Andre G. Buret, Ph.D.
Godan – Shihan
Karate, and all martial arts, teaches us to live according to the principle of “shin ken” (真剣), meaning “real sword”, or applying basic rules that enable “deadly serious” effectiveness. The word shin ken is used in contrast with boken or shinai, both training swords that do not wield a forged blade. To live according to shin ken and to develop martial arts strategy allows one to become skilled at survival and adaptation in a fight. More importantly, this profoundly transforms the approach to conflict, whether in warfare, in business, or simply in everyday life. This wisdom can be put into action through basic technical principles that enable us to maximize our tactical potential. In other words, the progression of technical principles is the way towards the ultimate goal of martial arts, which lies in spiritual development.
“At war, one practices martial arts in an attempt to survive; in peace, in an attempt to live longer”.
- Shinho Matayoshi (Head of Okinawa Kobudo Association)
Of these technical principles, “Ichi gan ni soku san tan shi ryoku (or riki)” is perhaps the single most important in martial arts. Here the term “technical” must be taken in its broadest sense, including all elements of the mind and body. For example, the fact that “Ichi gan ni soku san tan shi ryoku” also represents a core principle in calligraphy underscores the breadth of its significance. To practice karate with the aim to attain an ever-deeper understanding of these principles sheds a powerful light on the science of all martial arts.
The practice of kata provides a fertile training ground to develop the skills of Ichi gan ni soku san tan shi ryoku. Hence, the concept must be emphasized throughout the performance of the kata. One who practices Shihohai for example, learns to stand firmly on both feet as well as only on one foot, while applying Ichi gan, ni soku, san tan, shi ryoku. These elements are numbered (ichi, ni, san, shi) to remind us that they represent key martial arts training components to be executed in the proper order. They are numbered in order of importance. The four elements must be flowing as one, yet, these principles must be applied in the context of budo, which like water has no fixed form, implying the critical element of strategic adaptation. In short, this concept defines how to apply all actions, as follows: Ichi gan, eyes first; ni soku, feet second; san tan, tanden/guts/bravery/determination third; shi ryoku, technique/strength/ power fourth. The secret in being able to apply these principles with maximal efficiency only lies in training.
“Do not depend upon others for your improvement”
- Miyamoto Musashi
Therefore, while these concepts may have been developed for the art of war, they symbolize the mastery of all concerns and walks of life. The paragraphs below develop some of the key concepts contained in each of these 4 elements.
Ichi Gan (一眼)
At a basic level, Ichi Gan means “eyes first”.
In a deeper sense, Ichi Gan also embodies awareness, anticipation, perception. It means “seeing” the target, rather than “looking” at it.
Ichi Gan is the first priority, the most important element. Eyes allow you to see an opponent and to anticipate the next move. Eyes also allow you to see and detect your opponent’s breathing rate, and catch the opportunity to attack. Ichi Gan is essential to assess the distance and timing of engagement. It is crucial to be able to see without looking. Indeed, Ichi Gan does not mean to look at your opponent’s weapon as he strikes, but instead it emphasizes the importance of focusing your eyes (and mind) towards the opponent before making a move. Eyes must focus in such a way as to maximize the field of view. Eyes must be able to see and detect, to observe and to perceive, both the opponent and the opponent’s environment.
Ichi Gan requires constant attention to enable a quick focus before action. Ichi Gan allows a faster decision process towards the opponent. It enables one to be pro-active rather than reactive. Importantly, it helps distinguish a threat from a non-threat, hence dictating whether one should engage or not. Therefore, this prime element contains the essence of fighting strategy: Look first, be aware. However, it also addresses core physiological concepts. Indeed, to point eyesight towards a target before moving in its direction is key to maintain balance and stability. Ichi Gan creates opportunity. Ichi Gan stems from our native capacity to see, hear, think, and interact with the world.
That Ichi Gan represents the first and most important element of martial arts is reflected in the wisdom of Sun Tzu (“the art of war”):
“Knowing the other and knowing oneself, in one hundred battles no danger.
Not knowing the other and not knowing oneself, in every battle certain defeat.”
