Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Random notes on Seisan-ness

I find the version of this I originaly posted is hard to read, so I have redone this. My use of my son performing Seisan is not meant to be our ultimate experience, rather just a place we all pass through in time. The purpose of this article is the beginning application study of a lifetime of study to show principles that are found in Dan application study.  

Over the past few weeks I’ve been discussing Seisan-ness, at Fighting Arts.com   http://www.fightingarts.com/ubbthreads/postlist.php/Cat/0/Board/10/page/0  in the discussion ‘Seisan the Universal Kata’.  Perhaps the underlying source Seisan, I’ve been contemplating for years.

What I’m finding is this is starting to pull together in my approach.

Here are the raw notes I posted on these issues, for your thoughts. I can see pulling all this together with more detail than I’ve posted, but except for this group I’m not sure I want to share this more openly.

I realize some of my comments without the source posts might be hard to follow, but I’m curious about your thoughts on this.


1. Seisan is a bit of a passion of mine, I doubt there is any version I don't have several variations on tap in the house. Undoubtedly everyone loves the version they practice.

Realistically there is little difference in the complexity of the different versions in use, if you look at them analytically. They're just different.

Goju's is an extremely nice version, but Toon Ryu's is yet a different dimension of time and space. Uechi's is perhaps the one that gives me the greatest pause, but the potential within all the Matsumura No Seisan variations is just as great. They're just different.

The description of Goju's you quoted applies to them all. Such as low kicks, the Isshinryu version contains kicking at the 1" level (to dislocate ankles) to the calf or inner thigh, and all points north. All depending on which kick is being used (even the act of stepping is a kicking exercise).

My new sho-dans spend about 6 months working on part of Isshinryu's Seisan opening application potential, and at that we're not exhausting other potentials that will come in the following years.

Perhaps later this year Ed and others in the area can get together and share Seisan answers and take a look at 20 or so different Seisan's to try and understand how much is in common.

Seisan was documented as performed in festival in the mid 1800's on Okinawa. I haven't seen any documentation what that version was, but that was about the time Matsumora was getting started. Hiagonna's variations arrived on Okinawa in what the late 1890's? Uechi's didn't formally move into till the late 1940's (for decades earlier he was teaching in Japan).

As far as the point where Seisan is taught, from the Kyan lineage it was the beginning. Years ago I saw various Goju groups that didn't teach Seisan till 4th or 5th dan. It sounds like the curricula has been speeded up of late.

On the other hand Miyagi's direct students either learned Seisan right after Sanchin, or not at all. The history seems to show Miyagi chose normally 1 kata plus Sanchin for his students (rarely 2 or 3 others). So most of his students prior to his death would not have studied Seisan, and the concept of teaching all Miyagi's kata is really more a part of his last years thoughts, as well as the practices his students may have changed on his death. [Depending on who's history you read you find different answers, and I can't evaluate them as I wasn't there.]

There really is so much variability in what different groups in the same camps actually did, it's difficult to discuss anything but individual cases.

2. My own analysis is there appears to be a 'source seisan'. Though the different lines diverge, there is enough commonality between almost all of the seisan variations to suggest there was a beginning and then variation in time.

This is similar to the many variations of Patsai on Okinwawa, just at some point a greater fork took place on the road.

There is no way to determine truth. For example some of the Tomari Seisan versions I've seen bear a greater resemblance to the Goju Seisan than the Shorin variations.

On the other hand, in my mind there is a strong case that the Toon Ryu version may be purer old style than the Goju, far smaller numbers have studied Toon Ryu, meaning less chance for variation (IMVHO), and if the Tomari was source there is too much variation from the Toon Ryu, again IMVHO.

Frankly I consider it impossible to prove the source, but I do believe a concerted study of as wide a range as possible leads to a logical conclusion as to what Seisan's original might have contained.

But it takes setting aside style 'prejudice' (not a bad idea for good training, just a hindrance for such an inquiry).

3. Truth and the history of Okinawan Karate, what a quaint idea.

I would suggest any of us can read every work published in our language (such as English), and translate every word published in one or two others and you'll still have no idea of what the truth is.

