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.

Monday, July 23, 2012


     I'll bet I studied something in elementary school that the rest of you didn't (except for some of the oldsters out there).  And what might that be?


     Really.  We actually had inkwells built into our desks and used pens with removable heads which you dipped into the ink!  After class, we had to wash off the inkpen heads and remove them from the stem (of the pen).  It was just about one klik up from using the old featherpens of the 19th century.

     As lousy as my memory tends to be, I clearly remember those boring classes.  We had lined paper which featured a thick, solid line and then a dotted line...then a solid line, then a dotted line...all the way down.  Upper-case (capital) letters had to touch the top and bottom of the solid lines while the lower case letters touched only the top of the dotted line.

     We'd practice just making loops and circles and wavy lines...I thought I had it down pat, but the teacher was always at my side telling me that it was terribly sloppy and to start again.  I remember getting really frustrated.  Then she demonstrated what she meant and her circle and whirls were flawless.  Really smooth and beautiful.  So I did my best to imitate that.  We practiced how to hold the pen correctly between the thumb and forefinger with the shaft resting on the side of the middle finger.  It had to rest at a specific angle.  They were very persnickety about all of this business.  And when you finished a few loops, you had to learn how to soak up the excess ink with a "blotter."

    Eventually, we got around to writing individual letters.  They had to be just so.  The loops, dots, and crosses had to be just right and pleasant to look at.  We practiced every day.  For two years.  Later, if you wrote something and the teacher didn't like the handwriting, he'd give it back to you and tell you to do it over!  It didn't matter if the material was correct or not, if it looked even mildly sloppy, you'd get to do it again. 

     Recently, I watched as a local police officer (a good friend of mine) wrote out an incident report.  I could barely make out his writing.  It was tiny and the letters weren't clearly formed.  I suppose you notice junk like this as you get older.  I never used to pay much attention to it... So I teased him about it and he made reference to my personal hygiene and ancestry.

     Later, I wrote a check at one of the registers in a department store.  The young lady looked at the writing and remarked, "What pretty handwriting!  I've never seen a man write like that."  Actually, I thought it was kind of sloppy, but compared to my police officer friend, it was a work of art. 

     I have my paternal grandmother's high school autograph book.  Seriously.  Some of the poems and autographs in it are dated back as far as 1867.  What is most incredible is the magnificently beautiful handwriting in it.  Even the boys had beautiful writing and many must have used broad-tipped pens.   

     You don't see writing like that anymore.  It was just too much extra work, I suppose and nobody saw a need for anyone to have to learn it.  And that's my point. 

     The martial arts is exactly the same thing.  We used to do our best to imitate our teacher's flawless movements.  A lot of martial arts don't do that anymore; they have a kind of 1970's "do your own thing" sort of approach...which doesn't work.  Your "own thing" will likely be wrong.  Stick to the things that have been proven to work over time.  It may be boring, tedious work, but it's worth it.

     I have to admire the systems that adhered so closely to their teacher's movements that they even imitated little quirks.  The founder of Isshin-ryu, Tatsuo Shimabuku, had a crippled leg due to his getting rickets when he was very young.  He could never execute a proper kick with it (I think it was his right leg).  He made a kind of little short, jerking kick with it because that was the best he could do.  His American students (who didn't speak much Japanese or Okinawan dialect) imitated it perfectly.  To this day, their kick(s) in certain kata are done just as he did them...but the kicks made with the other leg are different because his left leg hadn't been so severely crippled.

    Another Okinawan karate master (Asano, I think), had had beriberi when he was a youth.  He couldn't completely straighten his fingers.  When he formed a shuto (knife-hand), his little and ring fingers bent inwards considerably.  Consequently, his students imitated that form and it has been carried through to this day.  The karate styles which descended from his teachings all use the same form of shuto.

