Sutemi: Giving up something important to gain something vital

Sutemi is not a term that crops up in Shorinji Kempo very often and you won't find it in the fukudokuhon. However, as evidenced by David Dunn's recent article on hokei, that doesn't mean that it is not a vital element of practice and a fundamental characteristic of budo. Whilst sutemi may not be given explicit coverage in the day-to-day teachings of Shorinji Kempo, it should not be an alien concept. Kumite Shutai, a teaching with which most readers should be familiar, requires co-operative practice and mutual respect between training partners. This is one of the six characteristics of Shorinji Kempo and an understanding of sutemi is fundamental to its correct application.

Sutemi consists of two characters: 'suteru' is 'to give up', 'cast aside', or 'abandon', and 'mi', which means, 'body', but can be further interpreted to include 'spirit' and 'oneself'. Therefore, sutemi means "to give up", or "to abandon the body/oneself" - in a word - sacrifice! The dictionary interpretation is, "at the risk of one's life", which if viewed exclusively in the context of self-defence practice seems more than a little paradoxical. It should therefore be viewed in the wider context of budo, wherein paradox is necessarily the order of the day. In its fullest interpretation, sutemi means, "Self-abandonment". As such, it is the very Self - that subjective image of "I / Me" - that must ultimately be sacrificed. However, that particular aspect falls beyond the scope of this essay, which will look at the role of sutemi as an aid to practical, co-operative training. For the sake of simplicity, the examples used to illustrate this subject assume hokei to be the training environment in question, though sutemi applies equally to all training circumstances. To this extent, sutemi can be thought of as a strategy, an approach to learning, and a training attitude, and is hence woven throughout martial practice.


Students of Judo, Aikido and Jujutsu may be more familiar with the term since these styles (though not all schools) feature a range of techniques known collectively as sutemi-waza. These techniques are often referred to as "falling techniques" since the common feature is that the defender, whilst holding on to the attacker, falls to the floor in such a manner as to take the attacker's balance and throw him. Even in the absence of any familiarity with these techniques, you may already see that "falling" is insufficient as a descriptive term here. Sutemi-waza require an extremely keen sense of timing and balance. Having accurately read and judged the circumstances and manoeuvred into the correct position, at the moment of execution the defender is essentially sacrificing his secure position on the ground in order to perform the technique. If at that moment the defender has misjudged, he will be completely at the mercy of the attacker. In fact, some sutemi-waza require that the defender first allows him/herself to be thrown, but in doing so controls ukemi to the extent that they can execute a throwing technique of their own.

In this struggle for advantage, poker players may recognise this as "going all in". In deciding to implement a manoeuvre that requires sutemi, the defender is considering their position in the exchange and the degree to which they have control and at the moment of execution, is 'gambling' on a successful outcome. In short, it's a tactical move to gain advantage. However, it is unlikely that any practitioner will be able to develop this level of sensitivity unless they first employ sutemi as an approach to learning.

An approach to learning

It is not uncommon to struggle with a technique despite trying desperately to copy it exactly as shown. At such times it makes perfect sense to assume that something is missing and therefore endeavour to figure out what else it is that should be put in to it in order to make it work. Thereafter, it is most infuriating to discover that the more that goes in, the more firmly one becomes rooted to the spot. This is where sutemi as an approach to understanding is most valuable.

It is more often the case that in the application of techniques, particularly ju-ho waza that difficulties stem from what is not being taken out, rather than anything that might be missing - something needs to be sacrificed. The first thing that needs to go is any notion of having grasped what the technique requires by having seen it performed. Assuming that it is possible to know how a technique is supposed to be, by observing 'from the outside' is giving far too much credence to our visual perceptive abilities. There are aspects of every technique that simply defy visual observation or verbal description. Rather like reading a musical score, the novice may be able to gain an impression but is not able to fully 'hear' the piece as intended by the composer until they begin to play. This ability improves with experience, but that experience is gained from playing, not reading. Likewise, the 'secrets' of technique lie within direct experience 'from within' and the practitioner can avoid a great deal of anguish by first discarding the notion that seeing is enough.

