42 posts / 0 new
Last post
Tau
Tau's picture
Suparinpei

Just wondering. Suparinpei isn't a kata that I hear anything of. I understand that it's from Naha lineage but has been assimilated into other systems too. It's 108 movements make it the longest of the Karate kata and 108 is symbolic. 

What is the history of this kata?

Is there any benefit to studying it? Is there anything within it that's not found in other kata (either movements or principles?)

Does anyone actually even practice it?

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

It's pretty standard as the last Kata in many Goju Ryu syllabi. I practice it, and so do most people I know who have been in Goju for a while. It has a few unique techniques, but mostly it is (like all the other Goju Ryu kata) variations on a theme. So for instance you can find kind of "advanced" variations in there on techniques also found in Seisan ("splitting hands" motion), Gekisai (horizontal elbow strike instead of vertical), Sanesiryu (shoulder crank technique with slightly different footwork), etc.

I am personally of the opinion that the breaking down of the Goju Ryu kata into "beginner and advanced" (minus Gekisai which of course really is made for beginners) is a decision made for teaching expediency, and that while some kata sort build on others, all of the koryu kata are sufficient and valuiable enough to warrant their own study.

In other words, I don't see the syllabus as only a linear progression, I think that the number of Kata is there to accomodate different body types, inclinations, etc., and that the kata order is not that important.

Suparinpei is a harder kata though, and is an exception to this, with a few specialized techniques. It is the one Kata I can legitimately say is a kind of final statement of the style in some ways. It's also simply harder to do well than the other ones, in my opinion.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi All,

Zach Zinn wrote:
It is the one Kata I can legitimately say is a kind of final statement of the style in some ways.

As a non-Goju practitioner, that’s certainly how it looks to me. As you mention, there are some themes you can see in other Goju kata, and a case can be made for it being a final statement on the style (great turn of phrase by the way!).

Somewhat bizarrely, in my option, it was also one of the kata found in Wado-Ryu before Otuska dropped it. This left the fifteen most associate with the style today: the five Pinans, Kushanku, Naihanchi (shodan), Seishan, Chinto, Passai, Wanshu, Neiseishi, Rohai (Itosu Rohai Shodan), Jitte and Jion.

Suparinpei dropped on top of a shuri-te heavy syllabus always struck me as odd. Maybe Otuska wanted more of a Naha influence and thought he may as well “go big”? Either way, dropping it would see to be a logical choice.

Tau wrote:
It's 108 movements make it the longest of the Karate kata and 108 is symbolic.

It’s definitely the longest kata I am aware of. People love to assign “philosophical” meanings to the numbers, but I’ve never found any of the numerous contradictory “explanations” to be convincing.

The character “歩”- “ho” in Japanese, “Po” in Oknianwan”- means “step” and I understand it has the same double meaning as the English word i.e. a movement of the feet / a stage. While most think the numbers refer to the physical steps, I think that is incorrect based on the fact we can count the footsteps in the various kata and they don’t match; which would seem pretty conclusive. I therefore think it’s more likely that the “step” in the name simply refers to the discrete lessons / drills encapsulated in the kata i.e. Seishan has “13 stages”, Neisheishi has “24 Stages”, Seipai has “18 stages” and so on.

The one exception to the above could be Suparinpei. Unlike the other “number kata”, 108 definitely has a widely understood symbolic meaning. The ideas is we multiply the number of senses (5) and thought (1), by how we can perceive them (good, bad or neutral, so 3), by whether they are internally or externally generated (2), and finally by time (past, present and future, so 3).

(5+1) X 3 X 2 X 3 = 108

We therefore are said to have 108 feelings / sensations. 108 is therefore used to represent “everything” in cultures influenced by Buddhist thought. It could be that the choice of the name in this instance reflects the fact the kata could be viewed as, to once again quote Zach, a“final statement” on the Naha branch of karate?

Tau wrote:
What is the history of this kata?

Like lots of kata, it’s true history is lost to history. Loads of unsubstituted theories, but nothing solid as far as I know.

Tau wrote:
Is there any benefit to studying it? Is there anything within it that's not found in other kata (either movements or principles?)

Like most kata, there is benefit to learning it as all of them contain unique examples. However, it all boils down to common combative principles. It’s not mandatory (no kata is) as the other kata in existence can give the karateka what they need. For those with a Naha background it’s more important than it is for those from one of the other linages. By way of comparison, Naha people would get some benefit from learning Passai (for example), but it’s not mandatory that they do.

Tau wrote:
Does anyone actually even practice it?

Loads of karateka do. While it’s labelled as an “advanced kata”, it is found in both Goju-Ryu and Shito-Ryu (two of the world’s most widely practised styles) and it’s very popular in kata competitions. For example, here is Antonio Diaz winning the World Championships with it a few years ago.

All the best,

Iain

Nimrod Nir
Nimrod Nir's picture

Iain Abernethy wrote:
People love to assign “philosophical” meanings to the numbers, but I’ve never found any of the numerous contradictory “explanations” to be convincing.

Iain, I am aware of your opinion that the "number katas" do not have any philosophical/spiritual/religious meaning. In past posts, you elaborated on this subject and explained why you believe this to be the case.  

Iain Abernethy wrote:
 The one exception to the above could be Suparinpei. Unlike the other “number kata”, 108 definitely has a widely understood symbolic meaning. The ideas is we multiply the number of senses (5) and thought (1), by how we can perceive them (good, bad or neutral, so 3), by whether they are internally or externally generated (2), and finally by time (past, present and future, so 3). (5+1) X 3 X 2 X 3 = 108

We therefore are said to have 108 feelings / sensations. 108 is therefore used to represent “everything” in cultures influenced by Buddhist thought. It could be that the choice of the name in this instance reflects the fact the kata could be viewed as, to once again quote Zach, a “final statement” on the Naha branch of karate?

However, this seems to contradict your previous view. Following the same logic you present now, it is also reasonable to assume that other Naha katas share the same symbolism/meaning with respect to the symbolic number 108. e.g., both Sanseru (36) and Seipai (18) are Naha katas and both are factors of 108 (108/3=36, 108/6=18). If 108 is indeed the "perfect" number, it is also reasonable that "lower" katas will have names that draw on this symbolism, isn't it?

In addition, although not a Naha kata, Gujushiho/Useishi (54) is also a factor of 108 (108/2=54). If I am not mistaken, you previously viewed this as a coincidence or "playing with the numbers". Do you still view it this way? 

Iain Abernethy wrote:
 I therefore think it’s more likely that the “step” in the name simply refers to the discrete lessons / drills encapsulated in the kata i.e. Seishan has “13 stages”, Neisheishi has “24 Stages”, Seipai has “18 stages” and so on.

Again, following the same logic you present now regarding 108 to be too high of a number to represent lessons/drills associated with the kata, one can argue that it is not likely that Gujushiho has 54 discrete lessons/drills, or that Sanseru has 36 of them. For that matter, I believe most katas have far less discrete lessons/drills than their name would suggest (Seisan=13 maybe being the exception).

I would love to understand your current view of this. Did you change your mind over time regarding this subject? Did I simply not understand your previous explanations well enough?

This is always an interesting topic to me. 

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi Nimrod,

Nimrod Nir wrote:
However, this seems to contradict your previous view.

I don’t think so because my view is unchanged and the same as expressed previously. As I said in the post above:

People love to assign “philosophical” meanings to the numbers, but I’ve never found any of the numerous contradictory “explanations” to be convincing … The one exception to the above could be Suparinpei.

I would emphasise the “could” and I remain certain the other number kata’s names have no connection to numerology for the reasons outlined above. Suparinpei could be an exception, but it’s not proof that’s the way it works for the others. Far from it. The others would seem to state the number of stages within, and it is possible that Suparinpei’s name was chosen to represent a “conclusion” or “summation” of the other kata i.e. “all the stages”.

Nimrod Nir wrote:
Following the same logic you present now, it is also reasonable to assume that other Naha katas share the same symbolism/meaning with respect to the symbolic number 108. e.g., both Sanseru (36) and Seipai (18) are Naha katas and both are factors of 108 (108/3=36, 108/6=18). If 108 is indeed the "perfect" number, it is also reasonable that "lower" katas will have names that draw on this symbolism, isn't it?

I’d say not because, as is always the case when people try to make these connections, the number kata that don’t fit with the theory are simply ignored. To me, that’s a clear sign that the theory is not valid. For example, Seisan (13), Neiseishi (24), Nipaipo (28) don’t mathematically connect with 108. As I say, people who put forth this theory tend to choose the kata that do fit with their theory, while totally ignoring all those that don’t … and let’s not forget the majority of kata don’t have “number names”, which would be very odd if it was supposedly such a big deal.

Nimrod Nir wrote:
If I am not mistaken, you previously viewed this as a coincidence or "playing with the numbers". Do you still view it this way?

It’s not even a coincidence, but an active choice to deliberately pick only the kata that fit with the theory. I still hold the views I did and will continue to do so until some convincing evidence to the contrary can be put forth.

By the same token, I can claim that “6” is the “magic number” by pointing to the fact that the following kata all divide by 6:

Seipai (18), Neiseishi (24), Sanseru (36), Suparinpei (108)

But to do so, I have to ignore Seisan (13), Nipaipo (28), Gojushiho (54) and all the kata with proper names.  This is clearly nonsense, but it’s got exactly the same strength as the claim for “108”.

Someone way more mathematically literate than me maybe able to point to a theme that connects all the kata – I doubt it because 13 is a prime number – but, as I see it, there is nothing that connects them. It’s therefore far more logical to say they are merely counting something. Because the character 歩 is used so frequently, it’s logical to conclude what is being counted is steps / stages. To me, that’s the case closed.

Nimrod Nir wrote:
Again, following the same logic you present now regarding 108 to be too high of a number to represent lessons/drills associated with the kata …

I don’t think I said that? I said it was possible that the number represented the conclusion and summation of all else. 108 is used to represent “everything”, so it is plausible that the number was chosen for that reason. However, I don’t regard 108 to be “too high of a number to represent lessons/drills associated with the kata.” That wasn’t an argument I made.

Nimrod Nir wrote:
… one can argue that it is not likely that Gujushiho has 54 discrete lessons/drills

You could, but I would disagree. There’s a lot in that kata. While we can’t know exactly how the creator of the kata broke it up, we do know the name literally means “54 steps”. We can count the physical foot movements and we don’t get 54, so it’s logical to conclude the word “steps” is being used in the sense of “stages”.

I think we should simply go with what the name specifically says. The “numerology” theories also ignore the fact that character is there. Indeed, it was even there in some early documents for kata that no longer have it i.e. both Seisan and Suparinpei have been written with 歩 as a suffix.

Nimrod Nir wrote:
… or that Sanseru has 36 of them. For that matter, I believe most katas have far less discrete lessons/drills than their name would suggest (Seisan=13 maybe being the exception).

I’d not agree because the character 歩 tells us specifically what is being counted.

Nimrod Nir wrote:
I would love to understand your current view of this.

It’s the same as it always was. Steps / Stages are what are being counted because that’s what the names and documents specifically tell us. We don’t need to make it any more complex than that.  

All attempts at an overarching numerological theory have to do some blatant cherry picking and don’t hold true. In short:

Seisan = 13 stages (no symbolism / numerology)

Seipai  = 18 stages (no symbolism / numerology)

Niseishi = 24 stages (no symbolism / numerology)

Nipaipo = 28 stages (no symbolism / numerology)

Sanseru = 36 stages (no symbolism / numerology)

Gojushiho = 54 stages (no symbolism / numerology)

Suparimpei = 108 stages, possibly the final stage / concluding stage seeing as 108 is shorthand for “everything” in the cultures from which the kata originate.

Nimrod Nir wrote:
Did you change your mind over time regarding this subject?

No. My view on this remains the same because no one has presented any convincing evidence to the contrary, and I feel the facts on which my own view is based are clear and robust.

Nimrod Nir wrote:
Did I simply not understand your previous explanations well enough?