     Many years ago, one of my own students noticed that the forefinger of my right hand did not flex fully when I made a fist.  It remained nearly straight at the first knuckle.  Knowing that some Okinawan karate styles use a similar form of fist, he figured that that was what I was doing...and he formed his fists in the same manner.  I didn't notice it for years and then when I saw it, I asked WTH he was doing making a geeky-looking fist like that.  He told me that he was making his fist in the same manner as I formed mine.  I had to laugh and I told him that when I was young, the flexor tendon of my right forefinger (first knuckle) had been severed and I couldn't bend it!  That was why I formed a fist the way I do.  But I have to give him credit; he was watching very closely for the little things that might make a difference.  Like how to make a smooth and beautiful loop with an old inkpen. 

     The old and beautiful form of handwriting that existed only four or five decades ago is now gone.  Think about that.  People didn't see the need for it and stopped practicing and teaching it.  Now it's gone.

     Let's not let that happen to the real martial arts.  It doesn't take long for things in this world to disappear forever.  Keep practicing those loops and learning how to correctly dot your i's and cross your t's. 

Friday, July 20, 2012


     Just some thoughts I had regarding these two subjects.  Thought I'd share them with all of you...

     One of my teachers regarded teaching as the noblest profession because it is only through teaching that we, as humans and societies, make any progress at all.  If the teachers are poor or don't take their jobs very seriously, what hope do we have? 
     Good martial arts teachers are extremely rare.  This is not something that we have come to face in our modern times; it is a problem that has always existed.  Even in the days of the "old masters", good teachers were very rare.  In fact, a number of the revered "old masters", although they possessed great personal skill, were terrible teachers who were unable or unwilling to effectively transmit their knowledge.  Being a "master" (whatever that is) does not necessarily infer that one is also a good teacher!
     Many martial arts teachers nowadays regard their primary task as making money or becoming famous (which leads to more money).  While there's certainly nothing wrong with achieving and maintaining a good income, a teacher must never compromise his ethics or art to do so.  If he does, he's not a good teacher.  People used to ask me why I taught martial arts; what I hoped to gain from it.  I would usually tell them that my objective was to teach students who would become more skilled than me so that they could carry on the art after I depart.  And that's still my objective.
     Being a teacher is certainly a tough job.  You get to know each and every one of your students; their likes and dislikes, their strengths and weaknesses, their hopes...and you want them to succeed.  It's much like being a parent.  While you may love them, you know that they're going to have to suffer many physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual beatings and injuries before you're done.  You cannot FORCE them to keep going.  All you can do is encourage and sometimes that isn't enough. 
     You try to be a good model for them (although I haven't done the best job in this regard).  Martial arts skill isn't something you can simply hand over to them on a platter.  I once daydreamed about having a magic wand that I could wave and impart great skill to my students and then I thought, "No, that would defeat the whole purpose and process of learning because it is through the struggling; the pain and dings and bumps and bruises and falling down and getting back up again...that one builds discipline and character.  Without the pain and struggling, no discipline or character is developed." 
     So you love them but you know that they will suffer and hurt from time to time, just as a parent knows that his or her child will certainly fall many times and get bumps and bruises before he/she learns to walk or do almost anything else in life.  What is really disappointing is to have a student give up for one reason or another.  There is little you can do.  THEY must make the decision and if they decide that they want to give up and quit, then so be it.  You wonder if it's your fault; if you failed somewhere along the line.  Was there something more you could have done?
     You prepare for each class (and usually don't get through all the material).  You set exams and hope that everyone does well.  No teacher wants to have to fail a student.  And, especially in the upper ranks, you may pass a student and then wonder if they really deserved it?  Did you do the right thing?  After all, he was rather weak in this form and those techniques need you wonder.  And hope.
     There's a world of difference between a schoolteacher or college prof and a martial arts teacher.  We get into the student's heart and soul.  We have to.  We see him as he really is.  We're not trying to simply teach him how to spell or add...we're trying to teach him how to live and become a better, stronger person.  The college prof doesn't necessarily care what kind of person the student is, as long as he makes the grades.  But we care.  The fact is that a student with the wrong attitude cannot hope to really learn the material or gain true skill; his mental, emotional, or spiritual shortcomings will have a dramatic impact on his ability to learn and apply martial arts.
     I think many martial arts teachers stopped teaching because of the heartbreak of seeing potentially good students quit because they couldn't take the discipline or didn't want to "put out" what it takes.  In my life so far, I have taught maybe several thousand people, but only a handful have made it into the upper levels.  All the others dropped out along the way.  Maybe they got whatever it was they wanted and that was that.  Maybe they couldn't stand the struggle.  Whatever the case, only a few made it.
     And you always reap what you sow.  Sow a little, get a little.  Sow a lot, get a lot.  Surprisingly, many people don't seem to believe or understand this.  Students come to class (or practice on their own) only now and then...and then wonder why their skill isn't improving; why their classmates have passed them by...and sometimes they blame the teacher.  It isn't the teacher's fault.  You know where the blame goes.  And believe me, your teacher can tell very quickly if you have been practicing regularly or not.
     The martial arts world (especially nowadays) can be very confusing and you have to try to keep things straight.  Again, you have to trust your teacher to tell you the truth. 
    It is because of YOU that teachers even exist.  Without good students, where would we be?  YOU are the future of the art.  There will come a day when it's left up to you.  Your teacher will not live on this earth forever.  So learn all you can while he or she is here.
     There are many, many temptations along the path.  Some involve money or compromising your ethics or morals and values.  Don't be fooled.  Look to your teacher for guidance; he/she has been down this part of the path already and knows the pitfalls.
     A life of martial arts is a life of pain.  A former associate of mine told me this many years ago.  From Hong Kong, he said that in the Orient, people who undertake the study of martial arts fully expect to suffer all kinds of pain for as long as they practice the arts.  They do it anyway.  Don't think that this is all without pain.  Au contraire.  The question is in how you deal with it; will you give up and give in, or will you press on?
     Remember, those of you who are teachers are also students.  Those of you who are students are also teachers.  You teach your teacher without knowing it; you teach your family and friends and acquaintances on a daily basis.  Strive to be a good and responsible teacher and a strong, inquiring student.