Most practitioners are familiar with repetitive insistence of their sensei to "relax!" To relax is in every sense to let go. In an immediate practical sense, it is to let go of the tension, force and resistance that are typical characteristics of a technique going wrong. In a wider sense it means to abandon the preconceptions and intuitions that insist that these elements are required. For the defender this rigid, confrontational posture (in both physical and mental terms) gives rise to the application of forceful resistance. It stems from an entirely natural, but overwhelmingly reflexive desire for self-protection. Embedded within this is the intuitive belief that the strength and determination of an attack must be met with the same, in equal or superior measure. In this sense, the application of sutemi means abandoning those intuitions and reflexes, which by default means sacrificing the instinctive impulse towards self-protection.

This may at first sight seem preposterous. However, a closer look at the elements involved should bring some clarity. Sutemi is to sacrifice the (reflexive) need to protect one's self so that it might be replaced with a (purposive) decision to protect one's self. It is often commonly observed that martial practice seeks to 'improve reflexes'. It is helpful to reflect on what a reflex actually is. In psychological terms, a reflex is "an unlearned or instinctive response to a stimulus" and in physiological terms, "an involuntary response to a stimulus". The defining characteristics here are "unlearned" and "involuntary". If the thought of abandoning your natural instincts for survival horrifies you, think for a moment how natural and instinctive it is to fall to the ground and curl up in a foetal position under a hail of blows. In terms of improving reflexes, in martial training the objective should be to replace unlearned, involuntary reflexes with learned, appropriate responses - in short, to substitute reflexive reactions with purposive actions. Since these stem from the impulsive, innate predisposition towards self-protection, it is this that must be sacrificed.

A co-operative learning environment allows for safe exploration of this and if successful, the practitioner will be able to escape the reflexive determination to meet force with opposing force. What remains is direct, visceral experience of all those elements of technique that defy visual observation and verbal description. These non-verbal lessons are key to a deeper understanding of technique and sutemi is key to their access. Assuming all goes well, when those invisible, unspoken elements become clear, the practitioner may find satisfaction at having grasped the technique. It is here we discover what is perhaps the most important manner in which sutemi serves as an approach to productive learning.

For most practitioners, getting to grips with techniques is an up-hill struggle. From time to time the patience and effort pays off and we find ourselves on a level plane, justifiably pleased with the progress made. At times like these the temptation to decide that, beyond a little polishing, there is nothing more to be learned, is an attractive one. The tendency towards this attitude will frequently manifest in the behaviour of practitioners when presented with alternative and apparently contradictory ways of performing the same technique by other seniors. The temptation to say, "Well, that's not the way I was shown - I'm going to stick to what I know" is strong. It becomes even more so when the 'new' approach proves difficult to grasp and the overwhelming feeling is one of taking great strides in the wrong direction. By resisting change in this way, practitioners are hanging on to what is a demonstrably limited understanding and as a consequence simply stifling their own growth. We tend to find many ways to justify this stance, usually based on the justifications offered by our own teacher for doing the technique "their way". However, this alternative does not have to be presented by a new teacher. Mizuno Sensei often turns the tables on his own senior kenshi and chastises them because their technique is "kyu-grade level". This does not imply that the technique is wrong, or not good enough. In fact, when these particular bombs are dropped, it's a fairly safe bet that the kenshi performing the technique is doing so exactly according to Mizuno Sensei's original instructions. This kind of intervention is designed to enable senior practitioners to advance beyond their existing level. This advancement rarely takes the form of a new 'trick' or a simple modification to the existing application. More often than not it means that the senior kenshi in question will have to sacrifice the notion of having understood the technique at all (and probably a whole slew of others besides) and the feeling of security that comes with it, in order to benefit from the new instruction. In such situations the understanding and considered application of sutemi is crucial.

