Saturday, October 22, 2016


by Phillip Starr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 15, 2016


by Phillip Starr

In days long since past, the village kung-fu teacher also frequently served as the village doctor. He might not have had much knowledge regarding the treatment of many ailments but he was usually quite skilled in dealing with various injuries. Many teachers were highly skilled in one of the fields of traditional Chinese medicine; acupuncture, tui-na (remedial massage), herbal medicine, and of course, qigong. This was a tradition that continued for many generations until fairly recently.

In his well-known book, Iron and Silk. author Mark Salzman tells the story of what happened when he went into a local park (in China) to practice. In a short time, he was surrounded by many people who asked if he would treat their injuries and/or illnesses. He knew nothing about Chinese medicine but the people would have none of it; tradition held that anyone who possessed skill in martial arts was also trained in traditional medicine!

As karate developed in Okinawa, various aspects of Chinese medical therapy were taught along with it. The herbal preparations were often mixed with local herbal mixtures and techniques to produce therapies that were uniquely Okinawan.

In my first book, The Making Of A Butterfly (those of you who haven t read it should pick up a copy!), I relate the story of watching my teacher perform acupuncture on his lovely wife. Scared me to death! Remember - I was just a young American who had never even HEARD of shoving needles into people like that! But my teacher assured me that this was a very common form of Chinese medicine and over the years, he taught me as best he could. I would later construct a small clinic within my martial arts school and treat many, many patients.

It is terribly unfortunate that the tradition of teaching healing techniques along with martial arts techniques and forms has, for the most part, been lost. I require all of my senior students to learn certain aspects of Chinese medicine as well as first-aid and CPR. It is important for them to understand what Mei (my teacher s beautiful wife) once told me& that healing and hurting are two sides of the same coin. To truly understand and acquire real martial skill, one must understand both sides of the coin. And, my teacher added, as we move down the path of life we all have more opportunities to apply healing skills than destructive, fighting skills.

Moreover, the principles of Chinese and old, traditional Okinawan martial arts are based upon the principles that are found in their traditional healing arts. To gain a true and full understanding of these principles, one must study the healing arts. And, I would add, to truly understand the essence and spirit of martial arts, one must acquire some measure of skill in the arts of healing.

Sunday, October 2, 2016


by Phillip Starr

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

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

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

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

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

Good teachers and good students need each other.  


by Phillip Starr

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

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

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

*Available on and fine bookstores.