Monday, July 16, 2012


     In the process of human learning there is a phenomenon known as the plateau which can have seriously adverse effects upon a student's progress.  In my experience, this is especially true of learning which involves physical movements.  The plateau is an anomaly of which many, perhaps even most, long-time martial arts practitioners are aware and yet, we still tend to forget about it.  The danger of forgetting about it (or not knowing about it at all) is that it can cause a student (or even a teacher) to throw up his or her hands and quit in a kind of "what's the use?" gesture.

     I don't know how this strange phenomenon works physiologically but it can be a real pain in the tail.  I'll describe it and you can determine whether or not it's happened (or currently IS happening) to you...

     You're doing fine in your training and then one day, everything you touch turns to junk!  Nothing you do is right.  Your teacher tries to teach you a very basic movement or two and you just CAN'T get it!  You forget.  You're suddenly as uncoordinated as a baby goony bird.

     And no matter how hard you try, you can't shake it.

     It's like having Alzeimer's all over your body and mind.  You keep trying to go over what you should already know and you only seem to be getting worse.  And it's as this point that you have to be REALLY careful because you'll be tempted to shrug your shoulders and think to yourself, "I just can't get this stuff.  It's too complicated for me.  Maybe I'd just better give it up..."


     You've probably "plateaued" (I know it's not a verb but it should it damned well should be).  And although I have virtually no formal education in psychology, it seems to me that what's happening is this:

     Your body-mind (especially the mind part of it) is overloaded.  It's taken in all the (new) data it can handle for now, and it refuses to take in any more.  It's sort of "digesting" what you've already "fed" it.  To make matters worse, while it's digesting what you've already given it, the stuff that it's "digesting" gets pretty much confused for a while.