I think the first truth is pay attention to the reality of the kata, what is actually there. The past is past and all the book larn'ng in the world can't give truth.

Second the movements comprising all Seisan variations are of an advanced kata. Some groups will only teach it to senior students, others will teach it to beginners, but you really can't touch on what the kata truly offers till advanced abilities are reached. The movements alone are not enough for any of them.

As far as which variation of Seisan is most advanced, which one yields technique a practitioner actually can use to drop anyone. Does it get more advanced than that. Any of the variations can suggest hundreds of techniques. Is anything more important than the correct execution of any of those techniques?

As for mining the past (and believe me I'm not immune to this), why not consider what the current Okinawan's are really doing. Do you really think they care, beyond polite history, that any piece of their arts originated in China? Do they want their students going to China for the 'source' and leaving Okinawa behind? I feel certain as a group the acknowledge a past, but also will strongly suggest that has past and their art's current manifestation is the right answer. If not they'd be going to China (and I'm sure some have), but as I've heard they really are spending the time on the art they have, instead of what somebody wishes they could find.

Okinwan karate by design, closed off the past except for oral history. Everyone's assumptions otherwise is simply a house of cards. The better 'historians' tell a good story, and the better story they tell the more one wants to believe it. But belief doesn't make it true (nor does believing make it false).

Even more so what to the current Okinwan's really care about. Course I don't know because I don't go there, but show me the books about Karate Okinawa has published in the past 10 years, and compare those books against what the world has published in that same time. Off hand I can think of just one.

And how many books have been published from Okinwawa anyway, for the past 100 years? Is it fair to consider hose published in Japan at all, or are those before WWII really Okinawan reflections, and those after WWII something newer and different?

We should research, we should look, but also we should consider is there any point beyond interest?

For the quest of say Seisan, while I believe we can demonstrate a Seisan core that transcends all the versions (and would irritate those who maintain otherwise, always the best reason to do the research), and an application potential for that underlying Seisan that applies to all the Seisan variations. But still all we would have is a logical construct, perhaps a useful one, a logical one, an interesting one, but still just a construct.

The value of course is if you can bind that study into actual training.

The more I think about this now the more I can see the potential. I've been trying to see the shape of this study for several decades, perhaps now it shows itself.

4. I have a different starting point about kata divergence in that Isshinryu Wansu is a case in point how things may have occurred.

What logic impels me is there may well have been a Seisan Prime (a Seisan Source) that underwent different paths of development at some junction. There is enough commonality between all of the Sesian kata to suggest what the core may have been, but from the point of divergence different principles and/or additions began to take place.

This appears to be consistent with the Okinawan kata history track after all. For example the Kyan Wansu kata has a different embusen from the Isshinryu Wansu kata (a derivative), but they have a common core too.

It all depends on how one is willing to look at the underlying kata potential.

I'll even take it a step further, I can offer an underlying application potential from my theoretical underlying kata that can apply to all of the versions in existence. Don't matter how they punch or what tension they play with in practice.

Of course none of this implies that such speculation is the original, just a logical analysis that works.

From my perspective, seeing the vast diversity of form I don't buy the underlying core of Seisan would develop spontaneously in different places. What I see is the divergences that arose as the original template met different individuals with different criteria.

But consistent with Okinawan development, names were terribly important, because only the oral history was what was passed along. So Patsai remained Patsai even with the warp of time (the transmission to Japan and the japanification of the names a different topic). And with that logic Seisan remained Seisan even with vastly different warp of intent.

But we're all outsiders playing a game after all, in that we're not Okinawan's. If the Okinawans don't make a case of it, nor care about the past, only what they're doing, except for any positive value to wring from the study, is it worth more?

5. I think I went too fast..."what about serious researchers funding translation of texts that haven't been translated or thoroughly analyzed yet? Surely there is merit in that practice."

While I grant you there is merit in those translation efforts, exactly what texts are you referring to? There are efforts being made on the texts published in Japan in the 30's and 40's or so. But they're not Okinawan texts either.

So at best they're texts written for a non-Okinawan audience, and how much do they share? Much of what was written is in the Itosu/developing Shotokan lineage or derivative.

