Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Trails and Suparinpei

I was out in the woods the other day, off the northern end of Fitzgerald Lake, and took a wrong turn. I was looking down, careful not to step on any rocks hidden under the blanket of oak leaves, and I missed the hill trail. I don't usually come in from the northern end, so, lost in thought, I missed the turn off and just kept on up the lower trail that goes around the edge of the lake. It's still a nice trail, but it's not as isolated, and for some reason I don't find it quite as beautiful. But heading into winter changes things; there's less vegetation. Some days the trees look as if they're suspended on strings from low hanging clouds. Stripped of their leaves, they could be members of some army standing guard along the trail dressed in their grey fatigues. Where the forest is thickest, the trunks are fairly straight with few branches to break the uniformity of this vertical maze that recedes into the distance.

I'm always tempted to head up along a ridge and bushwhack through the bare undergrowth this time of year, but there's something I really like about trails. I don't know whether it's the perception that they go somewhere, that they impose a sort of order on the otherwise chaotic wooded world, or whether it's a natural human desire for perspective, something the early Renaissance painters realized might satisfy some vague human longing. Who knows? I suspect that trails remind us of that temporal aspect to life--we begin in one place, look as far down the road as we can, and then walk towards that end. In other words, some sort of order. One thing follows another as predictably as our feet follow the trail, and everything is just as it should be, just as if we were sitting in a concert hall waiting for that final chord to resolve predictably on the tonic or Shakespeare to dish out everyone's just desserts in the final scene. We are afforded a spectator's view of the wild and untamed as we brush by the tangles of bushes and errant limbs along the trail.
This double "punch"
occurs in both Sanseiru
and Suparinpei kata.

In the same way, we have imposed a sort of order on the classical canon of Goju-ryu. And yet, for the most part, it's completely arbitrary. About the only thing that we can say, because there is some variation between various schools, is that Sanchin is first, always followed by Saifa kata, and Suparinpei is last. But why? There are things here it feels like we will never know. Just as the relationship between Suparinpei and Sanchin and Seisan and Sanseiru--these four. They all begin from a double-arm closed-fist kamae in basic stance. They all begin with "blocks" and "punches." Many of the techniques in Suparinpei can be found in some form in these three other kata. There are the double "punches" of Suparinpei and Sanseiru. There is the ending "crane's beak" technique in shiko dachi (Sanseiru and Suparinpei), not to mention the techniques just before the ending of Suparinpei that look like Seisan. Then there are the opening mawashi techniques in basic stance that only occur in Sanchin and Suparinpei (in basic stance). And there are certainly others. There are, of course, techniques in Suparinpei that remind one of Seiunchin, and Shisochin also begins with a double-arm kamae and three "punches," but the similarities between Sanchin, Sanseiru, Seisan, and Suparinpei are all too obvious.

The "crane's beak" from
Sanseiru and Suparinpei.
And yet I have no idea what it implies other than some sort of historical connection. Were these four kata the original or somehow older kata of an Okinawan-based system? I think Mario McKenna implied something like that in an old post on his website when he suggested that these were the original kata taught by Higashionna sensei. But what I'm curious about is whether or not there is proof, anything more than just a feeling that there's a connection. Do they all begin from a double-arm kamae because there was some sort of link to the old indigenous form of Okinawan sumo? And if that's the case, does it affect how we should be looking at the bunkai for each of these kata? If the other subjects were not part of this original syllabus, why were they incorporated into the system? Is the connection thematic (the tendency to twist the head is certainly common to all of them) or completely arbitrary? If the "other" kata--Saifa, Seiunchin, Shisochin, and Kururunfa (I am omitting Tensho for obvious reasons)--are really from another source, is that why they are, with the exception of Kururunfa, stuck together at the beginning of the curriculum in many schools or is that also coincidental? For that matter, why do Uechi and Goju both share Sanchin, Sanseiru, and Seisan, and not the other kata?
This open-hand block and
attack occurs in both
Seisan and Suparinpei. 

And why is the structure of Suparinpei so different from the other three kata? Seisan and Sanseiru are bunkai kata; that is, they are composed of three bunkai sequences shown in their entirety, with basic techniques tacked onto the beginning of each kata--the slow "punches" in the case of Sanseiru and the three sets of three basic techniques in Seisan. Sanchin, on the other hand, is an almost laboriously repetitive kata with its slow punches returning to the double-arm kamae posture, though here also there are coincidentally three techniques: the slow punches and blocks, the grab and pull-in coupled with the open-hand pushing out and down technique (also found in Seisan), and the end mawashi technique. Suparinpei, on the other hand, is composed largely of individual techniques which are not shown as part of a bunkai sequence, some of which are entry techniques and some controlling techniques. There are three bunkai sequences here also, but two of them are very similar and the third (the sequence that ends the kata) borrows techniques from Seisan and Sanseiru. And Suparinpei is the only kata besides Sanchin where you will find the mawashi uke in basic stance or sanchin dachi--that is, the only place it is really used as an "uke" or receiving technique. Comparatively speaking, it seems like a bit of an odd duck, structurally at least.

