* Gary recently tested for his Black Belt in Kenpo at Progressive Martial Arts Academy and this was written during his preparation process.
Among the many misgivings and general sense of discomfort that a middle-aged man might have upon embarking on a journey in the martial arts, is the necessity to engage a new vocabulary. Words of foreign origin that define what you train, where you train and even what is “hidden” within your training both fascinate and intimidate at the outset. Bunkai is such a word. Mysterious and powerful, meaningful yet elusive, bunkai has been a source of curiosity to me since I began my journey. I hope this is a sign of normal human learning and not just another personal inability of mine, but the sheer volume of material that I have encountered along my path has at times left me struggling to just remember foot placement, type of strike or the orientation of my opponent. This struggle has many times prevented me from truly engaging the material in order to gain a more nuanced understanding. At times I do feel like I am moving beyond mere rote memorization of my material to a place of greater engagement and understanding, only to then again find myself mired in an inordinate preoccupation with steps and heel orientation and points of exhalation. With this in mind, any chance to learn and engage this subject with a goal of discerning a deeper meaning can only be of benefit.
Now would be a good time for a disclaimer: I am solely a product of FILKENJUTSU-KAI. Any biases, misconceptions or flawed analysis I bring to this work are purely the result of my ignorance and relative inexperience related to the martial arts. I hold no latent loyalty to a system, house or style.
Japanese in origin, one recognized translation of bunkai is “analysis” or “disassembly” and is most commonly used to breakdown through demonstration the techniques performed in katas to show their practical application against opponent/s. Basically put; Here is your kata, it is made up of “X” movements, let’s take movement “X” from the kata and this is the how it could be used in reality (“Bunkai”, 2016). Another source defines bunkai as meaning “application” in Japanese. It refers to a type of training, usually performed as formal one-step kumite, in which the practitioner studies the application of the individual movements performed during kata by applying them as defenses against the simulated attacks of a training partner (“Kata and Bunkai”, 2016). Still another uses “The bunkai of kata teaches us the true meaning and relevance of kata as a whole. As stated, bunkai means application, more specifically how can I use these moves that I am practicing to devastating effect against an opponent” (“The meaning of Kata”, 2016)
The definitions vary slightly, but there is often passionate disagreement as to the relevance, origins and relative importance of the concept. To this end, however, there is a consistency in the references I encountered in that they all use kata as the backdrop for the study of bunkai. A working definition of kata is, “an exercise consisting of several of the specific movements of a martial art, especially a pattern prescribed for defending oneself against several attackers, used in judo and karate training.” (“Kata”, 2017). A more nuanced meaning would have kata originating from the practice of paired attack and defense drills by ancient Chinese martial artists. However, as the numbers of attacks and defenses being practiced increased the difficulty of remembering all of the drills also increased. An additional problem with the drills was the requirement for a partner to be present for all practice. Kata forms were created as solo forms containing the concatenated sequences of movements of the defensive portions of the drills. The initial forms being simply strings of movements, sets of rules were created to allow the creation of kata which could fit comfortably within training spaces (Toguchi, 2001).
