Monday, September 17, 2012


     Just when you thought I was out of stories regarding my teacher, here comes another one! 
;-)  I've gots lots of 'em!  This one occured to me yesterday as I was teaching class and found myself repeating my teacher's words. 

     Once a student had learned to perform a number of fundamental techniques correctly, my teacher emphasized the movement and shifting of the body rather than the technique.  For instance, I recall practicing pengquan (the basic punching technique of Xingyiquan) with my classmates.  It was a basic technique we'd practiced many times before and we didn't really have to "think" much about how to do it.  We just fired one punch after another, trying to maximize the striking power of our fists.

     Sifu Chen walked over to us and quietly observed our practice for a short time.  That was usually a bad sign and this time was no different. 

     He held out his fist, pointed at it, and said, "Don't think of power out here!" where do we concentrate our power???

     Chen then grasped his belly with both hands and said, "Power is in here!  Concentrate in here!  Feel in here!"

     I guess we all looked equally confused because Chen sighed (another bad sign) and walked up to one of my classmates.

     "Punch," he said.  "Punch strong."

     My classmate shot out a punch which I thought was darned sharp.  And strong.  Clearly, Chen disagreed because he shook his head and the look on his face was a bit sour.  He looked at his student as if he was a complete dunce.

     "No," Chen said. Grabbing the student's fist and shaking it, he repeated, "Don't think about power out here!"  Then, pointing to his pupils lower abdomen, he said, "Power comes from here!   Think of the movement in here!" 

     Even after they have acquired a fair measure of skill with the basic techniques, many students tend to focus their attention on the striking weapon/surface during practice.  That is, they concentrate on the fist when they punch or they direct all of their attention on the striking surface of the foot when they kick.  If they've learned the technique properly, there's really no need for this.  It's akin to looking at the accelerator, brake pedal, and speedometer once you have learned to drive.  You shouldn't need to.  You learn to "feel" what you need to do rather than looking at it. 

     In executing the various techniques, emphasis is eventually shifted to the body movement (In Yiliquan this is known as "body action" and there are eight of them) and feeling it...the technique is executed from there, from the soles of the feet and the core of the body rather than with the fist or foot. 

     This is how you learn to gradually "condense" the body's movements, making them smaller and smaller so that the power which is generated is more concentrated and hence, more explosive.

     If you spread a flammable or explosive substance out over a large surface it can be very dangerous when it's ignited...but pour it into a small container, light it up, and see what happens! 

     You need to pay attention to the pressure in your feet/foot when you execute your technique.  Feel the body action and strive to make it sharper and faster as you feel how it connects to your feet and legs and waist (and gua).  Feel how they interconnected, how the movement inside your body originates in the soles of your feet and how it moves up the legs (especially pay attention to the feeling in your ankles and knees), your waist, back, shoulders (are they rounded forward properly)....

     Feel the movement of your dantien.  Remember, it's like a ball which can turn and roll in any direction.  Learn to control its movement.  Don't let it just move willy-nilly on its own.  If you do, your movement will be unbalanced, sloppy, and uncontrolled.   

     And this should happen very quickly, like the snapping of a bullwhip.  
     Then look at your breathing and how it connects to your (internal) movement.  It's not just a noise.  It's much more than just exhaling so much air.  It's concentrated power! 

     Don't concern yourself with your striking knuckles, the ball of your foot, or whatever.  Those are just the surfaces that happen to make contact with your target.  If you focus your mind on these things, you'll likely "overpower" your technique, making it top-heavy (and thus, unstable), overly-tense and wooden (which kills much of your power), awkward, and even slow. 

     Learn to feel what's happening insideTrain to control what's happening insideTrain just one technique at a time, over and over until you get the feel of it...inside.


Monday, September 10, 2012


     The last time you attended class, how many punches did you execute? How many front snap kicks or side thrust kicks? How many of each kind of block? I don’t know, either. I don’t keep count. So, with all of those repetitions…did you really pay close attention to your technique or did you just kind of lob it out there?  Yeah, I know. Everybody was paying very close attention to their techniques, right?  Let’s have a look.
     Pick a technique…pretty much any technique. A forefist thrust, sword-hand strike, high block, side thrust kick…almost any technique will do. Perform it slowly. Very slowly…like at “taijiquan” speed. 
     “So what?” you ask. “Big deal. I can do it in slow motion…so what’s this about?” Well, have a training partner do it. Pick just one or two techniques. Have him or her do it very slowly and watch carefully…especially the last inch or so of the technique
     Within the last inch of the technique is the truth of it…a snap, a twist…something. Is it there? Is it in the right spot…in the last inch or so? Or did it happen too early? Did it not happen at all? Sometimes it’s to be found in the wrist or ankle. Sometimes it’s in the hips..or shoulder(s), or chest and upper back. Sometimes it includes several parts of your body…all moving in perfect synch in the last inch of movement. But it’s there. Without it, the technique loses much or most of its power and effectiveness.
     Did you find it? If you did, that’s good! Now select a form and do it very slowly. Look at the last inch of each and every movement (not just the individual techniques). You may be surprised at what you find.
     And once you discover the many truths in the last inch, practice them when you go full-tilt boogie. It may well change the way you look at your techniques and forms…ny punches did you execute? How many front snap kicks or side thrust kicks? How many of each kind of block? I don’t know, either. I don’t keep count. So, with all of those repetitions…did you really pay close attention to your technique or did you just kind of lob it out there?

