BUNKAI, THE MISSING LINK
 
More than meets the eye
Today in many dojos around the world, I suspect that kata remains one of the most popular aspects of karate training for a lot of the students.
 
I know that is the case in our dojo.
 
Over the years, however, I have discovered that more often than not, very few students spend any measurable amount of time actually practicing the associated bunkai for even the most basic of their katas. And even those students who do make the effort to expand their knowledge, by forming groups, and trying to establish a practical scenario, seldom do so often enough to make it a habit.
 
I suppose this is only natural, since students often feel that it is far easier to practice something they are already familiar with, the basics movements, than it is to delve into the unknown, try something new, and stick with it until it starts to make sense.
 
But why is that?
 
One of the most obvious reasons that comes to mind is that many students of all ranks simply do not comprehend in any depth, just what it means to bunkai a kata. If that is the case, then where does the fault for this lack of knowledge belong?
 
With the student, or with the instructor?
 
The answer of course, is the instructor.
 
After all the Sensei or Chief Instructor in any dojo, is ultimately responsible for what the students in his or her care do, or do not, learn.
 
Now don't get me wrong I am not advocating that every dojo has to turn out students who are champions in kata, kumite, and kobudo, because we all know that is simply not what karate is really all about. But, I am suggesting that a working knowledge of a practical bunkai for every kata a student knows, should be a rudimentary requirement to aid their overall development as far as kata is concerned. So if bunkai is being overlooked as a regular form of kata training, then I for one feel that this needs to be addressed as soon as possible, after all kata may be the "soul" of karate, but bunkai is the "heart" of kata.
 
Put in the simplest terms, "bunkai is the creation of at least one underlying application, either defensive or offensive, for all of the visible movements and techniques that are contained in the embusen of any kata".
 
The key word here, is visible.
 
In more complex terms, "bunkai is the imagination in motion".
 
The key word here, is imagination.
 
Now while my first statement describing what bunkai means may seem more complex than the second one, I assure you that quite the opposite is true. After all, making the connection that a gedan barai (down block) in Taikyoku Shodan could be used to block a kick, or for that matter a punch, is not all that difficult to comprehend even for a white belt, once the reasoning behind the application has been fully explained.
 
In this example we are dealing with what I call, "the visibly obvious".
 
On the other hand it takes a very experienced karate-ka to see beyond the obvious, and to look for unseen, complex, and imaginative ways, in which any seemingly basic technique can be expanded into something more than may first come to mind. To better understand what I mean take the following example.
 
This time in a more complex, although still fairly basic example, again start with the gedan barai (down block) in Taikyoku Shodan. Only this time "expand" the scenario by using the loading motion of the gedan barai (down block) to trap an attackers left chudan gyaku zuki (middle level reverse punch), then turning your right hand upward immediately grabbed the attackers left wrist with your right hand, and then stepping forward, apply the gedan barai (down block), only this time use it as a strike to your attackers left elbow, and then follow up by stepping forward with a right chudan oi zuki (middle level lunge punch). This then is bunkai only with a bit more of an imaginative application.
 
Not long ago in fact I tried an experiment to do precisely that, test my students imagination.
 
I divided an adult class and the assisting sempai's into groups of four. I then gave each group just three minutes to come up with as many bunkai applications as they could for just a standing gedan barai (down block). At the end of the allotted time the number of applications created by each group varied from five to fourteen. I say created because in each group once all of the "visibly obvious" applications were accounted for, the process ceased to be visual and started to become a lot more thought provoking. This is when their imagination finally kicked into motion. Suddenly previously un-thought of ideas and applications started to spring forth.
 
While it is true that the more senior students and the sempai's in each group came up with the most creative applications, some very innovative thoughts also came from the lower ranks, who interestingly enough placed no pre-conceived limitations on their way of thinking. In the end when all of the ideas from all of the groups was pooled together, everyone involved in this process came away with a greater realization of "what could be" when it comes to applying bunkai to a very basic kata movement.
 
The real important point in all of this, as I said to the students at the end of the exercise is, "if you can find fourteen different bunkai (applications) for a simple, standing down block, then how many potential bunkai (applications) do think there are in Heian Shodan, let alone in all of the techniques and movements in all of the other kata that you may know"?
 
At that moment from where I was standing, I could almost see the wheels in their mind starting to turn in an attempt to calculate what suddenly seemed incalculable. But I had made my point. They all understood that there is a great deal more than meets the eye to even a very basic kata movement.
 
The goal, however, as always, is to get the students to remember one very important thing.
 
When performing any kata, students, and teachers alike, must remember to keep in mind that the "missing links" or "visual applications" must remain missing. Only the required movements of the kata, without any added interpretations, are to be performed.
 
Nothing else is need, or for that matter wanted, except perhaps a little grrrrrr.
 
So remember, bunkai is not driven by rank.
 
It is an open door which all students are encouraged to walk through, all they have to do is take the first step. So train often, train hard, and be sure and add practicing "kata applications" to your regular training schedule.
 
As I have said before, if you can learn to keep kata and bunkai separate, then using your new found knowledge of how bunkai fits into the overall scheme of things will lead you well on your way to a greater understanding of all that your kata and karate can be".
 
May your imagination run wild.
 
Remember
Knowing when to keep kata basic,
and knowing when to add bunkai,
is a sign of experience in action.
Part the clouds - see the way.
 
"The objective of karate-do is to contribute to the evolution
of the human spirit through physical and mental training."
Sensei Peter Lindsay