I was recently showing some students the technique we call shuto mawashi uke, circular knifehand block. (Here's a page with a video of a Kyokushin instructor doing this technique, slightly different than the way I learned it in Seido but you can get the idea: http://www.ehow.com/video_2368639_do-shuto-mawashi-uke.html) It's an interesting technique because it has many different self-defense applications, but each one would require the technique be done slightly differently than the basic way it's practiced. It can be a block, a strike, an escape and reversal from a wrist grab, a takedown against a kick , but each of these options requires a bit of variation.
As a software geek, the situation reminds me of the concept of "abstract base classes" in object-oriented programming. As a classic example you might have an abstract base class in a graphics program for a "shape" which would define general operations, but you would never actually create a "shape" software object when running the program, you would create a "triangle" or a "square" or a "circle" -- in programming lingo, you would "derive" these concrete classes from the abstract base class. In the same way, the "abstract" version of shuto uchi uke defines a general pattern of movement, but in an actual fight you would use some variation of it.
In fact, that's true for all of our basic techniques. In an actual self-defense situation, you would never use a punch or a block exactly the way we practice them as basic, kihon, techniques. You would never stand still in sanchin dachi and throw a punch while pulling the other hand back exactly to the side of your chest, you would "derive" a specific instance of the general idea "punch" for the situation at hand. Our basics are, to some degree, abstractions showing general principles.
As I was trying to explain this to my students, I found that I was sort of riffing and expanding on the idea a bit. (One of the best parts of teaching, for me, is that in trying to explain something to students I often stumble across connections I hadn't previously realized.) I pointed out that the technique could also be approached just as a beautiful movement (as some tournament competitors might do), or as a qi gong sort of exercise. There's always been a close relationship between the Asian martial arts and the healing arts, and it strikes me that some kata -- or at least some parts of some kata -- may have been originally intended as conditioning or cultivation exercises. These would certainly be useful to fighters, who rely on strong and supple bodies. Perhaps it was only later that self-defense applications were developed for these motions. (Any set of motions can have a self-defense interpretation. One of these day I'll have to post the applications I came up with for the Macarena.)
So any one technique can have many interpretations.
And I think this is also true of the art of karate-do itself, as a whole. I'm reminded of an on-line conversation I had many years ago with Patrick McCarthy, a well-know karate researcher and instructor. Back in 1996 (where has the time gone?!) Hanshi McCarthy and I were both active on the CyberDojo, a karate mailing list. (I still drop in from time to time).
Hanshi McCarthy posed this question:
Productively speaking, I wonder if karate can ever be any more than: 1. An interesting alternative to conventional exercise? 2. A challenging and sometimes rewarding rule-bound competitive activity? 3. A form of self-protection, limited only by the knowledge of the teacher, school, style or organization most responsible for imparting its defensive principles? 4. A ritualistic cultural tradition, punctuated with Oriental philosophy and highlighted by introspective practices as a single study; i.e. "A way of life?" 5. A respectable occupation equal to any other profession?
I replied: [I've fixed a few typos]
Many years ago, "Saturday Night Live" featured a sketch that was an advertisement with a couple arguing about a new product, "Shimmer". "It's a dessert topping!" says the husband. "It's a floor wax!" says the wife. "You're both right! New `Shimmer' goes great with pie, AND it makes your floors shine like never before!" says the announcer.
Fewer years ago, when [the USENET group] rec.martial-arts was still worth reading, this refrain was taken up in a discussion about judo. "It's a sport! It's a fighting art! It's a dessert! It's a floor wax! It's both!"
Karate? Goes great with pie, AND makes my floors shine.
So...can "karate can ever be any more than...exercise...competitive activity...A form of self-protection...A way of life...A respectable occupation..."
Why would we want it to be more than these? Seems like it already fills more functions than my Swiss Army Knife!
Actually...no. Let me add one function to that list, based on my own experience:
Karate-do is a way of making better people. I've trained, stopped, and started again, and I've learned that I like the person I am when I'm training more than I liked the person I was when I wasn't training.
All these years later, I still find that to be true. Karate is a desert topping and a floor wax and many other things besides.