Yeah, I know. Everybody was paying very close attention to their techniques, right? J Let’s have a look.

Pick a technique…pretty much any technique. A forefist thrust, sword-hand strike, high block, side thrust kick…almost any technique will do. Perform it slowly. Very slowly…like at “taijiquan” speed.

“So what?” you ask. “Big deal. I can do it in slow motion…so what’s this about?” Well, have a training partner do it. Pick just one or two techniques. Have him or her do it very slowly and watch carefully…especially the last inch or so of the technique.

Within the last inch of the technique is the truth of it…a snap, a twist…something. Is it there? Is it in the right spot…in the last inch or so? Or did it happen too early? Did it not happen at all? Sometimes it’s to be found in the wrist or ankle. Sometimes it’s in the hips..or shoulder(s), or chest and upper back. Sometimes it includes several parts of your body…all moving in perfect synch in the last inch of movement. But it’s there. Without it, the technique loses much or most of it’s power and effectiveness.

Did you find it? If you did, that’s good! Now select a form and do it very slowly. Look at the last inch of each and every movement (not just the individual techniques). You may be surprised at what you find.

And once you discover the many truths in the last inch, practice them when you go full-tilt boogie. It may well change the way you look at your techniques and forms…



Sunday, September 2, 2012


     I looked at the young man who had entered my training hall to inquire about classes.  We retired to my office so that I could explain something about the art I teach, and what is involved in training.  "I have a bad left knee," he explained.  "So, would it be okay if I don't do kicks and other techniques with that leg?"
     Ask any martial arts teacher and he’ll give you many varied versions of this same story.  Aspiring pupils come in and lay their "baggage" on the table straight away…
everything from bad backs to tennis elbow to arthritic hips to poor eyesight.  They all seem to believe that their problem is unique and that the teacher should make special allowances for them.  They are, they believe, different from the other students who are out on the floor.  They have special needs.
     Basically, prospective students who enter the training hall with excess baggage come in one of two flavors.  There are those who ask that they be given special treatment and who believe that the teacher may, in some way, be able to "fix" their problem(s) or work around it.
     Then there are those who approach the school and teacher much as one would approach a waitress.  The school and the teacher are, insofar as they're concerned, primarily a business.  They order up what they want and how they want it and fully expect the business proprietor to comply.
     In both cases, the inquiring student is usually very surprised (and sometimes shocked) when I make it clear that no special allowances are made for anybody.  That's just the way it is in the world of martial arts.  If you have a bad knee your kicks probably won't ever be as good as those of the fellow standing next to you but you'll still be expected to give it your best effort.  I've had students who wore prosthetic arms and legs and they were expected to learn how to execute all the movements and techniques of the art with their prostheses.  And they did very well!
     Martial arts teachers usually respond to the "extra baggage" applicant in one of two ways.  Some teachers will tell the student that they'll find a way to "work around" their problem; they may be excused from certain aspects of training that they find too difficult.  This kind of approach is, in my opinion, the mark of a weak instructor. 
     The other type of teacher will politely inform the student that he or she will simply have to learn to make do; that exemptions are made for no one, regardless of the baggage they bring with them.  I think that this is one of the marks of a superior instructor.
     Someday, I'm going to put a basket inside the front door of the training hall and post a sign on it: "Leave Extra Baggage Here."

Sunday, August 26, 2012


     Here's something to consider.  Ask any practitioner of kung-fu, karate, jujutsu, or aikido why they practice their chosen martial art.  Although some will tell you that they do it to stay fit, the vast majority will say that they train for reasons of self-defense.  If you observe the classes in which they participate, you'll see that the training is largely focused on practical applications of the various techniques to self-defense situations.  Some training will feature very old and seemingly pointless practice, such as forms...but the instructor can quickly demonstrate how the movements of the various forms can be easily applied on the street.

     Now, most of you know that aside from my daily practice of Yiliquan, I also try to get in some time to practice iaido and kenjutsu.  And I can see the look of confusion on some faces out there...why would the old man practice stuff like that?
     Well, why would anybody?
     I will probably not get up tomorrow morning, throw on a hakama, slip my katana into my obi (belt; sash), and saunter down the road looking to right society's wrongs and being a champion of the downtrodden like the samurai of feudal times.  Nope.  I will likely never (again) get into a sword fight or have to draw my blade and cut down some nasty enemy to intends to do me harm.
     And it is for these very reasons that my practice of iaido is important to me!

     OK.  Now I see even more confusion.  Why would I practice a highly ritualized, moderately-paced art which has no obvious "street application?"  The fact is that, because iaido has no modern self-defense applications, it provides an ideal environment in which to refine one's mind and spirit; to strengthen and discipline them.
     Well, isn't this also done in kung-fu training?  And karate, jujutsu, and aikido? 

