Getting Started with Sanshin
What does Sanshin mean?
These 5 kata have been given many names, some of which are more common than others.
Sanshin (三心之型), Form of 3 Hearts
三心 Three hearts, which has been interpreted in a number of ways as explained below.
Gogyo no kata (五行之型), Forms of Five Elements
五行 Five Elements, originally ascribed to Chinese philosophy. While the 5 elements in Chinese medicine were wood, fire, earth, metal and water, at some point in Japanese culture they were transmuted into a different set of 5 elements that became known as the godai: earth, water, fire, wind, and void. In the early days of the Bujinkan in America, these five elements were presented as the godai 五大.
Shoshin go kata (初心五型), Beginner’s 5 Forms
The 5 kata for beginners.
Goshin no kata (五心之型), Forms of the Awakened Heart
I’ve seen many interpretations of what this means. I don’t know enough to have a useful opinion.
Interpretations of Meaning
When I first learned the sanshin in the late 80’s, we more commonly referred to it as the gogyo, which made sense because of the kata names. Nowadays these kata are almost universally referred to as the sanshin.
I’ve heard it said that the names of the kata are more accurately a counting system, which reflects their complex Chinese origins. But Hatsumi-sensei has at times expressed an analogy between the elemental name of a kata and the feeling it can have. Both ideas can be true: that the names are a both an old counting system and a mnemonic for a kata’s feeling.
I’ve been told two polar opposite ways of learning the kata in the very beginning. The first is to make the kamae and movements bigger, so that it’s easier to see your errors and correct them. On the other hand, Oguri-sensei once told me that beginners should begin learning the sanshin with small kamae first because it’s easier to do correctly, and they can make the movements bigger as they improve and are better able to correct themselves. His advice to me came after I had been in the Bujinkan for probably 25 years, and such an approach had embarrassingly never occurred to me.
I’ve heard two different interpretations of the “three hearts” that make up the Sanshin kanji. Most commonly is probably the shu-ha-ri concept: Learning technique, Integrating technique, and Transcending technique.
I’ve also heard the “three hearts” likened to the old Zen proverb about enlightenment. Before enlightenment, mountain are mountain and rivers and rivers. While studying enlightenment, mountains are rivers and rivers are mountains. And after enlightenment, mountain are mountains and rivers are rivers. In the same way we move naturally before beginning training, unnaturally while we learn, and then naturally again when we have attained mastery.
About the other names and interpretations of the kata, I don’t know enough to say.
Purpose of the Sanshin
Since the Sanshin originates within Gyokko ryu, I think it’s helpful to contextualize where it seems to fall within the progression of learning there.
First we learn kamae. Gyokko ryu tends to require great precision, and being proficient with our kamae is especially important in this ryuha.
Next we learn muto-dori taihenjutsu. These sword cut evasions are essential for studying distance, timing, kamae, and ukemi. And while the sword cuts are intimidating, the lack of contact means that the uke is essentially a placeholder while the tori practices their taijutsu.
Next we learn the sanshin no kata. Even though the contact between the uke and tori can be very light, it requires a greater degree of precision in distancing, timing, movement, and footwork. Also the contact is twofold, in both the moment of ukemi (receive) and atemi (the counterstrike), which are both opportunities to establish or lose control over the situation.
Next we learn the kihon happo, the 8 basic techniques. Practice of the kihon is best with some understanding of the kamae, muto-dori taihenjutsu, and sanshin practice that has preceded it. Now we can apply distancing, timing, footwork, and proper movement to the specific techniques that are embedded within the kihon.
Practicing the Sanshin
Every dojo and instructor has their own nuance of how to practice the sanshin. Even if the general shape of the sanshin movement is recognizable, there will be details that some instructors consider vital and that others consider trivial. Are you doing it wrong? Only if you’re not doing it the way the instructor wants you to. Even if the version of the sanshin you’re being asked to do seems ridiculous to you, do it anyway. We have all received lessons from the shihan and from Hatsumi-sensei that others in the room weren’t there for, so there’s always a strong possibility that they’re right in a way you don’t understand. And ultimately, I think we’re more interested in getting better than in being right.
And while we can also learn by negative example, I think that’s an approach probably best used sparingly.
Another aspect to keep in mind is that the Sanshin kata are from Gyokko ryu. So learning the Sanshin isn’t just for the study of Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu in general, but for the study of Gyokko ryu in particular. So the kamae, movement, and principles of Gyokko ryu should begin to emerge as part of our practice of Sanshin as well. This means further study of Gyokko ryu will proceed from a strong foundation because of our Sanshin practice.
I used to be against using the sanshin as an aerobic-style warmup, but I’ve softened my stance (so to speak). It’s good to move at a dynamic speed at times in our training. There’s something to be said for repetition, so long as we’re still monitoring ourselves for errors and improvements. And
But when studying pieces of a kata to improve, be careful and deliberate. Quite often the error isn’t in the moment that goes wrong, but in a prior moment that set us up for failure. Backtracing the error is a useful skill that requires diligence, patience, and good training partners.
Study different ways of doing the sanshin. Do it the standard way. Do it in place. Do it moving backward. Do it on a hill. Do it in narrow spaces. Do it at night. Remembering that the sanshin is supposed to teach us foundational movement, including that variety can teach us lessons not readily available in the basic forms.
I’ve heard people say that the sanshin is merely an exercise and not meant for combat. I have to say that I would use the sanshin kata in a real fight, but it’s like any other technique — it has to be appropriate for the moment. There’s certainly nothing inherently combatively ineffective about sanshin.
There are many subtle ways in which sanshin can go awry with a partner, particularly with the counterstrike. Most often it’s a misalignment of angling and distancing, where one or — more commonly — both of those elements are off. The movements themselves can be a bit forgiving, but a bad angle at a bad distance is difficult to salvage. Backtracing to the original error is a challenge here. Good luck!
We can always improve on our fundamentals, but it’s also important to avoid retreading the same ground too much. After all, that’s literally how ruts are created. Instead, look for new paths and insights that can be progressively translated into other contexts and problems. We don’t learn fundamentals just for their own sake, but for they show us about other possibilities.