I will be critically reviewing all three of Johnson's books but would like to start now by breaking precedent and recording my conclusion first before going on to discuss the different books individually.
I do this because I detect that in all three books a fundamental pattern of presentation can be recognized and this impacts on my reviews of all the titles in the same way.
Johnson is primarily famous for arguing that the Naifuanchin / Tekki kata are a record of stand-up grappling movements intended for use in civil law keeping with their origins in China. To make this clear: he rejects the idea that the 'kicks' and 'punches' in this kata are indeed kicks and punches. Rather they mimic the hand / arm movements needed to subdue an attacker in close proximity to the defender and have more in common with Chinese chin na than modern day karate with its emphasis on striking. In my opinion, this is the strongest argument and most well-thought-out idea he presents.
Another key kata Johnson investigates is Sanchin, famous in Goju ryu and Uechi ryu. This is where, to me, his writing and ideas become confusing and not-so-well-thought-out. Initially, in Zen Shaolin Karate, he presents the idea that like Naifuanchin / Tekki, the movements of Sanchin are best understood as close-quarters-combat techniques that have a direct relationship to, and are best understood through the practice of, pushing hands (kakie in Okinawan martial arts). This in itself is fair enough, but he continues to examine Sanchin in Barefoot Zen and concludes that the entire kata, while having a combative element, should be primarily understood as being a Buddhist meditative method. He then rejects this (more-or-less) completely in The Great Karate Myth and concludes that Sanchin, among other kata, should be seen as a weapons kata (specifically as a sai kata) performed without the actual weapon.
The problem with his arguments - and the reason he is so easily able to change his principle argument so drastically from book to book - is that he at no time presents any historical evidence for any of his conclusions. For example, that Sanchin can be performed while using sai is a fair point...but this doesn't necessarily mean that it was intended to be used with sai. I can perform Heian Shodan with sai, but that doesn't necessarily mean it was designed as a sai kata. Of course, I can also perform the same kata while using tonfa, but again, that doesn't by default make it a tonfa kata. I could also wield one or two tanto daggers and...well, you get the idea.
This, as you will discover upon reading further, is a major criticism of all his work. But having said that, I do at the same time feel that he offers some tremendously interesting approaches to training that - whether historically valid or not - are still of great interest.
Anyone who has been training for a few years will have experienced - with the best will in the world - the 'Kanku Dai...again...' syndrome. Simply put, and this is as true for martial arts as with any discipline, you reach a point where your learning curve becomes almost flat and your time spent on a plateau in learning becomes longer. At times like these injecting some 'spice' into your training can be just what you need. From this point of view, I believe Johnson's work is highly significant because it is thought provoking and opens up valid areas of training and interest to the average karateka who just wants to enjoy his training (and isn't too concerned about whether it is historically authentic or not).
Picking up a pair of sai and examining Kanku Dai from the perspective of it being a weapons kata will, I feel, be of enormous interest and benefit to anyone. Approaching the kata (not just Sanchin - though Johnson identifies some Buddhist symbolism specific to this kata) as dynamic meditation is also of interest, and indeed is something that I myself teach. Similarly incorporating pushing hands into your karate practice is without doubt going to be of benefit and will help you understand Naifuanchin / Tekki and Sanchin in new ways.
Before I continue, this is perhaps an opportune moment for me to clarify how my own teaching differs from that of Johnson, and especially the ideas he presents in Barefoot Zen.
In The Way of the Enlightened Zen Warrior I am investigating similarities at a neurological level between those experienced in static meditation and in dynamic meditation. I make no claim for any historical authenticity with regard to karate being directly related to the Shaolin Temple or Buddhism. Nor do I claim that a martial art (karate or otherwise) is the only method of affecting the balance between one's brain hemispheres. Long distance running, as an example, has many an anecdote of athletes having all kinds of 'spiritual' experiences. Furthermore, in the case of historical figures, I am interested in making a comparison between their descriptions of 'divine communion' and those descriptions provided by people today (who we know have had their dominant brain hemisphere changed). For an early exploration of this please read my essay Jesus, Mohammed and the Zen Method. Now, getting back to Zen Shaolin Karate...