     Although most martial arts which still retain practical self-defense applications are supposed to emphasize these qualities, the fact is that the majority of one's time is spent developing actual combative skills.  This is jutsu
     In the practice of something like iaido, there is no concern about developing practical combat skill...because it's never going to happen.  I'm never going to have to use my sword in battle.  I can't even practice with a partner because in iaido training, one uses a live blade.  And this is the art's greatest attribute!  ALL of my attention can be focused on refining my mind and spirit because I don't have to concern myself with the possibility that I'm ever going to have to use this art in combat.  That is do.
     Everything, from the standing position prior to bowing, to sitting (when my arthritis acts up, I practice standing), to inserting the sword into the belt to the draw and cut and blood cleaning and replacing the sword into the scabbard - everything must be done just so.  It took some time to just learn how to tie the sageo (cord attached to the scabbard) to my belt!
     I sit and relax and focus on correct breathing.  I keep One-Point.  I prepare to rise up and execute the draw...but, no.  Spirit isn't right.  Can't do it yet.  Focus!  Don't think about it.  In trying NOT to think about it, I'm thinking about it's not right.  I can feel that it isn't right yet...
     Focus.  Relax.  One-Point.  Focus.  Focus.
     Zip!  And it happens.  The draw is complete.  Rats.  Cutting edge is off just a hair.  OK.  I still go through the formal, ritualized movements of completing the kata and replacing the sword in the scabbard...
     Now let's try this again.  Relax.  Focus...
     And so it goes, over and over.  I think I can do the first kata known as Shohatto (mae) fairly well now.  It's been a year since I started working on it.  It looks like it consists of only a very few simple movements; come up to one knee and draw the blade out in a horizontal cut, then grasp it with both hands and advance one foot (still kneeling) and make an overhead cut.  Stand up partway and perform the chiburi (blood cleaning) to sling the funk off the blade, then do a "change back" step and re-sheathe the sword.  Keep zanshin and kneel back down.  Sounds simple enough.  And if you watch a master do it, it looks pretty basic.  But like everything else in martial arts, it isn't.  I practice the other kata but this first one has my full attention.  It's the most basic one and has to be mastered before the others can really be done properly.
     So I am a beginner again.  But I know where I'm going and how to get there.

     The refinement of mind and spirit gained from iaido practice is naturally carried over into my Yiliquan practice.  This would no doubt horrify most, if not all, of my kung-fu counterparts...a kung-fu teacher practicing a Japanese martial art (especially involving the sword) to refine his kung-fu?  Ridiculous!  And heretical, too.
     Yeah, well...I also practice a roundhouse kick (which is distinctly Japanese), eat sushi, and teach Japanese-style breakfalls.  I've also borrowed techniques from Muay Thai, learned from fine Okinawan karate masters (as well as Japanese), and use a number of two-man qigong training exercises found in aikido.
     So what?  It all works.  The object is to learn and develop skill

     There is a Japanese story that tells of two young samurai who were good friends.  They were about to embark on their musha shugyo; the travels through which many young warriors took to develop and refine their skills.  They agreed to meet on the bank of the river exactly twelve years later if they survived their quests.
     Sure enough, on that same day twelve years later, the two men approached each other.  However, they had approached the river on it's opposite side and it had flooded.  One man made a spectacular leap which far exceeded the skill of even today's Olympic hopefuls.  His great jump easily carried him over the swollen river.  The other samurai walked downstream a distance and paid a boatman to ferry him across the water.  What it took one man many years to develop was effectively accomplished by the other man for the price of five cents.
     Similarly, if one is interested only in being able to defend oneself, why not purchase a firearm and obtain a permit to carry it?  So you have to first ensure that your training goals are worthwhile.

     In the ancient art of iaijutsu, there is a saying that tells us, "Kachi wa saya no naka ni ari."  So there.
     For those whose Japanese is rusty, it means, "Victory comes while the sword is (still) in ths scabbard."  Physical skills alone, no matter how refined and strong, are simply not enough.  There is always someone who is stronger, someone who is faster, someone who has a better technique or dirty trick.
     Goliath had the advantage of strength but David had the advantage of spirit.  Goliath figured he had this little Jewish kid in the bag, but David was determined to win at all costs.
     The higher purpose of iaijutsu (and its grandchild, iaido), is to foster the development of the mind and spirit of a warrior; an attitude and strength of character that wins the battle before it even begins.  This is not easy to achieve and requires a great deal of training.  Attitudes of jealousy, greed, anger, selfishness, and hate must be eliminated because they are counter-productive and self-destructive; they inhibit the development of real skill.

     Another story relates how an iaijutsu teacher told his student to sit facing him.  The young man did so and the instructor told him that he was to draw his sword as quickly as possible and attack with all of his strength and speed.  The young man sat in front of the master and prepared to execute his fastest technique, but he could not.  Every time he prepared to move, something held him back.   He knew he would fail.  Finally, he told his teacher that he could not do it; he could find no opening into which he could move.  This is how one wins without emptying the scabbard.

     Now, I'm not necessarily advocating that you begin the regular practice of iaido.  But I hope you can glean something of value from this lecture and apply it to your training.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


     Most of us have seen a photograph of the “Father of Japanese Karate”, Gichin Funakoshi.  Sitting in a very straight posture, he is dressed in formal Japanese attire, holding a fan and looking rather severe.  He is a revered figure in the martial arts; the man who brought karate from Okinawa to Japan and single-handedly nudged it into the curriculum of most major Japanese universities.  Initially, the Japanese were more than a little wary of this “brutal” martial form from the “backwoods” of Okinawa but Funakoshi managed to develop it into a very popular activity, which was eventually accepted  as one of the Japanese budo (martial ways).

      Few martial arts enthusiasts ever stop to consider other aspects of the old master’s life – the difficulties he encountered and the prices he paid as he traveled the path of the budo.  For instance, when he was training in Okinawa he would go to his master’s house at night, walking along a dirt path through a dense forest (read, “jungle”).  It was so dark that the moonlight didn’t illuminate the trail and he usually carried a lantern to light the way.  Arriving at his teacher’s home, he would train for 2-3 hours and then return home to catch about 3 hours of sleep before having to go to work the next day.