I think you missed the fact I have been consistent that 108 could be shorthand for “everything”, but that in no way supports any overarching numerology for the remaining kata. Here’s what I wrote five years ago on the same topic:

[108] is a number meant to represent multiplying the senses of smell, touch, taste, hearing, sight, and thought (six) by whether they are unpleasant, pleasant or neutral (three), and then again by whether they are internal and external (two), and finally by past, present and future (three). 6 × 3 × 2 × 3 = 108 possible feelings. It therefore can also be a shorthand for “everything”; like we may say “a gazillion”. There is a case to say that kata may have the number because it combines so much of what we find in other kata and it is so long (i.e. the kata is everything). But I feel that is more likely to be the colloquial shorthand use of the number than inferring any strong overriding link with Buddhism. And even then, it’s just an unverifiable hypothesis.

https://iainabernethy.co.uk/comment/12921#comment-12921

As you can see, that’s the exact same sentiments as expressed above. My position has not changed.

Nimrod Nir wrote:
This is always an interesting topic to me.

Me too! However, my primary aim would be to free karate from the remnants of the pseudo-mysticism that are still attached to it and be sure that all conversations are based on firm historical sources and logic. We could therefore do without the “Davinci Code mathematics”. Instead, we should acknowledge there is no mathematical or “mystic” connection between the kata’s names / numbers; therefore, all the names that follow the “X number of steps / stages” format should be read literally … with the one possible (far from certain) exception of Suparimpei which could be a more “poetic name” – in line with other non-number kata which also have such names – where 108 is used as a cultural shorthand for “everything”.

I hope that helps clarify?

All the best,

Iain

Nimrod Nir
Nimrod Nir's picture

Iain Abernethy wrote:
I hope that helps clarify?

Certainly. Your view on this matter is clear to me now.

Iain Abernethy wrote:
as is always the case when people try to make these connections, the number kata that don’t fit with the theory are simply ignored. To me, that’s a clear sign that the theory is not valid. For example, Seisan (13), Neiseishi (24), Nipaipo (28) don’t mathematically connect with 108. As I say, people who put forth this theory tend to choose the kata that do fit with their theory, while totally ignoring all those that don’t … and let’s not forget the majority of kata don’t have “number names”, which would be very odd if it was supposedly such a big deal.

However, I think this statement you made suggests the assumption that each and every kata should either share a common "naming theme" or don't share this kind of theme at all (i.e. all number katas should fit the theory, otherwise it is almost certainly false).

To clarify, it is possible that several katas do share a common theme, which is not shared with other katas. To illustrate, regarding the Gojuryu katas, there is this "cluster theory" which consists of cluster H katas (Sanchin, Seisan, Sanseru and Suparinpei, supposedly handed down to Miyagi by Higaonna) and Cluster M katas (all other Gojuryu katas: Saifa, Seiunchin, Shisochin, Seipai and Kururunfa, handed down to Miyagi from different sources; as well as the katas Miyagi created himself: Gekisai and Tensho). For more information regarding this "cluster theory", see: https://www.wayofleastresistance.net/2008/05/origins-of-goju-kata.html

This theory is partially based on the common theme shown in all cluster H katas - beginning in a sequence of three chudan uke and punches. If we assume this theory to be true, we could draw assumptions regarding the names of this cluster H katas, possibly being linked to one another. e.g. all of them have "number names"; Sanseru (36) is a factor of Suparinpei (108); we know that Sanchin probably means "three battles" (possibly body, mind and soul/spirit/technique) etc. Therefore, it is possible that these katas share a common "naming theme" (possibly with a spiritual/religious meaning) without being "shackled" by other katas not being part of this cluster. e.g. although Seipai (18) is also a "number kata", it is not part of this cluster and therefore it shouldn't surprise us that it doesn't fit the pattern; all other Gojuryu katas not having "number names" shouldn't refute this theory etc.

I am of course aware that this theory contradicts the previous idea I made regarding Seipai (18) being part of the theme, as it is also a factor of Suparinpei (108). I brought the "cluster theory" as an illustration of a common idea.

Iain Abernethy wrote:
It’s not even a coincidence, but an active choice to deliberately pick only the kata that fit with the theory. I still hold the views I did and will continue to do so until some convincing evidence to the contrary can be put forth.

Unfortunately, indeed most of this conversation is guess work and theory raising. We don't really know the origin of the katas and we probably will never know it for a fact. It is nonetheless interesting to speculate and discuss, as long as we take care not to spread false/unfounded information as fact.

Iain Abernethy wrote:
There’s a lot in that kata. While we can’t know exactly how the creator of the kata broke it up, we do know the name literally means “54 steps”. We can count the physical foot movements and we don’t get 54, so it’s logical to conclude the word “steps” is being used in the sense of “stages”.

I thought of another possible explanation. I am not sure whether it is a relevant explanation, but I wish to entertain it. We know that few of the katas derived from older Chinese forms, which many times were longer and more "complicated", and later shortened and standardized. Is it possible that Gujushiho actually consisted once of 54 actual steps/moves? Is it possible that some "number katas" actually refer to the number of moves in the form, which was previously longer?

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

HI Nimrod,

Nimrod Nir wrote:
Certainly. Your view on this matter is clear to me now.

I’m pleased that helped.

Nimrod Nir wrote:
To clarify, it is possible that several katas do share a common theme, which is not shared with other katas.

It’s possible, but to use a possibility to discount facts that don’t fit with a proposed theory in order to support that theory would seem to be on very shaky ground to me.

Nimrod Nir wrote:
To illustrate, regarding the Gojuryu katas, there is this "cluster theory" which consists of cluster H katas (Sanchin, Seisan, Sanseru and Suparinpei, supposedly handed down to Miyagi by Higaonna) …

… If we assume this theory to be true, we could draw assumptions regarding the names of this cluster H katas, possibly being linked to one another. e.g. all of them have "number names";

Even there we are ignoring that Seisan is part of the “H kata”. 13 is a prime number does not fit with 108 (or anything else). I’d also again point to the fact that the character “歩”is frequently used, either in the name itself or written as a suffix in some order documents, so I think the logical thing to do is assume the number of steps / stages is exactly what is being described i.e. simple counting.  

Nimrod Nir wrote:
It is nonetheless interesting to speculate and discuss, as long as we take care not to spread false/unfounded information as fact.

It can certainly be very interesting, but these things take on a life of their own and the “numerology theories” are everywhere, often presented as accepted fact, despite there being evidence against them, zero evidence for them, and they don’t hold up to even causal scrutiny. Karate is deep enough for me without needing to add any falsehoods. Indeed, to do so distracts from that depth.

Nimrod Nir wrote:
Is it possible that Gujushiho actually consisted once of 54 actual steps/moves? Is it possible that some "number katas" actually refer to the number of moves in the form, which was previously longer?

I think it’s more likely that it still does. It’s a long kata which is pretty consistent across the styles. There is no evidence for the previous existence of a longer one. You could make this case with Seisan due to the many variants that exist. It’s possible that a “source version” had a clear 13 stages when the modern variants have had movements added / removed / adapted. I’m even hesitant to write that because I know how Baseless Speculation + Internet = “Fact”, but it’s a possibility.

All the best,

Iain

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

So, I usually don't go into spirituality because it's probably inappropriate here, but I have to say:

I have been studying Buddhism for aout 25 years, to me there is no mistaking that numbers of 18, 36, 108, 54, and to a lesser degree the number 13 or 27 are symbolically significant. 108 is arguably one of the biggest numbers in Buddhism, second only to 84,000. I could give all kinds of examples of the number 108 signficance, if people are interested, but it is probably nor directly related to the conversation. There is some crossover with other Indian religions too, it can be found also in Hinduism and Jainism, among others.

The most common use for "108" by my understanding is that it is a multiplication of the number of delusions or kleshas in Buddhist thought - originally 5, sometimes 6, and in this case the formula is probably derived from 6 of them:

• Attachment

• Anger

• Ignorance

• Pride/Conceit

• Doubt

• Wrong view/False view/Opinionatedness

I was able to find a source for anyone who is intersted in such minutae, I thought 108 was probably a later formulation, but it is actually from Pali literature (generally considered to be some of the oldest sources) as is found in the Vedana (feeling) Samyutta, a link can be provided for anyone who is interested.The text references both 18 and 36 as groupings as well, illustrating the overlapping and confouding nature of trying to directly figure out Buddhist numerical symbolism, as often the same number is used for different things, in different times and cultural contexts.

In my opinion the implicit meaning is less about 108 meaning  a neutral "everything" and something more like "final/complete struggle" symbolically, but that is a (moderately) edcuated guess and unfortunately (like a  lot of this stuff) is completely non-falsifiable.

Of course a lot of this same numerical symbolism is found in Shaolin and it's myriad derived forms, would obviously be overtly Buddhist in that context; and it most certainly makes sense that some of this transferred to Karate, though how conscious a transfer that would be is very debatable:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luohan_quan

However, it does not answer how consciously such naming decisions were made.

While I am less positive on the number 13 in Daoism, it is a formulation for a number of Buddhas in Japanese Buddhism - specifically Shingon which is an "esoteric" form of Buddhism:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirteen_Buddhas

I also read somewhere about Miyagi's connection to Shingon, I do not recall the link nor that I vetted it's veracity though, if I find it I can post it here.

In some formulations there are also 18 or 36 arhats, a sort of "saint" in Buddhism you could say.

This is a common theme in Buddhism where there are different further divisions of a certain concept- Perhaps something akin to the Buddhist versions of "how many angels can fit on the head of a pin" species of argument. Incidentally Buddhist Mala (prayer beads) tend to come in 27, 54, and 108 bead forms..that's how pervasive this is. Numbered lists of things like this are also built into the pedagogical structure of all Buddhist schools I have ever come across, this sort of numerical symbolism is about as universal as you can get across Buddhism - of course with different localized meanings to various schools.

I don't know that Miyagi nor most Okinawans thought much of this significance, if anything Karate is most awash with Confucianism, more than any other "Eastern" spiritual philosophy, from my point of view. However, from the perspective of someone who has studied Buddhism to some depth, I personally find it to be well beyond the realm of coincidence that the Kata names involve these numbers. However, It might be as simple as people raised in Western cultures thinking that 13 is unlucky, or it might be more intentional, it is hard to say.

So, while I won't say that I have any idea behind the reasoning for said symbolism, I would fin an argument that the numbers are not chosen symbolically to be questionable. There is something akin to overwhelming circumstantial evidence  that they are, I would say. I think anyone who has studied Buddhism for a significant length of time would be able to identify that choices of 13, 18, 36, 27, 54 and 108 are not likely to be random number choices in this cultural context. Given the (albeit somewhat removed) connection of Karate to Shaolin, it makes such symbolism quite likely. That of course does not imply that the person doing the naming had any particular clear plan in naming them so, only that the numbers were originally chosen primarily for religious/cultural signfiicance, and not practicality. To summarize, the kata naming conventions do not just hit some numerical symbolism conventions...they pretty much hit all the big ones.

This is of course not an argument that anyone should care about their cultural/religious signfiicance, that anyone should study these things or whatever. It's also not an argument that symbolic and functional meanings (i.e. number of techniques) cannot co exist.

On the other hand, to my eyes - given the relative obviousness of the symbolism with regard to Buddhist numerical naming convention- there is no real reason to try to make them all fit mathematically either, they don't need to do, because most of the numbers/themes are symbolically prominent, but not neccessarily mathematically connected at all. For instance, it is not neccessary for 13 to divide into 108, and in fact with regard to this sort of symbolism, it doesn't make sense to do so, they do not need to fit that way.

