From Buddha to OODA

Restoring Tactical Bunkai Analysis to Kata

Bunkai: Tactics not just Techniques

Even among those in martial arts who say they are teaching “the warrior way” some overlook what actual warriors do. The reciprocation of training and experience – between the world of the dojo on the one hand and of the street and the battlefield on the other – was the genesis of martial culture in medieval Japan, and on Okinawa. It remains so in the world of combative professionals today. 

Some martial arts groups only access information from within their own organization. This knowledge-pool limit will shrink in every generation in which it persists, as practitioners move further in time and in experience from the practical combative vitality of their arts.

You can sometimes observe the disconnect between martial arts and combatives in bunkai interpretation. 

Bunkai has advanced from the primitive “everything is a block and a punch” of years ago, the days when three “knife hand chest blocks” in a row stopped three punches from an attacker taking three steps backward. Or when a “high block” finished the fight because the attacker got a broken arm from your high block and ran away. 

Now many sincere practitioners have found interesting and useful applications for the techniques of kata.

But there is more to do. The basis of lots of bunkai analysis is still the question “What is my opponent doing to elicit this move in the kata?” – as a way to understand what the kata is trying to teach. That is a reactive model that assumes distances, speed, and rules – such as the presumption of single combat, a flat energy curve, and decisive techniques – that are not realistic or tactically sound. 

It also assumes that the katas are a catalog of techniques. That’s a good start. But there are some experienced karate practitioners who are prepared to explore the next dimension of kata analysis: tactics. The validity of this approach is supported by real world combative experience as well as in the design of the kata.

Every technique we do has counters. Every technique you do exposes your targets. We need to be able to respond to any of the counters for each technique we launch, and consider how we will follow up. We need to train to be able to exploit every vulnerability or weak point that our opponent’s choice of technique exposes.  We have to be prepared for a decisive follow up if our technique fails. Most bunkai analysis does not do this.

Here is another tactical point that is often overlooked in bunkai analysis: At high pressure, under sudden attack, one essential response in the tool kit has to be the ability to break contact in order to terminate the attacker’s momentum, and then to immediately re-engage as the aggressor. Since the initial assault from the opponent establishes the momentum of the encounter with him dominant, it may not always be possible to retake the momentum, unless you can briefly disengage first. This is generally overlooked in kata bunkai, but it can be considered as a rationale for some tai sabaki in interpretation. 

With this in mind we can explore ways to retake the initiative, dominate, and recover the momentum of the fight. (This could be as simple as a side step and turn for a flanking counterattack. It can be a sequence in which we reverse direction while our visual focus remains in the same direction.) 

Making a habit of covering your six instantly without pause or thought is another piece of tactical training sometimes overlooked in bunkai interpretation, but recognizable in the embusen of kata. 

Recognizing the vulnerabilities of each posture and technique, and making a habit of defending them, is built into the kata. Countering a counterattack when your move is unsuccessful in stopping the opponent is built into kata. These are indispensable skills in practical combatives. 

Without high-speed experience, we may not spot these components of kata, and we will overlook the training opportunity we have for self-defense application. We will miss the chance to do karate as it is designed, as practical training, and to really understand what our ancestors encoded in the kata they gave to us.

For Honor, Glory and Victory

16th century Japanese warrior Miyamoto Musashi fought 60 sword combat duels, challenges, mostly as tests of skill. He was undefeated. Many of his adversaries died. At the end of his life he wrote about what he had learned. In those days warriors put their lives at risk for honor – the reputation for fearlessness – and for glory – being known as the best. He was both. His “Book of Five Rings” has been influential in the thinking and practice of warriors and others ever since.

Today warriors still put their lives on the line, in the same way, for the same reasons, not only in battle but in competitive challenge. During his life as a fighter pilot and trainer John Boyd took on hundreds of challengers in potentially lethal aerial combat training. He was supremely confident and, as the lead combat instructor at the USAF’s most elite fighter school, was continually challenged. He was never defeated. He was like Musashi, but with more experience.

In his time as an F-100 fighter pilot and instructor 889 F-100s were destroyed in accidents; 324 F-100 pilots died. In accidents. In training. They were not combat casualties. The challenges were real. Like Musashi, John Boyd wrote about what he learned. His insights and his writing changed the way war is fought worldwide; his work is as influential as Sun Tzu’s “Art of War.” 

