Less is more
It is probably fair to say that next to kihon (basics) most dojo's today focus the vast majority of their time and energy practicing kata.
This is great, and as it should be. After all kata is considered to be the "soul of karate", and what would Shotokan, or for that matter any other style of karate be without a soul.
Now even a soul has to have a "heart" and for most practitioners the "heart" of any kata has to be the bunkai that is hidden within it.
Now to me bunkai is defined as, "the missing link" or in broader terms "the deeper meaning and purpose that lies hidden just below the surface of each individual technique, and or movement, that is found within any kata, regardless of style".
To some students, however, bunkai might simply be defined as the answer to that basic question, "what is the real meaning for all this weird stuff that you have me practicing, just what the heck am I suppose to be trying to do here"?
Now I suspect that no student would ever be so impolite as to ask their instructor this, or any other question, in quite that manner, (ok some would), but no matter how it is phrased at some point the question of just why we do kata, and just how bunkai fits into the over all scheme of things, is bound to come up.
The real question of course for any instructor is not what you tell your students, but when you tell them.
If the question comes at you out of the blue during class then no matter what a students individual rank is, if your answer is going to help them to grasp a particular aspect of their kata that is giving them some difficulty, and doing so keeps them on the right path, then by all means now is the time to tell them something. Even if you should happen to think that for their rank the timing of such a question is a bit premature.
The answer could be as simple as explaining that the move is a down block, that could be used to block a kick at gedan level, or that the technique is used to block a punch at chudan level. In either case curious minds want to know, and in most cases they want to know "right now".
The sheer number of possible answers of course, as any experienced instructor knows, will take a lifetime to explore. So for this reason, and for many others, the sooner an instructor starts the ball rolling, the better off their students will be in the long run.
Now make no mistake, I am not advocating that you start explaining bunkai to a new student on their first day, their first week, or even their first month of training. There does, however, come a time when the subject of bunkai should start to be explored with some regularity. For me that time is usually when a student has reach the rank of 7th kyu (red belt). At this point in time a student will usually have been training at least three times a week, for the past six to nine months, and be somewhat familiar with at least three or four katas. The trick here, however, is to start by giving the student only the most basic application for each of the moves contained in the various katas, nothing fancy, while at the same time doing so in such a manner that they are not mistakenly directed down the wrong path.
By that I mean, it is critical for every student to recognize at the outset, that performing any kata, and performing the bunkai for that kata, are two distinctly separate events. The last thing you want to see all of a sudden is the student trying to inject the "explanation" for each movement into all of their kata where it never use to exist before. This is especially true when it come to the student practicing alone, performing their katas at gradings, or when doing their kata at a public demonstration.
So what if it does, you might say?
A great deal, I reply.
Kata is, and always should be, solely an expression of the pattern of the kata itself with appropriate technique, kime, and spirit.
Not the movements underlying purpose.
Because once you start to try and "explain" what you are doing in every movement in your kata, by adding extra shifts in movement, or an extra hand movement or two in order to try and convey a specific meaning, then you are fundamentally changing the original purpose of the kata its self.
The purpose of training any kata, is to train the kata. Nothing omitted, and without any additional additives if you please.
Each individual kata is designed to fit an embusen (pattern) specific to that particular kata alone. The singular movements, the combinations, the timing, and the kime, are all meant to be performed without the benefit of any "displayed" explanation. This is simply not needed.
Not during individual practice.
Not during gradings.
Not during public demonstrations.
Bunkai you see was never meant to be exposed to the clear light of day.
In the early days in Okinawa, in order to protect the purpose of their movements, many ryu's (schools) would even go so far as to disguise their katas by performing them incorrectly, or for that matter not at all, when ever strangers were present. Since the reputation of each school and that of the sensei was often based upon the "secrets" they possessed the deeper meaning of a kata and it's associated bunkai was ultimately only taught to close family members, or those few truly dedicated students who had proven themselves over long periods of time.
Simply put it is not important to know the bunkai of any kata in order to perform the kata well.
For the most part we are fortunate today that the katas found within the Shotokan Karate system have maintained their strong traditional heritage, and are taught pretty much intact as handed down to us by Sensei Gichin Funakoshi. As such it is our duty to hand them down unaltered to the next generation.
Remember, while knowing how bunkai fits in to a kata can help a student to progress, it can also forever change how a student performs their kata, and not always for the better.
So whether you are the teacher, or the student, always try to bear in mind that "bunkai may be the heart of karate", but it is not the "soul of karate", that is kata.
If you can learn to keep the two separate, while at the same time using your new found knowledge of how bunkai fits into the overall scheme of things to improve your skill, then you are truly well on your way to a greater understanding of all that karate can be.
Pleasant journey.
Knowing what a student needs, and knowing when to give it to them,
is the secret to making them better than they thought they could be.
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