Saturday, April 21, 2018

As Years Go By…

by Phillip Starr

    In a conversation with an old and dear friend (who, like me, is a long-time martial arts instructor) I asked about several of our mutual martial arts friends.  I inquired about their health, their families, and whether they were still involved in practicing or teaching martial arts.  I was saddened to learn that quite a number of them no longer practice the disciplines that they once embraced; it seems that once they were no longer able to participate in the sporting aspect of the arts, they’d lost interest in them.  And since I lean towards the philosophical side of life, it got me to thinking…

     Most martial arts enthusiasts are rather young, not having yet reached what we call “middle age.”  I don’t have the demographics on this subject but I’d bet that younger children and teens make up the vast majority of today’s martial arts practitioners.  The next largest chunk would be taken up by those who have not yet reached their 35th or 40th birthdays.  And the numbers dwindle dramatically after that…

     The conversation with my friend got me to thinking about the different paths that martial arts enthusiasts travel.  For most, the path is very short.  They practice for a while – some as few as a week or two and others as long as several months or even years – and then they fizzle out.  For one reason or another, they lose interest.  Oh, they come up with some pretty creative excuses but what matters is that they gave up.  You know, it’s okay if you lose interest; it’s perfectly alright if you find that there are other things you’d rather do than throw punches and kicks, and gasp, and bleed.  There’s no need to make up some kind of bizarre story.  Just tell it like it is.

     But the fact is that the vast majority of martial arts devotees just fade away into the sunset, never to be heard from again.  It’s always been that way, and always will.

     For others, it was fun so long as they could enjoy the art as a sport.  They enjoyed the rush of competition, the give and take of a good match.  But life has a way of putting an end to this aspect of martial arts.  It’s called AGE.  And when these folks could no longer compete due to age or any number of other things (such as lack of tournaments in their area), they pooped out.

     Some turned to teaching but even then, for many of them it became little more than a business enterprise.  They no longer trained themselves; the almighty buck became their new sensei or sifu and their love of the martial arts turned bland and sterile.  The objective no longer had anything to do with self-development; instead, it became focused around making money.  Their art and their spirits died for the sake of better business.

     I considered all of this and decided that these people had never really been true martial arts practitioners.  They might have once thought that that was what they wanted but they couldn’t stand the gaff and they quit.

     There are few things in this world that are worse than false teachers, especially false martial arts teachers.  Certainly, age robs us of some of our youthful abilities – I can no longer kick as fast, jump as high, stand as low, or look as pretty as I could when I was a few decades younger – but what counts is that I keep trying.  If I don’t train on my own, how can I expect my students to train on their own?

     Too often I hear older martial arts enthusiasts cry about aching backs, knees, or whatever.  Actually, quite a number of them have not yet reached their 50th birthdays…and they use excuses like aches and pains as reasons for not training.

     Get real.  Don’t you think that the martial arts masters of generations past suffered with the same problems?  Of course, they did!  The difference is that they absolutely wouldn’t give up.  Period.

     And, unlike so many of our current “older” martial arts practitioners who train (minimally) just to maintain health and stay in some semblance of good shape, the practitioners of former generations continued trying to improve their skills even into old age!

     Gichin Funakoshi practiced perfecting his punch while sitting up on his deathbed just one day before he passed away!  Tatsuo Shimabuku suffered from malnutrition as a child and developed beriberi for a time.  This left one leg slightly shorter and weaker than the other.  Kicking with that leg would have been very painful.  If you watch videos of him doing kata, you can’t tell which leg was deformed!

     Bruce Lee was born with one leg shorter than the other and he frequently wore an insert in one shoe.  But you can’t tell which leg was malformed by watching films of him performing his techniques.

     These men and many others like them refused to sit back and whine about their problems.  And they weren’t content to just try to stay “fit.”  They were constantly striving to improve themselves.  And that’s what martial arts is all about.

     It’s not about trophies, making lots of money, or just doing enough exercise to maintain fairly good health.  It’s a thing of the spirit.  It’s about a continual striving towards self-perfection.