So, before I begin my review of Zen Shaolin Karate proper and then progress onto Johnson's other books, I would like you to bear what I have written above in mind. In short, I do have reservations about the lack of historical evidence and Johnson's apparent need to have what he is writing seen as being the 'authentic' take on karate but at the same time I also strongly recommend his work for anyone looking to open up new areas of interest in their training.
Zen Shaolin Karate
Zen Shaolin Karate comes in at 240 pages split into six chapters. The chapters include Philosophy and History, Basics, Saam Chin, Nai Fuan Chin, Pushing Hands and Final Thoughts. The book is supported with excellent and extensive black and white photographs that complement the text well. Zen Shaolin Karate is much more of a 'how to' book than either Barefoot Zen or The Great Karate Myth are. On balance I would estimate that the photographs perhaps take up slightly more of the page count than the actual text does.
Chapter One - Philosophy and History
Zen Shaolin Karate starts off with a gentle introduction of the Shaolin Temple and the Shaolin Way, quickly introducing Ch'an / Zen Buddhism and attempting to establish a link between this meditative spiritual practice and karate. Johnson argues that this link can be seen in the practice of 'pushing hands' (kakie) which, the author argues, is a form of Moving Zen. According to Johnson this practice was never intended to have a combative application as such, but was meant to lead the aspirant into contact with 'the great Void.' Precisely what the 'great Void' is is not detailed and no historical evidence is provided to back up the claim. It is more of an assertion than a well-made point. Johnson wants the reader to believe that the idea of fighting Shaolin monks is a fiction created first in China and then promoted in kung fu movies. He sees the idea of an ordained Buddhist monk doubling as a warrior monk as being a contradiction in terms and, therefore, an impossibility. From what I have discovered on the internet however the Shaolin monks did fight and got around the problem of contradicting their non-violent lifestyle by rewriting their code of conduct. I certainly know too that during Japan's civil war period (sengoku jidai) there were plenty of warrior monks (and armed lay members) bent on violence and empowering themselves.
Zen Shaolin Karate next turns to the history of karate on Okinawa and declares that the kata are primarily derived from Chinese sources and that practice originally included t'ui shou, or 'pushing hands'. Moving to mainland Japan however these approaches to training were lost and karate sparring moved to a longer range, influenced by kendo.
Johnson continues in Zen Shaolin Karate and makes a crucial point. He states that because we know so little before the beginning of the eighteenth century (the time of 'Tode' Sakugawa) and because the ancient masters left no records, the only directions we an follow are the ancient kata themselves.
On the face of it, this would appear to be a fair point and I agree that, at least until (read: if) any more documents are ever uncovered, the kata need to be our first area of investigation. But Johnson is here ignoring a primary source that we do have: the Bubishi.
The Bubishi is a collection of essays on various aspects of fighting, including strategy and technique, medicine, history and philosophy. The Bubishi is an important document in the investigation of the rationale behind the creation of karate for the simple reason that it actually is a document. It is all we have in written form to guide us in deciphering the sometimes obscure techniques we learn and practice. What the Bubishi makes clear - and what Johnson fails to mention in Zen Shaolin Karate - is that the Chinese kung fu styles that karate is said to have been influenced by were highly practical fighting methods more akin to what we see in MMA gyms today than the point fighting of semi-contact tournaments. From the articles contained in the Bubishi it is clear that while the kung fu styles commented on included joint locks and take downs, they were also clearly intended to be striking arts using hand and leg techniques (to attack vital points where possible). It is reasonable to conclude that the same rationale lies behind the application of the techniques found within the various kata of different karate styles. I will return to the neglect of the evidence found in the Bubishi in the future as the book is omitted as evidence in Barefoot Zen also and is only briefly mentioned in the second half of The Great Karate Myth. To put that into perspective for you: we have to read over 680 pages on the application of kata movements before the most important document related to the application of kata movements is even mentioned (and Barefoot Zen is a 240 page A4-sized book with a far higher word count per page than either Zen Shaolin Karate or The Great Karate Myth).