While his specific insights in weapons are of interest mostly to military aviation, his theory of combat has become a standard component of training in most law enforcement and military academies, worldwide. Not only do his insights keep people alive, his description of the decision-making process fighters use in combat has been applied to business, game theory, computing, sports, and warfare – among many others. 

These insights have not entered the knowledge base in martial arts. They are accessible to us. We should consider using them. 

The path from Buddha to OODA runs through Budo

Both the modern US military and medieval Japanese military recognized two critical areas of concern in combative training: 1. techniques and tactics, and 2. condition of mind and body.

Both needed to solve the same problem – to overcome the will of an opponent using violence to defeat you.

In both worlds the conventional wisdom was falling behind the times. In both worlds the key tactical innovators were supreme experts in single combat, whose insights were extended to operational and strategic fighting.

Take a look at how closely these excerpts below, taken from key sources of thought in modern warfare and Japanese Zen-budo, track with each other. See if what they say speaks to the heart of what we do in martial arts.

One source is “Warfighting” – a hundred-page book that conveys the official fighting doctrine of the US Marine Corps. “Warfighting” is based in large part on John Boyd’s principles of maneuver warfare, also known as Fourth Generation warfare. 

The second source below is from Takuan Soho, a 16th century Japanese Zen priest and the teacher of Yagyu Munenori, the founder of one of the great sword-fighting schools of samurai era Japan, and the instructor and adviser to the Shogun – in other words, Takuan, like Boyd, like Musashi, was a leading influencer of combative theory and also a master practitioner.

Despite their distance in time, place and culture, they arrive at very similar conclusions regarding the keys to victory and the primacy of the mind in combat.  They identified the same errors. In some respects they recommend the same remedies.

As modern martial artists in the Okinawan tradition or otherwise, we can make use of the insights from medieval Japan and advanced modern warfare in what we do. We can see that the principles of combat with a three-foot blade, a 25-ton aircraft – or hands and feet – are in key respects the same. 

The modern and medieval approaches sound different.

Not just because they are written in different languages. Each uses the terminology, categories and a worldview drawn from what were or are the most highly regarded sources of truth in their cultures. 

For the educated, ruling elite in samurai era Japan, the most comprehensive and most reliable source of truth was the great philosophical and religious texts of the Buddhist-Taoist tradition imported from China. Takuan formulates his thought about swordsmanship with reference to the idea structure of the Kegon Kyo or Avatamsaka Sutra – the textual basis of the Chinese Hua Yen school. 

Boyd, and the contemporary warfighters who draw on his insights today, speak the language of STEM. In modern, educated elite society here and now science, technology, engineering and mathematics provide the description of reality considered most real, most useful, and most true. In our culture the preponderance of resources go to support institutions and individuals who operate in this world view. 

Talented people are drawn to it. And for them, it is the best way to understand the world, to identify what matters, and to get the results they want. 

These are parallel cultural structures and they inform the thinking of their elites in a parallel way: the language, idea-structures and values are applied the dynamics of power. They are not the same thought systems. But as applied to combatives they identify the same issues, and their analysis yielded results which correspond very closely, and which we can use.

Then and Now

Takuan: Ignorance is written with characters meaning “no enlightenment” and refers to confusion. A state of fixation is written with characters meaning a “state of lingering.” 

Warfighting: Decision making may be an intuitive process based on experience… We should base our decisions on awareness rather than on mechanical habit.

Takuan: The moment you see an opponent come with a cutting stroke, if you think of parrying it right then and there, your mind lingers on the opponent’s sword that way, so you fail to act in time; thus you get killed by the opponent. This is called lingering.

Warfighting: Inherent in maneuver warfare is the need for speed to seize the initiative, dictate the terms of action, and keep the enemy off balance, thereby increasing his friction. We seek to establish a pace that the enemy cannot maintain so that with each action his reactions are increasingly late—until eventually he is overcome by events.

Takuan: Whether an opponent attacks or you attack, if you fix your mind on the attacker, the attacking sword, the pace or the rhythm, even for a moment, your own actions will be delayed, and you’ll be killed.

Warfighting: We avoid enemy strength and focus our efforts against enemy weakness with the object of penetrating the enemy system since pitting strength against weakness reduces casualties and is more likely to yield decisive results. Whenever possible, we exploit existing gaps. Failing that, we create gaps. Due to the fluid nature of war, gaps will rarely be permanent and will usually be fleeting. To exploit them demands flexibility and speed.

