1. The real meaning of the Manji
When I explain Shorinji Kempo to the general public, new members, or child kenshi and their parents, I have come to say, “Shorinji Kempo is a budo of defense, because it is a budo that has developed from self-defense techniques of monks.” In Japan, “monk” generally refers to a Buddhist monk. Moreover, the name “Shorinji” conjures the images of Daruma (Bodhidharma) and Zen.
In the Kyohan (the Shorinji Kempo Textbook by Kaiso), Kaiso has expounded on the philosophy of Buddhism, Zen, and the manji. The manji sign (卍) is the symbol of Buddhism. Kaiso explained it as “that which symbolizes the ever-flowing nature of the universe and the origins of life.” In other words, it symbolizes human life’s miraculous origins and its relationships with the universe which is governed by Dharma.
Note: Today, one form of the manji (“svastika” in Sanskrit) is widely associated with the inhumane ideology and actions of the Nazi Third Reich, making all of its forms distasteful in the West, unfortunately. The historical and philosophical interpretations of the manji, however, go back millennia and it is these meanings I would like to address.
When seen from the perspective of life, I believe the manji teaches us important things. The vertical line and its hooks represent the eternal chain of life, extending from the past, to the present, and into the future. The horizontal line and its hooks represent the connections between the endless diversity of life, existing from the micro to the macro levels. The point where the vertical and horizontal lines cross means the “Self” that is born of eternal and endlessly diverse life as a result of the miracle of the meeting between father and mother. This is how I think about it.
The first stanza of our Shinjo (Creed), which we recite at every practice, is “Being ever-mindful of the fact that we received our spirit from the Dharma and our bodies from our parents, we resolve to express our sincere gratitude for these gifts in all our activities.” This puts into words our attitude toward the manji which represents the mysteries of the universe and life. The fact that this was placed at the beginning of the Shinjo makes me feel the specialness of Shorinji Kempo.
- The point at which vertical and horizontal lines cross is the “Self.” Legend has it that when Gautama Buddha was born, he took 7 steps, pointed one hand skyward and the other hand earthward, and proclaimed “天上天下唯我独尊” (in Japanese, “Tenjo tenga, yuiga dokuson”). Literally, it means, “Above the sky and below the sky, only self is precious.” However, “self” is not Gautama Buddha himself, but rather human beings in general. Thus, it means there is nothing so important as the dignity of human beings.
- Shinjo (信条, Creed) is something one believes firmly and abides by.
2. The Manji and gassho/kesshu in Shorinji Kempo
As Kaiso said, in Shorinji Kempo we recognize the manji as a form that symbolizes the connection between the real nature of the universe and human life.
“Manji” also contains a deeper meaning. Kaiso emphasized that Shorinji Kempo’s philosophy valued “both ‘riki, 力’ (strength) and ‘ai, 愛’ (love, compassion),” i.e., “Rikiai funi” (力愛不二). In Buddhism, the manji is used in two forms: as “omote” (front) and “ura” (reverse). The “omote manji” (卍) is set as a “positive” (or yang) state, representing compassion, or love, and the “ura manji” ()is set as a “negative” (or yin) state, representing reason and strength. The coexistence of the two opposing things in harmony represents “Rikiai funi,” upheld deeply by Shorinji Kempo.
The “tate manji,” on the front cover of the Kyohan, is formed by surrounding the manji with four shields (“tate”) and represents the intent to protect precious life. In turn, it shows Shorinji Kempo’s predominantly defensive nature.
Years ago, a renegade Shorinji Kempo group emerged. This is an episode from that time. Kaiso indignantly said, “They use a manji surrounded by spears as their badge and logo. They just don’t get it at all! I chose “tate manji” so that when in need, we can be a shield for each other, or help each other.” (paraphrased).
Based on the foregoing, one can understand why Shorinji Kempo attaches great significance to the manji. Therefore, from the instant the manji symbol was placed on the chest of dogi, the meaning of gassho and kesshu, as well as our stance, becomes clear. Gassho and kesshu express a hope that you and I, who each possess a precious life, will eternally maintain a relationship that is without conflict (= kesshu) and peaceful (= gassho). “Bujutsu” (fighting techniques) became a budo, and Shorinji Kempo began as a method of respecting life (= education). For that reason, Shorinji Kempo put the manji on the chest, I think.