So, with kata as the backdrop for the study of bunkai, we can begin to see where those passionate voices diverge. Ian Abernathy, a prolific writer on the subjects of kata and bunkai, states “The recording of information through physical movement is probably as old as mankind itself. Ancient cultures often used sequences of physical movements as a method to pass on their culture to the next generation. Part of this culture would undoubtedly be the fighting and hunting techniques that the group had refined and found to be most successful. Since combat is a physical activity, there can be little doubt that the most effective way for an individual to learn the combative skills of the group would be to copy the physical movements of those who were more experienced. The elders would demonstrate the various combative movements and the younger members of the group would try to emulate them. These skills would eventually be further refined and then passed on to subsequent generations. It is in this way that the first ‘katas’ would have been created.(Abernathy, 2012.) He records that during the 11th century, a number of Japanese warriors fleeing from the Taira-Minamoto wars made their way to Okinawa. Many of the Minamoto samurai took Okinawan wives and remained upon the island for the rest of their days. The bujitsu (specializations to the combat arts practiced by the military class prior to roughly 1600) of the Minamoto samurai had a large influence on the fighting methods employed by the Okinawan nobles. One part of Minamoto bujitsu that had an influence on the development of karate was the idea that all motion is essentially the same. Whether striking, grappling or wielding a weapon, the Minamoto samurai taught that all combative methods relied upon similar physical movements (like a left lead holding escrima sticks where the shoulder, hip and foot movement would be the same as in boxing. Lessons learned in parking lots are often the one’s that stick with you the best). An individual would be taught a particular physical movement and would then be shown how that movement could be adapted to achieve varying goals. The results of this combat philosophy can still be seen in modern day karate. It is not uncommon to see a single movement in a kata to be given several different applications. This use of multiple applications, whilst sometimes controversial, is historically correct. By affording a movement multiple applications the founders of what became known as karate ensured that great amounts of information could be contained in katas of a manageable length. The use of multiple applications also helps ensure a quick response in combat. This is because the practitioner has not learned many different movements for many different situations, which is extremely undesirable as the brain will have to sift through large amounts of information before being able to determine the appropriate movement. Instead, the practitioner will have learnt a relatively small number of movements that can be applied to many situations. (Goodin, 2006)
I believe it can be said that Abernathy feels the movements made available/practical by the kata are the bunkai contained within. Could he in fact be stating that the bunkai of the kata is the platform for movement that could be applied directly to fighting/combat, not any particular movements themselves? This supposition is buttressed by the writing of Schmeisser who states that “in the west we tend to use the word "bunkai" as a blanket term for kata applications. This is actually an incorrect usage of the Japanese word. Literally translated, the term bunkin karate kata refers to solo practice drills in China and Okinawa where these drills were practiced much like the scene from Enter the Dragon, where each person is amassed and executes the actions in unison. This was an Asian form of drill & ceremony for older times, Western armies used marching. Likewise, the kata could be practiced by individuals alone and was a form of moving meditation, physical exercise and a "text book" for martial arts where bunkai (literally "to disassemble") is used to analyze the form to discover alternative applications and techniques. Here a single form taught lower ranking soldiers might have a totally different meaning to the initiated higher ranking soldiers. Kata Bunkai has three ways of viewing Kata... Omote is literally "surface" so Kata Bunkai Omote is the first form of initiation, the surface application of the form that would be taught to the lowest ranking of soldiers. At the Omote level what you see is what you get, a punch is a punch, a kick a kick and block a block. Here kata forms the process of exercise and teaching basic fighting techniques.
In our ancient Asian army we would have our "NCOs" (Non-Commissioned Officers) or "Sergeants" (if you are a civilian) who would be initiated into the Ura Bunkai, Ura literally means "Behind" and it is what is behind the form. Here techniques are not just techniques, a Juji-uke (cross block) and pivot may be a trap and break or throw. This is the "secret" teaching of the kata. And finally our last level of initiation is for our "Officers" this is called Honto Bunkai. Honto literally means "true" or "truth" for the largest part, and because few Karateka wrote down their teachings much of Honto Bunkai has been lost to history, but this is where the intentionally "hidden secrets" in kata are laid bare.
So in our ancient context, bunkai actually means analysis of a subject by detailed dissection or disassembly of the whole. In practice, when we suggest possible applications of the techniques, we are actually discussing "oyo" or possible examples. The term "bunkai" would then suggest that we are taking a kata apart, analyzing the movements and then attempting to discover all the possible applications. This attitude is important when practicing kata bunkai: there is never just one possible application, just numerous applications of which some are most likely best.” (Schmeisser, 1999)
Deliniations or stratifications of bunkai are found throughout the subject writings. It would seem that the classification is level is determined by the experience level of the practitioner. An interesting take on this delineation is offered up by Collins, “Many times throughout history in both Okinawa and China this level of initiation was used due to armies having conscripted soldiers. Many of the documents which survived to present day are written in a form of metaphor that served as a code. Understanding these metaphors was part of the Honto Bunkai level of teaching though not directly related to Kata where strategy and tactics could be concealed in the form at the Honto level. One claiming to know the secret codes would have to be initiated at various levels. This of course is like an ancient form of security clearance. That prevented misuse of knowledge by those who would seek to overthrow their leaders” (Collins, 2014).