Mabuni wrote in the Goju tradition a great deal (I translated part of his first two works from French translations on Sanchin/Seiunchin and Sepai, though Mario McKenna has done a fuller job with the original Japanese versions).

In 1933 Mutsu describes Seisan (but it is in core the Seisan Funakoshi described in 1922).

And for the Chinese origins. If there was anything that remotely resembled what Okinawan karate developed I would be very glad to accept it as a plausible link, but what I've seen to date, is just hope fullfillment, not linked practices. It's very likely the Chinese sources of Okinawan tradition, also undergoing change, moved in directions that there is no link really remaining. I once read a British interview with a senior Chinese WuShu coach talking about it. His rough opinion was any martial sources for Okinawa's development were not main stream Chinese arts. He felt they were likely worthy individuals, but in the area which such contact occured, it was likely they were not players on the larger Chinse martial scene. It seems to me likely not to be answered anytime soon.

More importantly so because if the Chinese could show the driect link, after what they suffered from the Japanese in the unpleasantness of the last century (how's that for politically correct about the wretchedness which Japan blanketed on China), they would not hesitate to show the links to 'trump' Japan (and in their eyes, Okinawa is but Japan, the distinction too minor to quibble about).

But clear proof isn't there, and I feel very unlikely to spring forth because it may no longer exist. That doens't mean its not real, just perhaps no longer in existence.

6. I think the number of versions of Seisan cover a wider range than just the three versions offered.

From Matsumura
  Matsumura No Seisan
  Matsumura Orthodox Seisan (Soken)
  Kyan No Seisan
Nakazato Joen (Shorinji-ryu) No Seisan
himabukuro Zenryo (Seibukan)No Seisan
    Shimabuku Tatsuo  (Isshinryu)No Seisan
    Shimabuku Eizo (Shorin-ryu Shaolin) no Seisan
    Kudaka/Hisataka Seiki (Shorinji-ryu Kenkokan) no Seisan
  Itosu No Seisan
    Funakoshi No Seisan

From Hiagonna Kanryo
  To'on Ryu No Seisan
  Goju No Seisan (many sub variations)
  Mabuni No Seisan (Shito Ryu)

Tomari Traditions
  Tomari No Seisan
  Odo No Seisan

Motobu No Seisan
Agagaki No Seisan (McCarthy)

Uechi Traditions
  There are two different Uechi variations on Seisan
  Paganoon Ryu No Seisan

It's unfair to lump them together in the quest.

The simplest basic analysis is the underlying embusen, the pattern they all share.

1. Essentially a row of techniques going out.
2. A turn
3. A row of techniques coming back
4. A "+" pattern of techniques.
IMO this much is present in all the versions. Then the issue is the embellishment, the flux, the tidal flow of the form, execution changes, and additions.

If you start looking at the techniques you are getting into the flex of the art, but if you look at the floor, you're closer to the origins (IMVHO).

Every one of these variations is a complete art in themselves. No source version is necessary. But there can be further analysis towards universal underlying application that spans the versions (proprietary analysis of my own). Much simpler than the detail most commonly sought.

Just my thought, but Seisan Prime might be the inner essence of all the above.

7. It is interesting how people want to find the old secret, better than today’s versions of training. The equivalent of boxers wanting to abandon today’s boxing technology not to go back to the Great John L. Sullivan’s bare knuckle days, but the original Roman games version with spiked gloves. O’sorry, they’re not trying to do that.

When I began to get interested in an underlying Seisan-ness it was to understand how Okinawan karate is linked together, not to know the secret past.

There is no past to discover. Okinawan history of karate is non-literate and also very much non-verbal. Instead direct transmission, pressing the flesh instructor to student. What you are shown is what is, period, unless of course you were also fortunate to train with your instructors instructor.

Observations or logical analysis on Seisan-ness will not find a past that is gone. It can suggest there was an underlying template, that of Seisan-ness, which the future was built upon.

Looking at a great number of different Seisan kata, and setting aside style prejudice (the normal result of training in a system) the most common aspect is the embusen, or the pattern of the form. IMO, you can use the following template with all of the Seisan variations I’ve seen to date.

