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The Great Bunkai Paradox

Updated: Jul 29, 2021

The Golden Pagoda - Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto. The reflection case across the water.

Bunkai is potentially one of the most divisive topics in Karate. The applications put forward as the accurate interpretations of kata movement vary from the wonderful to the ridiculous. There is in my opinion an unnecessary argument between what some perceive as traditional bunkai and others who claim practical bunkai. This argument is predicated upon the false notion that the two are mutually exclusive. Furthermore the notion of practical bunkai should surely be an unnecessary statement because from my perspective I’d question why anyone would consider impractical bunkai, surely there is only one type.

Of course this is the real world and unfortunately there are people who practice bunkai which is unfortunately hopelessly inadequate. This often stems from an assumption that the previous generations who taught us always got it right, and whilst there were many who did, for every success there is failure. Insecurity must also be a factor that so many are afraid to admit that perhaps they don’t know. So why did we end up in this situation?

The complexity of this question cannot be overstated. There will be a myriad of individual factors affecting each group so I will only attempt her to consider some broad points.

Firstly time stands still for no man. The social and cultural nature in which most kata were developed bears little resemblance to the modern 21st century. By the very fact kata survived the 20th century at all, as a century which saw more global change than at any other time in human history is testament to their value and genius. Firstly the nature of training has changed. If we rewind 120-140 years or so we would see dojo with only a few select dedicated students who would have direct and personal tuition from their teacher. Training was not geared towards a belt or specific target but understanding and development. Hence you might spend a year or so just exploring one section of kata or one technique and look at its variations, its counters, its follow ups, all leading to an in depth understanding of that one technique.

Usually a teacher would only teach a few specific kata and that there would not be collection of kata we see more in modern training. Depth rather than breadth was the order of the day. Kata therefore served as the foundation of training, it developed the fundamental techniques and concepts and acted as a stimulus for your training. If you consider systems which do not have kata you can still learn and develop an extensive range of combat skills without it however often you will find specific drills serve as a replacement. Of course kata is more than just a drill, it encourages you to reflect and analyse the movement you practice and to fit them into a much broader concept. In essence kata promotes thinking and analysis and in doing so develops understanding. This is what makes it more than just drill which is primarily focused on developing a specific skill or skill set.

As to be clear, I am not dismissing the value of drills, on the contrary kata practice can lead you to work on effective drills which, again, see it act as a stimulus.

So if we run with the proposition that kata is a fundamental stimulus to training it is no wonder therefore that you get stark contrast in the variety of bunkai which is produced. This is where purpose and perspective become significant.

If your goals in training are to be able to effectively defend yourself against an adversary then this defines the purpose of your training. This in turn alters your perspective; you will draw conclusions from kata based upon your desire to work effective applications. In contrast if you’re a high performance athlete and your goal is to be effective in competition the meaning you synthesise from bunkai is most likely to adhere to the principles of sporting kumite.

In both cases the kata merely presents and suggests principles, you must consider these but then crucially (and perhaps the missing step for many) must evaluate them against their effectiveness. Again to be clear this is effectiveness judged against the purpose of your training.

Other factors can influence your perspective. If your goal is to defend yourself against an adversary then the next question must be, what adversary? Are you looking for applications to defeat untrained hooligans, ruffians and evil doers, or are you training to defeat an equally skilled opponent? What you expect from your opponent will influence the tactics you apply. Are you anticipating an armed opponent and if so what type of weapon?

Another crucial factor is experience. If I was to give a metaphor for the study of bunkai, it would be that it is the mirror to your kata and your understanding. It is fundamentally a reflective tool which stimulates insight. However, consider the following Koan (one of my favourites, I’m sure the wording isn’t quite right but you get the idea):

As part of your training you see a smudge on the mirror, it is out of place, at odds with the scene so you walk up to the mirror, raise the cloth and polish the mirror. The question is who is polishing the mirror?

So consider this, that when you analyse kata, you see what you know. Because bunkai is reflective you any only see that which already exists within your mind. This is in my opinion why many people struggle with bunkai to see variety and options because their own repertoire may be limited and that is OK because it only indicates there position on the journey. This is where the role of the teacher becomes important.

