Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, there are still two cups at my table.


Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~


Saturday, August 14, 2021

Sen: The Timing of Martial Arts

Many Japanese martial arts have the concept of Sen, or the timing of attack and defense. Below is an excerpt from The Dojo (formerly The Shotokan Times) about Sen in karate in particular and martial arts in general. The full post may be read here.

“Sen” is a fundamental and crucial concept for combat. However, Karateka either do not know about the variations of the concept or ignore its practical relevance. In his new colum “Karate Essence” Thomas McKinnon provides a detailed account of the concept, its variations, and how to apply it in practice.

Sen (jap. 先) means future, prior, to precede, or ahead, depending on the dictionary. In Budo terminology it is variously described as initiative. To Initiate: to cause or facilitate the beginning of something. For the advanced karateka, it is imperative to understand the concept of Sen in combat.

What is the Concept of Sen about?

Like most of the esoteric Japanese terms, I have studied and explored, there is a lot more to the various “Sen” terms than a direct translation to English can explain. We can distinguish at least four concepts:

  • Go no sen (jap. 後の先): After the attack, block/evade and counterattack.
  • Sen no sen (jap. 先の先): Intercepting the attack with simultaneous block/evade and counterattack.
  • Sen sen no sen (jap. 先先の先): Attack immediately when you become aware that your assailant is going to launch an attack.
  • Deai (jap. 出会い): Don’t wait until your assailant plans to launch an attack: attack immediately you are aware of the intention.

Taking Control Over the Fight

The above guidelines are fairly accurate, as far as they go, and they give you an idea about timing. However, there is something that should be clearly understood about the concept of Sen in combat: Go no sen, Sen no sen, Sen sen no sen or Deai are all forms of taking the initiative (taking control).

 

I am actually talking about Budo: responses in real world conflict. Remember, the original purpose of karate was not for karateka to fight each-other in sport. It was for self-defense. To clarify: we could go way back to Bodhidharma’s (possibly the first) codified practice for self-defense (5th century AD). However, perhaps Funakoshi Gichin Sensei’s origins (19th century AD) with Shōrei-ryū and Shōrin-ryū, which addressed defense against the 36 habitual acts of civil violence, might be far enough back?

Sen is Present in Any Combat System

The Sen Principle, however, also relates to Ippon or Sanbon kumite, or sport karate in any of its forms, or indeed any sports combat in all of its various guises. To most spectators of the numerous sporting combat activities, the utilization of Sen might not be immediately apparent. If you were to talk to serious competitors in the said activities, though, most of them would completely understand the concept. They may not recognize the Japanese terms, but the concept of taking the initiative as it relates to the Sen Principal would be perfectly clear to them.

The Four Concepts of Sen in Detail

Go no Sen

The ‘Go’ (jap. 後) in ‘Go no sen’ means ‘after’. Quite literally, immediately after you’ve been attacked, let’s say with a punch, or indeed a flurry of punches – which you have effectively blocked/evaded – you counterattack. That’s not to say that if you fight with a Go no sen methodology you simply wait for the attack to take place. The purpose of Initiative (Sen) is to gain advantage over your opponent.

You may, for instance, control your adversary’s timing by your own presence and tactics, actually dictating your assailant’s attack options (taking the initiative). Some karateka are naturally good counter fighters, Go no sen specialists, who excel in this area. With fast reflexes and a strong, dynamic spirit, or Kihaku, they control their adversary and the fight.

Example: Seeing an imminent attack, you might fake an attack: balking to trick your adversary into striking through an apparent hole in defenses, only to be blocked/evaded and counterattacked.

Sen no Sen

Having control of the when, how and where, you can effectively block/evade while simultaneously delivering an effective counterattack; potentially finishing the encounter.

Example: Leaving your face apparently unguarded, offering your chin, you capitalist on your adversary’s attempt to punch you. Knowing the when and where, you will also limit his options in regard to how. Slipping the punch, using tai sabaki, perhaps covering with a heel palm block, while simultaneously delivering a body blow to the sternum. A version of this method, with tai sabaki as the major contributor of both defense and counterattack might also be called Tai no sen.

Sen Sen no Sen

When confronted by an adversary/opponent – your awareness in the appropriate state of Zanshin – reading your adversary’s intention to attack, you take the initiative, immediately launching a pre-emptive strike. Be aware: defending your-self using Sen sen no sen, it could appear that you arbitrarily attacked your adversary. Nevertheless, in a self-defense scenario, particularly if your adversary is in possession of a bladed or blunt force weapon, Sen sen no sen might be a highly advisable mode of action.

Deai

When facing an adversary in a real-life, combative confrontation, after behaving in accord with proper etiquette:

  1. Giving your adversary no reason to attack you.
  2. Attempting to resolve the impending confrontation non-violently.
  3. Attempting to remove your-self from the situation.

You, unavoidably, find yourself facing a person intent on assaulting you. Deai may be a highly desirable option. Deai: attack as soon as you are aware of your assailant’s intention.

 

 

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