Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Thursday, May 07, 2015

What's wrong with Sanseiru?

The kick-elbow-down punch combination
occurs only on one side in Sanseiru. But
you can always take techniques out of
kata to practice the other side.
   Recently I decided it was time to make some changes. I realize I'm a bit late. After all, it's already the beginning of May and most people have long since made and abandoned their New Year's resolutions. Most people have moved on to newer and better things by now. Smart phones, smart televisions, smart watches. I'm going to wait a bit 'til they come out with a smart hat--one that can think for me and keep my head warm in the winter and dry in the rain.
   So anyway, I was thinking about what sorts of improvements I could make around the house and I noticed the old crab apple tree was looking a little unbalanced. I mean it would probably do better to cut the thing down as it's home to more ants than birds, but I'm attached to it. The problem is that when you look at it straight on, the left side doesn't match the right side--it's asymmetrical--so I'm thinking of taking the chain saw to it. 
   Of course there might be more pressing problems. I was cleaning up the yard the other day, putting things away, and I noticed my son's football lying around. Now I don't know too much about football, but what's with the whole oval shape? A ball's supposed to be round. It's supposed to roll. So I started to think that might be a good project--make a round football. I mean people are improving things all the time--that's just what we do. My son showed me a cool invention the other day: an umbrella that used jets of air instead of a cloth canopy to keep the rain off. It looked like a big microphone or flashlight, but the battery that operated it--and I have no idea whether it was strong enough to work in a real downpour--the battery charge only lasted thirty minutes. And what happens to those poor souls walking next to you that get sprayed with the water getting blown sideways by these jets of air from your clothless umbrella? On second thought, maybe that proves the old adage: just because you can do something, it doesn't mean you should.
This technique illustrates one of the
differences between the Shodokan
(Higa) version of the kata and the
Meibukan/Jundokan versions.
   Anyway, I paused in my ruminations and resolutions to sit down and get caught up on some blog posts and forum discussions. I came across one where the teacher had decided that the Goju kata Sanseiru was puzzling because it was so
unbalanced or asymmetrical. Of course, all of the Goju-ryu classical subjects are unbalanced and asymmetrical to some extent, so I wondered why Sanseiru particularly bothered him. But at any rate, he decided to "correct" the problem by putting in extra movements--doubling up single techniques--to make the kata more balanced and then post the performance on-line. To give him his due, this was just for training purposes. I'm sure he was not suggesting that the kata be permanently modified just to satisfy some human craving for balance and harmony.
   But of course the most obvious question one might ask is: why does a kata need to be balanced? A kata is not a performance piece. I think too often in modern karate practice we treat our karate--and particularly the execution of kata--as if it were a performance. But kata is, above all else, a repository of technique. It contains the principles and self-defense techniques of the system. To superimpose an artificial construct of balance on kata is...putting the cart before the horse...it's pounding a square peg into a round hole...it's analyzing kata through the distorted prism of our own petty biases...I don't know, but it ain't right.
The final technique of Sanseiru only
occurs once in the kata. The structure
implies that its mirror image could be
attached to the same preceding
techniques on the opposite side.
Is there a need to repeat it then to
satisfy our need for visual balance?
The real lesson: Know Thy Structure.
   Rather than trying to make Sanseiru a more balanced pattern, we should be asking what the three "punches" at the beginning of the kata have to do with the rest of the kata. Or why there is a repetition of three block-kick-elbow techniques in the middle of the kata. Or what relationship the open-hand techniques have to the rest of the kata, so much of it closed hand. Or how many entry techniques there are. Or how many finishing techniques. What if some of the apparently distinct sequences do not actually show an entry technique but instead begin with the controlling technique because of a unique structure to the kata? Heck, it would be better (and more instructive) to ask what significance there is to the differences in the Jundokan/Meibukan version versus the Shodokan (Higa) version of Sanseiru. These are difficult questions to answer. They take years of trial and error (bunkai) and much open-minded thought and experimentation. Perhaps that's why people look for balance, because not having the answers to these questions makes one feel a little unbalanced, a little uncomfortable. Geez, the very fact that a kata is not balanced suggests that there are combinations of techniques that go together in less than obvious ways, doesn't it?! Like, you show the controlling technique on both sides of the kata and then only tack the finishing technique on to the end of the second series. It's not about balance, it's about understanding the structure.
   Being a little uncomfortable can sometimes be a good thing, though, which is why I think I might just leave that long, scraggly, awkward and unbalanced limb on the crab apple tree...at least until the insects get the best of it or a storm comes and takes the whole thing down. On second thought, maybe I'll just cut it down 'cause all that stuff about balance in kata and trees doesn't have anything to do with karate anyway.


  1. I always taught that the elbow was a grab to the neck contrary to what I see in youtube.

  2. Okay, Mr. Pellegrino, now you have my interest. I didn't say this (at least in this blog post), but you're right. But in order to see this, I think you probably have to see the rest of the sequence and get that "right" too. I'm intrigued that you see this, and it makes me very curious about any of your other bunkai. If you care to discuss any of these, let me know. Maybe contact me at my email address or on Facebook. All the best, Giles

  3. I will be delighted, I send you a friendship autorization on facebook, Cheers Martín.