an amazing thing about our kata that the movements support multiple good applications.  Presumably because of solid transferrable principles (posture,  efficient movement tricks etc)  

dhogsette
dhogsette's picture

Hello all, another great thread. Love the apple tree analogy--very Romantic a la Colerdge and Wordsworth. And totally accurate. Pressure testing is key. My club is starting to realize that as we begin kata and kihon based sparring in which we start using the bunkai principles against less and non-compliant partners yet still safely (always aware of the flaw in the drill but realizing we must go to work the next day). Finally, I love the Gilmour quote--indeed, I'm less concerned with other karate and more concerned with my own and what I teach. I seek the guidance and wisdom of like minded folks like those in this forum and my own Senseis, but I don't feel the need to impress or convince the nay sayers. As Iain Sensei mentioned to me one time, the dogs will bark but the caravan keeps on moving.

Best, David

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

dhogsette wrote:
Love the apple tree analogy--very Romantic a la Colerdge and Wordsworth.

Thank you. And Wordsworth was born and lived where? I guess there is something about this town that inspires the Cumbrian man to poetically muse ;-)

All the best,

Iain

Stuart Akers
Stuart Akers's picture

I have struggled with kata/forms all my martial arts career, I dreaded grading, I hated having to get up and prance about pretending to fight, doing moves I'd never use in sparring or outside.

I detested the thought that I could be good to be included in the A team and lead the B team if needed in kumite but still be made to feel unworthy overall.

This lasted for most of my life and I had 1 of those 'moments'.

I love historical novels and it was one about Ancient Greeceand the author kept banging on about 'The Dance' the town warriors used to perform in full war gear and then in one of the battle scenes how 'The Dance' was used to move the plananx around the battlefield with out tripping over each other.

That started me thinking about other war dances/haka.

My life seems to have 1 long round of me shooting off in one direction, shouting my mouth off, then ambling back  realizing I was so wrong. 

Mulberry4000
Mulberry4000's picture

Karate kata are like musical  scales, each scale teaches you different notes, chords and sounds, but  it is up to you develop them. Each scale developes different muscles in the hands, and introduces different musical contruction in the mind. 

All are endless and pratical, after all if we just stick to playing our favourite song we would loose out on all the notes, the sounds and the wonder of discovery, it is the same in karate kata. 

Read it like a book and go on the adventure.

Cataphract
Cataphract's picture

Lyoto Machida made Shotokan work for him in MMA. If all your training is kata, you won't be able to fight your way out of a wet paper bag.

Kata's value, to me, is in what they don't contain - stupid mistakes, bad tactics, awkward stances.

Jeremy_Rhynes
Jeremy_Rhynes's picture

As a former composer and vocalist, I love the music analysis best.  When I was studying music theory initially, my professor used to say "Music obeys these rules; good music knows when to use them and when to break them.  Learn the rules well, so you know which ones to use and which to break creatively."  On my own journey so far, I find kata the same.  Kata teaches techniques, reinforces proprioceptic learning, hard-codes the body to sound balance and weight distribution.  But kata is music theory, as it were.  Real world practical application is more like jazz.  The junior yudansha at my own dojo have a class every week for us to come together and dig in.  We spend a week investigating concepts, and then come together to share ideas, pressure test.  Do we come to different conclusions that the masters of old did? Sometimes. Other times we discover how the traditional bunkai works for our disparate forms and personal limitations.  No matter how close to the "traditional" bunkai you try to get, it will always mold itself to your experiences, body, and mentality.  This is where the traditional forms shine most.  Much like Bruce Lee's "be water" statement, the martial arts fit themselves to the vessel you are.  I think if anything, traditional martial arts (karate, gongfu, HEMA) are experiencing a resurgence of educated and enlightened investigation.  We are no longer satisfied with "this is how it's always been done," and like the philosophers of Renaissance Europe have begun asking "but why?"

Just my thoughts, based on my journey thus far.  Cheers.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Jeremy_Rhynes wrote:
As a former composer and vocalist, I love the music analysis best.  When I was studying music theory initially, my professor used to say "Music obeys these rules; good music knows when to use them and when to break them.  Learn the rules well, so you know which ones to use and which to break creatively."  On my own journey so far, I find kata the same.  Kata teaches techniques, reinforces proprioceptic learning, hard-codes the body to sound balance and weight distribution.  But kata is music theory, as it were. Real world practical application is more like jazz ....

That’s an amazing analogy! Love it! It’s feel exactly right and reflects the way kata “lives and breathes” when correctly understood. Nice!

All the best,

Iain