Understanding Initiative – The Principle of Sen

retaking the initiative - naginata

We live in a cause and effect world, and combat is no different. Combat is a chain of causality. Cause and effect follow each other in another endless dualistic cycle. The concept of Initiative (Sen) as it relates to combat is something worth considering. Sen can mean to precede, precedence, prior, future, or ahead. It has variously been described as Initiative in Budo terminology. To Initiate – to cause or facilitate the beginning of.

What is Initiative?

Several questions immediately come to mind about Initiative:

  • What is the purpose of initiative?
  • Is there advantage or disadvantage to taking the initiative?
  • Do you have to move or attack first to have the initiative?
  • How do we regain the initiative if we have lost it?

I am going to suggest that the purpose of Initiative (Sen) is to gain advantage over your opponent. Conventional thinking suggests that by taking the first step\move (initiative), your opponent is forced to react to you and abandon his own plans at least temporarily. Initiative seems to indicate that by pre-empting your opponent’s actions, you have a higher probability of winning.

Like Boyd’s OODA loop, if you can get inside the opponent’s decision cycle, you Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act faster than your opponent. Which puts him on the defensive, gives him less time/fewer options to react while giving you more freedom. In other words, you spend more time shaping the engagement in your favor and your opponent spends more time detecting and reacting to your initiatives.

Several cycles of this type of engagement, with each one giving you greater and greater freedom of action while reducing that of your opponent, would make it appear that taking the initiative has significant advantages.

Of course, your opponent is trying to do the same to you; like trying to force each other into a corner. If you are in the corner, you have fewer and fewer directions to move. You want freedom in both space (to be able to move) and time (to decide when to move). In the corner, your opponent dictates your movement options and he has a wider grasp of time (he can choose to keep you in the corner, wait for reinforcements, or force you to fight until you are destroyed, break out, or surrender).

Therefore, it would seem that the answer to the first question above is that the purpose of Initiative (Sen) is to gain advantage in the physical dimensions of time and space, mentally, and spiritually while reducing that of your opponent.

Do We Always Need the Initiative?

However, what about the second question? We can see some advantages to taking the initiative, but what about the disadvantages? If we equate initiative with attacking, we are in for a surprise. If we move against a prepared opponent, he will be ready to exploit the Gaps (Suki) inherent in our movement (Ugoki no Suki) or technique (Waza no Suki) that he can anticipate.

For example, if the attack is weak (slow, uncoordinated or at the wrong time), or anticipated (the defender plans for it, or actually depends on it for his reaction), then moving first is not necessarily an advantage.

Attacking is only one of several options to gain freedom of action, but if you are in a corner, it may be the only one left. Winning not only involves attacking, but setting up other opportunities. With an opponent trying to do the same to you, the goal must always be to react or initiate in such a way as to recapture Opportunity and/or Advantage by exploiting Gaps (Suki). A good pool player not only makes his shot, but also sets up his next shot to increase his opportunities and maintain the initiative. If he cannot make the next shot, he tries to place the cue ball in a position that makes it very difficult for the opponent to sink the next ball.

Western military science has always asserted that defense is a stronger form of combat because the attacker is required to move and strike—activities which trade off against each other and expose inherent Kyo-Jitsu cycles that can be exploited. There are many examples in Eastern martial traditions that espouse “Waiting” (Tai). “Be struck to win.”

Some martial styles have predominately advocated one or the other, but in reality there has to be a balance between offence and defence. There is a time and place for each. Higher-level Budo concepts such as the idea that offence and defence are the same thing will be discussed later (Chapter 13 – Kogeki Bobi).

Does Initiative Mean Moving First?

Initiation (Sen) and Attacking (Kogeki) are not the same thing. Like a chess player, you can strategically shape the chess board before the final engagement. In modern parlance, it is called preparation of the battle space, and starts long before the first bullet is fired. To put this into an example of a one-on-one engagement, imagine walking down the street heading to your car after seeing a movie and ahead of you are two unsavory characters.

  • You have already been proactive (taking the initiative) by studying your style of martial art and learning how to fight.
  • You have situational awareness (Kan) to determine that things are potentially shaping toward a bad situation.
  • By moving across the street to a well lit area with several other people, you are less likely to be isolated, position yourself in an advantageous position before any potential combat, and more importantly, dislocate the preferred environment of the opponents.
  • You can elicit support from allies, other people, or get the phone out of your pocket and dial 911 without hitting the send button yet.
  • You can determine which of the two opponents is the highest threat, and target any significant weaknesses of the opponent.

