In general, bunkai is seen as a definition. By that I mean, kata represents a word which can then be defined by bunkai. For example:

Hypotenuse: the longest side of a right triangle, the side opposite the right angle

Block Left: A punch is coming in with the opponent’s right hand and I block with my left arm

See the similarity? Using this framework, people often develop a step-by-step dictionary of what they think their kata means. Through rote memorization, they can perform their bunkai on command when necessary. Unfortunately, when utilized as the sole method of bunkai learning, this method tends to get stuck and can be restrictive to learning.

Memorization is good until……..sorry…..I lost my train of thought.

The problem with memorization is that it is prone to failure. Time, distractions, creativity…they all get in the way of memorized techniques. Furthermore, locking in explanations for techniques prohibits the mind from exploring new options.

The concept of shuhari suggests that we must follow, transcend, and break away. Of course, this isn’t a step-wise process and is in fact circular, as we constantly learn new things, understand them, and then internalize them.

By thinking of bunkai as sheer memorization, we are limiting ourselves to shu (follow).

The First Phase of Learning Bunkai

The first phase of bunkai is almost always shu. Can it truly be any other way? We all have to learn the basics of our systems. Through the practice of kihon, drills, kata, and self defense skits we learn how to introduce our bodies to the art of fighting.

Unfortunately, getting stuck in the first phase is all too common. It is warm and comfortable in the first phase. “He strikes like *so* and I block like *so*. See? Nothing to it.”

It is also tempting as a teacher to simply hand bunkai to students, saying “here! do this!” But once again this is the path of least resistance; one that leads to little investigation of the core concepts traditional styles are trying to teach.

The Hard, Messy, Frustrating Way to Learn Bunkai

To turn bunkai into ti chi ki (or “what the hand is doing”) you have to engage in building and rebuilding. By that I mean slowly (very slowly) analyzing what your techniques are doing and what opponents could be doing. Instead of a single solution to a single problem, concepts like distance, timing, and scenario are factored into the equation. You also must look at where exactly you could be striking, grabbing, twisting, or throwing. As you can imagine, there are a lot of possibilities.

Going slowly and methodically like this leads to memory overload. In fact, it is not unusual for a practitioner to forget what they did at the beginning of a kata by the time they get to the end. The reason for this is the extreme concentration the person is putting on every single technique. At first it seems like you might be running into the same memorization problem as before, but in fact its due to an excess of learning as opposed to simply forgetting what you generally do.

With this messy version of bunkai, progress always seems slow. What you discover one week can be gone the next. To make matters worse, there might be different bunkai partners who offer various height, weight, and intensity challenges.

The Payoff

If learning bunkai and ti chi ki like this is so unpleasant, then why do it? The answer is long-term payoff. By examining techniques individually and presenting yourself with constantly shifting situations, you are forced to analyze all aspects of the technique. For example, sometimes a block can be a block, but other times it can be a strike. Other times it can be a joint lock. When, where, and how is for you to discover through trial and error.

Eventually, through this practice, techniques and situations will become ‘familiar’. Pieces of kata will start to remind you of other pieces in other kata and connections between the techniques can be made. Instead of “if person A does this person B does this”, you can begin to see “here is how my body will naturally react with an appropriate technique.”

Taking time to fail and try new things is the best way to really learn a kata. It is also one of the most effective ways to shift kata from a mechanized workout to a live, ever-changing platform to explore technique.

Remember – a technique is more than just how it looks at the end. There is space, time, and events occuring between stances and punches. Find out what’s going on!