1. Essentially a row of techniques going out.
2. A turn
3. A row of techniques coming back
4. A "+" pattern of techniques.

Logic would dictate that the original Seisan contained at least this common core.

Then the method of striking and kicking, the manner of moving, stances, additional sections of technique, the method of energy development and release, etc. all seem to arise from different concerted efforts to use that core.

But the Okinawan tendencies seems to not set the past aside but build upon it.

Thus perhaps this is as close as we can get to what the original Seisan kata contains.
Yet if one’s intention is to show how the varying forms contain a great deal in common, there is another sort of analysis to be made. A core application of technique found among all the differing variations. Not to randomly pick movements and maintain they are the original, but to look at application potential all of the versions contain, and suggest the value in working together, practicing those applications, beyond the style specific ones.

In my original exercise of Seisan-ness, my choice of technique would be other than the existing versions, as much as possible. To force looking at the specific underlying application potential and not becoming caught up in the ‘correct’ technique discussion.

For myself I think I’ve found what I was looking for, and as a tool I can use, to help show how all of us Seisan practitioners have a great deal more in common than it appears on the surface.

But it’s not the original, just a logical construct created for a specific purpose.

A tool, an explanation, not a replacement for anything.

8.  Yes how we train is the most important thing. My own Isshinryu Seisan is my passion, but I've received training in Seisan through Shimabuku Ezio lineage, Ueich lineage and Shotokan (non JKA) Hangetsu lineage, as well as having seen most of the rest I've posted (but not all).

What we do with what we have is the most important thing, but the past can be mined.

One acquaintance (Jim Keenan,
Dotokushin-kai) once made a case that Isshinryu Seisan's embusen was actually a reflection of the kanji for Seisan. His kanji was not the same as for the number 13. I'm not a Japanese scholar and I never fully understood his point, but when I look at my current analysis, 3 sets of techniques and a "+", and look at one kanji for seisan I've seen


There is a similarity, 3 type of techniques and a cross of techniques. But that's just my non-Japanese educated mind looking at a kanji I don't understand.... still..

The interesting thing is there are lessons that cross the groups of systems in how the techniques in those sections can be applied, equally between almost all of the versions.

9. I've seen some Tiger and personally I don't see a direct link to karate, but I'll spend some time reviewing my notes this weekend. Then again it all depends on what you can see doesn't it. Many systems contain tiger forms, but the ones I'm thinking of were a Southern Tiger style.

One point, many Chinese systems use numbers for forms. So Sanchin (3 battles), Seisan (13), Nijushiho (24) Gojushiho (54) and Superimpe (108) may exist as names in those systems. The numbers had philosophical/religious/political significance in China as I remember, but I'm not a scholar in the Chinese arts.

China isn't going out of their way to share much of their traditions, and many of them (including modern wushu) literally begin almost as a newborn. Watch a young tai chi performer who began very young and then consider if anyone who didn't begin at that age can do what they do with the system. Many of the Chinese arts are the same, and you really can only find snippets (even thousands of forms) which do not replace the developmental method of learning their systems.

I wonder if the reason the links to China aren't found are as much as those people who taught the Okinawans, may have been shunned by their peers and the systems dissipated over time. On Okinawan, most of Isshinryu's founders students left when he began teaching the American Marines.

China has a much longer history of distrust of outsiders (hundreds of years of that). Sure port cities dealing with trade are more likely to find those who will share with outsiders, but were they serious, mainstream arts which did perpetuate themselves, or smaller arts that moved on?

All we seem to have are the oral histories, and at that who knows how accurate they were. It's not impossible that the names and histories were deceptions too, after all Okinawan karate was a 'secret' back in those days. Why not blame it on the Chinese... misdirection to outsiders, or 'proof' of the style's worth..... who can really say.

I don't doubt anything, but I retain a health skepticism unless I've seen it myself and can draw my own judgments.

Which is why I find my Seisan-ness analysis interesting. I can show how it can bind almost all the Okinawan systems together by showing what they have in common, not what they have that is different or separate.

