View Full Version : Suigetsu

john mark
8th August 2000, 20:44
While on vacation, I have been reflecting on my martial arts experience and the opportunities that I have had to study with excellent teachers. One of the maxims that they have preached, although not always explicitly, is that "we must first master the basics" through constant repetition.

If repetition is the name of the game (at least in the beginning), what is the importance of the names of the kata other than a label. In other words instead of a kata name Suigetsu would be nipponme be sufficient? Does the name Suigetsu attempt to describe the or a principle underlying the kata? If yes, is fluency in Japanese as well as an understanding of the classics a prerequisite to understanding, other than at the most basic level, koryu martial arts?

At least one author and Shinto Muso Ryu practitioner has interpreted Suigetsu to mean "sternum thrust". I believe that such interpretation is faulty at best as it describes a technique in the form. The characters that make up Suigetsu are water and moon, which leads me to conclusion that the principle underlying Suigetsu is blending or moving with your opponent. Is this correct?

I look forward to your thoughts.

Best regards,

Earl Hartman
8th August 2000, 21:30
I am not particularly experienced in SMR jo, but I will have a go at this. (Please direct all corrections to Maven University [motto: "Opinion Before Knowledge"] of which I am a proud alumnus.)

The word suigetsu is usually used to refer to the solar plexus, which is where you thrust with the jo in the kata of the same name. The same is true for Tsukizue, which means the stick (tsue, or zue) in contact with (tsuki) the ground, or Hissage, where you "hikisagaru" (fall back), etc. The names of the kata are kind of like mnemonic devices, which describe the primary characteristic of the kata so that what is being taught in that kata can be easily remembered. There may be other underlying meanings (ura) to the names, but at least in the plain sense (omote), the names refer to some distinguishing characteristics of the kata.

It seems to me that blending with the movement of your opponent is an absolute requirement for any of the kata to work, not just the kata Suigetsu in particular, so I don't see why this name would have been given to this kata in particular and not any of the others. Also, why do you feel the combination of the characters for water and moon necessarily means blending?

Also, just giving a kata a number removes all of the information contained in the descriptive name, depriving it of its ability to transmit information regarding the kata. Indeed, this subject was addressed by Pascal Kreiger Sensei at the recently completed IJF gasshuku in Ohio.


[Edited by Earl Hartman on 08-08-2000 at 04:33 PM]

Diane Skoss
9th August 2000, 14:55
Hi John,

Most of the kata names (all? wouldn't know yet, myself) in SMR have multiple meanings. For your purposes at your level, suigetsu refers to the solar plexus. The technique with the name suigetsu is a thrust to the solar plexus. But, yes, as you suspect there's much more to it than that. This is the sort of thing that is transmitted orally (and old-fashioned as I am, I don't quite equate bbs with oral teachings). Qualified instructors of SMR should know the names of the kata and their various meanings (yours do, I can assure you), and know at what point to provide you with the additional information.

Discourses on suigetsu happen to be a favorite of Meik's--ask him when you get back from vacation! Hope you are having fun, and see you soon.


Dave Lowry
9th August 2000, 20:15
Mr. Mark,
As others here, more qualified than myself, have explained, there is a considerable significance to the names of most kata in most koryu. Sometimes the name will have a double meaning, one obvious, the other hidden and more important. Sometimes the pronunciation or the kanji used will be an obscure or at least less common variant that provides a key to understanding the kata itself. In some cases, there may be a meaning unique to the ryu.

The larger lesson here is one that many of us have addressed several times: a certain fluency in the Japanese language and as vital, a conversance in Japanese culture, are essential to penetration of a koryu’s teachings. Phrases and words like suigetsu, yae-gaki, tsuki-kage, are all common in koryu curriculum; all borrow from Japanese sources of a literary, folkloric, or cultural nature. Without a strong framework in which to place them, the words and the meanings they imply lose a substantial part of their value.

Lil Dave
9th August 2000, 21:47
I believe that Yagyu Munenori's book "The Family Traditions on the Art of War" speaks a bit about the symbolism of both water and the moon. Oral teachings would, I imagine, be more in depth and comprehensive, but this can be a window into understanding Japanese thought about symbols.

note: "The Family Traditions on the Art of War" is included in the same (physical) book as Thomas Cleary's translation of Gorin No Sho.

David El Bucko

Dave Lowry
10th August 2000, 14:14
The comments above regarding the "Heihokadensho" illustrate my point.
There are at least a couple of translations of this work. Both were by authors who do not train in a classical koryu tradition. Their translations are outstanding and represent enormous effort. But they are not written from the perspective of an exponent who has received instruction in the ryu. There are numerous places in these translations where interpretation comes in, either deliberately or unconsciously. This is not a significant problem for the average reader. It can create some distortion, however, from the original intent of the author. This distortion increases exponentially when readers re-interpret the translation. You can see that it does not take long before the original information has been filtered through a number of lenses.
Understanding the kanji and being able to place the language in a correct cultural context is very important in the process of grasping the original intent. This is true when considering the "meaning" of a kata name or in reading texts from another age.
Yes, translations provide a welcome window for looking into an art. But please be aware that these windows are not without blemishes and distortions and the view they provide is limited.