We repeat over and over again gassho/kesshu, simultaneously an expression of veneration (to the meaning of the manji), greeting (to each other), and kamae (stance), that embodies such a wish and determination. Thus, we must recognize that Shorinji Kempo is a budo that respects life and seeks peace.
3. Technical importance of gassho/kesshu
Gassho is inseparable from kesshu. The techniques of gassho (= open hand, or “kaishu”) and kesshu (= closed hand, or “akken”) are similar to the unity of the two sides of the manji.
Take a look at the photograph of Kaiso’s gassho at the beginning of this paper. He spreads his elbows firmly. For some reason, I see gassho with slumping elbows from time to time these days; that is sad. As I explain below, there is an important technical meaning in gassho with firmly-spread elbows.
“About Basic Defensive Techniques of Goho” (Part 7, Chapter 4 of the Kyohan) states,
“Shorinji Kempo’s ‘uwa uke’ is fundamentally different from the blocks commonly used in the past in which one would raise the arm above the head with a closed fist. It is an ideal blocking method that makes the best use of muscles.”
Regarding “shita uke,” the Kyohan states, “… spread five fingers, then with ‘shuto’ (edge of palm) or ‘wanto’ (side of forearm), utilizing the extensor (that straightens the fingers), block as though one is striking and cutting (‘uchi-kiru’) downward.”
In open-hand blocks, we make the best use of the muscle (= extensor). In other words, gassho forms the foundation for them. Uwa uke, harai uke, juji uke, ichiji gamae are all just like gassho itself. Hence, the daily greetings not only nourish the mind but also serve to polish the instruments of defense. It is a manifestation of “Ken-Zen ichinyo” (unity of Ken and Zen) in our practice.
4. Kaiso’s uwa uke instructions
At “Busen” (Zenrin Academy of Shorinji Kempo) and “koshukai” (study sessions), Kaiso would often teach uwa uke. While we stood in gassho position, he would clap his hands and then strike at us with shuto, and make us block. On one such occasion, right after he had struck at us, he cautioned, “Hmm. Some of you blocked in the opposite direction!”
In budo and self-defense techniques, moving to the “ura” side is an advanced skill. For instance, whether it is a striking attack or a thrusting attack, in practice of “kata” (form), they tend to follow a straight trajectory. In reality, however, it is possible that instead of coming at us straight, they come along an arc. If we move out to the ura side, there is a danger that we run right into the attack. I believe that Kaiso was concerned about this risk.
When the attacker strikes at you with shuto, if you swing your body (furimi) to the attacker’s palm side and block, it is “omote,” meeting Kaiso’s expectation. In baseball, the batter judges the type of throw from the shape of the pitcher’s hand in a split second. In self-defense, too, one judges the nature of the attack from the body form.
- The current Kamokuhyo (curriculum) introduces both omote and ura from early on. (For adults, omote and ura forms of uwa uke zuki are introduced at 6-kyu level.) As I already explained, moving forward or sideways into an ura position is an advanced skill. Even in Ten’oken, in which we retreat backward or sideways, there are no ura hokei (forms). In defensive techniques against a kick, except for sokuto-hikiashi-namigaeshi, there are no ura forms. Teaching ura moves carelessly could put the students in danger when they have to use them in a real situation of self-defense. I wonder whether Kaiso might not be uttering, “Hmm?” with a frown in the other world…
Shorinji Kempo favors blocking techniques that involve movement of the body (taisabaki). This comes from Kaiso’s personal experiences of being stabbed with a knife by a Chinese thug, while he worked in Manchuria as a special agent in his youth, and of facing attacks by a sake bottle (used as a weapon) in the early days of teaching Shorinji Kempo. They are not techniques that simply assume attacks with hands and legs.
- In Shorinji Kempo, there are techniques that anticipate attacks with a weapon, such as tanto-tsukikomi shita-uke-uchiotoshi-geri, and tanto-furiage ryusui-geri.
Kaiso told a story about Toryo Park in Kagawa in the old days where Shorinji Hombu/Honzan is located. It has long been famous for cherry blossoms. “When I went there to see cherry blossoms, I often ran into scenes of drunken brawls. I would try to intervene, but they would often yell, ‘You stay out of it, old fart!’ and some would even try to beat me with a large sake bottle (1.8-liter bottle). So, I would block with uwa uke, and the bottle would shatter. By-standers would exclaim, ‘The Kempo Teacher cut the bottle!’ That’s how it would go. Hahaha! But, it’s me, my leg had already sprung forward, too, and the attacker was down on the ground” (paraphrased). When he blocked, a kick had immediately followed. In other words, he did uwa uke that combined moving his body and shifting weight.