So, while I agree that an investigation of the kata are vital to improving our understanding of how karate should be applied as a fighting art I also feel - and here I am at odds with Johnson - that this investigation should be made in conjunction with a close reading of the Bubishi.
Johnson concludes the first chapter of Zen Shaolin Karate with the observation that, to the old masters, function dictated form. In other words, the movements seen in the kata all have a function and are not simply present in a kata for no reason.
Chapter Two - Basics
Zen Shaolin Karate continues by introducing the basics that will allow you to re-evaluate your practice of Sanchin and / or Naifuanchin while also introducing pushing hands. Johnson makes the reader aware that modern science promotes the idea that the best warm up is to replicate the movements you will be doing more intensely later on but just starting at a slower pace and then increasing the range of motion if needed.
Zen Shaolin Karate then identifies and describes the stances you need to understand (and uses good sized pictures throughout to help make the point). Once understood Zen Shaolin Karate moves on to describe various (basic) striking and kicking techniques and concludes with some rolling practice (as opposed to break falls). The latter inclusion is particularly relevant to the safe practice of Naifuanchin as the aggressor's arms are controlled and twisted in a manner that will force him to the floor and require him to twist with the pressure according to Johnson's innovative applications.
Chapter Three - Saam Chin
Here we start to get to the real meat of Zen Shaolin Karate. Saam Chin (Sanchin) means 'Three Conflicts'. Johnson - along with numerous other karateka and Southern Chinese kung fu practitioners - holds this kata in high regard, stating 'In terms of meaning, practicality, and simplicity it is unsurpassed'.
Johnson presents the idea that the 'three conflicts' refer to the conflict that is said to exist between body, mind and spirit. His ideas next diverge from mine but I will present his faithfully and ask the reader to refer to my notes on Martial Arts Meditation for my personal definitions of the following terms.
In Zen Shaolin Karate Johnson argues that the conflict between the body, mind and spirit is dealt with in three stages:
* Mushin - Non-analytical thinking in urgent situations; a state of spontaneous response in combat
* Zanshin - Remaining mind or awareness; automatic awareness
* Samadhi - Total absorption
Johnson argues that the combination of mushin and zanshin create samadhi, identified in Zen Shaolin Karate as spirit. Precisely which stages are to be identified with the body and mind elements of the body-mind-spirit trilogy is not made clear and the confusion caused by the use of Japanese terms (mushin and zanshin) and the Sanskrit term samadhi is never resolved; nor, bearing in mind that Saam Chin is of Chinese origin, are the terms related to Chinese thought / philosophy. I therefore conclude that the idea that the 'Three Conflicts' refer to a body - mind - spirit conflict is highly speculative. In Zen Shaolin Karate Johnson simply glosses over the fact that no one seems to really know what the 'Three Conflicts' actually are and that really he is offering nothing more than an opinion, as opposed to 'the gospel truth'.
Continuing however, Johnson goes on to argue that achieving samadhi is made possible simply through the mindful practice of Saam Chin. This includes the use of correct breathing techniques - and again he uses a Sanskrit term in relation to a Chinese form - called pranayama, which means to restrain the breath, energy or spirit.
Less my reader think I am being over-precise in my criticism of his terminology, please consider that Zen Shaolin Karate is only the first in three books (the others being Barefoot Zen and The Great Karate Myth. A central premise presented in both Zen Shaolin Karate and Barefoot Zen is that Saam Chin is, at its heart, a Buddhist dynamic meditative technique. The Japanese terms used are obviously historically incompatible with the kata and the Sanskrit terms used are related to Hinduism originally, and not Buddhism (Buddhism grew from the rejection of the fundamental - and pre-existing - Hindu belief that there is such a thing as an observer...Buddhism asserts there is ultimately no observer and nothing to be observed...no thing). Even more than that, both samadhi and pranayama are related to yoga which would suggest that - if these terms are in fact accurate and appropriate - that Saam Chin is a form of yoga. I appreciate that in modern times such phrases have been 'collected' and tend to be used indiscriminately but as Zen Shaolin Karate is claiming to be based on historically accurate information, I would have appreciated a higher degree of, well, accuracy.