Saturday, August 26, 2017


by Phillip Starr

In traditional Japanese swordsmanship there is a poem that tells us,

"To strike the opponent you must have your own skin cut;
To break the opponent's bones you must be cut to the flesh;
To take the opponent's life you must have your own bones broken."

The famous Japanese swordsman, Yagyu Jubei Mitsuyoshi (first son of Yagyu Tajima No Kami Munenori, who was head swordmaster for the Tokugawa shogunate) said, "The different between victory and defeat lies within the distance of one 'sun'." A "sun" is known an Chinese as a "tsun" (or "cun", in Pinyin). It is the measurement of the body inch used by acupuncturists and is generally found by bending the middle finger and measuring the distance between the fold of the first and second knuckles.

It's pretty darned small.

A story is told of a duel in which Jubei participated. The challenger was a samurai of a daimyo whom Jubei was visiting and he asked for a lesson with bokken (wooden swords). Although such "lessons" could easily result in serious injuries, Jubei agreed. Once the swordsmen squared off, the action was quick and the two fighters seemed to strike at each other simultaneously. It was impossible for anyone to really tell who won. The challenger asked for another chance and it was provided, but with the same outcome. Members of the audience swore that the duel had ended in a "hikiwake" (a tie) but Jubei told them that they were unable to discern the true timing of his stroke.

His opponent then demanded that they have another go at it but with shinken (live swords). Jubei tried to talk him out of it but the young man would have none of it. Thereupon, they had at it one more time but this time the challenger's kimono was soaked with blood as he backed away. He collapsed, dead on the spot. Jubei's sleeve had been cut and he suffered a slight wound from his opponent's sword. It was then that he uttered his famous saying about the distance between life and death being no wider than one "sun."

Author Dave Lowry refers to this as "yuyo", which is, I think, called "yaoyan" in Chinese. It means roughly, "critical distance"...the distance between life and death, the very essence of timing and distance (which are actually the same thing). It is mastery of real technique.

If you want to see yaoyan in action, don't go to the next karate, kung-fu, or taekwondo tournament. You won't find it there. In those fiascos, one never sees truly refined, masterful technique. In fact, you'll not see it very often in today's martial arts schools (an unfortunate fact, but true).

However, if you chance upon a traditional school and observe well-trained students practicing three-step or one-step fight, you may get a chance to witness it. The attacker will fire his technique with absolute precision, aiming to just touch the receiver. However, the receiver will shift and execute a defensive maneuver or technique at the last possible moment and fire out his own counter-technique, which, although it is delivered with maximum destructive power, will stop just short of contact. It is directed at a specific target and its timing will be flawless. The attacker, putting complete trust in his training partner, will make no attempt to block or evade the counter-attack. He might blink, but he won't move because to do so might cause him to step into the blow and, even worse, it would show his partner that he doesn't trust him or have much faith in his skill.

Those who have refined this technique even further are capable of applying it during freestyle one-step and freestyle sparring practice.

This is becoming a real rarity nowadays, especially since the advent of the padded mittens and footies that are worn by many, if not most, contemporary martial arts practitioners. Wearing pads and other such protective devices not only inhibits the development of this fine skill, it encourages participants to use brute, uncontrolled technique. Since they're wearing armor they're not overly concerned with running into their partner's attack (and remember - he's wearing pads, too...). Real martial skill goes right down the stool in the name of safety.

I say, "get a grip." It should be understood from the outset that engaging in a vigorous martial arts program is likely to result in many minor injuries (split lips, black eyes, bruises, strawberries, and the like) and the very real possibility of serious ones. It's simply the nature of the beast. I have never used protective gear in my schools and I've been teaching martial arts for almost 40 years. To this day, I've never had a student seriously injured. Not once. It's simply a matter of proper training with the right attitude.

Sunday, July 30, 2017


by Phillip Starr

Although the term, "kung-fu" (also, "gongfu"), serves as a generic term for Chinese martial arts, use of the term in that regard is actually a misnomer. As most of you already know, "kung-fu" refers to a fine, high level of skill that is developed over a period of time through hard work. Thus, "kung-fu" can actually be applied to any martial discipline as well as many other activities that require rigorous and regular practice over a period of time.