Thus far, sutemi can be seen as a measure taken to clear the way for the inward flow of new understanding and its further application can be seen to do likewise for improved understanding. Outwardly, kenshi should demonstrate their understanding of sutemi in their attitude to training.

An attitude to training

Experience suggests that the vast majority of Shorinji kenshi have an extremely good attitude towards training. Practice between partners is typically characterised by a high degree of consideration and respect and a mutual desire to learn. This is not always the case elsewhere. In other schools of martial practice where the ego is entertained at the expense of safe practice and justified on the basis of 'toughening up the student', it is clear that the practitioners have no concept of sutemi. However, having said this, whilst most Shorinji kenshi may not be given to violence, there is still considerable room for a deeper consideration of sutemi as an attitude towards practice.

How many times have you found that despite your best efforts during juji gote, your partner seems to have an unbendable arm? What about the interminable wrestling and fumbling that ensues when your partner's hand comes loose whilst trying to perform kiri gote? How many times have you performed uwa uke geri and stubbed your toes on the forearm of your training partner because they are protecting sui-getsu whilst delivering the attack? How many times have you found your training partners falling to the floor the moment before you apply jo-haku dori? Despite the overwhelmingly co-operative and good-natured attitude of kenshi as a whole these are all common examples of training without sutemi. The key characteristic in these situations is the attacker's tendency towards avoidance at the expense of productive practice. Having said that, it would be wrong to judge too quickly because the above examples fall into two distinct categories. In the first of these, what appears to be wilful resistance is actually quite the opposite.

Thanks to a hugely complex array of nerve endings, receptors and 'hard-wired' responses that combine to provide a system of sensory awareness known as 'proprioception', many of the things human bodies do in response to techniques happen automatically, below the level of consciousness. Receptors on the tendons, joints and muscles continually monitor the levels of stress and tension and induce certain bodily responses - without recourse to conscious processes - designed to limit or avoid damage when levels approach or get beyond normal operating standards. Whilst much of juho-waza depends on taking advantage of such responses, proprioception frequently interferes with the proper application of techniques. Depending on the technique, this may be manifested by such responses as releasing a grip, straightening or bending of the arm, twisting or dropping of the shoulder or a step to regain balance. These movements will hinder and frustrate efforts to apply techniques because that is precisely what they are designed to do - these proprioceptive responses are the body's means of maintaining balance and protecting itself against injury. In situations such as these, the application of sutemi is for the attacker to become aware of these natural responses and, for the sake of productive practice, suspend them. In short, it is important to 'hear' what your body is telling you to do so that you can ignore it, and sacrifice yourself to the inevitable pain and discomfort of the technique.

Of course, at first sight this too seems ridiculous. Not only does it fly in the face of millions of years of evolution, how can we possibly expect Shorinji Kempo self-defence techniques to be reliable and realistic, if they rely on the co-operative, self-sacrificing attitude of the attacker? Surely, they should work regardless of how the attacker responds. This is often the argument put forward by individuals understandably uncomfortable with the idea of ignoring the genetic common sense of their bodies. The simple answer is that Shorinji Kempo techniques do work. An experienced practitioner need not rely on the co-operative attitude of an attacker in order for a technique to be successful. However, no practitioner ever became so proficient without the co-operative, self-sacrificing assistance of a training partner. More importantly, no practitioner ever gained the sensitive understanding of how techniques are supposed to work without fully and repeatedly sacrificing him/herself to them in the first place.

Proprioceptive responses are designed to provide the body with an immediate means of maintaining balance and protecting itself without having to waste time consulting 'the ghost in the machine' for advice. These responses can differ significantly from one individual to the next and as one advances through the grades one becomes more comprehensively aware of the appropriate measures already built into the Shorinji Kempo syllabus designed to deal with these. However, few techniques are totally immune to the vagaries of proprioceptive responses and even fewer practitioners are capable of assimilating all these possibilities into their practice en masse. Therefore, for the sake of steady, productive and comprehensive learning, resisting the spontaneous urges that interfere with the application of a technique is crucial in order allow your partner the opportunity to practice it and allow yourself to fully experience its intent. With this in mind, it is essential to know the difference between unconscious proprioceptive responses and wilful avoidance, or unrealistic resistance, which brings us to the second category.