With the above scenario, you have been taking initiative without ever attacking and increased your probability of a better outcome than if you did nothing. You are already applying one of the three main methods of retaking the initiative from your opponent. You are mentally moving faster than your opponent and that leads to tactical speed. So, in answer to our third question, you do not have to attack first to have Initiative.

Because combat is dynamic and fluid, you are not always going to be in a position of maintaining the initiative. Your opponent may be faster, stronger, or have a particular technique that is very strong. You need to dislocate his strengths and apply yours to his weaknesses (Kyo) at the right time. There are several fundamental ways in which the Initiative (Sen) is recaptured during actual combat, and they all involve time. So now we can move on to the fourth question we have postulated about Initiative (Sen). How do we regain the initiative if we have lost it?

Budotheory.ca.

Excerpted from Budo Theory: Exploring Martial Arts Principles

by Richard Rowell.

Shinogi

“Peeling the Shinogi” – or – How the Sword Ridge Can Teach us to Block

Blocking - taking a deeper look

What is Blocking?

Have you ever considered what blocking is?  I mean really considered what you are trying to accomplish. Is there something beyond the obvious of not getting hit? Are there some common principles or logic that can help us appreciate all those blocks that we see in martial arts such as Karate, Aikido, Kendo, and Iaido.

I’m going start by using three analogies to look at the spectrum of blocking.

Blocking - static defenceWe’ll start with an asymmetrical engagement between a man with a bow and you being a strong castle with thick walls and high ramparts. Your walls can block the opponent’s attacks through sheer mass. An arrow hitting your stone walls will be lucky to make a small chip. In this case, your ability to take punishment is greater than the opponent’s ability to strike. This is one kind of block. This is attrition in military terms – the ability to take more punishment than the opponent. It is combat paid in full. In other words, you block with mass and then counterattack with your weapon. Mobility is not important.

Let’s move down the spectrum and place two opponents with equal offensive and defensive ability against each other. If each is capable of injuring the other with a punch or sword strike, then avoiding the opponent’s attack becomes more critical. Mobility and the approach to blocking become important.

But let’s change the scenario once more. Let’s give the opponent a very strong weapon, in this case, a high powered rifle. And let’s give you a shield made of thin plate steel that if hit squarely by your opponent’s bullet will penetrate and kill you. How do you block now? Mobility and approach to blocking become critical.

In the first scenario, we absorb the punishment and then counter with our own strike.
With the other two scenarios, we can take several approaches to blocking our opponent’s attack.

Understanding Dislocation

One approach is to make the opponent’s attack be in the wrong place or wrong direction. This is called in military science Positional Dislocation. By Shifting (Sabaki) out of the line of the attack, you dislocate the opponent’s attack.

A second approach is called Temporal Dislocation. This approach uses timing to pre-empt or change the tempo of the engagement and manipulates the time dimension to make the opponent’s strength irrelevant. In the martial arts, there are several timing types we use to create temporal dislocation including Initiative After the Intitiative (Go no Sen), Against the Initiative (Tai no Sen) and Initiative before the Initiative (Sen no Sen).

Typically we use both approaches in combination (body shifting and timing techniques). Nothing I have said so far is anything new. In fact, this is a classic example of how our understanding of Hard and Soft Methods (Juho and Goho) change as we increase our experience. In unarmed combat, blocking with a Hard approach tends to give us bruises on the arms and legs, the opponent’s technique bounces off our block only to be free to attack again. Using the Softer approaches of Shifting (Sabaki) and Timing (Hyoshi) we can dislocate the opponent’s attack and position ourselves in both space and time for a strong counterattack. This is the essence of Combining Hard and Soft (Ju Go Awase).

There is a third type of dislocation we can look at and that is Functional Dislocation – rendering the opponent’s strength dysfunctional by blocking or guiding the opponent’s attack. In the third scenario above, you could change the angle of your shield to deflect the bullet. Even though the shield would not take a direct hit, a glancing blow may deflect the bullet and allow you to survive and counter.

Blocking – Putting it All Together

So, what are we really trying to do when we block?  My answer:  we want to avoid getting hit, but equally important, gain tactical superiority by using all three dislocation methods were possible. I remember Sensei explaining that moving out of the line of the attack is blocking (positional dislocation), attacking can be blocking (in this case hastening contact with the opponent before he is ready e.g. Sen no Sen or Tai no Sen = temporal dislocation), and finally physical blocks that guide or trap the opponent and put him at disadvantage is also blocking (functional dislocation).

And this brings me to the concept of Shinogi.

Shinogi

Blocking - ShinogiThe word Shinogi has two Japanese homonyms (words sounding the same but with different meanings) that can give us an avenue to further explore the concept of blocking.

