Over the past few months I’ve been doing some re-reading of essential karate books and whatnot. I developed a theory that Kusanku/Kushanku/Kanku-dai is the most essential kata in karate as a whole. I have two main reasons for thinking this. Firstly, the etymology of both karatedo and Kusanku/Kushanku/Kanku-dai. And secondly, the clear influence of Kusanku/Kushanku/Kanku-dai on the Pinan/Heian series of kata.
“Reading Buddhist scriptures, we come across such statements as “Shiki-soku-ze-ku” and “Ku-soku-zeshiki” which literally mean, “matter is void” and “all is vanity.” The character ku, which appears in both admonitions and may also be pronounced kara, is in itself truth.” –Gichin Funakoshi Karate do: My Way of Life, 1959, Pg. 35.
In Fig. 1 we have a quote from Funakoshi describing the use of the character 空 and how it can be pronounced kara or ku. Nobody I know says kutedo but keep in mind that they are evidently the same word, pronounced differently.
“The new character (空) for kara meant “empty” and can also be pronounced “ku” (void) and “sora” (sky).” –Patrick McCarthy Bubishi: The Classic Manual of Combat, 2008, Pg. 89.
Now in Fig. 2 we have McCarthy Hanchi backing up the kara/ku association and also throwing in a third reading of 空, sky.
唐 Kara/tou (Tang/China/Chinese)
手 Te/Di (hand)
道 Do/Doa (way/path)
空 Kara (empty) / Ku (void) / Sora (sky)
手 Te/Di (hand)
The figure above is a summarization of what was explained in fig.1 and fig. 2 along with some simpler, common place understandings of the words.
Karatedo Kyohan: Master Text for the Way of the Empty-Hand (Neptune Publishing, 2005 Ed). Gichin Funakoshi, Harumi Suzuki-Johnston. Pg. 52.
Figures 4 and 5 reference two versions of Karate Do Kyhon and its section on Kusanku/Kushanku/Kanku-dai. If you don’t have a copy of the Neptune Publishing version of the book, trust me when I say it’s the exact same picture that’s found in the Japanese version in fig.4. The important point here is the use of 空 below the pictures. I don’t have enough, or any, understanding of the layout of Japanese literature to say this without pause, but I do think that the kanji under the photo is referring to the name of the kata. My reason for this is that every picture from a single kata has a same set of symbols and they’re different for each kata.
Additionally, Kusanku/Kushanku/Kanku-dai is commonly known as “Sky Gazing”
So what does all that mean? I think it’s evidence that if 空 手 道 can be read as Kara/Ku/Sora, Te/Di, Do/Doa and Kusanku/Kushanku/Kanku-dai is referred to as “Sky-Gazing” that this kata was named as such to indicate its high level of relevance to the core of karatedo and that it contains most essential techniques in system.
Now to my second, and much shorter point. Anybody who knows the Pinans/Heians as well as some version of Kusanku/Kushanku/Kanku-dai can tell you that the latter has very heavy influence on the former. Kusanku/Kushanku/Kanku-dai makes up at least half of Pinan Shodan/Heian Nidan, a third of Pinan/Heian Yondan, and anywhere from a third to maybe even half of Pinan Godan (don't over think the percentages, I didn't). So, Itosu clearly put heavy influence on Kusanku/Kushanku/Kanku-dai when he was creating the Pinan series. That’s not to say that other kata didn’t influence the Pinanas/Heians, they clearly did, but the scales were heavily in favor on the Sky Gazing kata.
Let me know your thoughts on this! If I lectured this in front of our classes they would politely listen, but ultimately tune out 90% of what I said. I It's very possible that this has some major hole in it that I'm missing, but I figured the crew around here may have some input.