Throughout the Orient it is understood by most persons who endeavor to train in any martial form that substantial skill cannot be acquired quickly and any teacher who promises otherwise is nothing more than a charlatan whose main interest (and skill) lies in separating a student's money from his wallet. At the same time, there are those who come from the other end of the spectrum and insist that students must practice this or that training routine (and pay for it every month, of course) for an extraordinarily long period of time if he or she hopes to acquire a high level of skill.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle and students must be careful about selecting a good teacher.

In the West we are accustomed to things being accomplished fairly quickly. We have microwaveable meals (which aren't really food....), instant entertainment (just turn on the television), quick diets (which don't work), and so on. When we want something, we want it NOW. When martial arts were first introduced to the West, a number of enterprising instructors realized that a great deal of money could be made by short-cutting training routines and providing forms of "instant martial arts." My own teacher envisioned this happening although his young pupil (moi) just couldn't see it coming down the pike. But it arrived like a thunderbolt and it's here to stay.

No doubt, some of the old, traditional training routines were extremely tedious but they were necessary for the development of genuine martial skill (as opposed to what is presented nowadays as being martial skill). Westerners, being the way they are, sought to find short-cuts through much of what they regarded as "unnecessary, old-fashioned, unrealistic" training. Many honestly believed that they had found ways to shorten the training process but the truth is much different.

My teacher likened the process to making tea. To make tea the old way takes time and any attempt at hurrying the process will only ruin the drink. To be sure, we now have "instant tea" but my teacher couldn't stand the taste of it. There's tea and then there's tea.

Even so, most of those who have undertaken the study of a traditional martial discipline with the understanding that it's going to take time to develop real skill will still often catch themselves "shaving corners" and trying to take "big steps." Such attempts at hurrying the training process and the evolution of genuine skill almost always result in frustration and/or injury.

I knew one young man who wanted to develop large callouses of his punching knuckles. He beat the living bejeezus out of his striking post (which was incorrectly made and was akin to hitting a tree) and mangled his hands...he didn't realize that hardening the hands is NOT the primary objective of training with this particular device, and he finally had to give it up. Of course, he then argued that training with the post was "old-fashioned", unnecessary, and unrealistic.

Another fellow dreamed of being able to execute his form with the same precision, grace, and power as his teacher. He trained his form for 2-3 hours every day, suffering pulled muscles as well as numerous other minor injuries. He ultimately gave up, insisting that forms were "old-fashioned", unnecessary, and unrealistic.

And yet another student envied the uncanny fighting skill of his seniors. He dreamed of becoming an invincible warrior and practiced shadow-boxing and sparring incessantly. When he engaged in sparring practice he often went at it with a bit too much power and the wrong mind-set (he was determined to "win"), so, of course, he often went home with bruises, cracked ribs, black eyes, and many other booboos. He finally gave up, saying that traditional training was "old-fashioned", unnecessary, and unrealistic.

Progress in real martial arts comes in what I call "baby steps"; little steps that are sometimes too small to even measure or notice right away. Regular practice is essential. After all, a toddler will never learn to walk if he or she only tries to do it once in a while. So, if you train (at home) just every now and then, you can be assured that you're getting nowhere. On the other hand, if you're training at home 3 days a week or more and you're taking your time (taking "baby steps"), you can be confident that you're developing genuine skill - and if you keep at it long enough you'll develop real "kung-fu."

Thursday, July 20, 2017


by Phillip “Pete” Starr

Many years ago, I used to write articles about various aspects of the martial arts and send them out to my senior students. Along with those articles, I included a number of anecdotes involving my teacher and me. After some time, one of my students suggested that I collect such anecdotes and put them into book form.

I considered his suggestion; I remembered so many stories and valuable lessons about both martial arts and life from my teacher! Maybe, just maybe...people nowadays would enjoy learning these same lessons! They could actually learn from my teacher!!! I thought that would certainly be a great opportunity, so I set about writing my first book, THE MAKING OF A BUTTERFLY.