Not trying to pepper the forum with a discussion on religious symbolism here, only to say that from the perspective of someone who has been (at least somwhat) immersed in Buddhist writings for a number of years, the idea tha these number choices are not meant to be symbolic is somewhat hard to swallow. It would be different if the kata actually contained obvious numbers of steps or stages reflecting the names (by my reading they often don't at all, but this is quite subjective and ulimately non-falsifiable), nor are there other cultural/religious influences that I can imagine would be pervasive enough to influence this sort of thing. In short, there is no alternative set of numerical symbolism to draw from that I am aware of, and they appear to often not be based on number of techniques/steps making these the most likely explanation of naming conventions. I do not know anything about Confucian numbering setups either however, and very little on Daoist ones. I imagine there is some overlap there.

To simplify and summarize, if the naming of kata is not related to (mainly) Buddhist numerical symbolism, it presupposes that even though the source of many of these kata is Shaolin-based, the Kata creators chose something other than this religious/cultural symbolism for their naming conventions, and it simply coincidenctally mirrored the precise culturally relevant numerical symbolism they were steeped in. So to my mind, it is quite a bit less likely that these names are not symbolically significant than that they are.

As to the "steps" Kanji thing, I don't know the etymology of the kanji for steps, but I wonder if it is also related to terms like "layer" "level" "stage" etc. that are often found in Buddhism in these sorts of formulations. Speculatively, this kind of naming would seem to make sense with the Kata that can eb more directly traced to Shaoling forms. Similarly, "steps" itself has a fairly central symbolic meaning in Buddhist cultures, So I would not exclude the idea that this Kanji might have a broader meaning than simply physical steps or rote stages of a thing.

I have a native Japanese speaker I can ask (who is also Japanese  and so would hopefully understand cultural context, and specializes in Japanese history!) who might actually be able to go deeper into that question. She was also one of my students at one time and might be willing to do some digging especially if it is a Karate-based question. I have sent the kanji to her to ask what it means to her initially.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi Zach,

Thanks for adding the other side of the discussion. As everyone would expect, I can’t find myself agreeing for the following reasons.

Zach Zinn wrote:
Given the (albeit somewhat removed) connection of Karate to Shaolin, it makes such symbolism quite likely…

This is another widespread myth. Itosu wrote in 1908 that, “Karate did not develop from Buddhism or Confucianism”, which historians would concur with. Unfortunately, the idea of a religious origin story was just too appealing story for some, and hence it has become widely propagated.

Modern historians are of the view that the martial arts associated with the shaolin temple actually “originated” with the hiring of mercenaries. The idea that the system originated within the temple itself, and is therefore inextricably linked with Buddhist thought, comes from a 17th-century qigong manual known as the “Yijin Jing” (“the muscle change classic”). According to Chinese historian Lin Boyuan, “This manuscript is full of errors, absurdities and fantastic claims; it cannot be taken as a legitimate source.” It’s now widely understood to be a forgery.

Loads of martial arts have these “origin stories” which typically involve religious figures, observed fights between animals, or sickly children / women becoming strong through their study of the methods (sometimes a combination). Karate wanted one, so some latched onto the debunked Shaolin myths (i.e. Funakoshi), but there’s nothing to support it.

The story of a group of Okinawan’s studying fighting methods from all over the place and fusing them together with indigenous methods, although accurate, was not thought to be as sexy as claiming direct linage from a revered Chinese temple and all that had supposedly happened there. Nevertheless, Itosu was right when he said Karate did not have religious origins.

Zach Zinn wrote:
Speculatively, this kind of naming would seem to make sense with the Kata that can be more directly traced to Shaolin forms.

I don’t think karate kata can be traced back there (as above). For most of the kata, the history is lost. I’m also not aware of any comparisons between the karate kata and Shaolin forms that would suggest common origin? They seem about as different / similar as any other set of unarmed forms you’d care to point at.

As far as I can tell, the only reason people now think there is a link is because some of the karate masters thought the Shaolin origin story was cool / a useful sales pitch and latched on to it. However, we know that story, as popular as it is, has been historically debunked.

Zach Zinn wrote:
Similarly, "steps" itself has a fairly central symbolic meaning in Buddhist cultures, So I would not exclude the idea that this Kanji might have a broader meaning than simply physical steps or rote stages of a thing.

I am no expert here, but I understand the character originates from pictograms for feet, and then you have two (left foot and right foot) put on top of each other to indicate the act of taking a step. Nothing deeper than that originally. It would strike me as an extreme stretch to say that the masters of the past used it because of some spiritual significance.

Occam’s razor would have me conclude they wrote “steps” because they meant steps, and the preceding number is simply counting the number of steps (stages).

Zach Zinn wrote:
So, while I won't say that I have any idea behind the reasoning for said symbolism, I would find an argument that the numbers are not chosen symbolically to be questionable.

Based on the facts we have; I think it is safe to conclude that “steps” is the reason. It’s written there and the simple counting of steps would seem to be the obvious conclusion that follows. While we may be able to find correlations with Buddhist numerology, that’s not the same as being able to show that’s the reasoning behind those numbers. Correlation is not causation and all that.

As mentioned above, there tends to be some arbitrary selections of which kata are included in these theories: the kata numbers that fit the theory are taken as proof, whereas the ones that don’t fit are discounted.

Zach Zinn wrote:
There is something akin to overwhelming circumstantial evidence that they are, I would say. I think anyone who has studied Buddhism for a significant length of time would be able to identify that choices of 13, 18, 36, 27, 54 and 108 are not likely to be random number choices in this cultural context.

24 (Neiseishi) and 28 (Nipaipo) are missing from the above list. Are they numbers that also have links to Buddhism?

Zach Zinn wrote:
the idea that these number choices are not meant to be symbolic is somewhat hard to swallow

Symbolic of what though? That would seem to be a key factor those supporting this link would need to be able to show. How does what the numbers symbolise have any connection to the nature of the kata itself? Why were those specific numbers attached to that specific kata? What is the symbolism in play?

A case can be made for Suparinpei, but what about all the others? Simple counting of the steps / stages in the kata would explain the number attached to it; but, for example, how is the Buddhist significance of 36 reflected in the kata Sanseru? Or did they just randomly attach religious numbers to kata?

Again, I think simple counting is on far stronger ground unless someone can demonstrate the connection between the specific number’s Buddhist symbolism and the specific nature of the kata bearing that number … for all of the kata. Occam’s razor would seem to be pretty sharp here.  

To me, it’s simple counting that is at play. In the cases where we do see a connection to Buddhism, it is pure coincidence. I also feel this is demonstrable.

As a little experiment, I asked for 5 numbers between 1 and 108 from this random number generator: https://www.random.org/

The numbers I got where: 35, 38, 36, 5, 4 … I then ran it one more time as 36 is one of the numbers under discussion … I got 65. So, let’s look for connection to Buddhism for 4, 5, 35, 38 and 65. To do this I simply googled “X meaning in Buddhism”. Here is what I got:

4 = “Four Nobel Truths”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Noble_Truths

5 = “The 5 precepts” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_precepts

35 = “Thirty-five Confession Buddhas” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirty-five_Confession_Buddhas

38 = “38 Highest Blessings” http://buddhaspace.blogspot.com/2012/07/buddhism-by-numbers-38-highest.html

65 = Nothing that was not a severe stretch.

In that one small experiment 80% of the numbers chosen at random had a connection to Buddhism, and that is pure coincidence.

I therefore would still stick with the view that steps / stages are being counted (because that is what is written) and any correlation with religious / philosophical thought is down to the fact that there are a HUGE number of numbers associated with religious / philosophical thought. Nothing more.

To further demonstrate the point, let’s use the same “kata numbers” you reference and look for connections in Judaism (search “X meaning in Judaism”):

13 = “13 is the age at which a Jewish male becomes obligated to follow Jewish law, the age at which a Bar Mitzvah is attained”

18 = “Gematria of "CHAI" חַי, the Hebrew word for life. Multiples of this number are considered good luck and are often used in gift giving.”

27 = “Three cubed equals twenty-seven. Thus, review the number three for more details as to how 27 is an exponential picture of this. To gather, resurrect, seeds, trees, fruit, counsel, dry land, chaos adverted, first fruits, harmony, and balance. 3 x 9 = 27, thus the significance of the number nine reveals traits of twenty-seven. Based on the Scripture references below, it appears that 27 is linked also to things hidden being revealed and the Seed of the Woman, which is the mystery of the Gospel (nations being coheirs with Israel).”

36 = “The Tzadikim Nistarim (Hebrew: צַדִיקִים נִסתָּרים‎, hidden righteous ones) or Lamed Vav Tzadikim (Hebrew: ל"ו צַדִיקִים‎, 36 righteous ones), often abbreviated to Lamed Vav(niks)[a], refers to 36 Righteous people, a notion rooted within the more mystical dimensions of Judaism. The singular form is Tzadik Nistar (Hebrew: צַדִיק נִסתָר‎).”

54 = "Total number of parashahs”

108 = Nothing … BUT 18 (lucky number above) X 6 = 108, and 6 refers to, “the 6-pointed star of David”.

I can therefore get all of the kata numbers to tie into Judaism. Would anyone suggest this can’t be a coincidence and must point to Jewish symbolism being embedded in the kata? I think everyone would accept it’s a pure coincidence … and not a remarkable one either because there is a lot of numbers to go at.

I’m pretty confident I could do the same with any religion, philosophy or mythology you’d care to name (I did it with Norse Mythology the last time this topic was discussed in depth). This is not evidence of any connection, but simply the fact there are lots of numbers associated with these things. There are a ton of “connections” waiting to be made.

In summary, I can pick numbers at random and get the majority of them to connect to Buddhism. This is simply because so many numbers are used in Buddhism. The fact some of the kata numbers match should therefore not surprise us. The reason people would seem to latch onto this and take it as proof of a connection would seem to be an historically discredited origin story for karate.

I can get all the kata numbers to match in Judaism too, not because there is a link but because most religions have large amounts of numbers associated with them.

Correlation is not causation, and we have a relatively small number of kata to correlate with a HUGE set of numbers available to us in Buddhism (and Judaism). It’s far from being a remarkable match that proves anything.  

I come back to the fact that I see no reason to think “steps” didn’t mean “steps”. With the possible exception of Suparinpei, I think what we are seeing is simple counting. All other connections don’t stand up to close scrutiny in my view.

The “steps theory” has the fact that “steps” is what is written. Additionally, it does not require a, as yet undemonstrated symbolism, to be in play. The simple counting of steps would strike me to be the strongest position to adopt.

If someone can convincingly demonstrate how the specific Buddhist symbolism of the specific number attached to the specific kata is represented in that kata, and do this for all the kata, then that would be very strong evidence that I’m wrong to hold my current view. As yet, no one has presented that. It therefore seems to me that when the past masters named their creations “X number of steps” it was because it contained X number of steps (stages). That strikes me as simple and elegant. Occam’s razor therefore has me taking that view.

All the best,

Iain

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Iain Abernethy wrote:
This is another widespread myth. Itosu wrote in 1908 that, “Karate did not develop from Buddhism or Confucianism”, which historians would concur with. Unfortunately, the idea of a religious origin story was just too appealing story for some, and hence it has become widely propagated.

Regardless of what Itosu says, there is some notion of cultural connection to Shaolin given some of the Kata names, and the fact that some Kata can be provisionally traced to Southern  Shaolin systems - Seisan would be an example here. All that needs to exist is the cultural myth of a connection to Shaolin for this to be true, not an actual connection. in fact, this cultural myth predates Okinawan martial arts together and is found in Chinese ones as well, with people always (likely incorrectly) ascribing the creation of Chinese martial arts to Bodhidharma, etc. Again, the origin story is not something made up by Okinawans or or modern Western Karate researchers, it is a persistent myth from China, and likely a quite old one.

e wrote:
Modern historians are of the view that the martial arts associated with the shaolin temple actually “originated” with the hiring of mercenaries. The idea that the system originated within the temple itself, and is therefore inextricably linked with Buddhist thought, comes from a 17th-century qigong manual known as the “Yijin Jing” (“the muscle change classic”). According to Chinese historian Lin Boyuan, “This manuscript is full of errors, absurdities and fantastic claims; it cannot be taken as a legitimate source.” It’s now widely understood to be a forgery.