     I mean, this is basic stuff that you know that you know!  You've done it a hundred or a thousand times and now, all of a sudden, it's as if you've never done it before and you're stumbling all over yourself.  You can't remember what movement comes next when you try to practice your forms...

      So, what to do?  Well, one thing's for sure...DON'T GIVE UP!  You've hit a plateau.  And this can happen to senior students as easily as it does to beginners.  Yes, it still happens to me (of course, it may really be old age in my case-).  You just need to keep on keeping on. Don't stop training.  Don't give up on your daily practice.  Just tell your instructor that you think you've plateaued and you need to work on polishing the things you DO know.... but don't try to take it anything new.

     How long does it last?  In the case of beginners, it doesn't last long.  It varies from person to person but a beginner's plateau may last for only a couple of weeks or so.  Maybe a month.  As you keep training and become more advanced, they last longer.  I remember a plateau that I experienced that lasted for well over a year.

     But when you come out of it - and you will come out of it - it's as though it never happened!  And the new material that you were trying to learn is suddenly THERE and you can do it as if you've been doing it all your life!  It comes so easily!  And you begin to wonder if you should call your nearest mental health professional...

     What's particularly wierd is that it doesn't usually happen gradually.  The onset and the termination of this affliction seem to occur literally overnight.  One day it's there and then one day, it's gone, as if it never happened. 
I guess it's one of the things that separates those who really want to learn; those who have a "never say die" spirit from those who don't.  Trust me, anyone who's practiced martial arts for very long has been through this experience.  But like I said earlier, we tend to forget about it and then we're surprised when it happens (again) to us or when it happens to someone else.

      So keep it in mind.  If it hasn't already happened to you, it will.

      And one more thing...another secret to learning which can be applied to any form of learning, whether it's schoolwork or martial arts...

     Once the class is over, you have sixty minutes to review any new material you learned in class.  SIXTY MINUTES.  Period.  If you review it within that time limit, you'll remember most, if not all, of it the next day.  If you don't, well...within 8 hours you'll have lost up to 50% of it.  By the next day, you'll have forgotten up to 80%.

     This forgetting new material can be avoided if you'll simply review the stuff within sixty minutes of leaving class.  You don't have to study it in depth; just REVIEW it quickly.  If you learn some new movements or whatever during class, then review them right away as soon as you get home.  Walk into your house, grab an empty spot, and quickly go over the new material a half-dozen times or so.  And that's it.  Come morning, you'll remember it.

     Great secret, but very few people pay attention to this wonderful bit of advice...I hope you won't be one of them. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012


     In the practice of contemporary martial arts there is a tendency for instructors and students to shy away from any training routine that involves the possibility of much discomfort or injury.  This is only natural; as human beings we usually don't usually flock to engage in activities that are inherently painful or risky and we tend to take a hard look at those "weirdos" who do.
     I recall watching a group of students practice one-step fighting in a particular martial arts school some years ago.  The attacker would step back into the usual pre-attack position, executing a snappy low block as he did so.  When the receiver was ready to perform his defensive maneuver he would utter a strong chi-he (kiai) and the attacker would execute a powerful lunging thrust.  The receiver would step back, block the attack, and deliver a crisp counter-attack.

     Sound familiar?  Sure, it does.  It's the usual one-step fighting drill.  Except for one thing...

     The participants were standing at least eight feet apart.  When the receiver executed his blocking technique he never touched the aggressor's arm!   And when he counter-punched his fist was at least four feet away from the attacker's body!

     Naturally, I asked the instructor why the students didn't touch each other at all during this common training exercise.  He told me that he didn't want them to bruise their arms or risk striking each other if their blows weren't adequately controlled.

     Good Lord.

