10. Seiunchin: External Appearance/Internal Experience

An interesting question was posed by Adrian Varinini from the UCSD dojo. Let’s look at it, but take a bit of care to understand there is no criticism in this answer.

“Last spring at the Las Vegas tournament, I watched a participant do the kata seiunchin. The unit form was basically the same, but it had a much different feel to it. It was very smooth, very graceful and there wasn’t the usual heavy breathing that I had come to associate with seiunchin. I really enjoyed the form but a few questions popped into my head after I watched it. It seemed to me that after watching the form that it did not feel like a form that represented a young man bearing down. Does this other interpretation carry the same meaning but chooses to do it in a different manner, or does it express something different? Is this common amongst most of the forms shared by different styles? I guess what I am trying to ask is this..amongst the katas shared by different styles do the different interpretations have different meanings associated with them?”

First of all the kata Sei-un-chin is written Sennin-chin, Sei-en-chin and a host of different ways each having its own kanji characters. In essence no matter which way you spell or pronounce the kata it reflects the power of a young man to press down.

Sennin is the Japanese word for young man. Sei is the Japanese word for blue-green. Un is the word for cloud. En is the word for blaze or flame. Put them together in their respective order and you have 1) power of a young man to press down, 2) power of a white cloud in a blue sky to press down, 3) power of a blazing flame to press down. They are all the same albeit there are subtle differences in the feelings inherent in the different names.

Now each school, depending on the philosophy of the style and the personality of the sensei defines the “correct” way to do the kata.

The magnanimity of a huge white cloud dominating the blue sky is the essence of the kata Seiunchin in Aoinagi Karate. It has implications which have the power to penetrate the male (and perhaps the female) psyche. When we practice the kata in full-bore-boldness and get so absolutely out of breath that we can hardly stand up straight at the kata’s end we may begin to realize the futility of unnecessary boldness. We may come to feel like the white-cloud-in-a-blue-sky where the cloud is seen as huge; but in reality the cloud has little substance. The karate-ka may do well to steer away from unnecessary boldness when he (she) discovers the similarity between the white cloud and empty boldness.

On the other hand, there is value in boldness sometimes. It may even be necessary to extend boldness beyond the limits of our ability to back it up, i.e., a position as a feign. On occasion boldness is the only defense we have against aggression. The practice of Seiunchin may well help develop the ability to express a feign in boldness when it is essential to survival.

The Seienchin interpretation is the power to press down of a blue blaze. This is a hot temper. It is still the characteristic associated with a young man. His hot temper may well burn a few but eventually the hot temper will be squelched. The long arm of the law reaches to hot tempered individuals soon after they burn others. The lesson here is to control the blaze. It is not necessary to control the passion or the feeling, for it is damaging or impossible to control feelings, but it is necessary to control the expression of those feelings by blazing violence.

Another way to express Seienchin is “the calm before the storm.” This is again the control of temper by controlling violent behavior. As a person recognizes anger welling (the storm) he (she) wants to rein in control on actions so as not to become violent.

If a young man is excessively angry it is still not socially acceptable to turn to violence. In such a state, however, it is very acceptable to remove himself from the scene and perform Seienchin. The heat of the anger may well be calmed as the bold-hot energy of the kata is released. (This is called sublimation and is an appropriate mental defense mechanism to deal with anger.)

The Senninchin interpretation is the power to press down of a young man. This interpretation is not so bold nor so hot as the others. A sennin (young man) may well have power when he learns to deal in appropriate channels in society. This power is the power which all human beings have in a mature society. They may look at the evidence, analyze the opportunities and express their opinions. Often times a sennin may have a refreshing and uplifting variance to the typical staid subject. The power of the young man, when realized, is not the boldness nor the heat, it is his internetted, optimistic, win-win developed skill. This is the essence of the Senninchin interpretation.

Which of these is correct? All of them.

Now on to the part of Adrian’s question dealing with a tournament Seiunchin. In the tournament situation it important to recognize what the individual is attempting to do. Does the person want to win the tournament at any cost? Does the person want to express his art for others to see? Does the person have the skill to perform this or any kata correctly?

When a person performs a kata he/she may be trying to win a tournament. In such case the performer must be concerned about what the judges are looking for. If the judges are looking for speed and power then the performer will do well to perform with speed and power. On the other hand, if the judges are looking for grace, poise and control the performer will do well to perform with grace, poise and control. Under such circumstances the performance in the tournament is decided by the level of understanding of the judges, rather than the real proficiency of the “best” of the contestants. A participant may be so advanced that he/she performs a kata with unbelievable power, speed, grace, poise and smoothness but the (incompetent) judges may be looking for styles that they are familiar with and judge only those styles with high scores.

What this boils down to is that the performer in a tournament who wants to “win” the tournament trophy, by necessity, must please the judges. He/she must know what the judges are looking for (familiarity, power, speed, grace, poise, slow kata, fast kata, technical difficulty, flash, low stances, high kicks?) and deliver it to the judges as they would have it.

In a tournament such as the Las Vegas tournament the judges were looking for grace, poise and smoothness. I have observed that the kata at Las Vegas is based on these premises. On the other hand, tournaments in the AAKF are based on kime, power and ending on the correct spot. A kata which would win at either of these tournaments would lose at the other. The performer of Seiunchin/Seienchin/Senninchin that you referred to, performed the kata to please the judges at Las Vegas. Deep stances, bearing down, boldness, power, raw-crude-damashi would not impress the Las Vegas judges. Smoothness, demure gracefulness and expressionless faces would gain more points. Hence, the kata was performed thus.

In addition, the characteristics valued at tournaments then often dictate the characteristics valued at the person’s dojo. If tournament judges give high points for high kicks, dojo instructors start to emphasize high kicks so that their students start winning more trophies.

I do not agree with this tendency of the tournament scene to dictate the quality and performance of karate kata. I value kata as artworks, far beyond being able to be judged from a collective of judges. There is much more in a kata than even what the best of judges may be able to discern (even me). When a kata is done correctly the kata is more than an outward appearance of a technique. It is an internal experience as well as an external performance. The external performance may be judged (as mentioned above) but the internal experience is a private affair, known only to the performer. Glimpses of the internal experience may be evidenced by a judge from time to time but the real depth of that experience is still private and personal.

When a person performs Seiunchin at a tournament he may win by posing certain characteristics of the external appearance of the kata in a manner that the judges value. Another person performing a kata with far greater internal experience (kimochi) may lose the tournament because he/she does not give the judges what the value on the external performance. The real winner cannot be determined any better than the matching of what is given on the external performance and what is valued by the judges.

Again, that same value in the external performance then becomes the mode for training at the dojo whose main concern is to win tournaments. The emphasis then becomes not the quality of the internal experience of the kata but the quality of the external performance. This dojo may win tournaments but the quality of the martial art suffers.

So, Adrian, was the performer you observed in Las Vegas just performing the kata for points at the tournament, or was that performer deeply involved in the kata and expressing a different aspect of Seiunchin-Seienchin-Senninchin than what you have been taught to value? I cannot really answer that for sure. I can, however, tell you that tournaments are not the places where the best kata are usually performed. The best kata are usually performed in private places, where the performer enmeshes himself/herself completely in the internal experience of the kata. Try it sometimes…

in the early morning hours on a deserted beach…
in the late moonlight of a desert evening…
in the silent snowstorm of the high mountains…

These, and other places, tell the story of the true martial artist much more than a tournament can ever do. But these are the places we rarely see true martial artists perform their arts. In the privacy of such places the art comes alive from within.