This may all be much ado about nothing, as Shakespeare might have observed, but it's curious when each of the classical subjects seems to present unique self-defense scenarios, subtle variations of theme but no redundancy of movement...except Suparinpei. Even if we were to only consider these seemingly-related kata, there are apparently three somewhat unique kata and then Suparinpei, which seems to have borrowed from each. What's with that? Am I looking for things to fit together too neatly when they most likely came from disparate sources, developing over time? After all, the trails through the woods veer off in all sorts of different directions. Who's to say what's a wrong trail anyway? But then again, it's food for thought.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Rooting in Sanchin

We used to head up to the White Mountains every Columbus Day. We'd start out early in the morning and, after a three or four hour drive, try to hit the mountain by ten in the morning. One of our favorites was the Franconia Notch trail that runs north along a knife-edge ridge that connects Mount Liberty, Little Haystack, Mount Lincoln, and Mount Lafayette. Most of the hikes in the White Mountains, at least if you're going up to the summit, are all-day affairs, but Franconia was especially nice to take the kids up when they were little, though we often had to tell long, drawn-out stories to get them all the way up. It might be Macbeth one year or Lonesome Dove the next. The rule was that every time we stopped to rest, the story stopped too. But when you get to the top, the trail along the ridge can be spectacular on a clear day; you can see down both sides and there's nothing to block the view.

One year, it was fairly warm at the bottom where we parked the car--warm for the end of October anyway--but by the time we got to the summit, there was two or three feet of snow, and it was quite a bit colder. We passed another family with a teenage daughter on the narrow path that led along the ridge. The daughter, dressed in fashionable sweatpants and a pair of pink sneakers, was sitting on a rock by the side of the trail. She was crying and sniffling and refusing to go on. She looked miserable. Her father was trying to reason with her. "You can't just stay here," he argued. But she wouldn't move. When her father suggested they turn around and go back down, she said, "No, I'm not going." When her father suggested that they continue in the direction they were going, she wailed, "No, I'm not going." Her father was clearly getting frustrated with the situation, and the girl, blaming her father for her own misery and the perceived ills of the natural world, decided she would make everyone around her as miserable as she was. She wanted another choice--one that didn't entail walking anywhere in the cold for the next few hours. The funny part--if there was anything funny about being on the top of a snow-covered mountain in the late afternoon with the only option being a four-hour hike in either direction with someone clearly not dressed for it--was how simple the situation appeared from the outside. They couldn't stay there for long, so the only choice--and they were both really the same--was which way to go down. Whether they went forward or back, it was about the same distance. It wasn't really a Hobson's Choice, but it seemed almost as simple.

We left them there, so I don't know what eventually happened to them. We continued on, but it wasn't quite the hike we had planned. The wind picked up and it started to snow. The rocky path along the ridge got more and more treacherous. However, we knew the trail, having hiked it many times before, and we knew that it would be a lot easier once we made it down to the tree line, and chances were there wouldn't be any snow down there. But up on the top, the path could be slippery, and it was no place to fall and get seriously hurt. Of course, we always tell our kids not to fall or "Be careful; don't slip," as if you had any say in the matter.

Sanchin kata
But of course, you do have some say in the matter. All you have to do is keep your feet under you. Is that a little too obvious? I would always say this half jokingly to my kids when we went hiking. That's all there is to it really, though it may be considerably harder to do than it might seem. After all, that's really, I have come to believe, a good deal of what Sanchin is about, isn't it? Balance. Rooting. Sinking. Down power. Lowering your center. How difficult should it be to just stand in sanchin dachi with your hips tucked under slightly and your center of gravity between your feet--from front to back and from side to side--and keep it there as you move and execute fairly simple techniques? Of course, your knees also have to be over your feet and slightly bent and your spine needs to be straight. It's the same thing that T'ai Chi practitioners are trying to work out when they engage in "pushing hands," I imagine. It's often said that Kanryo Higashionna was able to stand in Sanchin posture while four people pushed and pulled him from different directions. But in a piece written by Genkai Nakaima, Memories of My Sensei, Miyagi Chojun sensei tells the young student that he himself might have "performed Sanchin well only once out of 30 times" he practiced it!

Without a strong root, the tree falls.
How difficult is it? It's incredibly difficult. I think most of us tend to fall forward even when we walk, or we slump and sag and weave wherever we go. Or we work on balance and down power when we do Sanchin and that's it--that is, if we even realize we should be working on balance and rooting and down power and putting our center or mind in the tanden (dan t'ien). I think most people's Sanchin is too hard and the focus is on being hard. The martial arts is all about balance, and balance extends outward into all aspects of life. You just have to keep your feet under you. Simple really.