Zen Shaolin Karate goes on to examine the principles and techniques that make up Sanchin. Johnson (wisely in my opinion) discusses Sanchin 'breathing' and rejects the typical heavy breathing demonstrated in Okinawan and Japanese versions of the kata, noting that the breath should be deep but light and quiet and never forced.
Johnson next discusses the Saam Chin stance and relates correct posture to correct breathing. The next point discussed in Zen Shaolin Karate is the 'unbendable arm' which is created through a natural elastic tension rather than a heavy muscular contraction. This is supposedly dependent on one's ability to direct ki (chi) from one's abdomen through one's body and into the arm and through the fingertips.
Zen Shaolin Karate next discusses the 'impassable ring', one of three defensive circles introduced in Saam Chin. The first introduced is the 'middle circle', or the area within your arms when performing pushing hands, and it creates a buffer zone between your body and your opponent's attacks. In effect it should be a non-collapsible barrier (owing to the use of the 'unbendable arm') around which you redirect all incoming attacks.
Within this buffer zone your body will turn, pivot and step, thereby creating a second imaginary circle. Then you have the second (lower) circle which is described in Zen Shaolin Karate as being the area between your feet. This circle gives you stability.
The final, third (upper) circle is the cycle of catching, trapping, detaining and counterattacking movements introduced via the circular block found at the end of Saam Chin.
Next Johnson describes the coordination that Saam Chin teaches us. In the first section we practice moving the arms independently and individually; in the second section the arms are moved together and mimic one another; in the third section the arms are moved simultaneously but each arm performs a different movement.
The next principle introduced in Zen Shaolin Karate is very interesting and will be familiar to aikidoka. Johnson notes that withdrawing from or knocking aside an attacking force means wasting its energy. Instead Johnson teaches the karateka to intercept and merge with an attack, trapping the limb with the second hand then using a palm heel strike (with the original intercepting hand) to return the (amplified) force. This requires heightened sensitivity and is why Johnson praises the use of pushing hands practice over the more common sparring found in many dojo.
Zen Shaolin Karate moves on to introduce a single offensive technique: the palm heel strike. Johnson advocates the use of the palm heel as it requires no conditioning and is more flexible in its use.
This chapter of Zen Shaolin Karate continues with a detailed and very well presented demonstration of Saam Chin. Of note here is that Johnson uses the original finger strike rather than the more modern punch seen in the Goju ryu version of Sanchin.
The chapter on Saam Chin concludes with an examination of applications for the kata. Johnson is keen to note in Zen Shaolin Karate that there are no offensive techniques in Saam Chin, and only one counter-attack, the palm heel strike. The finger strikes (nukite) / punches are not described here as either offensive techniques nor as counter-attacks, but Johnson fails to explain why not (though I will note here that in The Great Karate Myth he will present an argument that these same techniques are to be done gripping a reversed sai and used to punish the hands, wrist or forearm of an attacker wielding a weapon).
Johnson also rejects the use of combinations in Zen Shaolin Karate and argues that failure to trap and immobilize an opponent and thereafter break his balance or control him in some way leads to the use of speed, aggression and power, rather than the skills developed through pushing hands and practice of Saam Chin. I think he is making a fair point here, but again, as I noted above, he makes no reference to the Bubishi which covers fighting techniques from Southern Chinese kung fu styles, and these styles include the practice of Saam Chin.
To help understand the defensive potential of Saam Chin Zen Shaolin Karate discusses the midline. Johnson states that attacks are dealt with simply according to which side of an imaginary midline you have drawn down your body and separating it into two halves. Any attack originating from the same side of the midline is defended against in the same manner.