Ni Soku (二足)
Superficially translated, Ni Soku means “feet second”.
By extension, it refers to foundation, displacement, footwork, positioning, posture.
Quick feet will win the fight. In kendo, it is said that the cut is not achieved with the hands or arms, but with the feet. Foot position and placement are at the core of martial arts. Only through perfect balance can one adapt correct body positioning. Myiamoto Musashi teaches that there are “three weaknesses during foot displacement: Feet in the air, soft legs, and feet stuck on the ground”. Whether moving in a sliding step (okuri ashi) or in a hitting step (fumikomi), ideally, one should only ever move one foot at a time, in a synchronized fashion. Proper body posture also plays a key role in Ni Soku. The upper body must remain upright, knees forward, and all tension in the toes must be released to avoid uncontrolled movements.
Ni Soku allows displacement. An effective fighter is one who can move the feet quickly and with the right timing (Hyoshi) and distance (Ma-ai). Whether in offensive or defensive displacement, stability is the key to maximum potential. Quick displacement, with stability, will offer key openings in a fight. Footwork is second only to Ichi Gan in importance.
San Tan (三胆)
San Tan basically refers to tanden and stability.
A deeper interpretation of San Tan however also underscores the importance of spirit, determination, bravery, will, and resolution. These extensions are reflected in the fact that the character for Tan is different than that for Tanden.
Tanden is the “lower Dan tien”, one of the three traditional focal points of energy in Chinese medicine. Tanden points to the “abdominal convergence” of our three main body vectors (both legs keeping us upright, and the upper body pulling us to the ground). It is our centre of gravity. Tanden is said to be located approximately one inch below and behind the navel. In martial arts, Tanden is also referred to as Hara (腹), which should be literally translated as “abdomen” (but not “stomach” to avoid confusion with the organ). In other words, Tanden refers to a specific anatomical area of the body as well as to a physiological energy field. The critical significance of San Tan underscores how essential it is to apply this element before the technique is released.
Since Tanden is where all the Ki, or energy, is created, it also must imply the application of the mental aspect of Tan. Indeed, Tanden represents the convergence of the mind, spirit, and energy. San Tan emphasizes the readiness of the spirit and determination. Therefore, to achieve this key element also means to be able to overcome 4 key “weaknesses”: surprise (Kyoo, 驚), fear (ku, 懼), mistrust (gi, 疑), and doubt (waku, 惑). Therefore, the physiological characteristics of Tanden synergize with all mental states, including No Mind (Mushin), Immovable Mind (Fudoshin), Ordinary mind (Heijoshin), or Remaining Mind (Zanshin).
To attain stability is at the core of San Tan. Failing this will allow any one of the various aspects of “convergence” or “weaknesses” to dominate, whether physical (one of the three body vectors), mental, or emotional, hence making one unstable. This will directly affect technique, performance, and efficiency.
Shi Ryoku or Shi Riki (四力)
Shi Ryoku (or Shi Riki) translates into “fourth technique”.
In fact, the ideogram ryuko or riki (力) expresses anything that refers to action. Therefore, Ryoku also translates into strength, power, vigor, ability, fitness of the body, as well as technique and execution.
Paradoxically, technique, while representing the final and truly visible component of an application, is only the fourth principle in order of importance. This is because technique has no value without prior application of the other three principles. Technique must be applied with complete awareness of the circumstance as well as with full anchoring to the ground. Only then can strength be optimally applied against the opponent’s weakness, whether in the form of an attack, a defense, or disengagement. Shi Ryoku must be a natural result of the other three elements, never the initiator. Budo is not about power. It is about applying all of the basic principles that are essential to full completion of a technique. This is the way to train towards effective shin ken.
In karate, the mind must control emotion and body. Ichi gan ni soku san tan shi ryoku draws a fluid path towards shin ken, with complete detachment from the final result, as the natural follow-through taught according to the principles of Budo. The spiritual aspects of karate elements come before strength and technique, a fundamental principle in martial arts. It is this notion of idealism that traditional dojo practitioners salute (Rei).
“Karate-do is a method through which strong, proper,
and moreover, cheerful characters can be developed”
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