  • Shinogi can mean the ridgeline of a sword or blade.
  • Shinogi can also mean to endure, stave off, or pull thru—even to survive bad times.

So how do these two words allow us to explore the concept of blocking?

Blocking - ShinogiTo a beginner, a block is a reactive thing. Your opponent strikes and you react. We stick our sword out to meet his attack with little consideration of the blade—we just don’t want to get hit. If you use the cutting edge to block, your blade is going to become chipped and dull in very short order. As we gain experience, we learn to use the side of the blade (the Ridgeline or Shinogi) to deflect the opponent’s strike. Not only does it provide more surface area to catch an opponent’s strike, but it also preserves the offensive capability of your sword (the cutting edge).

Using the Shinogi

Leaving Positional and Temporal Dislocation to the side for now. Let’s examine aspects of Functional Dislocation using a block.

Catching the Attack

Blocking - different types

For a block to work we have to intercept the strike or attack somehow. So let’s look at an example that is the opposite of catching an attack. A modern fighter pilot does not want to “catch” an all aspect air-to-air missile. It will ruin his whole day. So what does he do?

When an enemy fighter fires a missile (think of this as the opponent punching or striking with a sword), the defending pilot immediately has to make it difficult for the attacker’s missile to hit him. The best way to do this is to make the tracking solution for the missile to be as complicated as possible. This means pulling as hard as you can into the missile so that you are at ninety degrees to the missile flight path (A). This makes it harder for the missile to hit. The pilot is using positional dislocation to defend against the missile. If you are familiar with Body Shifting (Tai Sabaki) this is a great example.

With blocking, you want to do the opposite. You want your arm or sword to intercept and make contact with the attack before it hits you. One way is to let it hit you or your blocking arm, surviving the hit, and then countering (B). Like our castle example above.

Another way is to cushion the attack (C). If you are a hockey player, one of the first things you learn in receiving a pass is that if you put your stick out stiffly, the puck hits your stick and bounces off, thereby making it more difficult to control the puck. You learn to give a little and cushion the pass in order to catch and control the puck. Another example would be tossing a water balloon up in the air and catching it. If you do not want the balloon to break, you catch the balloon more gently—giving in as you make contact.

A third approach would be to hit the attack as you sweep your block in front of you, making contact and deflecting it (D). Sweeping your arm across in front of you perpendicular to the attack is precisely the wrong approach because it maximizes the chance that you will miss contact (like our fighter pilot trying to avoid a missile A). Any miscalculation in timing results in you being hit. Most beginners try to hit the punch or strike out of the way in this manner, and may even be successful, but this approach does not ensure tactical control of our opponent. In unarmed forms of fighting such as Karate, this is no different. Our blocks meet the opponent’s punch with the aim of hitting the opponent’s arm out of the way, but as we learn rather quickly, if the opponent bounces off our block he is still free to continue his attack, sometimes with the same arm.

By angling the blocking surface as it sweeps across (or is stationed) in front of you maximizes the chance of you intercepting the attack and deflecting it (E) and gives longer control of the deflection.

Another approach is to use the width of the blocking object like the prow of a boat or wedge and force the water to either side allowing the boat to move forward with as little drag as possible (F). Using the Shinogi is like this.

There is a Japanese term “Shinogi o kezuru” to “peel the shinogi.” The phrase describes a closely fought contest between two opponents, but the idea is to use your sword so that the attacker’s sword glances alongside the Shinogi rather than meeting it straight on. The nice thing about using this type of thinking during blocking is that it can be done within the full spectrum between defense and offense. You can receive a strike completely defensively and let the strike angle off like rain hitting a roof and running down the eaves. It can also be used to deflect an attack as you attack. Like rowing your boat upstream—the water is deflected as you move forward.

Thinking about Shinogi gives you whole new ways to explore Kata and understanding of blocking beside avoiding being hit, such as:

  • Dislocating your opponent (positionally, temporally, or functionally),
  • How blocking can be used defensively and offensively,
  • Using blocks in combination with Shifting (Sabaki) and Timing (Hyoshi),
  • How Shinogi can be used to increase tactical control of the engagement, and finally,
  • How blocking be applied using both Hard and Soft Methods (Ju Go Awase).

Exploring the concept of Shinogi and learning to ‘Peel the Ridgeline” teaches us how to endure, pull through and tide over in many ways in and out of the Dojo.

Budotheory.ca

by Rick Rowell

One Inch Distance

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Life And Death in the Thickness of Paper.

by Rick Rowell

Distance - Life and death in the thickness of paper

In the duel between Miyamoto Musashi and Sasaki Kojiro made famous in the novel Musashi by Eji Yoshikawa, Musashi’s headband (hachimaki) was cut by Kojiro’s sword the same instant he killed Kojiro.