Clearly, anyone who voluntarily and repeatedly submits themselves to a profoundly painful experience (in the absence of any pre-existing predilection) is going to have the fathers of behavioural psychology spinning in their graves. Classical conditioning experiments gave us the law of effect, which essentially states that: "responses having unfavourable consequences will be avoided"! The aforementioned scientists may rest easier knowing that in martial practice, this is all too often the case.

Once you've experienced the likes of juji-gote or jo-haku-dori it's entirely natural that repeating the experience isn't the first thing on your mind. However, since that's absolutely what's required, the next natural step is to work out how to repeat it without the 'unfavourable consequences'. That's when one of two things generally happens. Firstly, the attacker anticipates the pain, capitulates, and falls to the floor like a ton of bricks before it starts. In this instance, precognition and calculated avoidance renders the whole process unrealistic and irrelevant. More importantly, since the technique is never actually applied or received, neither training partner will learn anything from the experience. Training simply becomes an unproductive dance around how techniques should work and how to avoid the consequences of them doing so.

Within the same category, an alternative is for the attacker to limit the extent to which they commit to the attack and hold everything in reserve for a solid resistance. In this instance, the complete absence of any real threat alone once again renders the exchange pointless. More importantly, the resistance relies on knowing what the defender is trying to do before they actually make the attempt. This is in direct contrast to resistance in response (proprioceptive or otherwise) to the technique itself. If challenged, kenshi adopting this attitude will often revert to the "Shorinji Kempo should be able to deal with it" argument. Once again, the simple answer to this is that it does. So, for the same reasons as stated above, it is only by sacrificing oneself to the technique that both partners are able to learn.

The examples given so far relate to juho-waza but much the same attitude can stymie the practice of goho-waza. The element of kyo-jitsu demonstrates that a committed attack is characterised by the fact that it provides an opportunity for a counter - anything that does not lacks commitment. Therefore during hokei practice, protecting sui-getsu or performing hikimi whilst delivering tsuki-waza simply extinguishes any commitment and renders the attack and therefore the entire exchange, unrealistic. In addition to showing a wholly unrealistic appreciation of kihon-waza and the five elements of atemi, this approach shows a profound lack of consideration for your partner's progress thereby demonstrating an equally scant understanding of Kumite Shutai. In order for both to learn, the attacker must demonstrate sutemi by sacrificing all selfish notions of self-protection which lead to avoidance - quite literally giving up their body to the betterment of their training partner.

The roots of this latter form of resistance are found in the motive for self-protection. Another form of resistance, almost indistinguishable from this, is firmly rooted in the ego. It is in this area that we begin to see the ultimate function of sutemi.

The ego

Dishwashers. Perhaps one of mankind's greatest advancements, these electronic beasts of burden are designed to tackle a vast range of mealtime detritus left on a variety of domestic utensils. This for the most part, they do with consummate ease. Whilst the general principles of automatic dishwashing are not particularly difficult to grasp, they are nevertheless of sufficient technical complexity to ensure that few of us would be capable of designing, let alone building our own. However, it doesn't take a Nobel Prize winner to work out how to push said appliances to their limits whilst remaining within the general parameters of use. Fill a dishwasher with filthy engine parts for example and it won't be long before the limitations of its abilities are reached and decisively exceeded. Does the person doing this demonstrate any deeper understanding of its design? Can he say with any authority that the design is flawed or that the manufacturer is delinquent? Of course, not. It should therefore be puzzling to observe that with equally basic familiarity, some individuals assume they can do so with Shorinji Kempo techniques. We need not be experts in the design of household appliances to overwhelm and frustrate their efforts, and doing so does not make us so. Similarly we need not be martial arts masters to do the same for techniques and despite the fact that doing so will not make us so, the temptation for some to delude themselves in this way is almost irresistible.

