Mabuni Gojushiho

Wow!!! Now here is a question to stump nearly every Sensei I know (including myself). I shiver at trying to answer it. It is so big and encompassing not only don’t I know where to start but I don’t even know if I can answer the question. It comes from Julie Evans from the Redlands dojo and is as follows:

“I would like information on GOJUSHIHO, the index kata for the number 54, which represents the number of kata in our system (half of 108). I understand that this kata can be broken down into segments much like Bassai Dai. Further, the movements are taken from other kata. The movement may only represent the feeling from another kata or it may even continue from where the other kata left off with a new movement or continued feeling. For example, the first movement represents Jiin/Bassai. The slow pull across the body movement about 15/16th the way through the kata is from Aoinagi. Please specifically describe each movement in Gojushiho and its corresponding kata(s) and describe the connection, feeling or theme.”

Sokon Matsumura was the first to develop the kata Useishi or Gojushiho.

Please reread essay “Gojushiho Kata” for a foundation in what I am about to explain.

Originally the purpose of Gojushiho was as an index kata for all the students to use. In 1830 not many of the karate-ka knew how to read or write. They could not make lists of kata on paper and refer to them later as we can today. Matsumura solved this situation by making a kata for them which codified his new 54-kata system step-by-step. The first movement was the first “shrine” in the “temple,” and represented the first kata of Matsumura’s system. The second movement of the kata was the second “shrine” in the “temple,” and represented the second kata of Matsumura’s system. The last movement of the system was the last “shrine” in the “temple,” and represented the last kata of Matsumura’s system; that kata was Gojushiho itself because Gojushiho was kata 54 in the system and the last kata.

Each master created his own system, using mostly the kata of his Sensei. But, some kata by design of the system, were created anew in each generation. These were the kata of creation numbered and called 51= Soosei Shodan, 52 = Soosei Nidan, 53 = Soosei Sandan. Each Sensei in a generation created these kata in accordance with his experience. Because they were created anew each generation they were different than those of his Sensei and they changed the movements 51, 52, 53 in Gojushiho. But 1830 was a long time ago and times have changed.

People were required to go to public school around 1890 in Okinawa. There they learned to read and write in Chinese characters. The need for Gojoshiho diminished because it was easier to make a mokuroku (list of kata) on paper than in kata. Gojushiho was no longer needed as an index. But good kata, especially ones which are so personal and creative die hard. Rather than just fade away it changed.

The first change was towards representing the feeling of the each kata in the system rather than an easily identified movement from each kata. This started somewhere around 1860 and continued only a short time. Creating 54 movements to represent the feeling in 54 different kata and placing them into one kata was a monumental effort, one which did not enhance anything in the system. By 1890 Gojushiho switched again, and some schools deleted it entirely substituting a written mokuroku.

The change about 1890 was towards representing the general and overall aim of the system of the master. In other words, instead of being a catalog of movements or a catalog of feelings, the feeling of 54th movement became the theme of the new Gojushiho. To reiterate, at first Gojushiho was a catalog of the movements of the kata in the system, then it became a representation of the feeling of each kata in the system (a big burden of movements which soon died), then it took on summarizing or exploring the essence of what the Sensei in the system felt was the quintessence of the karate system he/she emphasized.

Some schools took on the original “shrine” in the “temple” attribute and created their Gojushiho around their favorite shrine in the local temple. These kata resounded of the religiousness of the Sensei. The Goju-ryu system obviously took on this kind of Gojushiho as explained by the late master Kisaki at summer camp a few years ago. Kenwa Mubuni when he developed his Gojushiho in the 1920s had a particular attribute of personality which was contagious. He was of such positive spirit that he unmeaningly commanded attention upon entering a group. Positive spirit plays a part in his Gojushiho.

As of today I still use Mabuni Gojushiho. Mr. Kim uses Yabu Gojushiho, another essentially quintessential rather than categorical or religious summary. Now, Mr. Kim has his own Gojushiho, as do I, but neither of us teach the kata beyond the limits of a few students who really want to learn it. There is good reason. Mr. Kim is a living master who experiences life as it IS. His kata is just as dynamic as his life is. Today his Gojushiho is different than the Gojushiho of one year ago. He has a new view of his system, the kata is different. If he teaches it to a person who wants to know exactly what it means now-and-forever he confuses the person, especially when that person sees or learns five variations in as many years. The student soon begins to doubt the “sanity” of his Sensei.

