Monday, January 27, 2014


      All martial disciplines feature various forms of kamae, which are physical postures that practitioners assume just prior to engaging an opponent. Most of them are proactive; designed to provide a measure of protection against an assailant's attack. In this wise, they may be compared to a shield. However, the proper kamae should also bring many of the practitioner's bodily weapons to the fore. Thus, he is prepared to defend himself and deliver a quick counter-attack.
      The traditional martial disciplines wherein the warrior was armed with some kind of weapon often featured “openings”, apparent flaws in the postures that could be exploited by the enemy. However, these gaps were intentional; they were actually traps that were meant to ensnare an unsuspecting foe. The warrior meant to tempt his opponent into trying to take advantage of his supposed weakness. Naturally, the opening had to be rather small; if it was too obvious, his adversary would see the flaw for what it was.
      Using this type of tactic could provide the feudal warrior with a real advantage. He would know from what quarter his enemy's attack would come and he'd be prepared to deal with it instantaneously. He wanted to induce his opponent to attack a target that wasn't really there.
It's interesting to note that the bare-handed martial forms didn't utilize any kind of formal pre-combat kamae. Early films of karate instructors (many of whom would go on to become some of the most famous teachers in the world) show them engaged in jyu-kumite (freestyle sparring), which, as you'll recall, was a new innovation at that time. There is no distinctive placement of the arms and hands.
      As time marched on and more karate enthusiasts began to participate in this new-fangled exercise known as jyu-kumite, well-defined kamae began to emerge. Not unexpectedly, they initially often resembled a type of kamae used in classical kenjutsu (swordsmanship). Their interest was in winning the match. They wanted to score points against the opponent while preventing him from doing the same thing to them.
      With the advent of karate tournaments in the West, the kamae underwent further modifications, especially after the introduction of padded gloves and footgear. Fighters assumed the kamae that one would expect of a Western boxer, whose hands are employed to protect his face and head (thus preventing a knockout) whilst his arms and elbows are used to protect his torso. Because striking below the belt and kicking into the groin and legs are not permitted, there is no need to concern oneself with their protection.
      The differences between the classical forms of kamae and the more contemporary versions may not seem glaringly obvious but a little introspection will reveal the truth. The feudal warrior's primary concern was the destruction of his enemy and the preservation of his clan. Self-defense was of secondary importance. His approach to combat was aggressive; his intention was to draw his enemy into a trap and utterly destroy him.
      After the disappearance of the feudal systems, the emphasis shifted to a more personal level, that of self-protection and defense. And when competition walked onto the scene, winning the game became the first priority.
      In so far as actual self-defense is concerned, you usually don't have time to adopt some kind of formal kamae. Things often happen to quickly for that. It's best to utilize the principles of the formal kamae in common, everyday postures. These are often referred to as shizentai (natural postures). After all, it's from these positions that you may have to move quickly and defend yourself. It sounds simple enough to do but it will actually require some considerable practice. This is why the founder of aikido, Morihei Uyeshiba, said, "Kamae is for beginners. Shizentai is for advanced pupils."

