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Roots of Sanchin

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Sanchin kata is the cornerstone of a number schools such as Goju Ryu and Uechi Ryu having been taken to Okinawa from Fukien province in South China. It is widely held that this form embodies the essence of karate and that without a profound understanding of this, the higher levels will not be perceived.

Sanchin has a legendary tradition that traces its introduction into China from India by the Buddhist monk Bohdidarma @520AD. Bohdidarma was sent as a missionary by his teacher Prajnatara to the Shaolin monastery to succeed the monk Bohdiruci.

The Chinese monks were in such a poor physical state due to their severe ascetic meditation practices that Bohdidarma strove to introduce a system to help strengthen their physical bodies and to increase their vitality.

This he achieved by introducing the introspective spiritual kata methods from the Indian martial art of Kalaryi with two yoga methods known in Japanese as the Ekkin Kiko (Tendon transforming vital energy exercise) and the Senzui kiko (Marrow cleansing vital energy exercise).

It should be noted that at this time, in the context of the fledgling Shaolin temple, this practice would have been specifically for enhancing the study of Buddhist teachings and not for martial purposes. There were seen to be three inner conflicts that the monks should mindful of; that of the mind, body and speech with all three having to be controlled to allow spiritual progression but this required energy and vitality.

As the use of physical movement became an integral part of a monks training, then the combination of esoteric hand and body positions known as Mudras that were symbolic expressions of the Buddha's teachings, could have been introduced and may have resulted in new forms having been created. Over the centuries new forms would have been created by the monks to embody different spiritual levels, whereby the perfection of the form went hand in hand with the level of spiritual awakening. In this context forms of moving meditation for ritualized combat against the demons of the self.

These teachings would have evolved and changed over generations to the point where the martial teaching was emphasized, as the influence of the temple grew politically and financially so they found themselves threatened at different points though out the centuries by both bandit forces and the armies of the Emperors. Over time the Buddhist temple arts filtered out to the general populace and were taught and propagated as civil martial arts.

Thus legend would propose that a composite yoga, unarmed self protection and mediation method was developed at the temple and went on to became an integral part of Chinese martial arts.

In later centuries these arts would be taken from the Fukien province of South China to Okinawa and would be incorporated by Okinawan teachers into the indigenous fighting methods.

One of the many forms to surface in Okinawa was the Sanchin form, in the Fukien dialect it is San-Chien and in Mandarin it is "San Chan". Its translation is San meaning three and Chin as battle, conflict or war. The kata is commonly referred to as three battles or three conflicts. My personal preference being for Three Conflicts.

Those Okinawan teachers who had a penchant for body conditioning continued to develop this form to suit their purposes. It is very popular as a dynamic tension method to produce the 'Iron Body' effect whereby the Ki is concentrated on the exterior of the body to produce a hardening effect to whist stand impact to the body.

Chojun Miyagi, founder of Goju Ryu, simplified the kata by removing the turns and changing from open hand to closed fist. By closing the fist this was intended to redirect the Ki back into the body so keeping the energy in the body and to aid developing the exterior muscles. This also emphasized the Okinawan preference for striking the Makiwara.

Now that the art and with it Sanchin has come to the West its practice now is very much a method of physical development and a demonstration of tension and strength. It's exterior practice to promote physical strength is often over emphasized and not counter balanced with the internal phase which is also required to develop pliability and sensitivity .

This is most easily done in the initial stages by performing the firm exterior muscle contraction with yielding abdominal breathing. By concentrating on the two dynamics; firm and yielding, the two feelings can be combined and the integration experienced. This experience of flux in balance gives us an insight into the natural energies that we already process. From this point the energies can be developed as part of the practice known as Kiko or energy cultivation.


Sodokan Goju Karate Association
Best viewed at a display setting of 800 x 600.
Mike Clark 1997-2005. Reproduction of material on this site is not permitted