Some Thoughts on Tensho

I did some experimenting with Tensho quite a while back and came away with a look at the kata that I thought might be interesting here. Concepts of structure, pedagogy, and encoding are interesting to me, as is the process by which some people move more deeply into the art and others stay in what seems like the same place for decades. Some of the structural and pedagogical ideas I see in Tensho provide at least one version of what a path onward might look like.

Tensho is, perhaps, the most mythologized kata in the Goju Ryu syllabus. Stories of its creation abound: Miyagi sensei created it from a now-lost Chinese form called Rokkishu; he created it from the deepest secretes of the White Crane system; it is the “soft” accompaniment to the harder Sanchin; he created it from the Rokkishu in the Bubishi; he learned secrets in China when he traveled there that inspired it. These are all good stories, and they play into the myths of our art perfectly- secret knowledge, information from China, the past holding deeper knowledge than the present. But to me, while these stories are great Tensho is actually the perfect vehicle for both embracing and deconstructing the myths of our art.

While all these stories are fuzzy at best, we actually know more about Tensho than many of our kata: we know Miyagi sensei created it in the early 1920’s. While for many the “secret knowledge” that supposedly went into it is the core of its meaning, I see something else. I don’t see secrets and stories, I see a deep understanding of structure and systematized content. A closer examination of the kata, plus some slightly more detailed background, to me explain a lot of the mysteries this kata supposedly holds.

The structure of Tensho is simple. If you look carefully, break it down, it is simpler still. Why did Miyagi sensei relate it to Sanchin? Because it, like our art, begins and ends with Sanchin: the first 3 punches most versions start with and the ending moriote nukite and mawashi uke in sanchin dachi are right from Sanchin. But the rest certainly holds some secrets? Perhaps, but if you look closely you see something else. The mawashi uke that is central to many of our forms is, in Tensho, simply broken down. Take a moment and look at it, do it. Each hand does the mawashi uke in its parts- first kake uke, then soto uke, then the upper palm strike. Then the outside sweep and lower palm strike. Just a mawashi uke but done in pieces, all one handed on one side. Simple. But what about the next movements? Well, in the To’on Ryu lineage there is a stand-alone sequence of techniques called, tada!, Rokkishu. It was passed down by Higashionna to Kyoda, and it would be surprising indeed if Miyagi had not learned it from their teacher. It is identical to the next 4 movements- koken up, shuto down, koken out, palm in. (It was also popular with other Okinawan martial artists- Uechi Kanei included it in Kanchin for example.) So simple again. Then the kata finishes with a complete mawashi uke to tie together the ones that were deconstructed, reinforcing the lesson.

Simple. But also genius- it does everything Miyagi sensei talked about; compliments sanchin, opens the body in a different, softer if you want, way, and reinforces the core of the system. It also incorporates “secret” Chinese knowledge- the Rokkishu his teacher passed down. So all the various stories are true, if you look at them a certain way. (The similarity of the movements to those in many Fujianese arts is also no surprise, at least if there is any truth to the stories of a Fujianese connection at all. They are common movements in so many styles trying to find an “origin” of them is a fool’s errand.)

But while these stories are good, to me the presentation of organized knowledge seems more powerful, more complete. It shows a deep and thorough mastery of the material, and a structured approach to examining it and passing it on. It takes what can become a mysterious practice and turns it into a work of art, and into something we can use, both as a kata and as a concept, to grow our own practice.

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