Mysticism in Karate (pt.1)

In Karate we often deal with numbers.

So this post is going to be about that. When I wrote the word mysticism in the title, I really meant numerology. But mysticism sounds cooler, and it’s almost the same thing.

Numerology is for some people a weird “pseudo-science”. That is because we are so enlightened these days. In the old days, numbers were far more fascinating and important to ordinary people, and were said to have mystical powers. Some of those “number-traditions” still exist.

For example, some buildings in America lack a 13th floor, just because the number 13 is associated with bad luck. And who hasn’t heard about “the number of the beast”, 666? And in Japan they don’t like 4 and 9, because they are pronounced like “death” and “suffering”.

That’s why you never get 4 pieces of the same sushi. Except here in Sweden where they don’t care. In fact, 3 is the best number in Japan, so if you get 3 pieces of the same sushi you can feel safe…

Anyway, that was just to show you that numerology is, in fact, alive and kickin’ today even though it might be a “pseudo-science” or just plain old superstition.

Over to Karate.

More specifically the names of kata.

Often a kata is named after its creator. Or maybe an animal, or something similar.

But there are several kata that bear the name of a number. I mean, how boring is that?! Doesn’t it sound a lot cooler to say “I’m going to practise Flying Eagle Slashing the Sleeping Tiger” than “I’m going to practise 72” ?

Sure, it does, but the fact remains.

Several kata are translated as numbers. In the example above, 72 is in fact the kata Seienchin. There are plenty more. Here are a few ones from the top of my head:

  • Seienchin = 72
  • Seisan = 13
  • Shisochin = 4 (directions)
  • Niseishi (Nijushiho) = 24
  • Useishi (Gojushiho) = 54
  • Neipai (Nipaipo) = 28
  • Peichurin (Suparinpei) = 108
  • Sanseiru = 36
  • Seipai = 18
  • Sanchin = 3 (battles)
  • Seiryu = 16

Now comes the question: Why numbers? And why these numbers?

There are several theories, and I believe these three are the most widespread:

1. The number represents the number of steps

This theory states that for example Seisan (13) contains 13 steps. The creator of the kata simply named the kata after the number of steps. That made it easy for the students, because he could just say “Let’s practise number 13” and everyone knew which mnemonic template (fancy word for kata) he was referring to. And if a student ended up with 14 steps, or 12 steps, he knew that one step was wrong somewhere, so it was easy to correct. Sounds logical.

But when we examine the kata(s), we see that the number never fits the steps. That might be because the kata(s) have been changed during the course of history, while the name has remained…?  Or maybe the number simply doesn’t represent the number of steps? I mean look at (for example) Seienchin. It has about 25 steps. Where did two thirds of the steps go? Look at the other kata too.

This theory is a waste of time.

2. The number represents the number of self-defense scenarios (bunkai)

Let’s continue with Seisan (13) as an example (it’s faster to write than Suparinpei or Gojushiho!). According to this theory, a kata contains as many applications as the name says. This sounds logical, but a quick look at any “number-kata” shows this is not practical.

Imagine Suparinpei (108) containing 108 self-defense scenarios! Considering its repetitive nature (even the old version), it’s simply not realistic. And why on earth would somebody devise a kata containing defenses against 108 attacks, when you are most likely to be attacked by maybe 5-10 different attacks (swing, tackle, bear-hug, neck-lock, strangle, wristgrab, head butt and some more). It would take a week just to do the two-person drill!

This theory is just… not good.

3. The numbers are magical/mystical/powerful and have deeper meanings in Buddhism

This theory is quite famous. And the core is this: Buddhists believe that man has 108 (Suparinpei) evil passions.

Therefore, a bell is rang on the 31st of December ever year in Buddhist temples to drive away those 108 (Suparinpei) evil passions. Okay, so far so good. Now here is the tricky part: When the six so called “aspects of kon” (eye, ear, tongue, nose, body, and spirit) touch the “six aspects of jin” (colour, voice, smell, taste, touch, and justice), the six kon create 3 (Sanchin) worldly desires of good, bad, and peace, and become 18 (Seipai) worldly desires.

Then another 3 (Sanchin) worldly desires – pain, pleasure, and abandonment – touch the six kon. This makes another 18 (Seipai) worldly desires. This makes 36 (Sanseiru) altogether. Obviously 3 x 36 = 108 (Suparinpei).

And guess what 2 x 36 is? 72 (Seienchin).

And what is half of 108? Well, its 54 (Gojushiho).

And the list goes on… Personally I don’t understand half of what I just wrote (maybe because I copied it from some strange Buddhist website), but considering the nature of the Chinese, this theory is not so weird actually. They just love numbers. But why would a kata be named after Buddhism numbers anyway? Just because you love numbers you don’t have to name your kata a number. What has that got to do with self-defense?

Don’t look at me. I don’t know.

And according to the “father of modern Karate” Itosu Ankoh‘s writings in 1908, Karate “did not develop from Buddhism”.

I believe the man. The numbers are not from Buddhism. Case closed.

There are many more theories, of course, and you could sit all day trying to figure out what the numbers represent. But enough with the theories.

I want facts.

Cold, hard, sharp facts, that slice through theories like a perfectly forged samurai sword.

And that’s the biggest problem in Karate research.

The are none.

It is a matter of fact that we lack facts (advanced wordplay going on…). The best we can do is make qualified guesses and theories. And then use Ockham’s razor and other principles when determining which theories should be discarded and which should be kept. Although some theories stick quite a long time (often due to politics and egos), eventually we will end up with a few (preferrably one) theory, that over time will, in fact, become a fact.

