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.


  1. It´s extrange that in my country, so distant, have the same order, in my case, saifa, seiunchin, sishochin, sanseru, seisan, kururunfa, and finally suparimpei as "the" kata, and this before the internet era. Always tought that sanseru and seisan where more easy than seiunchin and sisochin.
    My personal toughts were that the first bunkai in each kata put the order, but I'm not sure.

  2. Nice to read you again giles! The same questions are keeping the italians awake before go to sleep! Have a Nice weekend, by andrea!

  3. Nice to hear from you, Andrea. Still at it, I hope. From what you say, I guess the Italians don't have an answer for this either.

  4. Yeah, we don't! Anyway i just got a new (or old) direction on my research, and reading you again remember me that i am not alone in the path ;-) .. do you have any plan to came here one day Giles?

  5. I'm curious what your new/old path of research is??? No, no plans as of yet, just dreams of travel to remote and exotic destinations--or until some large group pays for my air fare to go teach a seminar. Hoping to have a book out on all of this some time over the next year, though. Anyway, I'd love to hear about your research or anything you come up with. All the best, Giles

  6. Maybe a private mail will be better in this case.. let me find some free minute and i will write you Giles. Have a nice day! Andrea