Ahead/Before/Taking the Initiative
There are many schools that use the term Sen in their teachings but it is clear that the interpretation varies considerably and as a consequence the understanding is vastly different.
The concept of Sen is one of the central points in the teachings of Miyamoto Musashi and has been passed down through Ken Jutsu, Kendo and now Karate. Understanding its meaning depends on its translation and this is the cause of misunderstandings and often incorrect technical translations as a consequence. The literal translation can be quite simplistic, Ahead of, Before, In front of, and yet when you delve further it can become, Taking the initiative, Foresight, Mental strategy, to precede ones opponent or adversary in a decisive action. The term “Sensei” uses the same Sen in translation meaning “he” who is ahead.
In Japanese society the use of Sen is common in the myriads of subtle and unspoken communication and Japanese focus much on this. Much of the unspoken is caught up in the understanding and to the West this can be difficult to deal with as we validate by words not by feeling in general conversation. It is however a subtle custom that is dying as the Japanese society looks to copy the West in its bold outspoken ways. Many young people complain of the difficulty in understanding the older people and this was typical of my Japanese family grandmother born during the Meiji period who never spoke directly but always expected you to understand. In Japanese society “Sen” is more a way of thinking, trying to read between the lines before something is expressed, an ability to read the mind game. In its simple terms, it could be considered to be thoughtfulness, but in its more extreme use, it is to know and deal with people; often without them realising.
This insight triggers the thought correctly that the use of Sen is more mental than physical and this is the difficulty we struggle with in its usage in technical terms and explanations. However, as I have mentioned before, the schools (especially of sword) have passed down teachings to make the usage more visible but nevertheless require a greater mental understanding above the physical and technical requirements.
In general there are known to be 3 common applications of Sen in strategy and usage:
- The moment your opponent is about to attack
- The moment your opponent has parried your attack
- The moment your opponent’s attack has just failed
Each of the above provides and creates the opportunity to decisively defeat your opponent both physically and mentally. Dependent on your ability, they give you the strategic edge in combat.
In Miyamoto Musahsi’s Book of Fire he expresses the concept of the basic three principles under the title “Taking the Three Initiatives”. It is recognised that he gives further examples and uses characters now no longer in use but this qualifies the three listed.
For many there are the obvious acknowledgements of acceptance of the 3 cases listed but more often than not, a lack of ability to see and execute the techniques triggered by this understanding with sufficient speed to defeat your opponent. This is caused by a multitude of skills, which are lacking and many are basic principles forgotten or not considered, in increasing the skilled levels of combat. In martial arts there are many who think much about what is needed and can tell you in great detail what you should be doing. These same people, however, more often than not lack the skills to initiate and do what they have either read or considered. Theorists in basic terms. Then there are many that fight but think little of strategy, why it worked, why it did not how could they make it work, activists, doers without thought. Good martial artists need to maintain a good technical level whilst building a mental understanding of what they are doing and why. In Japanese we used the term Shin, Gi, Tai, mind, technique and body. Without the mind the body does not function and without the body the mind can’t command the technical execution.
It should be noted that in the traditional Japanese study of Budo the emphasis is always on the student or teacher placing all the emphasis of his training and study on perfection of practice that has no boundaries or limits, instead of devoting even part of ones attention to theory. Many seniors give little credence to those espousing the mental applications of such things as Sen, due to the high skill level and mind needed to understand and execute it properly. It is considered a strategy and skill of extremely high-level adepts only.
This explanation is relevant to the use of Sen, as it requires both completely. During Kumite there is always a lag between the thought and the execution and this is the principle of the usage of Sen in its various guises. You will understand when fighting with junior grades; you can see what they are going to do and counter with ease. This is common for many seniors, but many do not then sharpen this skill and misunderstand what is the trigger to this. Much is about body posture and yet notwithstanding the facial expression there is something more. Some may call it intuition, whilst other a Kumite sense, foresight maybe? The key is to apply tension, as the more this mounts the greater the lag between will and execution and the greater the gap widens. If you can also make the opponent concentrate on you, then his concentration on protecting himself diminishes. The gap is larger or smaller depending on the level of your opponent, the better they are the smaller the gap.
In the three situations I have listed the terms used for these are as follows:
- Sen no Sen
- Go no Sen
- Tai no Sen
There are more which historically have been handed down and practiced such as Sen- Sen no Sen, Sen-Go no Sen and Go-Sen no Sen etc. However, I would like to keep the edification as simple as possible.
The term “Sen no Sen” means to attack your opponent before he initiates the attack he has already decided on. This is often the cause of misunderstandings as it is for many a counter mentally, but not physically, in the true sense. With Karate we commonly use the term “Deai Waza” meaning to take the initiative at the moment of understanding of encounter. Remember, that the term Sen is always before and think of Sen no Sen as “the initiative of attack”. Many students commence this action but invariably end up using Go no Sen as the block and counter is prevalent. Think of using the distance marker as an understanding. If you are able to penetrate further than 50% then you are in accord with Sen but if you are unable to penetrate more than 50% before the opponent determines his attack or counter you will if you block properly move to Go no Sen.
The term “Go no Sen” means to attack your opponent after he has taken the initiative. The misunderstanding here is because of the use of Sen meaning before but prefixed by the term Go meaning after. In principle, it is a parry or block, knowing already what your opponent was going to do then for the attack and subsequent counter, and using a counter attack before him. In general, this is used commonly by default as the ability to read the opponent is often late. However, it can also be where you attack your opponent only to provoke, he parries your attack and as he counters you exploit the gap and counter decisively before he is able to undertake his action. Remember, the term Go means after and think of Go no Sen as “the initiative of the body”. It is important also to understand that the essence of Go no Sen incorporates the ability to control your opponents timing by your own presence and posture and dictate the attack options and commencement. In Japan the skilled student of Go no Sen has a strong dynamic character or spirit (Kihaku), which affects any opponent.