In martial arts understanding is quantified through the concept of Shu Ha Ri. For simplicity here I will use the simpler western analogy of the stages of competence. Before you learn the kata you are in a state of unconscious incompetence. You don’t know what you don’t know. The teacher therefore initially directs you, gives you clear guidance and opens your mind to the possibilities the kata brings. This is where you becoming consciously incompetence. You now know what you don’t know and can’t do. Through training and practice you become consciously competent and then eventually when you truly understand the concepts and techniques you can do it without free thought and become unconsciously competent. If we relate this to bunkai, initially you will struggle to see options because you don’t already know it. This may sound obvious but is why many struggle to see the possibilities of bunkai and hence develop their own often limited applications. Bunkai reveals it when you are ready, when your understanding enables comprehension, the challenge is too few study with the consistency and intensity required to reach what is actually only the minimum level of comprehension.

There a few truths that we kind of have to accept in the study of bunkai. Firstly that no matter how much we analyse and evaluate, we simply will not ever know the precise meaning envisaged by the creator. The kata of course serves as a record of the techniques but more importantly the principles which the creator considered to be essential to combat. This also allows the perspective and purpose of the kata to be different through the creator’s eyes to your own. However I personally don’t consider this lack of definitive answer a problem. This is because the purpose of my practice is to develop my own understanding and the kata merely serves as a vehicle for that. The second truth is that we ultimately can’t even be sure that the kata we practice is the same as the creator because kata quite rightly evolves through practice. Quite often variations in kata stem from variations on application and this is organic and proper. The more damaging changes are those which occur without reason and are predicated only on the notion of style. This of course can occur where the kata is altered for the benefit of the audience to make it more aesthetically pleasing.

So if we accept therefore that we can never know with complete certainty the original meaning we therefore can conclude the only sensible way is to consider a variety of applications for each movement and then evaluate these against our own goals (purpose and perspective). If your goal is to seek as close to the original truth as possible then your matrix is judged against the movements we can reconcile according to surviving records and accounts from the old teachers. You infer the correct way through association. If your goal is to simply explore possibility then you are only evaluating against that which you consider to be effective and valid.

For me kata is the ultimate 3D jigsaw puzzle which is constantly evolving. If you have a sequence of 3 moves in a kata we first consider the obvious 1-2-3, but then we can explore well what about 3-2-1, what about 1-3-2 and 1-5 or 2-6? You see quickly how the possibilities explode and this is consistent with the first truth I was told about kata as a 7 year old. That kata is a lifelong study. If there is a finite level of understanding then I do not believe this notion is valid because the saying isn’t kata is a lifelong study, only when you’re really slow at learning!

Another truth that I personally believe in, which may be a tad more controversial, is that kata isn’t always right. Let me explain.

Kata was created by humans, and all humans are vulnerable to error and mistakes. In other words kata aren’t perfect and nor should we expect them to be. In many respects I don’t think kata tries to be perfect either. If you take a single movement there is a near limitless number of ways you can adapt, vary and explore that movement. The kata makes no attempt to give you them all; it merely sets you up with a few of the favourite examples of the creator. The kata expects you to explore the rest for yourself based upon the principles in the kata as well as adhering to the general principles of all martial arts.

The kata also doesn’t iron out every single minutia of detail instead it highlights the key points and draws attention to their principles. Traditionally the teacher would layer on deeper understanding throughout a student’s training. Kata likely presents therefore a teachers preferred methods of application but of course not the only method, some variations may be superior and so in these circumstances it is only right and proper to not be limited by the kata. Again kata is the mirror through which to reflect not the straight jacket to limit.

Lastly the last truth about kata is that kata assumes… you’re not an idiot. What I mean by this is that there are certain things the kata simply doesn’t need to tell you, for example, following a simple technique to unbalance your opponent the kata may assume that you know how to complete any myriad of throwing techniques and that “the rest is obvious” or in some cases “the rest is your choice”, you can finish your opponent however you wish depending upon the situation.

My opinion of bunkai leads me to the personal truth that in kata, one movement nearly always leads to multiple applications. Bunkai is flexible and should work to help your develop your purpose. Bunkai should act as the vehicle for you to develop your understanding through reflection and through the stimulus it provides. And lastly bunkai should not be limited to examples alone. It should not stick abhorrently to the kata when there are more effective ways of executing a technique or if there are other variations to consider. Ultimately the most honest question we must ask ourselves is, is it effective for my purpose and goals in training.

All this leads to the great paradox of bunkai, that through the initial search for finite and definitive answer to the application of a single movement, you unveil a great deal of varied and unique applications which leads to a much deeper understanding than you ever set out to discover.

To view the video series on the bunkai paradox click here:

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