     When he first began teaching in Japan he made extra money by working as a gardener at the university.  He was provided a single-room apartment at the school.  His wife had stayed in Okinawa, knowing that she would only be a burden to him as he scraped along for the first few years.  Later, his two sons would join him but his wife stayed in Okinawa and although he wanted to go back to see her, he was never able to do because the popularity of karate kept him extremely busy.

     Think about that for a while…he lived alone in a single-room apartment and eked out a living doing whatever menial jobs he could find at the university.

      Then WWII arrived.  Most of his students joined or were drafted into military service.  Ultimately, his beautiful dojo, which had been built for him by his dedicated students, was fire-bombed by the Allies.  Most of his students died in battle…and that doesn’t include one of his sons, who also perished during this terrible time.

     He was left with…nothing.  During the Allied occupation, he continued to teach – and lost his other son to starvation – and still, he produced some of the finest karate masters the world has ever known.   

     None of this, however, is reflected on his noble face in the famous photographic portrait of Funakoshi. 

     Most of us have also seen photos of Jigaro Kano, the founder of modern judo.  Kano was very sickly as a youth and took up jujutsu to improve his health.  In the process, he became one of the greatest educators of all time and some of his writings about education are still studied today. 

     But before he became so famous, he taught his new art, judo, in a small and rather old and rickety gym.  He and a handful of his senior students would often wriggle into the crawlspace beneath the gym’s wooden floor and repair it with wooden props so that it would stand up to another day’s training! 

     Aikido’s legendary founder, Morihei Uyeshiba, was a total flop as a businessman.  He tried running a print shop but it went belly-up within a couple of years.  In the ensuing years, he (and his wife) often endured times of extreme hardship – not having any heat in their tiny home or dojo, going without proper food and other necessities.    

     I could go on and on with similar stories involving other well-known martial arts personalities…but what matters isn’t so much what hardships each one endured; it’s the fact that they DID endure it and continued to move forward with their training instead of throwing up their hands and giving in.  They had come to understand that there are “toll bridges” on the path of the martial arts and anyone who travels that path will eventually have to ante up and pay the price from time to time.

     Those who have been on the path for a while understand that there’s really no end to paying these tolls…and they have come to expect it every so often.  We have decided to set out upon a way that is very severe.  Rather than being congratulated for having made it over a particularly difficult stretch, we find ourselves inundated with more techniques to master, more forms to practice.  And the further travel, the more demanding it becomes.  The slightest error, the tiniest lapse in attention is brought into view for everyone to see.  Our weaknesses and faults are laid bare before us.

      And if we continue to press on to the point where we feel certain that our teachers and senior will no longer pour criticism upon us, we find that we are expected to turn inward and examine ourselves from within.  We must look not only at our technique but our lifestyles as well and impose even more hardships upon ourselves, seeking a level of discipline that is known to only a few.

     In Japan this severe form of self-discipline is known as shugyo.  It is also sometimes known as hiya meshi o michi (the way of eating cold rice).  If you’ve never eaten cold rice, it’s an interesting experience…but it certainly isn’t tasty.  The idea is that a bowl of cold rice can make us realize that even the most fortunate of us must occasionally suffer.  Although it may not be a pleasant meal it is every bit as sustaining as warm rice – and this is much like the martial ways.  They are disciplines that are stripped of self-indulgence and ego, both of which are things that destroy the ability to travel the martial path.

     The budoka (martial arts person) accepts cold rice because he or she sees it as a way of building discipline and learning to appreciate “hot rice” when it is available.  Eventually, we can learn to appreciate the cold rice as well and when we can do that, we can accept whatever curves life throws at us.

     Our martial forefathers endured and suffered much.  They often consumed plenty of cold rice and they did so without a complaint, without blaming anyone, and knowing that it would sustain them and even make them stronger.  Can we do any less?  Those who would travel this path must do so knowing full well that from time to time, they’re going to have to sit down to a bowl of cold rice.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


     I was often regarded as a kind of hard-nosed judge when I served as an official at martial arts tournaments, especially insofar as forms competition was concerned.  I recall one occasion when a competitor in the Black Belt Division approached our panel of judges and announced his name, the style of karate he practiced, and the name of the form (kata) he would demonstrate.  This was the accepted procedure in the USKA (United States Karate Assn.) tournaments of that time.

     The competitor has announced that he practiced Kyokushin karate (a style with which I was very familiar, being a 2nd grade black belt in it at the time) and the kata he intended to perform would be Bassai Dai.


     As he began his performance, I noticed some minor discrepencies and after a while I realized that he was performing the Shotokan version of Bassai Dai; not the Kyokushin version.  The differences between the two are not great but they're there and the protocol of the day required that if you were going to perform a kata from the system or style which was different from your own, you were required to advise the panel of judges.

     What to do?

     He was actually performing the Shotokan version of Bassai Dai very skilfully.  Kyokushin and Shotokan have very different styles of body shifting and posture.  The "flavor" of their techniques is also quite different.  Although they may appear identical to the untrained observer, a person who is familiar with both of the styles of karate will notice it immediately.  Shotokan techniques are very sharp; almost piercing, very snappy, with a lot of emphasis on the movement of the hips.  Kyokushin, on the other hand, is heavier (they emphasize the development and application of great muscular strength) and the chambering of the fists is very different; Kyokushin chambers the fist on a level even with the nipple, and Shotokan prefers to chamber the fist just above the hip bone (actually, insofar as kinesiology is concerned, Shotokan is more correct).