The term Tai no Sen means to attack an opponent when he attacks you. It is commonly induced by the ability to present a weak posture, encouraging the opponent to attack. At this point you must use Tai Sabaki to move and change the distance followed by a feint which the opponent parry’s and as he relaxes to undertake his next attack then execute the strike to defeat your opponent. It is always important to create a void between actions to unbalance your opponent. Please remember the term Tai is in principle to wait and not the Tai for body and think of Tai no Sen as “the initiative of waiting”.
The simple examples above are an attempt to give some clarity to the usage of Sen in its three guises, but are not conclusive and can never be. The real understand is the use of mental strategy to defeat your opponent using the technical skills you have. The essence of Sen and its success is the ability to understand the subtle shift in parry and attack and has the skill to detect and provoke the lag in the opponents fighting. In conclusion, it is impossible to only have an analysis of movements in sequence to understand Sen. If you are able to perceive how gaps occur in your kumite training between the will to attack and the actual movement happening the understanding of Sen is clear.
To merely read and say mentally you understand the meaning of Sen is insufficient and much thought needs to go into the body condition and the use of Junbi (preparation) and Kamae (Fighting posture). Much thought needs to go into the position of your feet and ankles enabling you to spring forwards, backwards and sideways. If the ankles are too relaxed and the back foot too open, the distance in moving forward is greatly impeded. Likewise, if the hand positions in Kamae are too bold they will not induce the opponent to attack and similarly if they are too passive you may not be able to parry and counter. The posture for you is relevant to your strategy and should not always be uniform to one style, but should be more flexible with regard to your opponent and the outcome you want. You should also pay attention to the eyes and the face as much is learned from the opponent about when he will attack and what habitual indications are given. If you are unable to read your opponent then you are unable to execute the various usages of Sen. If your body is not well trained then the lag you seek in your opponent will be seen in you.
In Miyamoto Musashi’s book Go Rin no Sho in the Book of Void, written between 1643 and 1645, he indicates that the mind must be open and at one with the body so the dwell on execution is removed and thus the lag that is critical to the use of Sen is removed. This is not possible without intense training and high repetition to make the technique one with the body, allow the mind to pick up quickly and finally remove the trigger and execution and make it one. He also writes in the Book of Water about the strike of “non-thought” and this is much the same. It does not allow your opponent to perceive the point at which your attack begins resulting in not presenting a vulnerable gap that can be used against you.
In the combat of old, you must remember that many fights were either to the death or could result in you being crippled severely. This led to a form of combat that focused much on the opponent and required a strict approach to posture and Zanshin (awareness). It meant that the smallest detail was observed and the smallest error of judgement or failing was exploited, especially with high-level students. Remember, that the origins of Sen relate mostly to the sword, so the body movements were different to that of Karate and other forms of fighting, which exist now.
With the advent of competition, similar the changes in fighting from feudal Japan to the Tokugawa period and the commencement of “Do” through to the Meiji Restoration and modern Japan, the way of fighting has changed. We now have referees and we have prohibited techniques. We have a defined area and we are unable to be resourceful in our environment. However, what is most obvious now is the way in Karate and other forms of combat that we fight! Japanese karate university students are taught to continually move and bounce. Much success is derived from this rhythmic style and the mobility factor. It means that the usage of Sen is less obvious and frequently considered lucky rather than a deliberate strategy Speed is the essence generally, along with the coordination between hand, leg and eye. Only the very best can show Sen in delivery and execution.
For many however winning or victory is random, an accidental achievement and this is wrong. It must be the consequence of a strategic principal, a formulated plan or a tactic to obtain the victory. The various usages of Sen that I have listed are the main stay of this. However as discussed before the mental approach and right mind are paramount.
In mental terms you are passing through the four levels of learning in all that you do:
- Unconscious Incompetence
- Conscious Incompetence
- Conscious Competence
- Unconscious Competence.
It is the final stage that you must achieve if you are to fully understand that which is the challenge to make Sen work.
There are three type of opening commonly referred to, these are;
- An opening in your opponent’s mind. This can be purely lack of concentration at a low level. A feign which distracts your opponent. Concentrating on what they want to do or are doing rather than what the opponent is doing. Etc.
- An opening in your opponent’s guard. Poor kamae. Hands too low or too high. (Not to be confused with a kamae that deliberately draws in an attack.) A rhythm that can be timed or easily read.etc.
- An opening in your opponent’s technique. Drawing the hand back too far before throwing reverse punch creates an actual physical gap. Dropping your hands while executing a kick etc.
These “openings” go hand in hand with the above-mentioned strategies. One cannot work on seizing the initiative from one’s opponent unless one can understand, create or take advantage of some or all of these openings as they occur.
It should be considered that most people are born with a character that defines one of the three elements of Sen. This is common and you should investigate well that which comes to you naturally. The impatient person favours Sen no Sen whilst the more patient one waits and determines the counter. Understanding yourself will allow you to understand the principals of Sen that suit. However in combat you should not be one-dimensional and must train in all aspects otherwise you become predictable and readable. What suits one opponent does not suit another and this is the same with styles. Know when to deploy that which gives you victory rather than that which is habitually comfortable.