10. I think there is another use from my search to understand a logical understructure for Seisan kata, across the varied Okinawan systems. The same logic might be applied to try and validate a Seisan source form.

Seisan history, while mostly an oral tradition does tell us a few things.

First Seisan had been present on Okinawa in the early 1800’s. It was performed in the mind 1800’s at a public demonstration of arts. We have no record what that Seisan looked like. Just the name was the same (assumption on my part, there may have been different Sesian kanji too, just as there are four different sets of kanji for Seiunchin kata reported by Joe Swift, each with a different meaning). Ones assumptions can only go so far, and they never constitute true proof, just a current logical summation.

Second some time in the mid 1800’s Matsumura studied in China and there is a Matsumura no Seisan kata attributed to him.

Third in the late1800’s Hiagonna studied in China and the Toon Ryu, Goju Ryu and Shito Ryu Seisan traditions are attributed to his teachings.

Fourth also it the late 1800’s Uechi studied in China and the Uechi no Sesian tradition is attributed to his teachings too.

Of course Matsumura, Hiagonna and Uechi also may have studied on Okinawa and those studies may have influenced their studies. There is no independent source of truth.

What one can say, however, is the Matsuura/Hiagonna/Uechi traditions all contain a common core of Seisan-ness, as I’ve previously discussed.

With the record Okinawa demonstrates of keeping a kata’s core, even with style changes (such as multiple Kusanku’s, Patsai’s, Rohai’s, etc.) it seems keeping to the different Sesian traditions, no matter how much that core was flexed in each tradition, the core, the underlying structure was not completely altered.

Thus there is a tool you can consider. A source Seisan kata (whether from Okinawa or China) ought contain:
1. A row of techniques moving forward to 12:00 focusing on some type of striking.
2. Using a 180 degree turn to the rear as a technique sequence
3. A row of techniques moving forward to 6:00 using some sort of rising then overturning hand
4. A “+” sequence utilizing turning and multiple striking/techniques to overwhelm an opponent.
Then add the clincher, if the source system calls the form Seisan, case closed, regardless of how much more complex or simple.

Of course it would be even more convincing if there were generations of that locations students and teachers actually practicing those older traditions. Just having a ‘researcher’ returning with the answers is nowhere near as satisfactory as seeing the tradition live.

It would be pleasant if such a source would be located that fits that criteria. The issue would be resolved, from a logical point of view.

But such a forms existence doesn’t mean anybody should study it. It’s just a historical link of interest, to the handful that care. Perhaps it would close some historical puzzles, perhaps not Systems of study are nor more or less worthy. The practitioner makes their studies worthy.

Is it likely to be found?
1. If someone had found it, I guarantee it would be being marketed right now. We know people have searched and are searching. If found it wouldn’t be kept hidden, but sold.
2. If such a link existed, I guarantee China would be pushing the true origins of the Okinawan (and by extension the Japanese) arts. They’d love to hold it over Japan, even if the arts involved really aren’t Japanese. The WWII years have left wounds that may never truly heal. But any source Chinese Arts for Okinawan tradition may be so minor in China (a very likely proposition) that they no longer exist or have changed too much in the last century to be recognizable.
3. It’s even likely the source Chinese tradition may be Okinawan. There have been Chinese villages on Okinawa for centuries. It’s been suggested that they might even be the source for the Bubishi. If that is the true source, its origins may be very old and unrecognizable. And those Chinese families may still have their own private arts that no one outside of their family may know exists. It’s all just speculation, but plausible to some degree.
4. I see no reason the ones most directly affected by this, the current Okinawan systems will ever make a more concerted search. Their future isn’t looking at China but propagating their own systems, and a true search for origins is likely not in their best interests. Outside of a general acknowledgement that such a past exists, they have absolutely no reason to seek it out today. Finding it would only lead some to seek out those arts, not their own.
5. Yes various Okinawan instructors in the past have gone to China. But if they found a direct link, where is the proof?
6. One wonders how much today’s Okinawan’s might be relieved the material Miyagi came back from China with was destroyed by American bombing in WWII.