Memories flooded my mind. I tried to select anecdotes with a special lesson(s) included. In this way, my teacher could still speak to those willing to listen and learn. Of the five books I've authored, it's still my favorite!

*Available on and fine bookstores.

Monday, May 29, 2017


by Phillip Starr

I would hope that the majority of my readers would be more than a little familiar with the basic forms of etiquette that are typically practiced within the training hall. Students line up prior to the start of class, bow to the instructor, and then begin the training session. The same thing is done at the conclusion of the training period. Most of the participants don't give it much of a second thought. It's simply a way of “showing respect” to the teacher; an “Eastern oddity” that is practiced more as a form of tradition and simple courtesy than anything else. It requires no more than a few seconds, anyway. No big deal. it?

To the average person, such quaint customs are nothing more than polite gestures that they are expected to learn and then regurgitate at the appropriate time. Usually, they are devoid of any real substance; they are regarded as old-fashioned, cultural oddities that were developed and practiced by our ancestors. However, to the bugeisha (a person who practices the traditional martial ways of the East), they are much more than that. Much. More.

For instance, let's take the beginning of class. Students are ordered to line up. Their lines should be straight and students adopt the position of “readiness.” In some schools, the most senior student (who may assist the instructor) stands off to one side at a right angle to the students and the instructor. Your stance should never look limp or sloppy. Your uniform should be neat and clean. Your body, mind, and spirit are held in a state of readiness. It is a preparation for learning, a preparation to face yourself. Your eyes should be directed straight ahead but peripheral vision must be maintained. You should not shift their eyes from side to side or turn your head. You remain focused on your instructor.

At this point, some schools have the students and the instructor perform a standing bow. Others, particularly Japanese disciplines, order students to kneel down (and yes, there is a special way of doing this) in the position of seiza with the feet tucked under the buttocks. Beginners will find this position more than a little uncomfortable but they must avoid any display of discomfort. To do so is to show that one's spirit is weak and in a martial arts school this is entirely unacceptable.

In Japanese schools the command of “mokuso!” is uttered by the instructor. Students sit quietly with their backs straight and their eyes almost shut. Many people refer to this as a period of meditation prior to the beginning of class but this is incorrect. Rather, it is a period of quiet introspection. It is way of leaving your mental and emotional “baggage” at the door so that it will not interfere with training and your ability to learn. It is a time for focusing on what you want to achieve during this particular class. You “clean” yourself and prepare to receive instruction.

After a short time, the teacher may turn to the front of the school (with his back to the students) and they all perform a formal kneeling bow to the front of school. He then turns to face the students again and they exchange bows to show respect for each other.

As with everything else in the training hall, there is a proper way to execute the standing and kneeling bows. For instance, I remember when I first received instruction in this ancient tradition. We were told that even when bowing, one must not take one's eyes off the opponent (or whomever one is bowing to). Thus, we craned our necks and rolled our eyes upwards when we bowed so as to keep our partners in view. As you might expect, my instruction came from a Westerner who didn't clearly understand how the proper bow is to be done. The first time I did this in front of a Japanese instructor, I was quickly corrected. To crane one's neck and raise the eyes as I was doing is considered very rude because it demonstrates an obvious mistrust of the person(s) to whom one is bowing. Rather, the neck is kept aligned with the back and the eyes are are allowed to drift slightly upwards (without raising the eyebrows) so as to allow a reasonably full view of the other person.

And of course, all movements must be performed from the tanden (in Chinese, dantien) so as to permit complete control over one's body at all times. Moving from this area, which is located about three finger-widths below the navel, not only grants full control over one's physical movements but it also affects one's mental and spiritual stability as well.

Regardless of procedure or the culture from which a given martial form originated, this act of exchanging bows is extremely important. In my opinion, it is vital to maintaining the spirit of the class because it sets the “tone” of the class and reminds us that we are about to engage in the practice of a special Eastern custom whose roots reach back to antiquity. Although not a drop of Eastern blood may course through our veins, we are links in a chain of a very special tradition and it is crucial that we keep that tradition intact so that it can be bequeathed to the next generation in its entirety.