Zen Shaolin Karate continues to explain this concept in more detail noting that attacks originating from the right side of your midline are dealt with first by the right hand, then the left hand (such as executing a trap or grab). The right hand is therefore free to deal with a second attack and so on. The intercepting hand Johnson identifies as being the significator.
Zen Shaolin Karate next adds stepping and evasion into the mix. Johnson covers some basic pointers of how to combine footwork with an intercept / trap / counter approach. Again, all well illustrated and providing some good ideas on how to deal with some simple attacks. At the same time though, the attacks are very simple and it doesn't look like the attacker is trying too hard.
This brings the chapter on Saam Chin to a close. Some good ideas and lots of pointers to work with, but also a lot of potential objections to Johnson's argument in Zen Shaolin Karate are simply omitted, and as I stated in my introduction, this is a continuous feature of his work.
Chapter Four - Naifuanchin
Next Zen Shaolin Karate moves on to consider the Naifuanchin / Tekki kata. These kata are now taught in three separate parts but Zen Shaolin Karate rejects the idea that this was how they were originally intended to be practiced. Johnson believes that the three sections were intended to be performed as one long, continuous form. He goes into more detail as to how he arrives at this conclusion in The Great Karate Myth but a big clue is the lack of formal openings in the second and third sections...these kata have a feeling that they are picking up from something preceding.
Zen Shaolin Karate gives a little background on the presumed history of the form, but notes that the precise origins are obscure. In Zen Shaolin Karate Johnson notes that the movements may have developed from either T'ang lang kung fu (Praying Mantis) or Ch'in-na (a Chinese stand up grappling system). (Johnson seems to go with the view that Naifuanchin is descended from Ch'in-na by the time he writes The Great Karate Myth. This kata - whether performed as a long, continuous form or divided into three sections - formed the bedrock of training for those involved in the Shuri te school. It is, in this sense at least, somewhat equivalent to Saam Chin of Naha te which also served as the beginning and the end of kata study.
One of Johnson's early observation of Naifuanchin, and detailed in Zen Shaolin Karate, is that is seems to be focused on escaping from a crossed arm position. Johnson acknowledges that this may seem impractical, but he argues that training in this method teaches the essential skills of joint manipulation, leading an opponent and timing throws. He also puts forward the idea that the techniques can be improvised to use only one hand, with the second hand unbalancing the opponent more directly. Johnson provides examples of what he is talking about later in the book, but he is quick to point out in Zen Shaolin Karate that it is up to the reader to experiment and discover things for himself.
Johnson continues Zen Shaolin Karate by more closely examining Naifuanchin as a grappling form. Johnson acknowledges that recording grappling, locking and throwing techniques in a kata can be problematic. He argues that this problem is solved in part by focusing on the application of combined grips that are operated from a crossed-arm position.
Given this, Zen Shaolin Karate argues that Naifuanchin is not a sequence of self-defense reponses, but a systematic record of (stand up) grappling techniques and grip reversals (meaning that the person first gripping ends up being the one gripped).
Building on this basis continued study will lead to the discovery of variations, pivots, turns and steps.
Next Zen Shaolin Karate draws the reader's attention to a potentially very significant point overlooked (as far as I know) by everyone other than Johnson. Johnson introduces a unique and clearly obscure method of clenching the fist, which he labels the 'Naifuanchin fist' due to its apparent use in the kata of the same name. This is made by clenching your fingers into a fist as normal but the forefinger (and only the forefinger) is not folded up and instead the tip of the extended finger rests at the base of the thumb joint. For those of you who have a copy of Karate Do Kyohan this fist can be seen clearly on page 17 (Chapter Two - Fundamental Elements - The Fist). Funakoshi however identifies this fist as being the regular position your fingers should be held in (seiken) for punching attacks. In the same sequence of pictures he does however also describe what I think most people would consider to be a normal fist position, with all fingers clenched. Johnson cites other sources where this fist can be seen and further notes that some Shorin ryu stylists still use it to this day.
