View Full Version : he deeper meaning of kata and the number 3

4th September 2002, 10:30
I realize that this topic has been raised before. But I didnít find the answers I was looking for, so please bear with me.

According too Higaonna Sensei (Traditional karate-do Ė Okinawa Goju Ryu vol.2) the number three has a significant meaning in Buddhism, as it represents past, present and future . Many of the kata in Goju Ryu have a relationship with this religion, as is manifested through their names, e.g. Suparinpei and Sepai .
Lately Iíve been thinking about the significance of this. In many of the Goju kata there is a repetition of certain combination of techniques, there are always three repetitions and they are always directed forward.

My questions:
1. Is this a method of instilling a deeper meaning of kata in the student?
2. Do any of you know of any other martial art that uses the number three in this fashion?
3. Can more relationships between kata and Buddhism be identified?
4. Can anyone provide any reference to literature regarding this subject?

4th September 2002, 14:04
Garbach I already posted here a thread quite similar to yours, if you want you can have a look... ;) The url is below!


Steve C
5th September 2002, 11:53
Can you explain why you think this repetition has something to do with buddhism? A simpler explanation is this; "repeat it three times. It's very important." - just a mini-drill in the middle of the kata to get people to do it more often than the other moves.

The heian / pinan series, for example, repeats very basic techniques, probably to make sure the student does it often. (Basics are important). Noting that katas 1 and 2 are studied in a different order in some styles, the heian/pinan drills these triple moves, in order;

1a) Defending against a head punch
1b) Basic punching
2) The knifehand
3) Defence agaisnt front kick
4) middle blocks
5) nothing...

But they also contain lots of double moves too, often working both sides of the body. There are also quads (four knifehands) and double-pairs (lower parry, rising block, lower parry, rising block at the end of heian nidan)

So overall, you've got singles, pairs, three of a kinds, and two pairs.... Hmm. looks like poker to me ;)

So - in summary. What links the triple moves with buddhism? And what about the double and quadruple moves?



Michael Clarke
5th September 2002, 13:16
Hello Pier,

I'm not sure if any kata has any direct connection with Buddism as you believe?
Most of the kata we use in goju-ryu can be traced back to various sources in China, where many variations exist. It is not uncommon to have the same name for kata that look completely different.
Multipuls of numbers can bee found in the kata that's true, but i think it's a mistake to read too much into this.
The number three is important in Christianity too. Three wise men, the holy trinity, three people being crucified, the apostle Peter (?) denying Christ three times. The references go on and on.
In my opinion, kata are there to help us discover ways of capturing the essence of our style through the harmony of breath, movement, and intention, (hey there's another threesome).
They are no more mysical than that, and yet, the efforts we must make in order to understand kata deeply, is quite mystical in its self, for years of study not only change the kata, but change the person too.
Good luck with your quest to understand your karate.
Mike Clarke

Mike Clarke.

5th September 2002, 14:16
Hi all!

Of course I'm anything but an expert on the subject, however I tend to agree with Steve and Mike on this one.

The idea that doing three reps would somehow have spiritual influance on the doer strikes me as just a little bit far fetched, but who knows?

Anyhow, this quote is almost poetic:

"...through the harmony of breath, movement, and intention..."

Beautiful, Mike!

Can I borrow it?

Good training to all,

Ari Lappinen

Harry Cook
5th September 2002, 17:37
There are both exoteric and esoteric teachings in Buddhism regarding the number three. The Tripitika (Three Baskets), the Buddhist Teachings, are one obvious example. Shingon Buddhism talks about "The Three Secrets" (the activities of body, speech and mind). Just how much this has to do with martial arts is debateable, and if there is a connection to the names of the Goju kata I think it has more to do with popular Taoist number magic and charms than Buddhism.
Harry Cook

5th September 2002, 21:19
Hmmm, pretty perceptive, man! As mentioned before the number 3 and multiples thereof (as well as 7 and 12 and 11 (to some extent) and the number 1), is very prevalent in many societies. I won't get into this, but if you look and listen you will see and hear the evidence often.

Yeah, I wouldn't doubt that your observation has some validity to it. The architects of society are basically, and have been for thousands of years, the same all around the world. Until the next Trilateral Commission meeting, haha!

Michael Clarke
6th September 2002, 01:38
Hey Ari,
If you like the quote you can have it with pleasure
(not that it was ever mine to give, them being just words an 'all)

I think Harry is right on the button with the reference to the Taoist magical thing.

It is easy to make more of our martial arts than they are on both the physical and spiritual level. So please remember,

"When our heads are in the clouds,we need to keep our feet firmly on the ground."

Hey, who said that? :rolleyes:

Mike Clarke.

6th September 2002, 13:55

Mike, thank you for your encouragements and your insights.

originally posted by Harry Cook:
Just how much this has to do with martial arts is debateable, and if there is a connection to the names of the Goju kata I think it has more to do with popular Taoist number magic and charms than Buddhism.

Harry, could you please elaborate? Why do you think the names of the kata have more to do with Taoist number magic and charms than with Buddhism?