I lived in China which, contrary to what many Westerners believe, is not “the land of bowing.” Japanese culture emphasizes bowing as a form of courtesy; Chinese culture does not. Thus, Chinese martial arts instruction generally does not begin with any kind of formal bowing. The lack of such “old-fashioned formalities” is readily apparent and it is my opinion that it has a negative impact on their training.

A formal training period concludes in much the same manner. Students line up and, in the case of most Japanese martial traditions, kneel down and the command of “mokuso!” is repeated. Students will take a few seconds to consider what they have learned and prepare themselves to re-enter their daily lives. The teacher and students then exchange bows. Students then rise and again adopt the position of “readiness” before being dismissed.

Alright”, you say. “So, this is part and parcel of a martial arts class. It's a cute ritual but what has it got to do with living in the modern world? And the answer is, “More than you suspect.” Discipline and control are two of the key elements.

In this regard, discipline has to do with proper conduct and perhaps more importantly, self-control. The two go hand in hand and they are very important ingredients if you expect to enjoy a successful, satisfying life. These virtues are easy enough to nurture when you're healthy and in good spirits but the real test lies in your ability to cultivate them when you're not feeling well. After all, anyone can maintain a fair level of self-control when they're feeling “up” but it's another story when they're angry, frightened, frustrated, discouraged, depressed, or in pain. Learning to preserve your composure under such adverse conditions requires a fair measure of discipline and is one of the objectives of your training.

The discipline and control that are developed in the training hall should be carried over into your daily life where it will affect everything that you do, from how you stand up and sit down to how you drink your morning coffee, cook up some pasta, and even how you brush your hair. Of course, it also impacts the larger, more dynamic elements of your life such as how your perform your job and the relationship you have with everyone who walks into your world; your co-workers, your boss, your spouse, your friends, family, and ultimately...yourself.

And it all started with what seemed to be a simple bow.

Thursday, May 25, 2017


by Phillip “Pete” Starr

     When I was finishing my first book, “The Making Of A Butterfly”, I asked my literary agent about the odds of finding a publisher who might be interested in it. He chuckled. “Authors often worry a lot about whether or not they'll find a publisher who will accept their work. The truth is that publishers are always on the look out for good writers! They need you as much as you need them.” As years passed and I published more books, I realized the truth of his words. I now pass them to aspiring authors.

The same thing is true of martial arts teachers and students. Students seek instructors who are eminently qualified. At the same time, good martial arts teachers are looking for students who have what it takes to learn what they teach. This is a terribly difficult task, much moreso than the student's search for a good instructor.

     At the time that I wrote this, I lived in southern China. To be quite frank, real martial arts in China are, for all intents and purposes, dead. Anyone who says differently is either lying or has never lived here. There is a tiny handful of teachers who are skilled in the authentic martial ways still alive, but they are as rare as hen's teeth. I was recently contacted by another American who's presently living in the nightmare of Beijing. He's been here for quite a number of years and has been training with an older gentleman who is likely one of (or perhaps, the) highest authorities on the Yin style of baguazhang.

     The teacher is on the wrong side of eighty and his health is beginning to fail. My friend tells me that he's not sure how much longer his teacher will be with us. This highly knowledgeable instructor has only four students and two of them are foreigners! How sad. My friend sighs and says that his teacher has a great wealth of knowledge but because of the lack of dedicated pupils, he'll probably take much of it with him to his grave. This how martial arts systems slowly die out.