Brently Keen
10th August 2000, 22:57

I pretty much agree with your point. What do you think are the odds that we'll ever see an English translation of Heiho Kadensho by a practitioner of Yagyu Shinkage-ryu? Or Go Rin no Sho by a practitioner of Niten Ichi-ryu?

On the other hand, even though Kaufmann is a martial artist is his translation of the Book of Five Rings any better than the others? What about his literal scholarship? Admittedly, I don't think he practices a koryu, but even from his gendai karate instructors point of view, I'm not so convinced he understands the text much more than the others.

What I'd really like to see are accurate literal word for word translations. Without interpretation being given by the translator/or publishers. That way koryu bujutsu practitioners could interpret the actual words themselves based on their own experience and understanding of the culture etc...

We could certainly all benefit then from seperate comentaries by actual pratitioners (preferably headmasters or senior exponents) of these traditions giving their insight as to their interpretations of the meaning of these texts based on their experience. That would prove to be much more valuable, I think.

Pardon me if I'm steering this away from the original question as to the meaning of the names of kata, but I think this is interesting.

Any more thoughts?

Brently Keen

Earl Hartman
10th August 2000, 23:27

As a Japanese/English translator/interpreter for the past 20 years, I can tell you from personal experience that a word-for-word translation between Japanese and English is impossible. Not only are the languages too dissimilar for this to be feasible from a grammatical point of view, translations which stick as slavishly as possible to the original are at best stiff and lifeless and at worst incomprehensible. You might be able to do a word-for-word translation of something like the Dick and Jane books ("See Spot run", said Jane. "Run, Spot, run!") but that would be it. Anyway, who would want to read something like that?

All, I repeat ALL translations are, in some respects, acts of interpretation on the part of the translator. This is far less of a problem with technical translation than it is with literary translation since technical writing is supposed to be dry and lacking in nuance (if it is doing its job, anyway). Literary translation, even of modern authors, is difficult enough. Can you imagine what it would be like to try to translate a text, probably written in classical Japanese or Sino-Japanese, by a long dead master of a ryu that you have never practiced, who is trying DELIBERATELY to be cryptic so as to render the text incomprehensible to outsiders? You might as well go jump off a bridge.

The bugei being what they are, it is my opinion that only a fully bilingual menkyo-level person could hope to do a decent translation of ryu-specific texts. And once it has been done, it will promptly be misinterpreted by people not familiar with the ryu.

Zen In The Art Of Archery is a case in point. Herrigel prcticed kyudo for about three years, and he spoke little or no Japanese, one of his colleagues taking it upon himself to interpret the lessons Herrigel received. Herrigel's pre-disposition to mysticism led him to confuse his teacher's ideas with Zen (of which Herrigel had apparently no first hand experience, although he read a lot about it, D.T. Suzuki in particular). Thus, Herrigel's lack of understanding of Japanese, coupled with his desire to find Zen everywhere and some faulty translation on the part of the interpreter, led him to completely misunderstand what he was being taught, resulting in a book that continues to give people a completely mistaken idea of what real kyudo is. (An added problem is that his teacher had some radical ideas about kyudo that aroused fierce opposition among traditional archers.)

In any case, while we have no choice but to get what knowledge we can, relying on English translations of classical Japanese texts is problematic, to say the least.


john mark
11th August 2000, 01:47
Originally posted by Diane Skoss

Discourses on suigetsu happen to be a favorite of Meik's--ask him when you get back from vacation! Hope you are having fun, and see you soon.

Meik and Diane, beers on me tomorrow after practice.

On the translation stuff, Earl is right on. Translation is tough; it requires true fluency in both languages as well as a solid grounding in the cultures of both countries. I know from personal screw ups!


Lil Dave
11th August 2000, 19:57
About a translation of Gorin No Sho by a practitioner of Heiho Niten Ichi Ryu, would it really be a better translation? I ask this question because some sources that I cannot recall have said that when Miyamoto Musashi died, none of his students had truly grasped what he was trying to teach. If this is true, then the true meaning of the Gorin No Sho would still be lost no matter who translated it today. Excepting, of course, someone who has reached the exact same point as Musashi had in a view of the world and understanding of martial arts (in other words, "Not gonna' happen!").

What I have written above is not to belittle Hyoho Niten Ichi Ryu, in fact it seems like a very powerful art. I'm merely asking if anyone living can truthfully be said to have the authority to translate that book.

David Buck, son of William, son of Dan, son of Hyrum, son of Great Great Grandpa Buck.

A. M. Jauregui
29th July 2003, 05:40
The linguistics of suigetsu have intrigued me for a while... Low and behold E-Budo had a thread on the subject. I am hoping that the previous thread posters will chime in again and expand or that new blood will bring new enlightenment to the topic.

1st August 2003, 23:56
Suigetsu (watery moon) literally refers to the image of a moon reflected in a body of water. It is a Buddhist term (although in Buddhist contexts it usually is pronounced "suigatsu").

