The History of Bassai

by Master Glen Smitts


        Bassai means not just fortress, but to breach or break the fortress. This is from several sources both Japanese and Okinawan. Bassai is an old form that has been practiced since the last century and most martial arts historians I have read or spoken with regarding it's origin say it probably was introduced to the Okinawan archipelago from China, as were many of the forms and techniques practiced on the islands.

       We can only guess at the meanings behind some of the names of the forms we practice. However, I do know one thing, and that is that the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, etc. almost never give something a name that has a literal translation. Names are almost always allegorical or metaphors, and to interpret them one needs to understand oriental history, religion, and philosophy to some degree.

       Oriental martial arts, medicine, literature, and art is very heavily influenced by it's religious philosophies. The Korean flag is an excellent example of this. The symbol on the flag is TaeGuek (Ta i Chi in Chinese) which translates to the Supreme Terminus or Grand Ultimate. It is the Um (Yin) and Yang symbol which in Taoist belief is the origin of all things. Surrounding this symbol are other symbols from the I Ching or "book of changes", a Taoist text used as a metaphysical guide to daily life for many oriental peoples, even today.

       Names of acupuncture points in Chinese medicine are another example. Large Intestine # 11, a point found on the lateral elbow, at the lateral end of the cubical crease, midway between the tendon of the biceps and the lateral epicondyle of the humerus, is called Qu Chi in Chinese Pin yin. This translated means "pool at the bend" which reminds us that in 5 elements theory this point is the water point of the Large Intestine channel, located near the bend of the elbow. In this case, the name gives one a clue as to the point's location. Other point's names give clues to their functions, and so on. However, not one of the 361 main meridian points is named as to their literal location or purpose.

      Most traditional, Asian, civilian martial arts in some way either directly or indirectly descend or were influenced by either Shaolin (Buddhist) or Wudang (Taoist) temple arts. In both Buddhism and Taoist theosophy, "the fortress" can symbolize the conscious mind. Forms were practiced not only for their self-defense and health giving values, but also as forms of meditation. Breaking the boundaries of the conscious mind is how one achieves enlightenment. In other words, diligent practice of a form such as Bassai over time should enable the practitioner to be able to transcend any mental and physical obstacles that would prevent him from using the movements instinctively and spontaneously if attacked. So, the practice of Bassai is a tool that could enable us to breach the walls of our mental and physical limitations in order to meet life's challenges.

For me, this has seemed a more credible rationale both in my own practice and in teaching my students than trying to come up with a way that the techniques in Bassai could be use to break through a castle portcullis!



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