Another take has the levels of bunkai taking on an ordinal ranking. Level I is the simplest and most apparent. It is always singular in range. Striking, blocking and kicking rule the understanding of this level. Strength and speed along with emotional involvement occur. Level II involves basic combinations, plural in scope. The techniques begin to link discovery of technical continuity. Level III is the advanced or compound combination. Himitsu, unseen movements, become apparent at the physical level. Level IV is where internal and external consciousness begins. The overall picture forms on all levels. Personal perceptiveness and development occur. Level V is concerned with internal manifestation and the transition of secret knowledge. At this level one experiences wholeness, Chi and true spiritual wisdom. Levels I-III can be taught, IV and V must be experienced (“Levels of Understanding Karate and Bunkai”, 2015).
Jesse Enkamp breaks this stratification down along similar lines, but with more of a modern practitioner bent. He believes greater commitment and engagement is what affords someone the enlightenment to move beyond Omo to the Honto level of bunkai, not purely someone’s place in the hierarchy. It would seem that he is promoting willingness over necessity, seeking over finding (Enkamp, )
As a black belt candidate, I have benefited greatly from the opportunity to research a particular facet of the martial arts. The Venturi tube of physical preparation required for the test (practicing material, physical conditioning) doesn’t necessarily lend itself to studious thought and research into something beyond the reach of the fist or foot. My research into bunkai has provided me a great opportunity to seek answers to some questions, but more importantly, I think, it has generated tenfold more.
Enlightenment is man's release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! 'Have courage to use your own reason!'- that is the motto of enlightenment. ― Immanuel Kant
Absorb what is useful, discard what is not. Add what is uniquely your own. - Bruce Lee
My academy, dojo, Family, does not countenance hubris or self-aggrandizement. As it is, the path is too long, the way too humbling to sustain these feelings. Rather, my journey has presented me with a canvas onto which I have been able to realize a better me through work, and a sincere desire to improve. The years have passed so quickly; a rush of relationships, experiences and emotions that I didn’t think at my age and station in life I would have the opportunity to experience again. I remember distinctly my emotions as I took my first step onto the mat: excitement, trepidation, curiosity. The intervening years have brought joy, satisfaction, frustration, and a true concern for the well-being of my friends and training partners (which to the outsider seems incongruous because of what we do to and with each other on a regular basis). Now, 5 years later, as I prepare to step onto the mat for the latest challenge in my journey, my emotions are still: excitement, trepidation, curiosity. My SiFu posed this question some time ago: Do you consider yourself a martial artist? I remember being confused and very uncertain as to how I felt, thinking that I didn’t know what level of competence was necessary to answer in the affirmative. As I write this, the indecision is gone, replaced by a quiet, but firm confidence. I do consider myself a true martial artist, not because of reaching some arbitrary skill level, but because of how my training makes me feel and the lessons I have learned on the mat that carry over to the rest of my life. Patience, greater empathy toward others, and an honest appraisal of my inabilities are all direct byproducts of my training. I have learned to be more at peace with these inabilities being acceptable parts of me, and while always wanting to improve, I feel I am now better equipped to enjoy the process without an eye towards the “bottom line”.
Bunkai: to analyze a kata. FILKENJUTSU-KAI: to analyze one’s self.
Abernathy, Ian. Bunkai-Jitsu: The Practical Application of Karate Kata.NETH Publishing. 2012. Print.
“Bunkai”. Shotokan Karate Training. 2015. Web. 17 January 2017.
Collins, Ron. Black Dragon Ninjitsu. Lilu.com. 2014. Print.
Enkamp, Jesse. “The 3 types of Bunkai (Omote, Ura & Honto).” KaratebyJesse. 2016. Web. 1 February 2017.
Goodin, Charles C. “The Why of Bunkai: A guide for beginners”. Classical Fighting Arts, Issue 8, 2006. Print.
“Kata”. Dictionary.com. 2017. Web. 17 January 2017.
“Kata and Bunkai”. Kyokushin-Kan International Honbu. 1 December 2016. Web. 27 January 2017.
“Levels of Understanding Karate and Bunkai”. World Sansei Karate and Kobudo. 2015. Web. 4 February 2017.
Schmeisser, Elmar. Bunkai: The Secrets of Karate kata. Damashi Publications, 1999. Print
“The Meaning of Kata”. Seishin Shotokan Karate. 2011. Web. 27 January 2017.
Toguchi, Seikichi. Okinawan Goju-Ryu II: Advanced Techniques of Shorei-Kan Karate. Black Belt Communications, 2001. Print.