     When the competitor finished his performance and the Scorekeeper requested our scores, I gave the fellow a 2.  The other judges gave him scores in the "eights," but not me.  One judge came over and asked why my score was so low.  I replied that the competitor had performed the Shotokan version of Bassai instead of the Kyokushin version.  My fellow official regarded that as a minor point which should probably be disregarded, but I held fast to my score.


     It was a question of being politically incorrect (although at that time, nobody had ever heard of political correctness...we were just honest and that was good enough).  That is, if we let this guy slip through the cracks, then where do you draw the line?  At what point would his performance be totally out of whack?  I mean, he could come up and do something none of us had ever seen before and claim that that was what he'd learned from his teacher (so there.  It isn't his fault)...and that it was Elmer Fudd's interpretation of Bassai (or whatever)...after all, Elmer has as much right to interpret kata as Mas Oyama or anybody else, doesn't he?  No?  Why not?  Who says so?  And by whose authority do you say so?  Who made you "king sh*t" of kata, anyway..."

     I think you get my point.

     The line had to be drawn before things got too far out of hand.  Unfortunately, my fellow officials didn't see it that way ("Well, that's how he was taught to do it by his teacher, so it's not his fault").  Before too many years had passed, kata judges had to judge competitors on the basis of "level of difficulty" (as would gymnastic officials) rather than correctness and precision of the traditional kata. 

     With the passing of a few more years, people were making up their own homegrown versions of kata and performing them in competition.  Since the judges had allowed every variation of every kata to pass as acceptable for competition (some variations were so far afield that there was absolutely no resemblance to the original kata), they couldn't very well complain and they had to judge performances based on "level of difficulty."  Since it's pretty tough to beat some bozo who's mixed gymnastics and modern dance - performing flying cartwheels, full splits, and other bizarre "martial arts" postures with something like Sanchin, Seisan, or Kanku, birth was given to the "eclectic" martial arts..."Open Tournament" came to refer to an event that accepted any and all performances.  It used to refer to a competition that allowed all styles to compete, but those days were long gone.    

     A nationally-famous competitor who I shall call Karen (a beautiful blonde who often performed her forms in a form-fitting top with a low neckline :-) and custom-fit kung-fu pants) once competed in my ring.  Bad call.  I appreciate a lovely lady as much or more than the next guy but when it comes to martial arts, I don't care what form you're  performing, if you come out in a G-string and spiked'd better be done correctly!

     Karen's kung-fu form (which she'd learned from Al Dacascos) was well done...for a while.  Then as she neared the end, she went through a series of strange movements and eventually ended up sitting on the floor with her legs crossed and her head bowed so that her long blonde hair covered her face.  Her arms were extended out to the sides.  The audience went absolutely wild.  Karen smiled and stood up (I was suddenly shocked into the reality that that wierd floor-sitting movement was actually the end of her form-) and I called Karen forward.  "What was that series of ending movements?" I asked.  She smiled and thrust her chest (?) out at me and proudly told me that it was a series of jazz dancing movements she had installed into the form.  I thanked her very politely and when the scorekeeper asked for our scores, I gave her a 1.  The other officials were stunned.  This was, after all, THE Karen of national fame, who had been in all the magazines, who had even been in a couple of movies...and I was giving her a ONE???!!

     She was furious and asked me why I had scored her so low.  I told her that jazz dancing is nice but it certainly isn't a martial art and it has no place in a martial arts event.  I gave her a 1.0 for having the guts to step out on the floor and try to convince me otherwise.  That really ticked her off...

     As an aside, I competed later in the senior men's division and took first place.  Karen was given out the awards and gave each winner a kiss on the cheek.  Except me.  She wouldn't even shake my hand.  Well, hell hath no fury... 

     I was equally touchy when I acted as an official in the kumite (freestyle sparring) ring.  I remember watching two black belt contestants slugging it out and I stopped the match.  "Gentlemen," I said, "Do you see any ropes around this ring?" 

    They looked at each other and then at me.  "," they replied.

     "That's right," I assured them.  "Because this is not a boxing ring."  Please use correct martial art technique from now on or I'll disqualify both of you."

     And that was that.  Unfortunately, my hard-nosed attitude was tossed by the wayside as more and more officials allowed virtually anything in the ring and competitors started wearing boxing gloves and hopping around on one leg like a one-legged chicken and flicking out half a dozen kicks...and "Open Competition" came into its own.  In one tournament, the black belt champion...and this is really true...announced that he'd never studied karate at all; he was a golden gloves boxer who just wanted to give it a try!  For real.  And he won! 

     Well, like the song says, you've got to stand for something or you'll fall for anything.  And the martial arts judges had fallen on their butts...they all felt like absolute fools.  And they were. 

     I'm not even going to go into what weapons competition was like.  Let me say simply that I'd thought I'd seen it all until then.  From using Japanese katanas like a cheerleader's baton to forms with (and this is true, I assure you) meat hooks, butcher knives (well, some of 'em are made in Japan...), baling hooks, sheleighlis (Irish martial arts, I guess), walking sticks made from old branches (this guy claimed he practiced an American Indian style of martial arts) least nobody walked into the ring with a rolled-up, wet towel.  I'm sure they would have if they'd thought of it. 