Yes,I am aware that the myth is a myth, I am familiar with the scholarship around the two Qigong classics and the fact that modern scholars do not believe Bodhidharma had anything to do with martial arts, I fully agree with those scholars and well understand their reasoning. This does not address anything I've said though, because cultural influences such as these do not need to be fully understood by the people propagating them. It is not reasonable to say that because something is demonstrably untrue (connection to Shaolin etc.) that people didn't adhere to it, in fact, they quite likely did it even though the origin myth was false. Loads of things in Western culture, idioms, etc. related to poorly understood religious history. I made no claims about Karate being some sort of "direct" art connected to Shaolin, and I wouldn't because those are nonsense. However, that does not preclude cultural existence of such things such as naming conventions loosely based on Buddhist lore.

e wrote:
The story of a group of Okinawan’s studying fighting methods from all over the place and fusing them together with indigenous methods, although accurate, was not thought to be as sexy as claiming direct linage from a revered Chinese temple and all that had supposedly happened there. Nevertheless, Itosu was right when he said Karate did not have religious origins.

Again I made no argument that "the origin" of Karate is Buddhist, and doing so would (I agree) be a fairly ridiculous statement. I would appreciate not having my words conflated with the words of people who do that. I once point out I am not making any fantastic claims about the origin of Karate tiself, and would appreciate not being associated with those. Those are not necessary at all for people to adopt numerical naming conventions based on Buddhist lore and notions though, these things simply have to have been culturally present enough (and again, they don't need to be well understood, and quite possibly are not) to use them in naming kata.

e wrote:
I don’t think karate kata can be traced back there (as above). For most of the kata, the history is lost. I’m also not aware of any comparisons between the karate kata and Shaolin forms that would suggest common origin? They seem about as different / similar as any other set of unarmed forms you’d care to point at.

There are extant Kata (Sanchin, Jitte, etc.) than can be traced to "Shaolin" systems, roughly speaking...because again the origin myth is (as far as I know) very pervasive. It would take me a while to dig up the info as I read it years ago, but I found it fairly convincing and in the case of Sanchin it's fairly indisputable that it exists in styles claiming to be some offshoot of Southern Shaolin. Same with Seisan, you can find it in systems purportedly connected to Southern Shaolin. Again, whether or not they really were is beside the point. There's the persistence of that origin myth again, which does not need to be correct to be influential. Seisan and Sanseiryu are both found in Uechi Ryu, which in turn is purported to be some loose form of Mantis, and so could share the same origin myth and cultural trappings. Note once again, many of these oriigin stories about Southern Mantis being connected to Shaolin might be factually dubious, but it is not out of the question to assume such claims of connection were rare in Chinese arts at all. They appear to have been common.

e wrote:
As far as I can tell, the only reason people now think there is a link is because some of the karate masters thought the Shaolin origin story was cool / a useful sales pitch and latched on to it. However, we know that story, as popular as it is, has been historically debunked.

I feel like you're stuck on the notion that the origin myth must be historically true for what I'm saying to be the case, it doesn't need to be. The Shaolin origin myth was part of Chinese martial arts before it was part of Okinawan ones, and similarly influenced the martial arts there. So, the "sales pitch" to me is actually evidence of the cultural diffusion of these notions, rather than evidence against them.

e wrote:
I am no expert here, but I understand the character originates from pictograms for feet, and then you have two (left foot and right foot) put on top of each other to indicate the act of taking a step. Nothing deeper than that originally. It would strike me as an extreme stretch to say that the masters of the past used it because of some spiritual significance.

I don't know either, I actually asked some people who have more knowledge than me. Apparently, I was roughly correct that it does not just refer to physical steps, but rather also to "step by step" if the character is doubled, or "progress in sequential steps" etc. when combined with other characters. It is common enough in Buddhist terminology to be found in some dictionaries of Buddhist terms - I verified this myself. In other words, the argument that the meaning of the character itself excludes symbolic meanings appears to be somewhat weak. If I am understanding correctly it is as broad a term as "steps" is in English- It might refer to something physical, but very well might not.

e wrote:
Based on the facts we have; I think it is safe to conclude that “steps” is the reason. It’s written there and the simple counting of steps would seem to be the obvious conclusion that follows. While we may be able to find correlations with Buddhist numerology, that’s not the same as being able to show that’s the reasoning behind those numbers. Correlation is not causation and all that.

Again, according to my sources the "steps" character is used for things other than physical steps, non-controversially, is reasonably common in Buddhist sources, and does not have to refer exclusively to physical movements.

e wrote:
As mentioned above, there tends to be some arbitrary selections of which kata are included in these theories: the kata numbers that fit the theory are taken as proof, whereas the ones that don’t fit are discounted.

Most of them fit "the theory", that I remember. Now part of this is what you are saying (there are just a lot of numbers in Buddhist numerical symbolism), but to me it is suspicious that all numbered Kata I can recall have symbolic meanings, this combined with the fact that the "physical steps" claim has about as much behind it as mine does makes me choose my explanation. Why? Because in cultures (i.e. Southern China and Okinawan martial arts culture, mythic historical connection to Shaolin) it makes more sense than random "steps" which do not actually meet the kata. For instance, Seisan by my reading (in none of the versions) is anything like thirteen steps, unless you are really stretching it.

e wrote:
24 (Neiseishi) and 28 (Nipaipo) are missing from the above list. Are they numbers that also have links to Buddhism?

28 does, 24 I am not sure about. I could definitely find a Buddhist meaning for 24, which I admit does add some credence to your "random number" argument. Since I am also not trying to make a "grand theory of everything" here, but simply point at a likely cultural influence, it does not need to be 100% to be likely, and I am not sure why it would need to be. I mentioned in my previous posts that physical steps and symbolic names wouldn’t need to be mutually exclusive either, and I can see no logical reason why they would be.

e wrote:
Symbolic of what though? That would seem to be a key factor those supporting this link would need to be able to show. How does what the numbers symbolise have any connection to the nature of the kata itself? Why were those specific numbers attached to that specific kata? What is the symbolism in play?

That's impossible to know, and likely is so culturally specific as to not even make much sense to us. it could have been chosen like art, with no functional intention at all, that is certainly common enough in Chinese martial arts.

e wrote:
A case can be made for Suparinpei, but what about all the others? Simple counting of the steps / stages in the kata would explain the number attached to it; but, for example, how is the Buddhist significance of 36 reflected in the kata Sanseru? Or did they just randomly attach religious numbers to kata?

Again, no idea.

e wrote:
Again, I think simple counting is on far stronger ground unless someone can demonstrate the connection between the specific number’s Buddhist symbolism and the specific nature of the kata bearing that number … for all of the kata. Occam’s razor would seem to be pretty sharp here. 

I could make the same argument about physical "steps", since few of the kata (by my counting) can be easily discerned to have the steps recorded. To me Occam's razor says that since the argument for exclusively physical steps as a naming convention appears fairly weak, and symbolic meanings are more likely in many cases.

e wrote:
To me, it’s simple counting that is at play. In the cases where we do see a connection to Buddhism, it is pure coincidence. I also feel this is demonstrable.

The physical steps claims is almost as, or as speculative as my claim, so I would not call it demonstrable.

e wrote:
As a little experiment, I asked for 5 numbers between 1 and 108 from this random number generator: https://www.random.org/

The numbers I got where: 35, 38, 36, 5, 4 … I then ran it one more time as 36 is one of the numbers under discussion … I got 65. So, let’s look for connection to Buddhism for 4, 5, 35, 38 and 65. To do this I simply googled “X meaning in Buddhism”. Here is what I got:

4 = “Four Nobel Truths”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Noble_Truths

5 = “The 5 precepts” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_precepts

35 = “Thirty-five Confession Buddhas” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirty-five_Confession_Buddhas

38 = “38 Highest Blessings” http://buddhaspace.blogspot.com/2012/07/buddhism-by-numbers-38-highest.html

65 = Nothing that was not a severe stretch.

In that one small experiment 80% of the numbers chosen at random had a connection to Buddhism, and that is pure coincidence.

I therefore would still stick with the view that steps / stages are being counted (because that is what is written) and any correlation with religious / philosophical thought is down to the fact that there are a HUGE number of numbers associated with religious / philosophical thought. Nothing more.

To further demonstrate the point, let’s use the same “kata numbers” you reference and look for connections in Judaism (search “X meaning in Judaism”):

13 = “13 is the age at which a Jewish male becomes obligated to follow Jewish law, the age at which a Bar Mitzvah is attained”

18 = “Gematria of "CHAI" חַי, the Hebrew word for life. Multiples of this number are considered good luck and are often used in gift giving.”

27 = “Three cubed equals twenty-seven. Thus, review the number three for more details as to how 27 is an exponential picture of this. To gather, resurrect, seeds, trees, fruit, counsel, dry land, chaos adverted, first fruits, harmony, and balance. 3 x 9 = 27, thus the significance of the number nine reveals traits of twenty-seven. Based on the Scripture references below, it appears that 27 is linked also to things hidden being revealed and the Seed of the Woman, which is the mystery of the Gospel (nations being coheirs with Israel).”

36 = “The Tzadikim Nistarim (Hebrew: צַדִיקִים נִסתָּרים‎, hidden righteous ones) or Lamed Vav Tzadikim (Hebrew: ל"ו צַדִיקִים‎, 36 righteous ones), often abbreviated to Lamed Vav(niks)[a], refers to 36 Righteous people, a notion rooted within the more mystical dimensions of Judaism. The singular form is Tzadik Nistar (Hebrew: צַדִיק נִסתָר‎).”

54 = "Total number of parashahs”

108 = Nothing … BUT 18 (lucky number above) X 6 = 108, and 6 refers to, “the 6-pointed star of David”.

I can therefore get all of the kata numbers to tie into Judaism. Would anyone suggest this can’t be a coincidence and must point to Jewish symbolism being embedded in the kata? I think everyone would accept it’s a pure coincidence … and not a remarkable one either because there is a lot of numbers to go at.

Right but we are not talking about an art connected to Jewish culture or religious practice. We are talking about an art (or arts really, since some of this influence is based on Chinese martial arts) specifically connected to mythical stories about Shaolin and with an ancestor art (Chinese Kungfu forms) that already had  forms with names like "18 Arhats", etc. and commonly used the symbolic numbers 18, 36, and 108, as well as some others. If you want more information here I can dig, as far as I know it is pretty non-controversial that Chinese forms purported to have a Shaolin connection were named like this.

e wrote:
In summary, I can pick numbers at random and get the majority of them to connect to Buddhism. This is simply because so many numbers are used in Buddhism. The fact some of the kata numbers match should therefore not surprise us. The reason people would seem to latch onto this and take it as proof of a connection would seem to be an historically discredited origin story for karate.

Since I never claimed to have any kind of "origin story" for Karate, or grand theory, that is fine. Again, all that is necessary is cultural diffusion of these ideas, not accurate origin stories or anything like that. It also does not matter if origin stories are discredited, they persist culturally because they are mythology, and serve people in the various ways that mythology does.

e wrote:
I come back to the fact that I see no reason to think “steps” didn’t mean “steps”. With the possible exception of Suparinpei, I think what we are seeing is simple counting. All other connections don’t stand up to close scrutiny in my view.

I can continue to delve into the "steps" thing further, and if you'd like I can post what I was told, but again the idea that this character only means physical steps is (as far as I can understand at this point) simply not correct.

e wrote:
The “steps theory” has the fact that “steps” is what is written. Additionally, it does not require a, as yet undemonstrated symbolism, to be in play. The simple counting of steps would strike me to be the strongest position to adopt.

See above.

e wrote:
If someone can convincingly demonstrate how the specific Buddhist symbolism of the specific number attached to the specific kata is represented in that kata, and do this for all the kata, then that would be very strong evidence that I’m wrong to hold my current view. As yet, no one has presented that. It therefore seems to me that when the past masters named their creations “X number of steps” it was because it contained X number of steps (stages). That strikes me as simple and elegant. Occam’s razor therefore has me taking that view.