Logic remains but at tool. It cannot prove truth, but it is one way to contemplate how to recognize what cannot be proven

Here in New Hampshire, a long time ago I began to become interested in understanding the origins of karate. Of particular interest became the nature of Seisan Kata.

Over the years I began to see there was a type of symmetry between different Okinawan groups Seisan Kata, seeming to indicate a common origin.  Thus began my quest to understand this seisan-ness.

Over the years, with the kind assistance of Joe-san, Russ and many others, both on this list and elsewhere, I began to accumulate a very wide range of Okinawan Seisan kata for observation and object analysis, as well as the oral histories behind the different Seisan kata. 

I guess I originally hoped to reverse engineer what that original Seisan may have been. Of course that is non-rational.

I found those who agreed there might be a source Seisan, and those who strongly objected that this could be so because of the dynamic natures of their current Seisan practice, citing these differences as part of the reason it could not be so.

But I continued to look and reflect, until I’m able to now do more than just suggest the source. Instead I believe I can show it quite clearly.

Before I go further I think all of the Seisan kata are perfectly fine in their own right. They all are powerful with great tools for each practitioner. The search for the source can’t be to find a ‘better’ Seisan, rather a different purpose.

Okinawa is and always has been a small place.  It’s obvious the arts that developed there did so with everyone looking over everyone’s shoulder. They gave public performance of their arts (in some fashion) and others with training would observe what was shown and learn from that.

There are clear trends across Okinawn arts.

Time passes and details change.  Those details may be greater or lesser technique sequences, different tool sets being utilized and different energy release utilization.
Time passes but the underlying movement structure, the core embusen, still remains relatively intact.

If we were talking Patsai the variations are clearly there, but within a comfort level of sameness.

Chinto offers a more complex challenge, the actual angles of the kata execution (straight forward, on a 45 degree angle, or side do side) vary but the overall technique sequences are very similar.

But Seisan, with differing in lineages and execution (for simplicity why not say Itosu lineage, Kyan Lineage, Goju Lineage and Uechi Lineage) and very different oral history explaining the source origins, it can be a more difficult ‘sell’ to suggest a common origin.

Yet I think I can do so. It has nothing to do with the source of the original seisan-ness origin (Chinese on Okinawa, various Chinese sources or even original Okinawan origination), yet in turn seisan-ness might be the verification if a source form is found, anyplace.

My analysis of the essence of Seisan is:

1. A row of techniques moving forward to 12:00 focusing on some type of striking.
2. Using a 180 degree turn to the rear as a technique sequence while engaging an opponent.
3. A row of techniques moving forward to 6:00 using some sort of rising then overturning hand.
4. A “+” sequence utilizing turning and multiple striking/techniques to overwhelm an opponent.  In my own expression this is an overload theory, where multiple techniques are being used to overwhelm an opponent’s defenses.

I would suggest these common elements cross the different kata and constitute a core. Everything else fits into stylistic differences that arose over time.

I think this gives us several valuable usages of this knowledge.

First this could be a test whether a source found has been found. In that Okinawa kept to this standard pattern across the Seisan manifestations, it is logical this could be maintained in the source kata(s).  One taking the time to work and learn a source Seisan would be unlikely to abandon so much of the source as time passed. Instead variations occurred, IMO, a common Okinawan theme.

Second, use of this analysis could be used for inter-group discussion and work for a more harmonious binding between different Okinawan stylists. Yes each is different, but each also contain a similar core. This core suggests various applications to these technique series that can be done across the differing versions.

Third, this analysis might also provide a different logical answer to the meaning of the term Seisan itself.

Ok I’m veering into science fiction on this, but a long time ago an acquaintance (Jim Keenan, Dotokushin-kai) once made a case that Isshinryu Seisan's embusen was actually a reflection of the kanji for Seisan.  Unfortunately I cannot find the notes I made from that meeting not having referred to them for years.

His kanji was not the same as for the number 13. Also, I'm not a Japanese scholar and I never fully understood his point, but when I look at my current analysis, 3 sets of techniques and a "+", and look at one kanji for seisan I've seen


There is a similarity, 3 type of techniques and a cross of techniques.

I place no proof on this causal link, but still it makes one think…


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