Kojiro may have died smiling, thinking he had cut Musashi.

Musashi, however, fully understood the concept of distance or Interval (Ma-ai) and its relation to time. Kojiro’s sword was a fraction of an inch too far away, but Musashi’s was not. As Kojiro was famous for the use of a longer sword, Musashi used a wooden sword carved from a boat oar—just a little bit longer.

The ability to judge the distance between your opponent within one inch or less can mean the difference between life and death.

There are a number of distance concepts used in the martial arts, but I am going to focus on two that are essentially the same principle and related:

    • Issun no Ma-ai – literally “One Sun Interval”. A sun is an old Distance - definition of SunJapanese unit of measurment a little over an inch long (1 sun = 3.03 cm). For the sake of clarity let’s translate it as “One Inch Interval”

 

  • Kami Shitoe – can be variously translated as “The difference in the thickness of a piece of paper,” hair’s breath, razor’s edge, paper thin, or nick of time.

The two ideas are essentially the same principle. To illustrate the principle, the figure below is a stylized overhead view of an attacker and defender. The person attacking is the black circle.

A. Shows two opponents facing each other from a slightly Toma (Far Interval ) distance—the starting position of the engagement.

B. Shows the defender maintaining the same distance from the attacker by shifting back at the same rate the attacker moves forward. Tactically this gains no advantage because it maintains the distance the defender will have to cross in order to counterattack. Any counterattack takes longer—because you have to cross a larger gap, and that takes time. A large spatial gap also gives your opponent the opportunity to re-take the initiative (Go no Sen) from you, or at the very least to strike you at the same time you strike him (Aiuchi, mutual striking). This type of movement (maintaining distance) can be useful if you are not ready to engage and want to remain at a safe distance outside the opponent’s Hitting Distance (Uchi no Ma-ai).

C. Shows the principle of “One Inch Interval” or “Difference in the Thickness of Paper.” Reducing distance by controlling movement backward to just outside the attacker’s range, means you are still a hair’s breadth out of range—in other words, safe. Tactically, you gain advantage because your counterattack does not have as far to go to reach the opponent and is hence faster.

D. Shows the same concept only by Shifting to the side or Entering (Sabaki or Irimi) and actually moving toward the attacker and just evading the attack by the “thickness of a piece of paper.” Tactically this makes the counterattack faster yet again.

Distance Concepts

The Issun no Ma-ai/Kami Shitoe concept can be used with any timing concept (Go no Sen, Tai no Sen, Sen no Sen) whether you block or not. The important aspect of this principle is that it is used to tactically retake initiative and make it very hard for your opponent to deal with a counterattack that is both compressed in time and space.

One Inch Distance (Issun no Ma-ai) is a critical concept in combat. It is not wasteful of time or distance, can be used with all timing approaches, and—no matter how strongly an opponent attacks, a miss is a still a miss. A miss by only one inch leaves you alive just as much as a miss by two feet, but the smaller miss leaves you in position to immediately exploit the opponent’s weakness (Kyo) that inevitably follows his missed attack.

Kami Shitoe is sometimes referred to as life on one side of the paper and death on the other and hence the idea of a razor’s edge between life and death.

Miyamoto Musashi in his book the book of five rings (Go Rin no Sho), written in the seventeenth century uses a very similar concept when he discusses the Spark of Flint Hit (Sekka no Atari to iu Koto).

“The ‘Spark of Flint’ means to strike with a great deal of force when the opponent’s long sword and yours are close enough to be barely touching, but without raising your long sword in the slightest. This means cutting quickly with hands, body and legs—all three cutting strongly. If you train enough you will be able to strike strongly.”

Musashi’s example shows how by lifting the hands the sword moves away from the opponent and increases the distance away from the opponent. Cutting immediately reduces time and distance, but you have to practice to become sufficiently strong enough to cut with force.

In unarmed martial arts such as Karate, the principle is no different. Moving just out of range of a punch or kick, then immediately countering is a common tactic in more experienced Budoka than in beginners.

The principle of minimizing or closing distance is as old as warfare, but you can challenge yourself to use this concept in other ways. Can you find examples in negotiation, hockey, formula one racing, or baseball?

The principle of “One Inch Interval”  or “The Difference in the Thickness of a Piece of Paper” can produce tactical advantage by manipulating time and space to stay just out of range of your opponents attack, and hastening contact with a counterattack.

There are many other distance and timing principles used in the martial arts.

Consider Budo Theory: Exploring Martial Arts Principles as a reference to learn more.