As I said, the number of steps in a Kata is as subjective as any of this stuff, and some do not even seem within the ballpark. For that reason, Occam's razor has me choosing some sort of symbolic meaning as a more likely explanation of naming conventions.

Let me be clear here though, I am not trying to create some grand unifying theory of everything, so I am not claiming that Karate comes from the Shaolin temple, that Mawashi-Uke is a Buddhist mudra, or any such silly thing.

I am simply stating that from my perspective the naming conventions are more likely to symbolic than practical due to the things I’ve mentioned previously, and the fact that the ‘steps’ don’t really match up. To me the strongest part of your argument is simply the sheer volume of numbers which are symbolic within Buddhism, the steps thing to me (given what I learned about the character) at this point is not particularly strong.

I do understand where you are coming from Iain, but with so little evidence to go on I still contend that symbolic meaning for the numbered Kata names is not the crazy or far-fetched thing it is often claimed to be, but in fact can be argued to be somewhat likely when considering the cultural context. I get the skepticism, but I see this as most defintiely an open question.

Given the lack of available information I don’t imagine we can go much further here, and will just have to agree to disagree, thanks for the interesting conversation iain!

Nimrod Nir
Nimrod Nir's picture

A Very interesting contribution to this discussion, Zach.

I also agree with your view. It is enough for the Buddhist origin myth to be widespread in the local culture for this theory to be reasonable. The myth itself doesn't have to be true.

In addition, I again wish to remind and stress my previous point, that not all the "number katas" should fit the same "Buddhist symbolism theory" for it to be a reasonable theory. For example, it is possible that the Naha number katas (Sanchin - 3, Seisan - 13, Seipai - 18, Sanseru - 36, Suparnipei - 108) all share the same symbolism rooted in Buddhist myths, while other number katas (Niseishi - 24, Nipaipo - 28, Gujushiho - 54) don't share the same symbolism, or share a different symbolism for that matter. Knowledge of the source of these katas would be helpful here, e.g., knowing which katas were practiced in which area in China and making the "shared theory" grouping according to this information.

Zach Zinn wrote:
I have a native Japanese speaker I can ask (who is also Japanese  and so would hopefully understand cultural context, and specializes in Japanese history!) who might actually be able to go deeper into that question. She was also one of my students at one time and might be willing to do some digging especially if it is a Karate-based question. I have sent the kanji to her to ask what it means to her initially.

Hopefully, with the assistance of your acquaintance, you would be able to come up with some new ideas for us to consider.

At the least, this is an interesting conversation.

Tau
Tau's picture

I seem to have opened a can of worms here with a throwaway comment about a kata that gets little discussion. This thread is now firmly about numerology rather than Suparinpai.

Does the star sign of the kata's creator make any difference?

OK, do we think that in creating the kata:

1. the creator wished to create an "ultimate" kata and aimed for 108 movements specifically to reach that number?

2. Having created the kata, the creator counted the steps and therefore named it and 108 is co-incidental

3. something else

And I suppose to add to that... does it matter? Would understanding this provide a different insight into the kata, bunkai, intension of creation etc.

PASmith
PASmith's picture

I'm doing a document/syllabus of applications for the ITF patterns and it hurts my brain not to have numbers that are significant or "satisfying".

For example I orginally ended up with 74 drills (a mix of 2 person drills, flow drills, solo pad drills, etc) so I put another drill in to make it 75. 74 seemed wrong! That additional drill is still relevant and worth while but I could remove it with no real loss of information. As it is, I rearranged some of the other drills to prevent reapeating stuff and made it fit. 75 feels a better number to end up with than 74 or 76. A number that will sound satisfying to someone else. In the way that the 10 commandments sounds "right" but the 11 commandments or 9 commandments doesn't? Even though I'm not religious myself there's still a cultural significance to "10".

Could it be that the founders or creators of karate naturally gravitated towards certain numbers in a similar way? Without even being full cognizant of why those numbers were "attractive" to them?

I'd be tempted to create a kata around the number 42. It is the answer to life, the universe and everything afterall! :)

Tau
Tau's picture

PASmith wrote:

I'm doing a document/syllabus of applications for the ITF patterns and it hurts my brain not to have numbers that are significant or "satisfying".

The numbers in the ITF patterns are a whole different ball game.

"Perform a pattern with 27 movements"

The numbers of years of someone's life. A latitude at which someone was born. A reference to a military unit. 

To anyone not versed in Taekwondo pattern meanings, I'm not in the least bit kidding. This is what we had to know as part of grading. In one way it's genius but that's another story.

PASmith
PASmith's picture

Tau wrote:
To anyone not versed in Taekwondo pattern meanings, I'm not in the least bit kidding. This is what we had to know as part of grading. In one way it's genius but that's another story.

Yeah I'm not talking about those kind of ridiculous numbers associated with the patterns AT ALL.

Just that, unconsciously perhaps, some numbers "feel" more satysfying than others and that those numbers will probably vary by culture. No one in western culture is going to come up with "the13 precepts of good self defence" for example. Doesn't sound right (even if 13 is the exact right number to cover what you need). It'll be 10 or 15 or 20. Or even 12. But not 13.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi Zach,

Thanks for the follow up post and for clarifying a few points.

Zach Zinn wrote:
I once point out I am not making any fantastic claims about the origin of Karate tiself, and would appreciate not being associated with those. Those are not necessary at all for people to adopt numerical naming conventions based on Buddhist lore and notions though, these things simply have to have been culturally present enough (and again, they don't need to be well understood, and quite possibly are not) to use them in naming kata.

I think your posts speak for themselves and I was making the general point that linking the martial arts to Buddhism, Taoism, Zen, “Bushido” (itself a modern creation), etc is so widespread – despite being roundly historically debunked – that many use that as a lens to look back in history and therefore come to erroneous conclusions.

Zach Zinn wrote:
I feel like you're stuck on the notion that the origin myth must be historically true for what I'm saying to be the case, it doesn't need to be. The Shaolin origin myth was part of Chinese martial arts before it was part of Okinawan ones, and similarly influenced the martial arts there. So, the "sales pitch" to me is actually evidence of the cultural diffusion of these notions, rather than evidence against them.

Thanks for the clarification. So, if I understand you correctly, you are of the view the naming of the kata was done because of the myth? While more plausible, I do have some concerns there because the myth only became widespread in the early 1900s because of the serialization of the novel “The Travels of Lao Ts'an” in Illustrated Fiction Magazine. It was after that date that we see martial artists latching onto the myth (perhaps noteworthy that Itosu rejected the connection at the same point in history). We have records of the kata names in the 1860s, which would be the best part of four decades before the myth was mainstream.

Unless we have some historical source to say the myth was widespread before historians currently say it was, then I think it is very unlikely to be the inspiration for the naming of the kata.

Zach Zinn wrote:
Again, according to my sources the "steps" character is used for things other than physical steps, non-controversially, is reasonably common in Buddhist sources, and does not have to refer exclusively to physical movements.

As I understand it, the character is similar to the English “steps”, which is why I think it more likely refers to “stages” than physical foot motions. There are stages / steps in pretty much any pursuit you can think of, but I think it’s a stretch to say it could have a Buddhist intent because steps appear in Buddhism. They appear in everything, including martial arts.

I think we have numbers and generic terms being given a Buddhist interpretation when there is no reason to do so.

We agree the shaolin link is a myth, and the historians tell us the myth was not widespread before the early 1900s, and yet the kata names were in existence well before that point.

Occam’s Razor states, “entities should not be multiplied without necessity”. I personally don’t see the necessity to drop Buddhism into the mix. Simple counting of steps / stages would seem the simplest explanation and hence that is the one I prefer.

Zach Zinn wrote:
Most of them fit "the theory", that I remember. Now part of this is what you are saying (there are just a lot of numbers in Buddhist numerical symbolism), but to me it is suspicious that all numbered Kata I can recall have symbolic meanings …

Not really. There are so many numbers used in Buddhism (and many other religions) that a match tells us very little. As I demonstrated, you can choose numbers at random and get a match, and you can apply the kata numbers to other religions and also get a match. It’s therefore not strong evidence in my view.

Zach Zinn wrote:
…this combined with the fact that the "physical steps" claim has about as much behind it as mine does makes me choose my explanation. Why? Because in cultures (i.e. Southern China and Okinawan martial arts culture, mythic historical connection to Shaolin) it makes more sense than random "steps" which do not actually meet the kata.

I think we agree it’s unlikely to be physical steps, but because the other simple and obvious reading for the kanji is “stages”, I think that is very likely to be what we are talking about.

If you look at the other Goju kata names, the ones that are not number based, they are clearly martial names, not religious ones:

Sanchin – “Three Battles/Conflicts”

 Gekisai – “Attack & Destroy”

Saifa – “Smash and Tear Apart”

Seiyunchin – “Control/Suppress and Pull”

Shisochin – “Four Directions/Gates of Conflict/Attack”

Kururunfa – “Holding Ground”

If you view the names of the “number kata” in this context, it makes most sense to conclude the number is talking about the martial elements within; and opposed to Buddhist symbolism.

If all of the above kata had Buddhist names instead, that would be a powerful argument that the numbers were also be meant to be viewed in that context. Seeing as they have martial names, it makes most sense to me view the numbers in a martial context.

Iain Abernethy wrote:
Symbolic of what though? That would seem to be a key factor those supporting this link would need to be able to show. How does what the numbers symbolise have any connection to the nature of the kata itself? Why were those specific numbers attached to that specific kata? What is the symbolism in play?

Zach Zinn wrote:
That's impossible to know, and likely is so culturally specific as to not even make much sense to us. it could have been chosen like art, with no functional intention at all, that is certainly common enough in Chinese martial arts.

This is why I chose to go with a literal reading of the name within a martial framework. It’s seems to be a violation of Occam’s Razor to posit Buddhist symbolism without being able to identify what that symbolism is. It is a “multiplied entity” with no “necessity”.

Zach Zinn wrote:
I could make the same argument about physical "steps", since few of the kata (by my counting) can be easily discerned to have the steps recorded. To me Occam's razor says that since the argument for exclusively physical steps as a naming convention appears fairly weak, and symbolic meanings are more likely in many cases.

I’d disagree. They are martial forms created at a time well before linking martial arts to religion was commonplace. All the other kata have martial names. 歩 has a simple reading of steps / stages. It therefore seems simplest to conclude the numbers are simple counting of the stages within the kata (not physical foot movements).

Iain Abernethy wrote:
To me, it’s simple counting that is at play. In the cases where we do see a connection to Buddhism, it is pure coincidence. I also feel this is demonstrable.

Zach Zinn wrote:
The physical steps claims is almost as, or as speculative as my claim, so I would not call it demonstrable.

I think you may have misunderstood what I was saying there. I was saying that the fact pretty much any number can be made to tie into Buddhism was demonstrable. I then went onto do that with numbers generated randomly. Because this is so easy to do, the fact that some of the kata numbers (not all) match numbers is Buddhism cannot be shown to be evidence of anything.

Zach Zinn wrote:
Right but we are not talking about an art connected to Jewish culture or religious practice. We are talking about an art (or arts really, since some of this influence is based on Chinese martial arts) specifically connected to mythical stories about Shaolin and with an ancestor art (Chinese Kungfu forms) that already had forms with names like "18 Arhats", etc. and commonly used the symbolic numbers 18, 36, and 108, as well as some others. If you want more information here I can dig, as far as I know it is pretty non-controversial that Chinese forms purported to have a Shaolin connection were named like this.

No, but it does show matching numbers is not evidence of a definitive link. It shows that a small number set can easily find matches in a much larger number set. If it were unlikely, that would be strong evidence in favour of a link. However, because it’s very likely, even with randomly generated numbers, the fact some of the numbers match tells us very little.

Zach Zinn wrote:
Since I never claimed to have any kind of "origin story" for Karate, or grand theory, that is fine. Again, all that is necessary is cultural diffusion of these ideas, not accurate origin stories or anything like that. It also does not matter if origin stories are discredited, they persist culturally because they are mythology, and serve people in the various ways that mythology does.