     How did this come about?  At what point did things go so far south?  Well - remember the guy who did the wrong version of Bassai Dai?  Letting something like that slip by - THAT'S where it started.  Being politically correct; not wanting to hurt anyone's feelings by telling them that regardless of what their teacher had told them, THAT wasn't the Isshin-ryu version of Seisan...that's where it started.  Not insisting on real martial arts technique in the fighting ring - THAT''S where it started.  After all, it's a whole lot easier to teach slop than sharp technique, too. 

     Certainly there are myriad versions of the same form(s) nowadays - and there's nothing wrong with that.  But each system has its own unique flavor which should be consistent throughout the form and which should also be clearly identifiable in the way in which the competitor fights.  I remember way back when you could watch a competitor fight and easily identify exactly what style he'd studied (if you were familiar with enough styles).  Isshin-ryu people fought like Isshin-ryu people.  Shotokan fighters could be easily identified.  Goju stylists fought just like they did their forms.

     But when the tournament directors and officials began to become "politically correct" and developed a kind of "anything goes" attitude, everything got mixed up. 

     Before long, we saw the advent of "full contact karate" which was neither full-contact, nor karate.  It was, on its best day, a sort of sloppy kickboxing.  I used to insist that a decent muay-thai boxer would beat the crap out've those guys, and eventually that's just what happened.  Some pro boxers even jumped in, learned a couple of kicks (you were required to throw a given number of kicks per round)...then when they competed, they'd shoot off all the required kicks (into the air; they didn't even try to hit their opponents with 'em) and then beat the stuffing out've the "karate guy" with their superior boxing technique (which is, after all, what the alleged "karate black belt" was also trying to use).  And the audience was told that this was "REAL full-contact karate."


     It was half-contact kickboxing. 

    Then there came the UFC and you all know how fond I am of that. 

    And the Olympics.  Taekwondo managed to squeeze in and whereas their alleged art had been in a tailspin for a couple of generations, it went into a first-class nosedive.  I saw the competition this year.  I wouldn't have known what it was if the announcer hadn't told me.  Not a single punch was thrown.  Not one.  And not a single front kick, side kick, or back kick was thrown either...the roundhouse kicks were so sloppy that if these guys had been in my beginner's class, they'd have permanent scars on their butts (from me chewing on it) for kicking like that.  The announcer kept saying how lethal these guys were; how they could kill an ordinary man with a single blow...

     Bullshit.  Twice.

     My old friend Chris Smaby (a real 6th dan with the Japan Karate Assn.; Shotokan) once told me that there were some people who didn't have a clue, and then there were those who didn't even suspect.

     These bozos didn't even suspect.

     But the audience was assured that this was the real, lethal art of Taekwondo.

     I remember my old friend Mike Biggs, who served three tours in Vietnam as a green beret.  Mike said that the only nights he ever slept soundly was when he was in an ROK firebase; especially the Whitehorse Division.  Even the VC didn't mess with these guys.

     You see, the uniform of the day for the Korean's Whitehorse Division was a karategi.  For real.  At oh-early thirty, they'd line up for inspection in karate uniforms!  And instead of some bitching about early morning PT (physical training), they'd practice Taekwondo.  REAL Taekwondo - not the stuff we saw in the Olympics.  These guys were dangerous and if they managed to close in with an NVA or VC unit, they'd go hand-to-hand.  Because they ENJOYED it.  They killed a LOT of enemy troops - many with their bare hands (!!) and feet.  The enemy was so terrified of these guys that NO KOREAN FIREBASE WAS EVER ATTACKED DURING THE ENTIRE WAR!


     Wonder what happened to THAT kind of Taekwondo?  It sure isn't the same thing I saw in the '04 Olympics! 

     As for Karen’s sitting, hair-over face with low-cut top posture...I know she never heard of the Dadaodui (Big Broadsword Unit) of the Chinese Army in WWII.  Their unit motto was:

"When our bullets are gone, we use our rifles,

When our rifles break, we use our broadsword,

When our swords are broken, we use our fists,

When our fists are broken, we bite."

     These were some tough mothers and the Japanese troops were absolutely terrified of them.  They were all martial arts practitioners of various styles and they all carried a broadsword on their backs.  Really.  They especially liked night operations; they'd sneak up and jump into Japanese foxholes and kill everyone with their swords or bare hands.  They did not leave many enemy survivors.

     Wonder what happened to THAT kind of kung-fu?  Wonder what they'd think of Karen's form?

Thursday, July 26, 2012



     The term "martial art" is a Western idiom used to describe a wide variety of Asian combative methods (and their sport derivatives).  It may come as a surprise to some of you that a number of these methods are not truly martial while others are not really arts.  A number of these forms of pugilism were, in fact, developed as combative systems used by warriors but others evolved into methods of physical and spiritual development, and sport.

     For example, systems developed by warriors include the various methods employed by the samurai of feudal Japan (bujutsu or bugei), certain forms of Chinese kung-fu, which were actually employed on the fields of battle, aikijutsu, karate (both of which were used in battle), and a few others.  One of the greatest historians of Japanese martial systems, Donn Draeger (dec.) argued that unless a system was designed by professional warriors of the day and employed on the field of (military) battle, it could not be considered a martial art.  This means that unarmed systems (such as karate) would be considered "civil arts" since they were based largely on unarmed techniques which made them largely impractical for use on the battlefield.  