When one practices uwa uke from the gassho position, as Kaiso had taught, one naturally learns to spread the elbows firmly. This is because one unconsciously maximizes the horizontal defensive line. Further, the vertical line (= gassho) becomes the marker for detecting whether the attack is coming from left or right, and makes it easier to block. Of course, eyes should be in a “happomoku” mode, ready for attacks to low levels (“chudan” or “gedan”).
If you sense a right-hand strike, swing the body to the right, until your shoulders are at about 45˚ angle, bring the right gassho hand to the front of your chest (hand in a fist), and bring the left gassho hand next to the face. Then your shuto will be naturally at 45˚ angle. From there, you go right into uwa uke. Be mindful that the elbow does not go up first. The motion is such that if you were to do it forward, it would become shuto giri.
- You can think of the shifting of weight as follows. Using kaisoku chudan gamae as the starting point, the left-right weight distribution shifts from 50:50 to 40:60, 30:70 (up to this point, you cannot lift your left leg), 20:80, 10:90, and finally 0:100. The difference between the last two is whether your left foot is still on the floor or you are standing on one foot. Nekoashi-dachi is 10:90. At 20:80, you can lift your left leg but cannot maintain that position. I am sure you know which distribution Kaiso’s uwa uke was using!
5. Points to note about uwa uke
Generally, shuto or gai-wanto is used in uwa uke. However, in Gokaken, the most advanced “Goju-ittai” techniques, one traps the attacker’s arm or leg and, without harming the attacker, brings him under control (so as to admonish/enlighten him). Because of that, we practice uwa uke, using the part of wanto that is close to shuto. Of course, beginners are excepted. It does not matter, as long as they can protect their head and face. However, we always need to pay attention to the trajectory of the block.
- In this photograph of Kaiso, the inside of his arm is “nai-wanto” and the outside is “shuto” (outside edge of hand) and “gai-wanto” (outside of forearm) which are used for uwa uke.
The ulna, which is close to shuto, is a fragile bone. I am familiar with two incidents of broken ulna. One happened in the practice of harai uke dan zuki and the other uchi uke against tobi niren geri. It has been also reported that three professional baseball players (in Japan) have been recently put on the disabled list as a result of being hit by a pitch and breaking an ulna.
The reason why the basic forms of Shorinji Kempo blocks use open hands with bent (“live”) wrists is not just to make the best use of muscles but also to reinforce the weak part of the arm. Furthermore, by practicing uwa uke, harai uke, and so on, from the gassho position, one learns the correct trajectories of the blocks.
Other points to note. The basic uwa uke should not be directed forward, but upward. A head’s height past the head is a good benchmark. The reason is that when the attacker is striking with a stick or similar weapon, the attacking arms and wrists bend (and the weapon can reach below your uwa uke). In sotai practice, in particular, because there is a tendency to reach forward with the block (to meet the attack), one needs to be mindful of the proper direction of uwa uke.
One other point. Be mindful that, when you do uwa uke, too large a gap does not open between the elbow and head. As noted above, you cut upward as though you were doing shuto giri upward. If the head and the arm form a triangle, in other words, the elbow goes up first, you can end up taking the attacker’s uchikomi right on your head/face. This is likely to be the result of inadequate furimi.
6. In conclusion
Gassho and kesshu should not become acts of formalities. In practicing Shorinji Kempo, it is important to develop a correct understanding of the meaning of the manji and gassho/kesshu, and to repeat gassho/kesshu correctly. Let us practice them as “gassho-gyo” and “kesshu-gyo,” as though they were special “gyo” (spiritual practices) in Buddhism. By doing so, I believe that we will avoid falling into the practice of mere bujutsu and achieve mastery of Shorinji Kempo, a true budo of “Rikiai funi.”
Kongo Zen Sohonzan Shorinji Yokohama Negishi Doin
Shinichi Atsumi, Doin-cho (Branch Master)
(English translation by Ken Ohashi, with editorial assistance from Nick Frigo)