True, but that particular myth was not widespread until decades after we have records of the kata names.

Zach Zinn wrote:
I can continue to delve into the "steps" thing further, and if you'd like I can post what I was told, but again the idea that this character only means physical steps is (as far as I can understand at this point) simply not correct.

I personally think it does not refer to physical steps, but it’s other common use in reference to stages.

Zach Zinn wrote:
Let me be clear here though, I am not trying to create some grand unifying theory of everything, so I am not claiming that Karate comes from the Shaolin temple, that Mawashi-Uke is a Buddhist mudra, or any such silly thing.

Understood. I don’t think you posts can be read that way. However, others do make such claims.

Zach Zinn wrote:
I am simply stating that from my perspective the naming conventions are more likely to symbolic than practical due to the things I’ve mentioned previously, and the fact that the ‘steps’ don’t really match up. To me the strongest part of your argument is simply the sheer volume of numbers which are symbolic within Buddhism, the steps thing to me (given what I learned about the character) at this point is not particularly strong.

I think you have mistakenly thought I was using 歩 to refer to physical steps. As per my first post in this thread:

The character “歩”- “ho” in Japanese, “Po” in Oknianwan”- means “step” and I understand it has the same double meaning as the English word i.e. a movement of the feet / a stage. While most think the numbers refer to the physical steps, I think that is incorrect based on the fact we can count the footsteps in the various kata and they don’t match; which would seem pretty conclusive. I therefore think it’s more likely that the “step” in the name simply refers to the discrete lessons / drills encapsulated in the kata i.e. Seishan has “13 stages”, Neisheishi has “24 Stages”, Seipai has “18 stages” and so on.

Zach Zinn wrote:
I do understand where you are coming from Iain, but with so little evidence to go on I still contend that symbolic meaning for the numbered Kata names is not the crazy or far-fetched thing it is often claimed to be, but in fact can be argued to be somewhat likely when considering the cultural context. I get the skepticism, but I see this as most definitely an open question.

We have no definitive proof either way, but I personally don’t see the two possibilities as having equal validity for the aforementioned reasons. The “steps theory” is congruent with all the things we know. The “numerology theory” has to ignore certain kata (the numbers that don’t fit), has to ignore that all other named kata don’t have Buddhist names but martial ones, has to believe the shaolin myth was either true of pervasive at a time when historians tell us it was not, has to draw definitive conclusions from matched number sets which as not particularly remarkable, has to attribute a religious meaning to the character 歩 in favour of a common literal meaning, etc.  I see lots of multiplied entities with no necessity there, so Occam’s Razor has me strongly favouring simple counting of martial stages within a martial form (Superimpei being the exception).

Zach Zinn wrote:
Given the lack of available information I don’t imagine we can go much further here, and will just have to agree to disagree, thanks for the interesting conversation iain!

Always a good place to end, but the back and forth between differing always makes for very interesting threads I think. We have many more readers than contributors, and these are the kinds of threads that I feel have the most valuable information for readers. People can read the differing opinions, claims, counter-claims and challenges and then draw their own conclusions in a way they can’t if only one viewpoint is presented. Thanks very much for this!

All the best,

Iain

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi Peter,

Tau wrote:
1. the creator wished to create an "ultimate" kata and aimed for 108 movements specifically to reach that number?

Tau wrote:
2. Having created the kata, the creator counted the steps and therefore named it and 108 is co-incidental

Tau wrote:
3. something else

My best guess on this is that it seems most likely the other kata were in existence and the names reflected the number of two-person drills / steps within. To try to “summarise” / conclude the lessons of those kata into one kata, Suparinpai was created and given the name it was to reflect it was a summation of all that preceded it. It may not literally have 108 steps / stages because “108” is a number associated with everything. There is a clear link between name and nature there (“all the steps” or “the concluding steps”) and so it is the one I think may have a symbolic number.

One of my interests is mythology, and in Viking poetry we often seen the number 9 used in the same way (the biggest single number there is). Therefore, when we see references to 9 anything in the poetry, it essentially refers to what we would now label as infinite or too many to count. In Middle Eastern mythologies “40” is used in the same way (origin of the term “40 winks” for a nap of indeterminate length in modern English). Japanese uses the term “8000 generations” to mean eternity, and so on. In this instance, it does not need to be a literal 108 steps.

As above, I do think the other ones are very likely to be literal because of no demonstrable symbolic connection between the numbers and the nature of the kata.

I guess if we were making such a kata in the UK today, we may call it “1001 steps” due to the fact 1001 is often used as a turn of phrase to mean a huge amount.

Bottomline, we don’t know for certain, but I feel that is most likely based on what we do know.

Tau wrote:
And I suppose to add to that... does it matter? Would understanding this provide a different insight into the kata, bunkai, intension of creation etc.

I think so. The name is essentially a descriptor that tells us something about the kata bearing that name. This thread has inspired me to make a podcast on this topic, and to take a look at the number kata to see if the “steps” can be clearly identified. I plan to start with Neiseishi seeing as that one is pretty consistent across the styles (so we can be more confident something has not been added / removed over time) and the bunkai for it would seem to be self-evident in many cases. Could be a fun project!

All the best,

Iain

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Iain, can I ask what your source is for 108 meaning "everything"? More commonly "everything" is expressed by the number 84,000 or 10,000 in Buddhist sources that I'm aware of, and 108 has (as far as I know) a much more specific meaning than "everything". However, I am not as familiar with East Asian Buddhist symbolism as I am with other flavors, and it may be that I am missing some colloqial use of 108, and I wouldn't mind knowing where that idea comes from.

It certainly works functionally, as I said earlier I do think it seems to be a kind of final statement of the Goju Kata, minus the spinning kick/scissor kick thing which I swear sometimes might have just been put in to mess with people:)

Going back to the original post, I'd also note that while I've studied/done Suparinpei for years, it is the Kata I understand the least, and have spent the least time with, simply owing to the fact that while I learned it early on, it was not a requirement until I had been training for 10 years or so. I wonder if this is true of other Gojuka, in my experience it was substantially harder to learn the pattern (there are so many turns) than with the other kata as well. So, while I have been actively "using" other kata for years, Suparinpei is something that I feel like I am only earnestly studying now.  

John D Linstead
John D Linstead's picture

Since I practice the Shito-Ryu version of this kata with the throwing fairy dust move at the end I am tempted to rename it 109 :-)

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi Nimrod,

Nimrod Nir wrote:
In addition, I again wish to remind and stress my previous point, that not all the "number katas" should fit the same "Buddhist symbolism theory" for it to be a reasonable theory. For example, it is possible that the Naha number katas (Sanchin - 3, Seisan - 13, Seipai - 18, Sanseru - 36, Suparnipei - 108) all share the same symbolism rooted in Buddhist myths, while other number katas (Niseishi - 24, Nipaipo - 28, Gujushiho - 54) don't share the same symbolism, or share a different symbolism for that matter.

I think we need to be very careful of not finding ourselves in circular reasoning here with the claim being used to “prove” itself i.e. “These kata fit with the Buddhist numerology theory, but these ones don’t, so they MUST come from a source that didn’t use Buddhist numerology.”

I think the logical next step for those who hold to this theory would be to demonstrate the connection between the asserted symbolism of the number and the nature of the kata. I think that can be done for Superimpei, but for it to hold true with the others that connection needs to be demonstrated. Seeing as it hasn’t been, I can’t follow the logic of assuming it to be true when there is no evidence it is. We are working backward from the claim otherwise.

Nimrod Nir wrote:
I also agree with your view. It is enough for the Buddhist origin myth to be widespread in the local culture for this theory to be reasonable. The myth itself doesn't have to be true.

The trouble is that the origin myth was not widespread until the early 1900s. However, we know the kata already had those names well before that point. For example, on the 24th of March 1867 we know that Aragaki demonstrated Seisan and Tomura demonstrated Superimpei at a cultural event. The program for that event has the kanji for “steps” after both of those kata names, and this was decades before the Shaolin origin myth was widely propagated by the serialisation of “The Travels of Lao Ts'an”. It therefore seems very doubtful the Buddhist origin myth could be the source of the all the numbers being chosen.

Nimrod Nir wrote:
… it is possible that the Naha number katas (Sanchin - 3, Seisan - 13, Seipai - 18, Sanseru - 36, Suparnipei - 108) all share the same symbolism rooted in Buddhist myths, while other number katas (Niseishi - 24, Nipaipo - 28, Gujushiho - 54) don't share the same symbolism, or share a different symbolism for that matter.

Gojushio is part of the Shuri-te line. Shuri and Naha are just over 3 miles apart, so it’s reasonable to assume there was a shared worldview between the karateka of these regions.

Aragaki was also known to teach Neiseishi. It was therefore originally what we would now retroactively call a Naha-te kata. While it’s not practised in Goju today, it was one practised by Aragaki who is a key figure in the Goju lineage. Today, it’s mainly found in Shuri-te styles which is why I often refer to it as, “The kata that ran away from home”.

For the theory to hold true, Neiseishi would need to be included in the explanation because it was part of that group of kata.

As for Nipaipo, it was created by Mabuni after his training with Gokenki (a Chinese tea merchant living in Okinawa). Miyagi was also said to have trained with him. Mabuni was also part of the Naha-te line, so what is the explanation for him picking 28 as the name? If that number has no Buddhist symbolism, did he break with tradition? Was he unaware of the Buddhist naming tradition? Or did he, as I suspect, simply name the kata after the number of drills within it, and therefore stick with the tradition?

Again, if we assume that they were simply counting steps / stages then none of these difficult questions arise. There is no need come up with numerous secondary hypothesises to justify the primary one.

Occam’s razor tells us “Entities should not be multiplied without necessity”. This is clearly happening with the “Buddhist numerology approach”. We need explanations of why some kata have “Buddhist numbers” and some don’t, we need to explain how they knew of a myth decades before it was widespread, we need to layer on a spiritual meaning to “steps”, we have a claimed symbolism but no demonstration of what it is symbolic of, and so on. The simple counting of steps / stages has none of these issues. It’s a simple explanation that does not require any additional explanations. It’s is therefore the one Occam’s razor would have use adopt, and that’s why it is the one I will hold to until sufficient evidence is put forth to address all the above.

All the

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

I don't believe the origin myth is quite so modern at all. Rather, the origin myth is pretty well built into Chinese martial arts. Unless we are suggesting that Chinese martial arts didn't start attributing Martial Arts to Bodhidharma, claiming fanciful links to Shaolin, etc. until the modern age...which as far as I know is demonstrably incorrect. That has been going on a for a long time I believe.

The whole reason that scholars are able to say that Bodhidharma likely did not create Chinese martial arts is that it is notion that has been around a while, and it has been a thing in Chinese arts for some time to link them to Shaolin. Look at how many styles are "XXXX Shaolin" but have no demonstrable link to monastics or temples. I'm happy to be proved wrong on this, but I think even a fairly casual perusal of Chinese martial arts history demonstrates a definite affinity for mythical stories about a link to monks, temples or forest dwelling mystics, etc. both Buddhist and Daoist in fact. I  am no expert on Chinese MA history, but I do know enough to say that such stories are quite commonplace in the lore, and appear to have been around for some time.

Here is a random article that dates them from at least the 17th century (the Yi Jin Hing attribution I think dates from this time), and mentions the earliest records of Bodhidharma being linked to Shaloin being from the 8th century:

https://chinesemartialstudies.com/2014/03/28/bodhidharma-historical-fiction-hyper-real-religion-and-shaolin-kung-fu/

While it is speculative, it doesn't seem out of the question at all to assume some of this lore would be imported to Okinawa.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi Zach,

Zach Zinn wrote:
Iain, can I ask what your source is for 108 meaning "everything"? More commonly "everything" is expressed by the number 84,000 or 10,000 in Buddhist sources that I'm aware of, and 108 has (as far as I know) a much more specific meaning than "everything".