     I believe his definition is too restrictive.  No one would willingly attack an armed soldier with his bare hands and several of these "civil arts" were and are still practiced by military forces.  Even our modern soldiers (especially those in special operations) are trained in various forms of karate, or other unarmed forms of pugilism.

     Many of the "civil arts" which were developed by priests and practiced in various temples were developed and practiced primarily for military or paramilitary reasons.  Such temples (like the Shaolin Temple and numerous temples in Japan) were often hotbeds of political activity and oases for political refugees.  A number of them could even field their own paramilitary forces.

     However, Draeger also made a clear distinction between martial art and combative sport.  Sporting forms of combative systems such as karate-do, judo, and even taekwondo, are not truly martial arts.  The restraints placed upon them and the modifications of their applications make such forms much less than what they were originally intended to be.  While their use as sports can be beneficial in terms of promoting fitness, sportsmanship, and self-confidence, such activities are substantially different from their original combative forms.

     In a past lecture, I wrote about the differences between what the Japanese call the jutsu systems and the do systems.  The bujutsu (martial arts, pronounced wushu in Chinese) were developed by and for warriors for use in actual combat.  Their primary function was to ensure victory on the battlefield and promote the survival of the warrior.  After Tokugawa united the nation for the first time, many bujutsu teachers and practitioners found themselves out of work since open warfare had become a thing of the past and personal duels were forbidden by law.  This led to the development of the various forms of budo (martial ways, pronounced wudao in Chinese) which emphasized physical, mental, and spiritual discipline which aims at perfection of the individual.

     While Japan's combative systems still (but not always) make a distinction between the jutsu (shu) and do (dao) forms, other Asian nations such as China, do not.  This has led to much confusion in today's martial arts world.

     Many of today's practitioners of martial arts seek to become what I call "classical warriors" but have no idea what that means or entails.  In Yilichuan, we actually tell students that are training to become classical warriors, but what does it involve and what does it really mean?

     Webster's defines "warrior" as "a person engaged or experienced in “warfare."  This is not nearly the same thing that we mean.  Most soldiers are not truly warriors and not all warriors serve in the military or as peace officers.

     One author cites a fine example; Gichin Funakoshi, the "father" of Japanese karate.  Born into a warrior family, Gichin witnessed the dissolution of Okinawa's warrior class by the occupying Japanese forces.  However, coming from shizoku stock, he studied karate (although this was strictly forbidden by the occupational Japanese government) and continued to do so for most of his adult life.  Coming from a poor family, he trained daily.  Karate was as much a part of his daily existence as eating or sleeping. 

     He was lucky to find a job as a schoolteacher although it meant he had to cut off his queue which was symbolic of his warrior heritage and he continued to train at night, walking miles to his teacher's home by the dim light of a lantern and avoiding the local Japanese authorities.

     Even into his 80's he continued his daily training regimen.  He would rise early, wash, and then practice some basics (kihon) and forms (kata) before taking morning tea or breakfast.  Very different from today's martial arts teachers!

     Like an author who has written extensively on the subject, I too have been amazed at the remarks I've heard from many so-called "martial artists" over the years...

   "I do karate on Monday and Wednesday nights..."

   "Kata?  What good is that?  You can't use kata in a fight..."

   "I don't want to learn any of that fancy stuff.  I want to learn how to fight..."

     Obviously, these people see their involvement in martial arts in a very different light from that of Gichin's.  Many of these people do martial arts just as they also might do bowling on Tuesdays.  They come to class once or twice a week and forget about it on the "off" days.  They usually believe they're learning the real thing and their spouses or friends might brag on their "deadly" kung-fu or karate training...

     There are those whose main concern is attaining rank.  Once they reach the level of first-grade black belt (if they ever do), they think they're experts and they drift away (kind of like a bad fart).

     Others obsess about winning tournaments and becoming champions.  I confess that I used to compete a lot, but it was never the central focus of my training.  For some people, it is.  These people often seek to "improve their arts" by modifying techniques to better score points or impress judges.  In time, their techniques and forms can hardly be compared to the originals, and unfortunately, this very process has been a driving force behind the evolution of martial arts in the 20th (and now 21st) century.

     Over the years, I have seen the emergence of bizarre mutations of real martial arts such as musical kata, really wild and outlandish costumes (I won't call them uniforms), and antics that rival carnival sideshows and snake oil sellers.

     Then of course, there are those who want to learn the "true, deadly secrets" of the martial arts.  They have no time, nor inclination to bother with formalities such as courtesy, forms, and other aspects of training hall and martial discipline.  These are usually "drifters" who go from school to school, hoping to find the "secrets" and staying just long enough to learn what they think is useful before moving on.

     This is in marked contrast to men such as Gichin.  But then, most of us weren't born into warrior families and Westerners often take up martial arts just to learn some basic self-defense or to get fit.  And that's OK for the most part.


     The difference between the warrior and non-warrior is in the way they see themselves and the way in which they prioritize the art in their lives.  This lecture will be the first in a series about living as a warrior in the classical sense...

     Most people don't consider themselves warriors.  They may play at it in the training hall (or in video games) but once they get dressed and walk outside, they're back to being dentists, salesmen, plumbers, or whatever.  They're no more warriors than the people who fantasize about being one of the figures on the video Star Wars game.  However, Gichin bore no such illusions about his personal warriorship.

