Wednesday, December 31, 2014


by Phillip Star

In the classic martial arts movie, “Enter the Dragon”, the famous martial arts actor of the day, Bruce Lee, faced off against the opposition's main axe-man who began the match by tossing a board into the air and breaking it with a quick thrust. “Boards don't hit back”, Lee sneered...and then went on to pummel his foe into the ground. Another well-known martial arts figure once stated that, “Bricks and boards give a resounding thwack, but bricks and boards don't hit back.”

True enough. I've heard the same thing from numerous martial arts teachers over the years but I always wondered if they'd ever considered that heavy bags and striking posts don't back, either. I realize that they were saying simply that the ability to break various objects with the bare hands and feet are not necessarily indicative of one's martial skill in so far as fighting is concerned, but then...neither is striking the heavy bag. I think that people who makes such statements are missing the point. After all, silhouette targets that are used by firearms enthusiasts don't shoot back, either...

They would likely argue that hitting the heavy bag fosters the development of strong technique (if it's done correctly... and a great many people use it incorrectly). I think I would counter with the same argument regarding board and brick breaking. More importantly, the breaking techniques promote the development of a strong spirit and teach practitioners how to extend their yi (mind, intention, will...), which isn't always the case with using pieces of equipment like the heavy bag. Different training devices assist in the development of different aspects of a chosen martial discipline; there is no single piece of equipment that helps to develop all of them.

The legendary Masutatsu (“Mas”) Oyama, founder of the Kyokushin style of Japanese karate, emphasized the importance of the breaking techniques because he regarded them as invaluable aids in the promotion of a strong spirit. Although he said that they can be used as a sort of barometer by which we can measure the power of a given technique, the main idea was the development of an indomitable spirit and it is this point that so many contemporary practitioners miss.

If you fail to make a particular break, it's because:
  • Your technique is flawed one way or another
  • You failed to extend your yi properly, or
  • Your spirit is weak

Or any combination thereof. All of these things are necessary for the development of real fighting skill. At the same time, you can hit the heavy bag incorrectly (which is something that many people do everyday without knowing it), you can strike it without extending your yi (ditto), and it does not necessarily reflect a lack of spirit. So there.

The breaking techniques were not intended to be used as a form of showmanship. Back in the old days it was practiced primarily in the training hall, out of sight of the public at large. It was when the martial arts were brought to the West that these practice routines were used to enthrall audiences. The idea snowballed and before long, we had people performing all kinds of breaking techniques that had little to no value as far as training goes, but the public loved them! Of course, the same happened with freestyle sparring and the demonstrations of forms.

So, to those who say that breaking techniques are without value, I say, “take a closer look.” You'll be surprised at what you find...

Monday, December 1, 2014


by Phillip Starr

For those may not have heard of him, Alan Watts (6 January 1915 – 16 November 1973) was a British-born philosopher, writer, and speaker, best known as an interpreter of Zen. A one-time Episcopal priest, the church still utilizes some of his writings to this day. He was a prolific writer, particularly after studying Eastern ways of thought. authoring some 25 books and many articles. His first book, “The Way of Zen” (1957) remains a classic to this day. I was most fortunate in being able to meet him at a summer seminar in 1973 shortly before his untimely demise in an airplane crash. I learned more from him than I ever suspected at the time and a number of things that he told me that day have stayed in my mind ever since. This article is in regards to one of them.

Few people, even most fans of his, know that Watts was an avid practitioner of aikido. I found out because I was young, didn't know much about him or his fame (thus, I wasn't awed by him in the least until a few hours later), and I asked him directly, “Mr. Watts, do you practice martial arts?” He glanced sideways at me and I told him that I was a teacher of Chinese martial arts. It was then that he admitted to studying....and loving, aikido. In fact, he was very interested in all of the martial ways and because it was a rarity to find a practitioner of Chinese martial arts in those days, we talked at some length.

As we discussed martial arts he said, “Any physical activity taken to its extreme, becomes s spiritual path and leads to awakening.” I asked what he meant by, “extreme?” I remember that he smiled as he answered me. “If you strive for perfection in it, it eventually becomes a spiritual experience.”

Even something” I asked.

He chuckled. “Yes, even tennis...or baseball, or crocheting. Any activity.”

I've mulled this over for many years now. The operative phrase in his answer is, “strive to perfect.” If we attend classes on a regular basis, that isn't enough. If we simply engage in the practice of basic techniques, kata, two-person isn't enough. We have to CONSCIOUSLY strive to perfect our skills as this leads towards self-perfection. It is the underlying theory of all martial arts. It is why we continue to practice for decade after decade. We don't do it for the exercise, although that certainly provides many wonderful side benefits. And we don't do it for self-defense; heck, we've acquired more than adequate self-defense skills after a fairly short time in training. We (should) do it because we are aiming at self-perfection.

Is such a thing even possible? I would have to answer, “No, not in this lifetime.” But that shouldn't discourage you in the least.