6th September 2002, 15:13
Originally posted by Harry Cook

Just how much this has to do with martial arts is debateable, and if there is a connection to the names of the Goju kata I think it has more to do with popular Taoist number magic and charms than Buddhism.
Harry Cook

I thought that also but someone who seems to know to what he is talking about corrected me and told me that Daoism is based on the 64 hexagrams with 128 being the highest order. The significance of 3, 18, 36, 56, 72 and 108 is rooted in Buddhist underpinnings. The importance of numerical symbolism for me was when I was looking for different points of view or different ways of looking at our forms. I thought like Mr. Cook did that the numerical symbolism was related to Taoist number magic and I went looking at Taiji and Bagua for different viewpoints on our waza. I am still not sure that we were wrong. After all the Yang long form I have seen has 108 steps. :)

I found that there are postures in Yang Taijiquan that look a lot like posture in Shisochin and I found a film of a Baguaghzang master doing something called a teacup exercise. This same exercise had already been taught to us by Mr. Chinen to prepare us for a technique in his kata Sesan. Mr. Clarke I would be interested in knowing if this is found in Jundokan proper or if this comes from Mr. Chinenís personal research into Chinese methods. My short study in Taiji has so far been very productive I see a lot of similarities in the two arts but much of that is just it is my nature to concentrate on the similarities rather than the differences.

The numerology stuff may not be directly applicable to our waza but I find it interesting and my sensei seems to discuss numerical symbolism quite a bit so he must find it interesting also. Usually after he has been working us hard and allowing us a bit of rest. The numerology in his opinion is not literal. The 36 Chinese families that migrated to Kumemura were probably not 36 literal families, just probably a whole lot of people. Something he said one time regarding 18 was I was always interested in was that the 18 Rakaken forms the basis of training in Shorinji and 18 is associated with mastery in the martial arts. Seipai is eighteenís kata or what a master knows. If 18 is what a master knows then 36 is twice what a master knows i guess? Are their any Shorinji practitioners on the list who can give a short description of what Rakanken is. My best guest would be it means monk fist. Is this a particular form or a set of forms?

For me the meaning of the names werenít as important as the search for meaning I was lead on. Have a good weekend everybody.

Harry Cook
6th September 2002, 16:21
Taoist magic is a vast subject in itself, but the number 3 (and its various multiples) is important in Taoism. For example the "Three Treasures" (semen, breath, spirit) are said to exist in two forms, a kind of coarse material type and a subtle cosmic or transcendent version. It is by the manipulation of these "energies" that Taoist Internal Alchemy operates, and Internal Alchemy has borrowed at least some of its ideas from Buddhist Tantricism. The Taoists also made great use of 2 (Yin-Yang) and its multiples, as CEB pointed out, especially those who used the I Ching as a method of divination. At a popular level, among the uneducated "weed people" Buddhism and Taoism tended to fuse together into a syncretic continuum, and it was in this background that many of the martial arts evolved. So for example if you look at the rituals of Chinese secret societies you often see Buddhist and Taoist elements combined, and even among the Taiping rebels, nominally Christian, you see the same kind of mix. The aim of martial arts, ie physical protection, clearly overlaps with Taoist interests such as longevity, immortality, freedom from disease or injury, the development of special powers etc. That is why if you look at the practices of the Boxers during the so-called Boxer Rising at the beginning of the 20th century you see mant ideas clearly based on magical Taoism.
Taoist magicians made use of secret scripts, charms etc. and numbers were ascribed various influences and powers. Hence some characters and numbers were powerful because by their manipulation the magician could control both the outer and inner worlds. Those who remember the Way of the Warrior programmes made by the BBC will remember the use of magical charms by the teachers of the Katori Shinto Ryu.
I would recommend the following works
1. Tao The Chinese Philosophy of Time and Change Philip Rawson and Laslo Legeza, Thamas and Hudson 1973
2. Science and civilisation in China Dr. Joseph Needham. I cannot remember which specific volume looks at this topic, but the whole series is magnificent.
One last word: Mike has pointed out that many of the Goju Ryu kata can be traced back to Chinese versions. That is certainly true of the names, but as far as I know no one has actually found any Chinese boxers performing anything like Sepai for example, or Suparimpei. The links may simple be the names which were regarded as important for some reason, but the actual physical forms of the kata are not seen in Chinese styles. So while we tend to see Fukien White Crane as the probable source or root of Goju Ryu we cannot find the Goju kata in White Crane, or if you like we cannot find the White Crane forms in Goju. A similar situation exists with regard to Uechi Ryu and Tiger Boxing. There is a rough similarity in some individual techniques, but the actual kata/forms are not the same, or to be honest even similar.
Harry Cook
Harry Cook

6th September 2002, 16:33
Thank you Mike!

("If you like the quote you can have it with pleasure")

Ari Lappinen

6th September 2002, 17:08
Thanks Mr. Cook for the post on daoism and the reccomended reading. I believe what you say regarding the inability to find the kaishu forms in Chinese Boxing. I think Higaoshionna learned Sanchin, Sesan, Sanseiru, Suparinpei from Aragaki Seisho. Seiunchin is supposed to be very old so it probably came from someone in Okinawa and I think Miyagi Sendai created the rest of the system based on various influences. That doesn't set to well with some of my friends but it seems the simplest conclusion or at least that is what Occum's Razor tells to me today. Thanks for your input.