Takuan: Zen master Hui-neng said: If you open to understanding of the teaching of immediacy you do not cultivate practice grasping externals; you simply activate accurate perception at all times 

Warfighting: War is inherently disorderly, and we cannot expect to dictate its terms with any sort of precision… commanders gain the initiative, preserve momentum, and control the tempo of operations.

Compare this observation to experience in kumite:

Warfighting: Tempo is often associated with a mental process known variously as the “decision cycle,” “OODA loop,” or “Boyd cycle”… Boyd identified a four-step mental process: observation, orientation, decision, and action. Boyd theorized that each party to a conflict first observes the situation. On the basis of the observation, he orients; that is, he makes an estimate of the situation. On the basis of the orientation, he makes a decision. Finally, he implements the decision—he acts. Because his action has created a new situation, the process begins anew. Boyd argued that the party who consistently completes the cycle faster gains an advantage that increases with each cycle. His enemy’s reactions become increasingly slower by comparison and therefore less effective until, finally, he is overcome by events. ” 

(This occurs on the scale of microseconds.)

…Harry Hillaker (chief designer of the F-16) said of the OODA theory, “Time is the dominant parameter. The pilot who goes through the OODA cycle in the shortest time prevails because his opponent is caught responding to situations that have already changed….”

The same advantage holds for martial artists.

 The key to survival and autonomy is the ability to adapt to change, not perfect adaptation to existing circumstances. Indeed, Boyd noted that radical uncertainty is a necessary precondition of physical and mental vitality: all new opportunities and ideas spring from some mismatch between reality and ideas about it…”

This has important implications for the way martial artists train. If there is no room for innovation, challenge, proof and transformation, martial arts loses vitality in training and effectiveness in application.

Compare this to target selection in empty hand and kobudo:

Warfighting: (paraphrased) Given the historical conditions in which he fought and theorized 19th century Prussian General von Clausewitz advocated applying maximum force against the enemy’s center of gravity – his strongest mass of forces – to deliver the decisive blow.  “…daring all to win all.” 

Now the theory of modern maneuver warfare is much closer to the tactical approach of the martial artist.

Warfighting: We have since come to prefer pitting strength against weakness.” …we apply our force to the enemy’s critical vulnerability. 

In exploiting “suki” – fleeting gaps in the opponent’s defense and attention, and “kyusho” – weak points in the opponents body structure, we also recognize the advantage of appling power to vulnerability.  

It is significant that before Boyd used calculus, physics and engineering to describe aerial maneuvers pilots believed their tactics were an ineffable function of feeling – intuitive and fundamentally mysterious. 

This is the way mushin is regarded by some people now in the martial arts world… and accounts for their objection to my comparison of mushin with “flow” states as described in the neurobiology and psychology of high performance in sports and other human endeavors. 

The fact that we can understand what we are doing makes it possible for us to be more accomplished and more effective. It does not reduce the beauty or depth of our art. It does not profane the sacred. 

Modern martial artists who apply the insights of warriors, ancient and modern, directly to kata, interpretation and practical combatives, have an advantage.


Quotes credited above are from:

Takuan: the Inscrutable Subtlety of Immoveable Wisdom, by Takuan Soho 沢庵宗彭, 1573-1645, Translated by Thomas Cleary, hosted on Terebess. 

-Boyd’s presentation “A Discourse on Winning and Losing: The Patterns of Conflict,” unpublished lecture notes and diagrams, August 1987.”

-Warfighting: In 1997, Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1. Warfighting incorporates the Marine Corps’ idea of “Maneuver Warfare.” The author, Captain John Schmitt, wrote the original publication Fleet Marine Force Manual-1 (FMFM-1), which was published in 1989.


Post by Jeffrey M. Brooks Copyright © 2020 Jeffrey M. Brooks and Mountain Karate Dojo, L.L.C. If you want use this material on your website or in your book please contact me first, through this website. 

Featured image karate photo by Thao Le Hoang via Unsplash

Jeff Brooks is a 40 year practitioner of Shorin Ryu karate. After a 20 year career as a writer for high profile public figures in government, business and media, he turned to crime, working in federal and local law enforcement as a homicide detective and in other roles. His book The Good Fight – The Virtue and Value of the Martial Arts is now available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle edition.

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