     Although he never served in the military or fought in a war (Okinawa had not suffered war for over 200 years when he was born), he was taught from early childhood how a warrior should feel, think, and act...and live.  The shizoku were still warriors; tempered, hardened, elite.


     To a real warrior, his training is not a game or fantasy.  It's not simply something they do once or twice a week.  To the man of arms, his weapons (whether natural or manufactured) are the tools of his trade and they set him apart from the rest of society.  Their condition and his skill in using them determines his odds for survival in battle.  To such people, martial arts are a way of living; a constant struggle to improve and perfect one's skill.

     When peace broke out in feudal Japan and Okinawa, the noblest warriors took their training a step further.  While others lost their martial instincts and allowed their weapons to deteriorate, people of Gichin's breed realized that constant training helped them excel in endeavors totally unrelated to combat (enter Yiliquan).  They began using their training as vehicles for personal development.  When this is combined with high ethical standards (which tend to naturally develop among such people), we see the birth of the martial WAY (do or dao).

    Martial cultures have developed all over the world throughout history - from Asia to Africa to Europe.  And although there are certainly many cultural differences between these groups, there is a core attitude between all warrior groups that actually seem to bind them together (moreso than their non-warrior counterparts).

There are common threads between the samurai of feudal Japan, the European knights (of chivalric orders), certain African tribes, and even American Indians.

     Understanding and developing the true warrior spirit is what martial arts training is all about.  Without it, students may learn some interesting "tricks" and get a little more fit, but that's about it.

     Now, you might wonder why someone such as a gas pumper, baker, or carpenter would want to think of themselves as warriors.  After all, this is the 21st century and the idea seems a bit outdated and sounds pretty corny, doesn't it?  You could have asked Funakoshi that same question.  After all, the warrior caste in Okinawa had been abolished before he was even born!  He was, after all, a schoolteacher!  Eizu Shimabuku was a chicken farmer.  Mas Oyama was a milkman (really!).  Cheng Tinghua repaired eyeglasses, Yin Fu sold bakery products, and Yang Luchan was a houseboy.  Warriors, every one.

     Warriors are special people.  Because they are trained to understand the concept of personal honor, they set their ethical standards above most of the rest of society.  Because they train daily in the pursuit of excellence (nothing but perfection impresses them), they tend to excel in their particular vocations.  It is an extraordinarily powerful and fine way to live.  But it's not for everyone.  If you feel it's not for you, then wad up ths lecture and chuck it.  But if you want to follow the path of the classical warrior, read on.

     Real followers of the wudao are after more than just physical expertise.  They are also people of exceptional character who seek wisdom and insight; things which are much more elusive than mere physical training but which are almost impossible to acquire without it.

     The wudao are disciplines devoted to the perfection of character.  The warrior is constantly striving to improve and polish those areas that need work.  This struggle is not confined to the four walls of the training hall. The warrior trains constantly and at some level of consciousness, training is always on his or her mind.

     When he rises in the morning and works out the stiffness, he reviews what the day will hold for him and begins to plan his tactics for achieving his goal(s) for the day. He evaluates his weaknesses and how he plans to overcome them.  He reviews the day's obligations to work, family, and friends...and then schedules his training around them.  He is constantly thinking about training and improving himself as a warrior.  After all, his training is what will help ensure his "survival" (success) on the "battlefield" (daily life).

     Mas Oyama said, "If someone asked me to what a student should devote most of his time to doing, I would answer, 'Training.'  Train more than you sleep."  To non-warriors, Oyama's words sound like those of a borderline fanatic.  Let them think so.  Warriors are special and distinctly different from the rest of society.  Whereas the typical non-warrior spends his/her time in the pursuit of pleasure and entertainment, the warrior entertains him or her self with cultivating the warrior spirit and perfecting his/her skills.

     The warrior trains to some degree every day.  On some days, he will push himself to the limits of endurance.  On others, he will train more lightly and study other material.  But it's all part of the training process.  Part of each day will be spent "polishing" or "sharpening" his weapons and spirit.  Although we're much less likely to become involved in a life-and-death struggle nowadays than were our warrior ancestors, we still face adversaries of one kind or another.  It might seem that practicing a reverse punch or your Xingyiquan form or Water Shape form or sword practice won't do much to help you deal with the conflicts you face in 21st century life, but they do.  Only a warrior can understand this.

     Friends and even family may regard warriors as obsessive or compulsive or just plain nuts.  Not so.  Such behavior is exhibited by people who are not in control of themselves and a warrior is always in control.  Although he may frequently engage in training that results in pain and fatigue, it isn't because he likes them.  They're just part and parcel of the training; they're obstacles to be overcome and he will strive to overcome them with every ounce of his spirit.  Non-warriors, upon experiencing such things, turn and walk away...seeking pleasure and gratification of the senses rather than discipline.

     So, do you train daily or just when you go to class?  Remember that training doesn't just happen in the training hall.  Warriors hone their skills constantly and if you ARE one, you're looking for ways to fit training into a part of each day.  This isn't to say that you have to endure a gut-busting session every day!  Training must be balanced with rest and a fair portion of the warrior's life involves study; intellectual and spiritual growth.  And yes, play.  But there's a difference between the way in which warriors and non-warriors play (although they often do it together).  Non-warriors fill their spare time with it.  Warriors have only a little spare time and do it as a way to allow themselves to rest from their training.