As an aside, I have been told, that one of Sensei Kim’s top pupils of 15 years ago wrote in a national karate magazine that Mr. Kim was a senile old man who was forever forgetting his kata. WOW!!!! The senior student surely wasn’t well versed in the living breathing quality of martial arts. Gojushiho changes as the Sensei changes—that is beautiful not senile!!!!

Mr. Kim just calls his Gojushiho by that name. I call it Kim Gojushiho out of deference to him. I have seen quite a few versions. Each is stimulating and brings me to feel a deep respect for Mr. Kim. Tomorrow, if Mr. Kim were to teach me Gojushiho I am sure it would be quite different than any I have ever seen. I wish he would teach me it tomorrow. I could then perhaps feel what he feels the important essence of karate and his system is all about, tomorrow. I would be blessed.
I am far younger than Mr. Kim. I have a Gojushiho, too. It is what I envision as the quintessential component of Aoinagi Karate and I call it Aoinagi Gojushiho. I do not teach it for I feel it is just too immature. As I grow in martial arts over the years I have discovered my own change in outlook and inlook into martial arts and life. This has caused me to change the kata. But the change has been with such rapidity that I cannot justify teaching a kata that progresses at such rapidity. Perhaps it is my own personal maturity changes; perhaps it is that I just have a long way to go yet. At any rate I do not teach Aoinagi Gojushiho, yet. The Gojushiho taught at Aoinagi are Yabu and Mabuni Gojushiho, created by masters of long duration in living the martial arts and bringing their systems to maturity with intense kimochi.

Then Julie drops the hydrogen bomb:
“Please specifically describe each movement in Gojushiho and its corresponding kata(s) and describe the connection, feeling or theme.”
I can’t.

The Gojushiho I have taught recently is Mabuni Gojushiho. I like it. I feel it. It is a quintessential lesson of the importance of martial life in Kenwa Mabuni’s life. It is a critical short summary of his viewpoint of his martial art. That I can feel but I’m not sure I can explain. It is a lesson in the life of an artist of life.

It is quite similar to Itosu Gojushiho and Yabu Gojushiho (and even one of the shotokan recent constructions). Neither Yabu nor Mabuni were willing to change much in the Itosu Gojushiho. That is quite understandable from the viewpoint of the great master Itosu and his dominant position in the late 19th century karate environment. There are differences but they are more in the specific movements than in the enbusen or in the kimochi. Let’s look at Mabuni Gojushiho in perspective, realizing that it is similar to the other two.

Mabuni Gojushiho begins boldly-seductively-dangerously against three opponents as they simultaneously flash violence. The performer goes directly into the pinch ignoring potential escape. On a physical level this is dangerous, it is bold but it is also seductive. Three opponents are very difficult to defend oneself against; therein lies the danger and boldness of rushing into the center of the pinch. But three opponents may expect the defender to roll or run; therein lies the seductiveness.

This first movement I interpret more on Mabuni’s lifestyle than on the physical movement, although the physical movement demonstrates the same principle. Mabuni was happily bold, rushing in where “angels fear to tread.” He could have a group of people smiling (if not laughing) and ready to negotiate a hair-raising conflict by changing the whole focus of the group in minutes, sometimes seconds. He was enigmatically positive-ki. The middle of a fracas was as comfortable to him as the small waves on the beach in summertime are to us. Confident, self-able, skilled and positive he met life in such bold-seductive manner. When faced with an adversary he met him on a secure high positive-ki level directly and overcame the person’s resistance by skill and ki.

After the first explosive entrance in the kata the next few movements are off-enbusen. The first two are jodan juji uke; the second two are four direct facial strikes. These explore the need to meet adversaries from any angle and counter in every angle (check it out if you know the kata). The jodan juji uke are both reflections of a deeply religious attitude which Kenwa Mubuni had (more on this later). The fifth movement is on enbusen, just before the turn, and is an elbow strike because of the closeness of the adversary. These are lessons in quickly going into the center of the fracas, leaning on your positive ki, meeting important attacks from deviant directions, reversing, moving closer to the real issues. It is not a lesson in physical fighting, it is a lesson in what we today would call conflict negotiation.

The turn is truly a representation of the need for a turn in the conflict. The triple circles and the spear hand with another turn spear hand are the piercing of the personal shield, that is, getting to know really what your opponent wants. The triple circles and the spear demand attention to the underlying causes of the conflict, not the painted surface. There is a frequently a major difference between the surface issues in a conflict and the deeper feelings of the individuals involved. If a person ignores the deeper feelings and deals only with the surface issues any conflict negotiation will be superficial at best.