Any kyu-grade kenshi with basic experience of gyaku-gote can - if they so choose - make its correct application difficult for even experienced yudansha. Prior knowledge of how the technique is supposed to work and perhaps the willingness to risk a bit of pain and discomfort is all that is needed. In goho-waza nailing a training partner with a punch or a kick is a simple task given prior knowledge of what technique they're trying to practice and which way they're likely to dodge. It would be ridiculous to use a dishwasher to clean engine parts on the basis that, "it's supposed to clean stuff" and criticise its designer when it all goes wrong. So, is it any less ridiculous to expect Shorinji Kempo techniques to work under similarly extreme and unrealistic conditions based on the justification that the training partner is, "supposed to be able to deal with it"? Just as household appliances are designed to be maximally efficient in dealing with very particular circumstances, so too are Shorinji Kempo techniques. Dishwashers are not built to clean engine parts and Shorinji Kempo techniques are not designed to deal with uncommitted, unrealistic attacks from calculating, precognisant assailants with a point to prove. In reality, assailants such as this simply do not exist and neither therefore, does this kind of attack.

The fact that a combative exchange is by definition a competitive exchange does not mean that in practice the attacker is required to outwit the defender - since the defender's movements are already known, this is not exactly a difficult task and proves nothing. Practitioners indulging in such activities can offer a number of justifications for doing so, usually claiming that by manipulating the circumstances they are introducing some degree of realism otherwise absent from the necessarily complicit nature of regular training. Expecting the defender to be able to deal with such a situation is assuming that they are gifted with some remarkable faculty that will match the precognisant advantage of the attacker. As already explained, such circumstances simply do not exist in reality. The attacker is simply required to provide the prescribed attack with sincerity and commitment and nothing more. Notice here, that 'sincerity' includes all that it implies: genuine, honest, truthful, straightforward, unequivocal, wholehearted - without guile, calculation, deception or pretence. This list of synonyms and antonyms is not exhaustive, but the application of sutemi requires that the individual's interpretation must be. Any desire or misguided sense of obligation to bring anything else to the exchange other than that which is prescribed* must be abandoned. If sutemi is applied to training, it is the preconceptions and opinions that lead to drawing such unrealistic conclusions - the sense of knowing better, of being better, and the need to demonstrate it - that will be sacrificed.

Remaining questions

Perhaps thankfully, it is here, where the ultimate purpose of sutemi no kokoro or "the spirit of sacrifice" begins to become clear, that this piece must close. Whilst I've tried to keep the number of loose ends to a minimum, the foregoing has probably raised several unanswered questions. Among these will be the fact that as illustrated here sutemi has many implications for relationships in the dojo and as a consequence, the aspect of trust is probably conspicuous by its absence. This, and a number of threads that do appear, including issues such as intuitions, preconceptions, preferences, desires, opinions, etc. and the general issue of renunciation as opposed to acquisition will be further elaborated upon in the following essays. For the moment, these thoughts can be treated as a general guide to daily practice for when things start going wrong, when techniques defy attempts to master them and when training becomes a chore rather than a challenge. At such times it is helpful to consider what is being retained and whether or not it can be sacrificed for the greater good. Essentially, whether or not you are truly approaching training "as plainly and naively as infants".

George Hyde
3rd-dan, Branch Master, UCLU Dojo
13 June 2003

*The astute among you will no doubt note that the practice of some techniques requires resistance/avoidance. In such cases, this resistance is prescribed and should therefore be executed with the same sincere attitude.

With thanks to Melita Rowley for explaining the kanji, and to David Dunn for many helpful discussions.

Last modified: Sunday, 09 Feb 2014 11:50:24 PM

Latest news

April 2018