In modern karate however this fist has disappeared. By the time of the Best Karate series of books by Master Nakayama, this fist is no longer pictured or described. Johnson advises us that this is because attempting to strike a surface with this fist could lead to damage. Rather, the Naifuanchin fist is a method of practicing a grip used in grappling and is designed to promote strength.
The next section of Zen Shaolin Karate introduces a series of grips that are found within Naifuanchin, these being the reverse-hand grip, the overhand grip, the underhand grip, and the combined reverse-hand grip and overhand grip. Finally there is a small note on the straddle-leg stance.
At this point the reader is barely half way through Zen Shaolin Karate. The majority of the remainder of the book is comprised of an excellent series of photographs that show Nathan Johnson performing Naifuanchin, accompanied with an explanation. After each section (effectively Tekki Shodan, Tekki Nidan and Tekki Sandan) there is a detailed description of how those movements studied can be applied. These sections really bring to life what Johnson is arguing for in Zen Shaolin Karate and show how the movements of Naifuanchin work to control and subdue an opponent who has made a grab for your wrists. How practical the reader may consider the techniques to be is going to vary from person to person and I can readily understand why some may object to the apparently 'soft' responses detailed. In reading through Johnson's work though it will be revealed in Barefoot Zen and The Great Karate Myth that the author sees these techniques as having been designed for use by a civil defense force (policemen) to subdue but not injure a miscreant.
Chapter Five - Pushing Hands
As far as word count is concerned, this chapter of Zen Shaolin Karate is fairly light and again, much of the content is taken up with photographs and explanations of the photographs.
Johnson first points out that pushing hands (kakie) is the inheritance of all arts that have been influenced by kung fu originating in the Shaolin Temple and this, he seems to feel, includes Okinawan karate.
Pushing hands is a non-competitive method of increasing one's touch sensitivity. Two partners stand close to one another with one of their arms touching the opposite limb of the other. Then one person begins to exert a forward pressure which is accepted, controlled and redirected by the second person who then returns a similar force which is dealt with in the same way. This is the basic practice but more advanced forms can include pushes and pulls to unbalance an opponent, building up to simulated strikes, kicks, sweeps and even throws. It is this practice which Johnson believes tied both Saam Chin and Naifuanchin together and helps to create the freedom to express the more formal movements found in the kata.
Johnson notes that many karateka turn to arts like Tai Chi to experience pushing hands, and I am one of those people. The practice is deceptively difficult and it can take some time to develop one's sensitivity. I can definitely recommend it, whether you get into it via regular karate training or by looking outside at (most likely) a Chinese art. Johnson spends most of the rest of Zen Shaolin Karate examining how the movements and principles of both Saam Chin and Naifuanchin can be incorporated into pushing hands.
Chapter Six - Final Thoughts
Here Johnson highlights some maxims for the trainee and tells a short fictional story designed to give the reader something to ponder.
Zen Shaolin Karate finishes with a conclusion in which Johnson examines why the applications of the kata under discussion are missing. Essentially his conclusion is that no-one on Okinawa really knew what the applications were. Certainly there is no written record of any applications being available and anecdotal evidence indicates that Master Funakoshi was not teaching bunkai for the Tekki kata but at the same time the conclusion ignores the fact that Master Funakoshi studied each Tekki kata for three years at a time when kata were not viewed as being useful for developing one's spirit or one's will power. The kata were not intended as a form of aerobic exercise. Furthermore, as his death approached, it is reported that Master Funakoshi lamented the fact that karate seemed to have lost its roots and that the kata were no longer understood properly.
Whatever the truth is, Zen Shaolin Karate introduces some very interesting ideas that could potentially absorb the attention of a karate for years...Saam Chin, Naifuanchin, Kakie...but in the final analysis Johnson fails to prove his theory. The information he presents is excellent and thought provoking but he is never able to say with authority 'This is it! This is the correct application.' Instead he offers - like everyone else - his ideas and opinions. These are informed ideas and opinions certainly, but for a reader searching for the an accurate history of Saam Chin and / or Naifuanchin I am afraid Zen Shaolin Karate fails to provide the necessary evidence.