     My old friend, Master Seiyu Oyata (dec.), a 10th dan in Ryukyu kempo, had a similar story. As a young man, he had learned tui-te from the legendary Chojun Miyagi. It was, he was told, the form of tui-te that belonged to the Miyagi clan (of which he was actually a member, but that's a story for another time). Oyata said the only other form of tui-te that he knew of was from the family of Motobu. There were three Motobu brothers, the youngest of which was Choki. The two older brothers disapproved of Choki's penchant for fighting and wouldn't teach him the family tui-te system. Instead, they passed it down to one of their students whose family name was Uyehara. When I first met Master Oyata, Master Uyehara was in his 90's and still living in Okinawa. According to Master Oyata, Uyehara had no worthy students to whom he felt he could teach the Motobu clan's method of tui-te. In any event, Uyehara was much too old to teach it at that time... so, Oyata mourned the loss of another martial art system. It died for lack of worthy students.

     Good teachers and good students need each other.  

Friday, April 28, 2017


by Phillip Starr

Do what you cannot possibly do.
Make the impossible possible.”
-Masutatsu Oyama
Founder of Kyokushin karate

I first heard those words many, many years ago and I took them to heart. Martial arts were my great passion and they remain so to this day. I wanted to push the envelope; to see just how far I could go. I read about numerous masters of times past and determined that I would do what they'd done. After all, they weren't gods; they were men just like me. If they could do it, I could do it.

Many of you are probably shaking your heads and thinking, “What a fool... That's a fine way to get hurt very badly. Or killed. You were certainly a very foolish young man.” And looking back on those days, I'd have to agree with you. But I wasn't stupid.

I read about the legendary “arrow catch”, which is an extremely dangerous technique that involves catching an arrow in mid-flight. The legendary “godhand”, Master Masutatsu Oyama, said that of 1,000 students, only one or two would attempt to learn such a technique. And of the 1,000 who set out to perform it, only a couple who be successful. It kind of makes you wonder what happened to the 998 who failed, doesn't it? But I didn't consider that. I was never much good at math, anyway.

I was still in college and young enough to think that I was invincible; that I could be one of the “one or two” who would succeed. “If they can do it, I can do it”, I thought. One of my students was a very skilled archer who owned a good recurved bow and he agreed to work with me, We spent months practicing together. Eventually, I would face him at the opposite end of a basketball court. An arrow-net was placed behind me to prevent arrows from striking the walls of the old college gym. Just as he released the arrow, I'd pivot and catch it.

This isn't something that can be accomplished after only a couple of weeks of practice. I may have been foolhardy but I wasn't stupid. We started out by having me simply stand off to one side and observe how quickly the arrows passed by me. Then I would reach out and try to grab them. It was a slow and gradual process that required some considerable time. I would go on to demonstrate this technique at several demonstrations.

I also wanted to test myself by breaking large stones. Starting with very small ones, I eventually succeeded in cutting a 25 lb. stone with my sword-hand. My hand shook uncontrollably for three days but I was pleased that I had accomplished what I'd set out to do. I continued to train until I could shatter a “paver” brick (which is a little more than an inch thick) with my fingertips and split a coconut with a single blow.

Now, I'm not bragging. I've never been one to indulge in self-aggrandizement. I've never had much time for people who do. The point of this short essay is simply this; although what I pushed myself to do was often very dangerous, it had a very profound impact on my mind and spirit. Martial arts isn't just about learning some exotic forms of kicking and punching; it's also about pushing yourself beyond what you perceive as your limits. It's about setting goals and then going beyond them. If you mindlessly practice a few punches and kicks once or twice a week, you're not really practicing martial arts; you're dancing. Without proper spirit, martial arts devolve into little more than some nifty-looking calisthenics.

Certainly, I'm not suggesting that you run to the nearest sporting goods store and purchase a good bow and a handful of arrows or drive through the countryside until you can find a 20 lb. stone. After all, techniques such as the arrow-catch are fraught with danger and anyone who aspires to do them must train very carefully and gradually. You must push yourself slowly, step by step. Remember that when I trained to perform these things I was young, in excellent physical condition (I suppose my mental condition could be called questionable), and I had practiced martial arts for a very long time.

What I'm suggesting is that you strive to push yourself past your “limits.” After all, it's YOU who set those limits in the first place! It's going to take some considerable work and sweat to get to the very edge of your limits... and then it'll require more than just sweat to go beyond them; it's going to take time, guts, and belief in yourself.