     Well, these folks will be in great shape if they're ever attacked by a strong gust of wind.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I certainly don't advocate uncontrolled violence as a training tool.  I remember visiting another martial arts school whose members engaged in full-contact sparring within two weeks of enrollment!  The neophytes, who had no real knowledge of martial arts technique, were thrown to the lions (the more experienced students) like so much raw meat.  To say they got the stuffing pounded out of them would be a serious understatement.  The instructor reasoned that if one wanted to become skilled at fighting one had to know what it is like to get hit.  Students were told that they had to learn to keep going even if they'd been struck very forcefully because this is what "real combat is like."
     Good thing they didn't teach swordsmanship.

     Certainly, I believe that students need to develop strong technique and a strong spirit through rigorous training.  The key word in that sentence is rigorous.  I believe that real martial arts technique and spirit cannot be understood or developed except through the application of controlled violence.
     Beginning students are unable to understand this concept and it has to be presented to them very gradually.  But as they grow and develop their skills, they must learn to accept this fact and train accordingly.  Violence is, after all, why the martial arts were originally developed.  They were not cultivated to help their followers discover their "inner child", as a panacea for various ailments, or for thrilling audiences.

     I recently told my students that they would learn much more from pain and discomfort than they ever would from sheltered contentment.  In traditional Japanese martial arts there is a term describing this type of practice.  It is nangyo (in Chinese, nanhang).  It refers to hardship (nan) and a road which is traveled by many people, perhaps a crossroads.  This is an accepted part of the traditional martial ways; a necessary ingredient for the development of true skill and understanding.  The Chinese usually refer to this particular aspect of training as chi-ku (literally, "eat bitter"). 

     In contrast to the aforementioned karate school wherein participants never touched each other, the former head of the Japan Karate Association, Master Masatoshi Nakayama (dec.), recalled that when he was training under Master Gichin Funakoshi during his college years his arms would be so sore and bruised from blocking his partner's attacks that he could hardly lift them.  Another kendo master spoke of being struck so hard on the front of his helmet (men) that it knocked him to his knees and
splintered his partner's shinai.
     Students of the legendary Morihei Uyeshiba (founder of aikido) recalled how his vise-like grip would leave bruises on their wrists and Americans who trained in judo under the revered Kyuzo Mifune spoke of being thrown so hard that they were rendered unconscious.  My own teacher, Master W. C. Chen, remembered seeing exhausted classmates bow, run out of the drill line, and vomit.

     Some of these things would be considered a tad excessive by today's standards but it gives you an idea of what traditional training was like "back in the day."  It was not done because the instructor was a sadistic brute who wanted to puff out his machismo for all the world to see (although such instructors, if that term can be applied to them, have always existed).  The instructor's first and only concern was for the students, to help them develop real skill as opposed to something that only looks good but has no real internal substance.

     In time, students develop a strong sense of self-confidence.  They don't fear being attacked because that happens every night that they attend class.  Some years ago one of my students was forced to defend himself against what I call an "Americanus Vomitus" (otherwise known as a common "puke").  When he told me about it he smiled and said, "I wasn't really afraid of the guy at all.  Heck, I get punched at by professionals at least three times a week in the training hall!" 
     For the teachers of the traditional budo ("martial ways"; in Chinese, wu-dao) it's a delicate balance; how far to push the students and keep the violence inherent within the martial arts under control.  Naturally, no competent teacher wants to see a student get hurt but some minor injuries are unavoidable and to be expected.  Anyone who's spent much time in the martial arts has had his or her fair share of split lips, strawberries, bruises, and the like.  Some have even broken a small bone or two.  It happens; it's simply the nature of the beast and a necessary part of the developmental processes of the budo.  But it is the responsibility of the instructor and senior students to do their best to ensure that the violence never escalates beyond a certain level.
     As a student's skill increases the attacks he faces in the training hall must be more realistic until, at an advanced level, they are real.  That is, if he fails to perform his defensive maneuver correctly he may well be knocked on his tail.
     At the same time, students must (gradually) learn that a bloody lip isn't the end of the world and it's still possible to continue training even after getting smacked in the ribs.  Chi-ku.