I find this thread interesting and frustrating at the same time. I see statements in all that I agree with. I'm confused...why does there seem to be so much concern, Gary?
Early in my karate training I studied a style where we did kata because we had to, and then we basically spent anywhere from a half hour to an hour sparring all the various members of the dojo. It was not uncommon to have a dozen matches per class. I did this for several years. When I came over to Uechi I started with a man who was an awsome fighter. But he was quite a bit more effective and, frankly, a bit more "real" than I was used to. What he would do is considered taboo in most sparring tournaments. Basically he would grab one of my legs and toss me on my butt, or otherwise manipulate me in ways that I could not in point sparring. Very few of us ever engaged in this type of sparring - it is too easy to injure. But it opened my eyes to how one can get very, very good in one venue, only to create tremendous vulnerabilities in another.
The other glaring problem I discovered from poor balance in my training was the tremendous gap between kata and sparring. I can't count the number of criticisms I have heard from people who observe a style and notice this. Why are they doing the kata in the first place? Why not be honest and just chuck them if this is the approach? Many do just fine without kata.
The purpose of kata training - for those who choose to do it - is to make a person fight a certain way. The choreographers of such forms had principles of fighting and body mechanics in mind. Yes, they saw the value of ultimately going free form. But in seeing the limitations of what most do when they play the safe sparring game (and it should indeed be practiced in a safe manner) they chose to add other elements to training that were to COMPLIMENT the free-form mode. The intent was to make the kata guide the sparring.
Gary, you and I will have to agree to disagree. Yes, individual moves in kata can be many things. Yes, if you practice ONE bunkai to a sequence, you freeze the idea in time. Yes, an individual move can be a block, strike, thrust, throw, etc. But for me, this is not a reason to abandon kata dissection. Yes, it is true that we must try to achieve mushin while performing kata whole. But that does not mean that we should ALWAYS be in the alpha state while doing kata practice. I have heard many a great master say over and over again that individual sequences in a form can deserve WHOLE CLASSES. There's a time to make the dust settle, and a time to stir it up again. I view this as a cyclic process that never, ever ends.
One of the reasons I practice the Naha-area styles (Okinawan Uechi and Goju) is because they have yakusoku and bunkai kumite. To me, this is the best way to close the gap between principle (kata) and application (sparring, fighting, etc). Most people are not gifted enough to stay in auto pilot in kata and have the principles osmose into their spontaneous side. For most people, the drilling is necessary. The Okinawans took the first step with their various bunkai and yakusoku kumite. Like great music classics, we can learn about music by studying and practicing them. But I personally believe that most abandon the process there when they should be taking the next step. I would be all for a person coming up with their own version of a bunkai of a kata for a dan test. And next time around, they should come up with a different one - just to show that they understand how kata movement teaches principles and not single specifics.
Carrying the music analogy further, I cite some of the great jazz performers of our time as examples of why we should practice these fundamentals. Some of the best jazz musicians - an artform where one is able to play spontaneously - are the very best-disciplined musicians. But almost none of them got that way by just picking up an instrument de novo and jamming. Usually they did drills and played classics first, for many, many years. And most of the good ones continue this drilling on their own inbetween jamming sessions. Benny Goodman was famous for his ability to jump right into a classical music group and play with the best. And good musicians often will "play" with individual aspects of a classic for their own edification.
And yes, many contemporary rock artists started classically.
To me there is no one single element that prepares me for what is real. It is a spectrum of activities. Yes, sometimes I can practice for "what is real" by even quietly sitting in a chair and reading The Gift of Fear. And I do not read while in mushin.
And because I see the need for a diverse training program, I hang around a lot of good people who have their own specialties, in hopes that they can teach me something about one element where I feel I am deficient.