In mainstream Buddhist scriptures the watery moon is one of the standard metaphors used for explaining the concept of the emptiness of all things. In other words, the phenomena of the world --- just like reflections of the moon seen in water --- only seem real, or seem more solid than they really are, or only seem real to people who lack the ability to perceive reality as it really is. Other metaphors used in Buddhist scriptures to convey this same notion include: foam, bubbles, smoke, hollow banyan trees, apparitions, dreams, shadows, echoes, floating clouds, flashes of lightening, sky flowers, mirages, etc. The watery moon, therefore, frequently accompanies these other objects. In this sense, the watery moon is a standard motif in Japanese literature and art.

In esoteric (tantric) Buddhist scriptures the watery moon (suigatsu) usually stands in relative relationship to the heavenly moon (tengatsu; i.e., the moon in the heavens). In this metaphor the meaning of the watery moon changes slightly. Obviously, the heavenly moon is the real moon and the watery moon is only its reflection. But that does not mean that the watery moon is unreal. The heavenly moon is unobtainable. It is not part of our world. The watery moon, therefore, is the only moon that is real to us. In other words, it is the only moon that appears as part of the world of human beings. When we see the watery moon inside the beads of sweat on our bodies, then the watery moon becomes part of us.

There is only one heavenly moon, but there are an infinite number of watery moons --- as many as their are bodies (or drops) of water.

This relationship between the watery moon and heavenly moon represents the relationship between the cosmic buddha and the divinities (i.e., local buddhas and local gods) who appear in our world. The Buddhist scriptures are preached by the cosmic buddhas, but the real teachings of Buddhism are revealed by the personal divinities who are invoked in tantric rituals.

One kind of tantric ritual for invoking the presence of these divinities is known as the moon disk contemplation (gatsurin kan). It involves meditating on a white circle (or disk) shaped like a full moon and moving that sphere of light into one's own chest. This type of meditation is extremely important in Buddhist yoga (and it is a standard form of training for improving one's martial ability).

In these tantric senses as well, the watery moon is a standard motif in Japanese literature and art.

There is another characteristic of the relationship between heavenly moon and watery moon that is of particular importance in martial arts. There is only one heavenly moon, and it is always out of reach. It is out of range. Nonetheless, as soon as the clouds clear from the sky, the heavenly moon without moving instantly appears inside the boundaries of all the infinite bodies of water. In other words, the immovable heavenly moon invades the water faster than the eye can see.

In this sense of immovability and moving into (invading into) the watery moon is a standard motif in Japanese literature, art, and martial arts. Suppose two armies are lined up on the battle field facing one another. The moment when the troops from one side are about to charge into the defensive line of the other side is called the watery-moon moment. The techniques for conducting this operation are watery-moon techniques.

The watery moon also is extremely important for swordsmanship. The sword also is a watery moon. Ordinary people cannot see it, but a trained swordsman can. Developing this ability to see the watery moon is the first step in knowing how to detect when the sword is out of reach and when it is in range. There are a wide variety of specialized sword techniques related to this principle.

The watery moon also is important metaphor for physiology. According to Buddhist yoga the body has five cakra (wheels, disks, spheres; i.e., the "gorin" of the book: Gorin no sho). The one in the lower belly is water. The one in the heart is fire. The watery moon can seen as the point where these two cakra intersect. In Chinese medicine, it is related to the triple burner (or triple heater). In terms of Western physiology, its location corresponds to the solar plexus --- but I doubt if it is proper to translate suigetsu as solar plexus. It both is and is not the same as the solar plexus.

To go back to the original question:

Originally posted by john mark
If yes, is fluency in Japanese as well as an understanding of the classics a prerequisite to understanding, other than at the most basic level, koryu martial arts?

I do not know exactly what you mean by "understanding." Any traditional art is a body of practices. One acquires those practices by repetition under the guidance of an observant teacher. It has nothing to do with foreign language or classical literature. Scholars study both foreign languages and classical literature so as to better interpret and contextualize phenomena. Scholarly interpretations, however, always exist outside and apart from the practices themselves. For practitioners, as likely as not they get in the way as much as they promote "understanding."

I hope this answer is useful.

Earl Hartman
2nd August 2003, 00:08
Always nice to hear from someone who actually knows what he is talking about. Thanks.

George Kohler
2nd August 2003, 00:15
This definitely needs to go to the Koryu Forum archive. John?

A. M. Jauregui
2nd August 2003, 01:51
Thank you for such wonderful explanation, Professor Bodiford.

Joshua Lerner
2nd August 2003, 20:24
Professor Bodiford,

You wrote:

The one in the lower belly is water. The one in the heart is fire. The watery moon can seen as the point where these two cakra intersect. In Chinese medicine, it is related to the triple burner (or triple heater).

Do you have any other information on the relationship between suigetsu and the triple heater in this context? The water/fire imagery is pretty standard for Chinese/Daoist internal alchemical meditations, and I know of the standard Zhouyi associations with that process (kan and li meeting, etc.). But the correlation between that image and the Triple Heater is a new one for me. I can imagine several possible explanations, but they are pretty speculative and abstract. Any textual references you have would be greatly appreciated, since this idea intrigues me.