As for now, the numbers of kata remain a mystery.

Stay tuned for pt. 2, which will unveil another mystic number-phenomenon in Karate!

10 Comments

  • Andrei Dima
    Hello . Congratulations and thanks for your effort. A very interesting article , like many others.About facts in numbers , 108 is the sacred number not also in Buddhism but in Hinduism too.Remember the close link between Ryu Kyu Martial arts and south China , Southern Shaolin - in Fujian province.The origin of this knowledge is in ancient India . Boddhidharma -Damo in Japanese , came to Shaolin temple from southern India.Budhism came in China , Japan , Koreea , and sout-east Asia from India. Today exist some martial arts remain in South india :Kallarypayattu in Kerala and KuttuVarisai in Tamil Nadu with strong resemblance with Shoalin Boxing and Karate.I saw once in a documentary movie that in chinese traditional martial arts ( not modern WU Shu ) exists 108 weapons for study and I know that in Shaolin Jingang Chan Quan exist 108 leg tehniques to study.In budhism 108 are the obstacles ( sins) that human being must exceed.With cosideration and respect.
  • warrioress
    You know, the buddhist numbers theory makes sense. I mean, it's just too much of a coincidence.
  • Joseverson Goulart
    I do not understand how could you find a "72" on "Seienchin"... Specially because there's no number when this Kata is written in japanese ??????? (or uchin?guchi ??????). Can you explain that? Thanks.
    • Me neither! Don't remember why/where I even heard that. Probably should change it :) Thanks!
  • Joseverson Goulart
    I am researching Kata names and Seienchin has been a pain... (^_^) Check: http://jojimonogatari.blogspot.comJoe.
  • Jürgen
    Great article, 72 is not the name of the kata. But if you dont unterstand the meaning of 72 you dont understand the Kata Seienchin.
  • Leonardo Andres
    Maybe the numbers representing different attacks to the acupressure points of the human body that's why the names of these katas are in numbers. Just saying ehehe :)
  • JFG
    Seinchin is the Japanese pronunciation of the kanji for Seiyunchin which means "to pull into battle with a system."
  • Rohan Stevenson
    Hi Jesse,I realise this a very old post, but it is still relevant and I have been researching this really quite heavily for the last couple of months. First, in respect to Seiyenchin, it actually means "March to War" if translated literally. You got the idea of "72" from Kenei Mabuni who mentions it in his book "Essence of Karate". 72 does turn up a lot but not as much as 108, 18, and 36. I don't know where he got that association - he is the only one to make it and he doesn't explain it further. Pinch of salt might need to be taken. In respect of Itosu "Karate did not come from Buddhism" - it's a strange comment to make. Who would be claiming that it does? I think people confuse Buddhism and Taoism, and there is any case quite a lot of overlap. According to Itzak Cohen in his book "Karate Uchina-di", Buddhism never really flourished in Okinawa - it was formerly Taoism and Confuscianism and then laterly predominantly Zen Buddhism. The difference between Taoism and Zen Buddhism is that Zen sees the world as a place of suffering as a result of mans desires, and if you can shake them off you can attain enlightment. Whereas Taosim sees the world as a fundemantally good place where there must be balance in order to attain enlightment. Or not. :-) Taoism - I Ching (The book of Changes) and Wu-hsing (Five Elements) known in Japanese as "inyo" (yin/yang) and gokyo (5 elements) runs long and deep throughout eastern culture and looking at pretty much all Chinese Quanfa styles, internal or external, this framework exists and is passed on in a modified way to Karate. But as Japan became more prejudiced against Chinese culture, the Zen interpretation was favoured and the Taoist links fell out of favour. So those numbers originate in the I Ching - ie 108, 36 etc etc. and the 8 trigrams: https://thumbs.dreamstime.com/b/bagua-symbol-15900698.jpg Heaven and Earth are 1 and 8 respectively, and each of the 8 trigrams are numbered such that the opposite side is the difference from 9. So 1+8 = 9, 7+2 = 9, 5+4, 3+6. You might recognise those numbers. This is where the idea of the number combinations come from and they are all factors of 108, itself adding to 9. I think simply because of the interelatibility of these numbers they were deemed highly auspicious, and the reasoning for their auspiciousness changed. In Tao it was drawing from the bagua, and in Buddhism it was assigned the number of sins or sufferings that must be cast off for enlightment. I think it is worth getting to know what they were shooting for because I think it can stave off confusion. We don't have to get excited about the numerological significance of the names, we just need to know they did. For example, Shisochin - 4 gates or directions. They actually had a logical framework for why "4 gates" - part was practical and part was quasi-symbolic (opinion alert). The 4 gates were the inner upper, outer upper, inner lower, and outer lower "gates" that have to be guarded against attack. Ie simply attack from the outside high or low or attack from the inside high low. Just a framework for covering the body and head. But it is also from directions of attack - I believe - N,S,E or West. Don't get ambushed by your attackers mates. Maybe not every single move in every single kata has a direct bunkai, some might be teaching broader martial lessons. That's just my opinion, but there is plenty written about 4 gates or directions in the chinese arts upon which Goju is based which is definitely not my opinion - that's verifiable in treatises like the Taiji Fashou (which I have just recently discovered).
  • Nickel
    Actually, I do have a really boring theory.. The sensei might have just use numbers to represent certain kata. For example, when my sensei does kumite drills, he gives numbers (1-7) to certain combinations. It is understood to the students what each number represents and what to do if sensei says which number. Might have been the same for new kata too last time (since kata was basically drills for kumite last time) Just a thought

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