The idea I’m presenting is that 108 COULD be used as a shorthand for an indeterminate “lots” or “all of it”, a little like how 1001 is used in modern English. It is therefore plausible, but not definite, that “Suparinpei” could be a reference to that, as opposed to a specific number of stages in that specific case. It’s a point I am prepared to concede when it comes to naming of kata symbolically.

My core claim in the kata numbers do NOT have connection to Buddhism.

108 is used as number of “conclusion” or “lots” in a number of different contexts (particularly in martial arts):

The Yang Taijiquan long form is also said to have 108 steps.

Eagle Claw Kung Fu’s concluding form (said to be the essence of the style and once again a very long form) is the “108 Locking Hand Techniques”.

Wing Chun Forms also consist of 108 techniques.

The Wu style of Tai Chi has 108 postures.

We have Suparinpei of course.

In addition, there are cultural things such as:

108 is used to mean “plentiful” in Thailand.

In Hindu / Vedic astrology there said to be 27 constellations and 4 cardinal directions (27 X 4 = 108), so the number is used to refer to the whole of the galaxy.

We have the 108 feelings in Buddhism (explained in posts above) so all we can experience.

In Japan, the bells are chimed 108 times when the year ends (108 at the end).

In Yoga it’s common for “sun salutations” to be performed in 9 sets of 12 (108 to completion) at the end of winter (spring equinox).  

No expert here, and I await to be corrected, but it seems 108 as a spiritual number seems to have originated within the Vedic tradition and spread from there.

Mathematically we have the fact that 108 is 12 X 9. Nine is regarded as a special number because the sum of the digits of any number multiplied by nine equals nine i.e. 123 X 9 = 1107 and 1+1+0+7 = 9. Additionally, 12 is thought to be a special number because is divides by 1,2,3 and 4 (which is why we used it so much in imperial measurements and the measurement of time). 108 is therefore deemed a “joyous” and “whole” number in the Vedic tradition.

So, we see cultural references to 108 being “complete” or marking the end of something across the Eastern world. We also see it being used in other martial arts for the longest forms, or forms that summarise a given aspect. It’s therefore not an insurmountable stretch so say that is POSSIBLY what the 108 of Suparinpei refers to given the nature of that specific kata.

I’m NOT arguing for this numerological connection through. What I am saying is there is sufficient evidence this this one to be plausible based on the way 108 is used in other martial arts and related cultures.

My core point remains that I see no evidence to believe that other “number kata” have any neurological significance attached to them, and plenty that leads me away from the conclusion.

If I am wrong about 108, then that strengthens my overall case. As it stands, I will concede Suparinpei, and it alone, may have a symbolic connection because 108 – and 108 specifically – is used this way in other martial arts, due to the way is used in the related cultures, in reference to long or concluding forms.   

As for all the others, I am as confident as one can be that it is simple counting.

All the best,

Iain

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Fair enough Iain, thanks for the reply.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi Zach,

Zach Zinn wrote:
I don't believe the origin myth is quite so modern at all. Rather, the origin myth is pretty well built into Chinese martial arts.

It is now. However, it’s retroactive history.

Zach Zinn wrote:
Unless we are suggesting that Chinese martial arts didn't start attributing Martial Arts to Bodhidharma, claiming fanciful links to Shaolin, etc. until the modern age...which as far as I know is demonstrably incorrect. That has been going on a for a long time I believe.

It depends on your definition of “modern age”. What we can say is the “Muscle Change Classic” was said to be written / forged in 1624, and the oldest copy we have dates from 1827. However, as mentioned in the above posts, it was not until the serialisation of The Travels of Lao Ts'an in the early 1900s that the idea got widespread traction. Here’s what Chinese historian Lin Boyuan has to say on this issue:

“One of the most recently invented and familiar of the Shaolin historical narratives is a story that claims that the Indian monk Bodhidharma, the supposed founder of Chinese Chan (Zen) Buddhism, introduced boxing into the monastery as a form of exercise around a.d. 525. This story first appeared in a popular novel, The Travels of Lao T’san, published as a series in a literary magazine in 1907. This story was quickly picked up by others and spread rapidly through publication in a popular contemporary boxing manual, Secrets of Shaolin Boxing Methods, and the first Chinese physical culture history published in 1919. As a result, it has enjoyed vast oral circulation and is one of the most “sacred” of the narratives shared within Chinese and Chinese-derived martial arts. That this story is clearly a twentieth-century invention is confirmed by writings going back at least 250 years earlier, which mention both Bodhidharma and martial arts but make no connection between the two."

He is quite clear it’s a “twentieth-century invention” that “enjoyed vast oral circulation” within Chinese and Chinese-derived martial arts i.e. karate. That is well over a century ago now of course, so plenty of time for the myth to get “baked in”. However, we have reference to the katas under discussion in the mid-1800s, long before this myth got going.

Zach Zinn wrote:
The whole reason that scholars are able to say that Bodhidharma likely did not create Chinese martial arts is that it is notion that has been around a while, and it has been a thing in Chinese arts for some time to link them to Shaolin.

The myth becomes prevalent in the martial arts in the early 1900s and historians start debunking it in the 1930s (while martial artists continue to enthusiastically propagate it).

Essentially, in the early 1900s there was much change in both China and Japan. The martial arts were no longer saleable as a vital combative skill. So, they reinvent them as exercise, entertainment, character development, etc. The also reinvent their history to have links back to important religious figures (religion not being under threat in the way martial arts were) and being a healthy way to become a better member of society. It’s during that time that the Bodhidharma / Shaolin myth gains traction, “Bushido” as the ethical code of the samurai get invented, the alleged connection between martial arts and Zen thinking starts being written about, etc. These are relatively new developments, but they claim to be historical and ancient.

Zach Zinn wrote:
Here is a random article that dates them from at least the 17th century (the Yi Jin Hing attribution I think dates from this time), and mentions the earliest records of Bodhidharma being linked to Shaloin being from the 8th century:

That’s very good article, but I think this bit is what you are referring to (my highlight):

The stories of Bodhidharma teaching the Indian martial arts (or even Yoga like exercises) at Shaolin are, if anything, even more outlandish. The earliest religious myths associating him with Shaolin seem to date to the 8th century. The accounts linking him to the region’s martial arts do not make their first appearance until the start of the 17th century. Nor do the many Buddhist chronicles produced through the intervening years contain any hint that the wandering Indian genius was also a martial artist.

In short, stories linking Bodhidharma to the creation of the Chinese martial arts are clearly problematic. This is not a recent revelation. Practically every historian or student of Chinese religion to have looked at these issues has already debunked this legend. Douglas Wile, Stanley Henning, Dominic LaRochelle, Meir Shahar and a host of other have already pointed out the myriad of inconsistencies in these accounts.

As Henning reminds us, one of Tang Hao’s first contributions to the modern study of the Chinese martial arts in 1930 was to demolish the Shaolin-Bodhidharma connection.

Bodhidharma was not linked to martial arts until the 17th century. This is the muscle change classic referenced above. However, we know that was not a widespread myth until the early 1900s. It’s at that point – not before – that we see the serialisation of The Travels of Lao T’san, the martial arts books that ran with that myth, and martial artists taking it as fact. As Lin Boyuan concludes, the connection to Chinese and Chinse-derived martial arts is a “twentieth-century invention”.

Zach Zinn wrote:
While it is speculative, it doesn't seem out of the question at all to assume some of this lore would be imported to Okinawa.

I think it would need to be widespread prior to the mid-1800s for the kata around at that time to be named after the myth. The historians tell us it was not widely known until a novel based on The Muscle Change Classic was serialised in a popular magazine and martial arts books bought into the myth and propagated it. This did not happen until the 1900s and that is how the myth spread. It was only after that point that we see people claiming links back to Shaolin. Not before.

Itosu wrote, “Karate did not develop from Buddhism or Confucianism” one year after the serialisation of Travels of Lao T’san ended (it ran from 1904 to 1907). Maybe that was when the myth started circulating in Okinawa and why he made that very first thing in his 1908 document?

All the best,

Iain

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

How we do know it was not a widespread myth until the 1900's? Where is that detailed?

Further, this is not the same as a claim that attempts to link Shaolin to Chinese martial arts in a general sense are that new, as they are seperate issues. It would seem that the very fact that people were falsely linking Bodhidharma to Shaolin martial arts in 17th century is some evidence that this kind of mythical attribution was already a tendency prior to the 20th century, so I am finding the general line of argument a bit contradictory on the surface, what am I missing?

So to be clear, I find the idea that Bodhidharma was not widely associated with martial arts prior to the 20th century quite believable, but the idea that Chinese martial arts were not using Shaolin as a "sales pitch" prior to the 20th century seems a lot less likely to me.

Still, I am open to learning about the evidence that this might be so.

By the way, if this is getting too off-topic I am also happy to just stop asking questions and focus on Suparinpei!

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi Zach,

Zach Zinn wrote:
How we do know it was not a widespread myth until the 1900's? Where is that detailed?

In the historical research. As per the above posts, the myth reached a wide audience in the early 1900s because of the serialisation of the novel The Travels of Lao T’san. After that, it was regurgitated in the very popular book “Secrets of Shaolin Boxing Methods” and it was then, and not before, that the myth was latched onto by the martial arts fraternity. Before the 1900s there is no evidence of the myth being widespread. After the above events, it is everywhere. In answer to your question, we know the myth was not widespread until the 1900s because it is only after that point that we see all the references to it.

The only place this myth persists is within the martial arts community. Historians debunked it very quickly. As with all things the burden of proof is on those making the claim. If the Sholin myth was widespread before the 1900s, then what is the evidence to support that claim? The historians who have studied this can’t find any evidence it was. It is only after the serialization of The Travels of Lao T’san / Secrets of Shaolin Boxing Methods that we see it being widely propagated. Lin Boyuan and others are clear the evidence shows it is a “twentieth-century invention”.

Zach Zinn wrote:
It would seem that the very fact that people were falsely linking Bodhidharma to Shaolin martial arts in 17th century is some evidence that this kind of mythical attribution was already a tendency prior to the 20th century, so I am finding the general line of argument a bit contradictory on the surface, what am I missing?

I think you are missing the difference between an obscure book being in existence and the ideas within that book being spread and then widely believed. The oldest copy of the “The Muscle Change Classic” is dated at 1827. The composition of the text withing that book has been dated to 1624. However, the book and the ideas with in it where not widely spread until the early 1900s. Again, it is only from the 1900s onward that we see martial artists latching onto the myth. Before that, nothing but reference in a once very obscure book. There is no evidence to suggest martial artists were aware of the “The Muscle Change Classic” before the 1900s. It is only after the serialization of The Travels of Lao T’san / publication of Secrets of Shaolin Boxing Methods that martial artists latched onto this idea.

Zach Zinn wrote:
So to be clear, I find the idea that Bodhidharma was not widely associated with martial arts prior to the 20th century quite believable, but the idea that Chinese martial arts were not using Shaolin as a "sales pitch" prior to the 20th century seems a lot less likely to me.

I get that distinction. However, were a huge number of martial artists – particularly karateka in our case – claiming a link to Shaolin before the 1900s? Martial arts where definitely practised there, but it seems to me it was the alleged a link to Bodhidharma (and by extension Zen Buddhism) that made it such an attractive piece of propaganda. When the myth spreads, everyone wants a piece of the action because it such a strong sales pitch. It’s only when this myth spreads that the Shaolin Temple becomes, “The birthplace of the martial arts”. It did not have the same kudos before the myth was propagated.  What evidence do we have for karateka claiming a link to the Shaolin Temple before the myth was widespread? It's just that some bought into the myth that everything originated there. It was the myth that made the link to the temple desirable.

It’s also worth noting that the links to Zen in other arts (famously Archery) is also known to be a modern piece of revisionist history. It’s something layered onto the arts at a later date.

Zach Zinn wrote:
By the way, if this is getting too off-topic I am also happy to just stop asking questions and focus on Suparinpei!