Tuesday, January 21, 2014


      In 2005, I decided to try my hand at professional writing. Once of my students, Dennis Mace, had told me that he and many of his classmates enjoyed essays I'd written about my teacher, my classmates, and myself. So, my busy little fingers went to work on my keyboard and I began to write. And edit. And write. And edit...
      I was living in Unionville, Iowa at this time. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this place (and why on earth would you be?), it is a village of about 100 people, including dogs, babies, and chickens. It features only two real streets – Front Street and Back Street – and most of its inhabitants make their livings by working at local factories, digging in the ground, or both. And one of them aspired to be a writer.
      I had relocated there from Omaha, Nebraska, where I had run a martial arts school for many years. I thought that Unionville would be a fine place to raise my children. I had lived in both Fairfield and Ottumwa (cities in southeast Iowa) and I knew the area very well. My wife at the time was originally from Unionville.
      I had started teaching a small kung-fu class in the nearby town of Centerville and I had worked for the Wapello County Sheriff's Department.
      I was told that writing my book was a waste of time. Thousands of aspiring authors send in their manuscripts to various publishers every day; how could I possibly hope to have my book published? The odds were stacked against me. “Stop wasting your time”, the critics said. “You'll only be very disappointed in the end.”
      But I wasn't about to throw in the towel. No. Way.
      After I'd about finished the manuscript, I reasoned that I needed to find a literary agent to help me find my way through the quagmire of the publishing industry and I was very excited to find such a man. A 6th grade black belt in Kenpo, John (not his real name) had put up a shingle as a literary agent and he was familiar with several publishing houses that specialized in martial arts books.
      John was a great help to me and taught me a great deal about professional writing. He liked my manuscript and sent sample copies to several publishers. I waited with bated breath for their replies... but none were forthcoming. The weeks passed slowly. One promising editor who worked for North Atlantic Books was mildly interested but just as my hopes had begun to rise, John called to say that the editor had gone to work for another publisher. “It happens a lot with editors”, he said.
      Then, just when I'd about given up hope, John quit working as a literary agent. “It just doesn't bring in the money fast enough”, he said. So there I agent, no publisher interested in my work. But I wouldn't give up. Nope. BUT...I was dead in the water.
      A couple of days later I had to drive into Centerville to buy a few groceries. My head had been spinning, trying to think of solutions to the problem of getting my book published but no answers were forthcoming. So, like most people do when they've tried everything else first, I prayed. I've always liked to think that the Almighty and I have developed a very close, personal relationship, especially after the tragic death of my youngest son, Christopher. In fact, you could say we're on a first-name basis; He calls me whatever He wants and I call him “Almighty God.”
      I prayed aloud and told our God that I really needed some encouragement. If writing was something that He intended for me to do, I needed a sign. And since I'm not much good at picking up subtle signals, I asked that the sign be reasonably clear.
On my way home I was still thinking about possible solutions to my problem. I'd all but forgotten about my prayer. I arrived home, carried the groceries inside the house and skipped back out the door to get the day's mail. And there...there it was. His sign!
      I saw a letter from the Tuttle Publishing Company. Tuttle is one of the largest publishing houses in the U.S. and they specialize in titles having to do with various aspects of Eastern life and thought. Any martial arts writer worth his salt would give his eye teeth to be published by such a renowned firm!
      I tore the letter open and anxiously read the brief letter that had been written by one of the main editors. They were interested in my book! They wanted to see the full manuscript!!! And I looked up and thanked God for the “not so subtle” sign... Yes, He wanted me to write. That was clear.
      Days passed and turned into weeks but there was no word from Tuttle. I didn't understand this. If God wanted me to write, why wasn't anything happening? I was confused and very tired. I had spun a very strong cocoon for myself and I stayed deep inside it.
      The telephone rang while I was watching television one evening. I answered and a voice asked, “Is this Phillip Starr?”
      Now, insurance salesmen are about the only people who call me by my real first name and I generally dislike having to deal with them and their sales pitches. Even so, I replied, “Yes, it is.”
Mr. Starr, my name is Richard Grossinger. I'm the owner of North Atlantic Books and I was just cleaning out a few things from the office of our former martial arts editor, Mr. Sykes.”
My heart was beginning to skip beats... God has certainly not forgotten me!
      “And I found a post-a-note taped to a manuscript that you had written. I assumed the telephone number on the note was yours. I read the manuscript and...well, I'd like to publish your book.”
      My heart came to a dead stop. I was light headed, almost giddy with joy. “Uh...Yes!!! Yes, that would be wonderful”, I replied in a sudden moment of clarity.
      And the rest is history. “The Making Of A Butterfly” would be published in 2006 and followed, at the time of this writing, by four more titles (with more being generated). Oddly enough, the name of the book and the saying that was first penned by Richard Bach, which I inserted into one of the first pages of the book (from his novel, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”(...if you've never read it, get a copy today!) was most appropriate to my entrance into the world of professional writing...

What the caterpillar sees as the end of the world,
the Master sees as a butterfly.”

      I had broken free of my cocoon and opened my wings.