Say that two neighbors live close together. Many years before they moved into their respective houses a tree was planted near the property line but distinctly on David’s property. John dislikes the tree because it produces a lot of leaves on his yard and obstructs his view of the ocean. One day John cuts down the tree. David, who liked the tree, is irate with John. David threatens to sue John.

Before a trial a conflict negotiator is called in to interview the two. (This was a common practice in feudal Okinawa.) After careful evaluation the conflict negotiator discovers some deeper important information (this is the turn in the kata before the triple circle and spear hand stab). David, being a Muslim in a Christian community, believes that John cut the tree down in spite and as a threat to David’s religious beliefs. David is not so concerned about the tree as he is about the treat of invasion of his own religious integrity. David is afraid of more invasion and feels the need to counterattack. He threatens to sue.

The conflict negotiator also discovered from John that John believed the tree was on his own property when he cut it down as was his right. Ooops! The triple circle and the stab turned up vital feelings which were the cause of the conflict; it was not the issue (tree cutting) that inflamed the conflict, it was the underlying feelings (threated fear of invasion) that inflamed the conflict.

Negotiation takes on a different turn as the real issues emerge. If one does not learn the real issues negotiation is a “band-aid” not a cure. As the kata makes its second turn…

A second turn with no pause from its previous movement puts the karate-ka on the shomen enbusen (facing forward). No pause between spearhands indicates that the next set of movements is intricately related to the previous. But the next series of movements (round head blocks and punches) is significant in that it aims at the quality of the karate-ka’s lifestyle as well as it does to the conflict negotiation aforementioned (more later). Toward the last movement in this series is the holding up of a lotus flower in the hand, signifying the clean pure beauty of the lotus blossom coming up out of the quagmire. A kick follows and then a turn with a throw behind, signifying the change in focus to come in the next series of movements. The next series of movements is a wave of intent, with similar movement but distinct difference in meaning from the previous set.

The triple circle and stab this time aims at the core of life for Mabuni. Trimming off the superfluous dirt of the quagmire, he aims at its opposite (Ensha, Lotus Blossom, Positive Ki). Long pause follows; then a slow turn.
The karate-ka is now blatantly exposed to the violence of multiple attacks (remember now that the kata is on two levels; physical and psychological [see above]). The complexities of defense are nearly impossible to perform. They are perpendicularly contraposed to the original direction of the kata (shomen enbusen). They involve coordinated counterpoint of arms, legs and center, not always working in similar directions but always requiring coordination of centralized/peripheralized body movement.

These movements are among the most difficult movements in karate to do correctly. The axis is quite easily disturbed. The arms go in opposite direction from the legs sometimes and in the same direction sometimes. The center must compensate both for balance on one leg and for the contraction/countercontraction of the vacillating arm/leg movements. But it is no wonder that the movement is so complicated when viewed from the standpoint of a combined physical fight on one hand and a mental challenge to create the beautiful from the ignoble on the other. Both battles rage in these movements simultaneously.

THEN THE BOTTOM DROPS OUT!!! Viciously oversimplified movements occur in dramatic relief to the complexity of the previous intense debacle. Step forward, strike. Step backward, strike. Step forward, strike. These movements are a needed dramatic relief, yes, but they are also more. These are Kenwa Mabuni’s (and Itosu’s) comment on the return to wabi (simplicity). The complexities of life can only be solved through simplicity, a kind of unification of understanding that allows the simple to flow particle by particle until wisdom is achieved (Makoto Shugyo). This is Kenwa Mabuni’s entrance for the spiritual, a return to simplicity. Whoa now!!!! Now we have the physical, the psychological and the spiritual all in one kata!

On a pugilistic sense Mabuni yells forward in time to us to return to the simple. Do not fight with fancy techniques. Fight with simple well-developed techniques, ones that you are well-familiar with. Keep it simple.

The next all-encompassing spiritual movements are the tree movement and the two willow movements. Kenwa Mabuni recalls the importance of sabi (rusticity), the return to nature. He reiterates it three times; tree, willow, willow…I can almost hear him saying it; tree, willow, willow…look for God in nature; tree, willow, willow.

The closing is almost sad. Mabuni and others have seen their students aim into the quagmire, at the sky, and back at the quagmire in multiple over-burdened lives (of complexity and stiffness; of sadness and depression). He warns of the needed last turn and the difficulty of the counter-contracted block. It is the karate-ka’s choice.

If I could create such a masterpiece, my students, I would teach it to you. But this masterpiece exists already. Mine pales in comparison.