Michael Clarke
7th September 2002, 07:41
Hi Ed,

Can't say I've come across a teacup exersize at the Jundokan.
That's not to say that some of the seniors don't know of such things or pass it on to others?
As far as I'm aware the people at the Jundokan think more about the practicalities of the movements than the esoteric value that may or may not be present in a kata.
Miyazato sensei told me that the kata were there to "Hide" the bunkai.

I can't comment on Mr. Chinen's ideas on goju-ryu except to say this; from what I've seen of him on his his video's, and from some private videos that were taken when he was teaching in England and also in Arazona some years back, his ideas seem a little removed from the kind of karate I experience when I'm at the Jundokan.
I might add that I'm not making a judgment here. He has been training a long time and so some level of customization is not only legitimate, but expected (shu-ha-ri).

You're welcome.

If anyone's intersted I came across an article in 'Secrets of Kung-Fu' magazine (Hong Kong 1981) where Carter Wong demonstrates the 'Eighteen Fist Style'.
It looks for all the world to me like the goju-ryu kata Sepai.
Any comments?

Peace to all'
Mike Clarke.

Harry Cook
7th September 2002, 10:04
Mike, most interesting. I haven't seen that copy of Secrets of Kung Fu, but in the first edition of the magazine Cater Wong appears showing a kata/form he calls 18 Ways of Striking which has some very Goju-like techniques. However the article also says that he had founded his own system based on his experience in Kung Fu, Karate, Taekwondo and Aikido. Perhaps the form he shows is his version of Seipai? However I would still love to see a copy. Can you post it here?
Harry Cook

8th September 2002, 01:12
Ed made a point:
"After all the Yang long form I have seen has 108 steps."

True, and I use that terminology myself, but I find in practice there is only one Tai Chi flow. As I understand and practice (and I never figure out if practice is the right word after 25 years is it practice or something else) you enter the flow and you leave the flow.

Correctly, there may only be one move with infinite divergent points of energy release.

I understand you have to start someplace, but I'm not sure the numbering really helps the tai chi practice (or whatever) at all.

Back to practice, some people 'play' their art, but that seems an inadequate description too.

In every case good tai chi has plenty to offer everyone, and in time I've found it a wonderful compliment to my karate studies.

But the word which cannot be spoken, and all that...

Victor Smith
Bushi No Te Isshinryu

Michael Clarke
8th September 2002, 10:50
Not sure how to go about posting it here? I'm only a 10th kyu computer-ka.
However, if you're still at the same address in Haltwhistle (?)
I'd be more than happy to post you a copy of the article and pic's the old fashion way.
Let me know if that's any good for you?
All the best,

8th September 2002, 16:47

english isn't my strongest subject, but isn't there a differance in nuances between practise and practise?

What I mean is this; there's no question about it, when I practise I practise (as in "hope to learn some day"), but maybe you could say you practise too, as in "practise what you preach".

Don't know if this makes any sense, I swear it would in my native lingo, but hardly to you, I'm afraid :-)

Anyhow, I enjoy my taiji practise a lot and it has improved my karate too I think. Of course on this level, it doesn't take that much to imrove.

enjoy your practise :-)

Ari Lappinen

Harry Cook
8th September 2002, 17:09
Yes Mike the Haltwhistle address is still the same. Thank you very much in advance for the article; I look forward to seeing the form.
Harry Cook

9th September 2002, 11:36
Hi Harry,

Since Mike canít place the article here, maybe you could after you receive it?

9th September 2002, 12:28

I appreciate your response to my sometimes frustration of the twists of American English (which does not utilize 'practise' and perhaps should).

One issue which remains open to me is I don't believe we've created a descriptive enough vocabulary to address martial issues. I believe in time it would be useful if we could make strides in that direction.

You're English is certainly far above my inablity to communicate with you in your native language. Alas it is only French in which I have had some further discipline.

On Tai Chi Chaun, it has many marvelous values to increase our practice. I find as I learn to be more responsive in my movement I transfer that value to my karate and its applications.

Would that all our efforts increase our ablities.


Victor Smith
Bushi No Te Isshinryu

9th September 2002, 13:32
Victor, you wrote:

"...American English (which does not utilize 'practise' and perhaps should)."

Does this mean that in American English "practise" always means "train" (not the kind that runs on railways :-)?

Sorry to contaminate this thread (and this forum) with a question hardly connected to martial arts at all, but I'm sincerely interested in learning and improving, not only my understanding of the martial arts, but English language as well!

The biggest impact from taiji I've found so far on my karate, is the ability to integrate breathing in a more effective way, that's not to say I haven't seen other benefits also.

warm regards,

Ari Lappinen

9th September 2002, 15:06
i notice that the number 3 is often the same word in many asian languages:

japanese: san
chinese: san
thai: sam
korean: set
maybe there's a link