We probably should bring it back to the kata itself, but I think all of this is very relevant because the name was obviously chosen for a reason. We’ve been bouncing back and forth what that reason could be, and therefore that could give us some insights into the nature of the kata.

My own view is that it is possible the name reflects that the kata could be a “conclusion” or “summation” of all the things learnt previously (just as “108 forms” are in other martial systems). Based on that we know; I think that is the most likely hypothesis. However, if it is Buddhist symbolism that is at play, then we need to discuss what 108 could mean in that context and how that is reflected in the kata i.e. if it’s not a conclusion / summation then what it is? Also, by extension we need to look at the symbolism attached to the other kata that also have number names and would seem to have common sequences with Suparinpei. What is the symbolism there and how does that feed into Suparinpei?

As I say, I think it most likely the other kata with number names are representative of a simple counting of the stages within, and 108 / Suparinpei represents as conclusion / summation of those lessons learnt from other kata. If we accept that as most likely, it therefore seems reasonable to approach the kata as such a conclusion / summation. If 108 does not represent that, then it’s fair to ask what it does represent in order to help us ascertain what the purpose of the kata was thought to be by those that named it.

I therefore don’t think this is too far off topic as it’s useful in helping in bringing the possible purpose of the kata into focus. There are many other aspects to Suparinpei too of course and we probably should move onto those too in order to make a more comprehensive thread.

All the best,

Iain

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Fair enough Iain, it probably is best to move on to other aspects at this point, we seem to have gone as far as we can, thanks for taking the time.

On the kata itself:

I've always found the crescent kick/scissor kick interesting, as it is one of the few moves out of the Kata that isn't found elsewhere.

Tau
Tau's picture

Zach Zinn wrote:

I've always found the crescent kick/scissor kick interesting, as it is one of the few moves out of the Kata that isn't found elsewhere.

Can you show us video/timestamp of this please?

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Zach Zinn wrote:
I've always found the crescent kick/scissor kick interesting, as it is one of the few moves out of the Kata that isn't found elsewhere

Tau wrote:
Can you show us video/timestamp of this please?

 

About 1:54.

As far as bunkai, I have learned a few different variations on an armar for the technique, essentially. I don't find them a satisfying explanation and it is not a technique I would ever use. Then again, I also would not use a cresecent kick in any other way either, other than maybe as some sort of checking motion or oblique kick. Again I should emphasize, I am just really beginning to delve into Suparinpei, parts  of it make sense to me, others not so much. This is a small part of the kata, a lot of the more "basic" parts are just variations on techniques/principles from the other kata, and as such are way more intelligible to me.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi All,

Zach Zinn wrote:
I've always found the crescent kick/scissor kick interesting, as it is one of the few moves out of the Kata that isn't found elsewhere.

Me too! As you say, it’s an unusual movement. My initial thoughts on the application would be kicking out the enemy’s rear leg so they end up with their feet wide apart. Put your same leg behind the enemy’s lead leg (without putting it down) as you rotate their upper body (the spin). The combination of the wide stance and blocked lead leg will see them fall from the rotation as they are unable to take a corrective step. If it fails at the kick stage – as everything can – then you have the following mawashi-uke to regain control over the limbs. I jokingly refer to mawashi-uke as Goju’s “get out of jail free card” as it seems to be there quite a bit following such motions.

I’d be interested in other people’s thoughts on this one as it’s distinctive.

For ease of discussion, I will embed some other versions of the kata:

Shito-Ryu

 

Shotokan

While not one normally found in the Shotokan cannon, there is a version of it that goes by the name of “Hyakuhachiho” (modern Japanese for “108 steps”). The movements have been adapted to fit with the standard Shotokan way of doing things.

 

Wado-Ryu

As mentioned above, this was one of the original 16 kata of Wado (Otsuka presumably learning it from Mabuni) and the first one to be jettisoned leaving the 15 more commonly done. Later, Otsuka dropped the number of kata to nine (which is why you see more variations in the other six than you do in the core nine). I personally doubt this version is passed down from Otsuka – because he stopped doing it pretty quickly – but a “wadofication” of the versions found in other styles (a similar thing has been done with Unsu in some Wado circles; primarily for competitive purposes)

 

I would point to the Goju-Ryu and Shito-Ryu versions as being the more “authentic” ones as the kata was always a part of those lines. That said, had it found it’s way into Shotokan early on, and had it remained a part of Wado, I think it’s fair to say those versions would not be too dissimilar to the modern reimagining we see above.

All the best,

Iain

Nimrod Nir
Nimrod Nir's picture

Hi Iain,

Iain Abernethy wrote:
In the historical research. As per the above posts, the myth reached a wide audience in the early 1900s because of the serialisation of the novel The Travels of Lao T’san. After that, it was regurgitated in the very popular book “Secrets of Shaolin Boxing Methods” and it was then, and not before, that the myth was latched onto by the martial arts fraternity. Before the 1900s there is no evidence of the myth being widespread. After the above events, it is everywhere. In answer to your question, we know the myth was not widespread until the 1900s because it is only after that point that we see all the references to it.

Your argument seems strong and backed up by evidence. Assuming this is correct, it sure does weaken the argument Zach was making, which I also previously supported, that the religious link myth may have been an influence on the naming of the katas as far back as in south China, before even reaching Okinawa.

Iain Abernethy wrote:
Gojushio is part of the Shuri-te line. Shuri and Naha are just over 3 miles apart, so it’s reasonable to assume there was a shared worldview between the karateka of these regions.

Again, the distance between Shuri and Naha (in Okinawa) is less relevant for my argument. It is more relevant where these katas came from in China, before reaching Okinawa, because it is then and there that the katas got their names.

Iain Abernethy wrote:
Aragaki was also known to teach Neiseishi. It was therefore originally what we would now retroactively call a Naha-te kata. While it’s not practised in Goju today, it was one practised by Aragaki who is a key figure in the Goju lineage. Today, it’s mainly found in Shuri-te styles which is why I often refer to it as, “The kata that ran away from home”.

For the theory to hold true, Neiseishi would need to be included in the explanation because it was part of that group of kata.

Aragaki was also known to teach Sochin (Shitoryu version) and Unshu (also called Unsu). Out of the three, I only practice Sochin, therefore I am not aware of all the stylistic similarities between these katas and the Goju katas. But from a superficial view, the opening in Sochin and Unshu sure does resemble the H cluster katas (Sanchin, Sanseru, Seisan, Suparinpei) and all three of them end with a mawashi uke, which is also a typical Naha-te kata theme. Would you consider also Shitoryu Sochin and Unshu as "katas that ran from home"?

What makes you call Niseishi "the kata that ran away from home", other than its lineage? Do you find any stylistic similarity between it and the Goju katas? 

Iain Abernethy wrote:
As for Nipaipo, it was created by Mabuni after his training with Gokenki (a Chinese tea merchant living in Okinawa). Miyagi was also said to have trained with him. Mabuni was also part of the Naha-te line, so what is the explanation for him picking 28 as the name? If that number has no Buddhist symbolism, did he break with tradition? Was he unaware of the Buddhist naming tradition? Or did he, as I suspect, simply name the kata after the number of drills within it, and therefore stick with the tradition?

This is the one point where I feel you have a logical fallacy. Your argument as I see it is that all the number katas should share a similar naming theme, and you argue that counting of steps/stages is the most reasonable theme and therefore it is the most likely conclusion (with Suparinpei being a possible exception). 

To illustrate why I think your logic is flawed here, i will use another "number kata" - Juroku (16), which was also created by Mabuni in 1941. We know that Mabuni called the kata "16" because it was created in the 16th year of Showa era (which is named after Hirohito (1901-1989), the 124th Emperor of Japan, known posthumously as Emperor Shōwa, who ruled from 1926 to 1989). 

Following your logic, we would have to assume that Juroku got its name because it has 16 martial steps/stages within it. However, we know this isn't the case. Did Mabuni break with tradition here?

In addition, to the best of my knowledge, Nipaipo is the "Okinawaized" version of the original Chinese form, which was called Neipai, which also means 28. So Mabuni didn't even pick the name by himself. As for the meaning of the name 28, the best explanation I could find was from this wonderful kata dictionary site: https://alangodshaw.com/photos/%E7%9B%AE%E9%8C%B2%E3%81%AE%E5%BD%A2/

This is the explanation given there regarding Nipaipo:

Alan Godshaw wrote:
Creator: Mabuni Kenwa. Mabuni Kenwa version of Nipaipo was derived from Go Kenki’s Fujian White Crane form Nepai. Evidently, Mabuni sensei learned it directly from Go Kenki and reimagined its techniques within Shitō-ryū’s framework. Today, there is still a Fujian White Crane Míng hè quán form called Nei Paik Po, usually translated as “28 Steps.” However, when written with the original Chinese characters, 二十八宿 actually means the Twenty-Eight Mansions of the lunar cycle in traditional Chinese astronomy. The number 28 is significant because it is considered an auspicious number in China and represents prosperity, specifically “double prosperity.” Nipaipo is practiced by most Shitō-ryū traditions. 二八歩・二十八歩 = Nipaipo. Twenty-eight Steps. 二十八宿 = 28 Mansions of the lunar cycle in traditional Chinese astronomy. 二十八 = Twenty-eight. An auspicious number in China that signifies “double prosperity.” 歩 = Steps, the counter for steps.

and Neipai:

Alan Godshaw wrote:
The impressive kata Nepai was adopted into karate from the older Fujian White Crane form Neipaipo and is the precursor to the Shitō-ryū kata Nipaipo. Mabuni Kenwa’s Nipaipo derives from Fujian martial artist Go Kenki’s version of Nepai. Kyoda Juhatsu also learned this kata from Go Kenki, thus, it is practiced in Tōon-ryū. Matayoshi Shinko independently learned Nepai while traveling in Fuzhou, China. The older Fujian White Crane form Neipaipo is spelled 二十八宿 which means Twenty-Eight Constellations, the Twenty-Eight Mansions of the lunar cycle in traditional Chinese astronomy. 28 is considered an auspicious number in China and signifies prosperity, specifically “double prosperity.” Nepai is practiced in Tōon-ryū and Kingai-ryū. 二八 = Nepai. Two eight. 28. 二十八宿 = The Twenty-Eight Mansions of the lunar cycle in traditional Chinese astronomy. 二八 = 28. An auspicious number in China that signifies “double prosperity.”

I must disclose that I am not aware of the level of research behind the information presented in this wonderful site, but at least there is a suggestion (which might be wrong) that Nipaipo is based on an auspicious Chinese number (unrelated to Buddhism, to the best of my knowledge).

According to this site, some other possible explanations of the kata names are:

Seisan - 13 - nothing worth mentioning regarding the name's meaning.

Seipai - 18 - The number eighteen is significant because it can also be a reference to Imachi no Tsuki (居待の月) the eighteenth of the month under the lunar calendar. There is a tradition dating back to the 16th century of Moon Viewing, or Tsukimachi (月待ち) where people would gather inside to wait for the moon to rise on the eighteenth day, share food and drink, or give offerings and prayers to the moon.

Niseishi - 24 - 24 divisions of the solar year. These are the classical 24 terms used to denote the changing of the seasons that was adopted by Okinawa.

Nipaipo - 28 - elaborated above.

Sanseru - 36 - The number Thirty-six comes up often and may be a reference to the Thirty-Six Stratagems, a writing attributed to Lao Tsu to illustrate philosophical strategies used in political warfare and combat. The number Thirty-six could also be a reference to the original 36 Chinese families that came to Okinawa in 1392.

Useishi/Gojushiho - 54 - The number 54 is considered an auspicious number in China.

Suparinpei - 108 - The number 108 is considered sacred by the Dharmic religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. In some Buddhist temples, at the end of the year, there is a tradition of ringing a bell 108 times to complete the year and welcome us into the new year. Each ring corresponds to one of 108 temptations a person must extinguish to achieve nirvana.

Hopefully, this adds something to our discussion.

Regards,

Nimrod

Pages