Thursday, January 16, 2014


      Some time ago, one of my senior students told me that he desperately wanted to know the truth about a particular subject. I asked him if he was really serious about his quest and he assured me that he was. So, I gave him my best advice about what the process of truth-seeking involves and for whatever it may be worth, I'd now like to share that with all of you.
      First and foremost, you must clearly identify what it is that you want to know. If you don't have a target at which to direct your aim, your arrows will fly hither, thither, and yon. Once you have a clear view of your target, you must prepare yourself for a long and arduous journey.
      The second step involves stepping away from all of your ingrained feelings and beliefs about your “target.” This is much more difficult to do than it sounds. We often tend to become emotionally attached to our beliefs and letting go of them can be more than a little daunting.    
Nonetheless, we must approach the target free of any and all preconceived notions and emotional ties. Otherwise, our feelings about the subject will taint whatever grains of truth we may find. We must, in a sense, sterilize our minds and hearts before we take the next step.
      Like the second step, the third step involves some considerable introspection. You must determine that you will accept whatever truth you find, regardless of how it may impact your life. After all, it may destroy the very foundation upon which you have built your life. So consider, do you REALLY want to know the truth? Are you willing to accept the consequences of your quest? Most of us live like small frogs in a deep well. The frogs look up at the sky, thinking that that is all there is to the world. Few are those who venture to make the treacherous climb to the mouth of the well and those who have the courage to succeed will realize that what they had previously accepted as the truth...wasn't. Their entire belief systems must now be changed and that can be a very painful experience.
      Many people simply gloss over this step in the process and tell themselves, “Well, of course I'll accept whatever truth I find!” But the TRUTH is that they're lying with themselves. They haven't really cleared their hearts and minds; they'll accept what they find ONLY if it agrees with what they are prepared to accept. And this ruins the entire process. What they will find will not be genuine; it will simply be a reflection of the “truths” from which they are unable to free themselves. So you must determine that even if finding the truth should lead you to your own death, you will accept it.
      The fourth step is really just an extension of the third. It is simply this; real truth is absolute. Something is either true or not. There are no gray areas. Two plus two always equals four. When you discover a truth, you cannot color it to make it more palatable. I've heard many people say things like, “If you believe that something true, then it is...for you.” Although these people often mean well, their thinking is flawed. Truth is absolute. If I believe that something is true, then I am either right or wrong. There is no “in-between.” I may believe the sky is purple and wear purple-tinted glasses to reinforce my belief, but that doesn't make it true.
      The next step is that of research. This stage will probably require some considerable time and it may also involve some substantial expense. You must be ready, willing, and able to research your subject as thoroughly as possible. Bear in mind that those people with whom you may speak are often tainted to some degree by their own beliefs and emotional attachments.     
     This also holds true for any written material that you may utilize in journey. I have met many people who insisted that they'd meticulously researched their subject but it was clear that they'd never completed the second step of the process (go back several paragraphs and look it up); they'd researched materials and spoken to “experts” whose beliefs reflected their own. They were simply reinforcing their own biased beliefs, unwilling to approach the path of truth with a clear, unattached mind.
      I sometimes liken the search for truth to climbing a mountain and following a treacherous path that is sometimes very dark and full of pitfalls. The process is exhausting and when we think we've made it to the end of the path, we find ourselves standing on the edge of a precipice. It is dark and we can't see the bottom. We must be willing to jump without knowing what, if anything, is below us. Maybe we are standing on a small three-foot ledge. Maybe we are poised hundreds of feet above a deep canyon. But regardless of how deep the darkness may be, we have to be willing to jump.
      And that's the sixth and final step. You must make the jump; like the frogs in the well, you must be willing to climb over the top of the well. This will require a strong spirit and great courage but it is the only way to find that which is absolute. Will you fall all the way to the bottom? Will you sprout wings and fly? You can't know the answer to this question until you jump into the darkness.

Saturday, January 11, 2014


If I had a magic wand that would enable me to instantly bestow a high level of (martial arts) skill upon my students, I would use it for kindling. I have mentioned this to some of my students over the years and they're always surprised. “Why?” they ask. “Why wouldn't you use it?”
“Because acquisition of high physical skill must be accompanied by an equally high level of discipline and spirit,” I tell them. “And it is the struggle for the skill that makes us strong.”

Martial skill in and of itself is very nice but believe it or not, it's not really the entire goal. The struggle; the discipline, the effort and pain and sacrifice that it takes to achieve high skill is, I believe, the most important thing. It is only through this special forge and tempering process that we can truly come to understand and develop ourselves.

As in the art of kyudo (Japanese archery), the goal is not necessarily to hit the bull's eye. To a Westerner, this would seem nonsensical. But as I mentioned in an earlier writing, we tend to see (Eastern) things through Western eyes. This distorts our vision. We are not seeing truly (which is different from not truly seeing).

No, the object in kyudo and in all of the martial ways is to perfect every aspect of the outer movements. This must naturally lead to perfection of the internal aspects as well. Perfection of the self. And if you hit the bull's eye from time to time, that's nice. But stop trying to hit it. Pay attention to how you're standing, how you're breathing, what your mind is doing (or not doing).

Do it perfectly. You'll understand when you get there.