Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Standards, Norms and Rules in Martial Arts

When Kendo was created from a diverse universe of kenjutsu styles, decisions had to be made. What would be included and excluded, what would be the standards and norms?

These were important decisions because those fundamental items dictated how everything would look and act from then on.

The rules in Judo from the 60's are much different than the rules in force today and Judo looks different. Judo and BJJ have the same basic skills, but operate under vastly different rules, and we clearly see the outcome.

Does your organization have a standard of performance set by headquarters, that all of the are expected to follow, or is each satellite school free to interpret the martial art as they see fit; or maybe something in the middle?

These are important and fascinating questions. 

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at the Kung Fu Tea blog that discusses this very topic. The full post may be read here. Enjoy.

Why do the rules matter?
Recently I was invited to help organize a local martial arts gathering and tournament.  I have never done anything like this before (most of my organizational expertise is concentrated in the academic realm) but it seemed like a good cause, so I said yes. Little did I suspect that this new item on the to do list would have me going through my bookshelves looking at some of the classic texts on the development of international trade systems.  It seems that organizing a tournament, or really any event that brings a diverse group of practitioners together, is a lot like creating a set of trade rules.  

Or, to be more specific, several similar debates will come up, and most of those are actually about the institutional standards that you are planning to adopt rather than the more practical problem of how they will actually get implemented.  Within the martial arts we invent games to encourage training and play, but the rules are for fight over.
My specific project faces two sets of challenges.  First, this is a new event, so we cannot just fall back on the old standby of “lets, do it just like we did last year.”  With no inherited institutional memory, one is forced to think carefully about all sorts of rules, standards and goals that might otherwise be taken for granted.  Yet on a more fundamental level, an inherent tension exists between the goal of bringing a large group of people from diverse preexisting organizations together, and then organizing a single game that they can all play.
The rules of games are, by their very nature, exclusionary.  They structure participants’ incentives, demarcate permitted and proscribed techniques, create systems to officiate a contest, and describe the sorts of competitive equipment that can be used in minute detail.  In some cases, the rules of a contest may specifically exclude certain groups from play (perhaps those under 18 cannot join a tournament, or certain divisions are reserved specifically for female athletes). Yet it is ultimately the rules of the game that advantage certain sorts of player and strategies and disadvantage other.  It is our rules, as much as our athletic excellence, that creates winners and losers. And knowing that one’s preferred goals, techniques, strategies or equipment is disadvantaged by the rules leads to different, less visible, forms of exclusion.
This is precisely why so many discussions in the martial arts come down to debates about rules.  Yet even when we leave the sporting realm behind, we find that standards of practice and behavior still shape the day to day experience of most traditional martial arts.  Drawing on some of the current debates in Wing Chun, we might contest the degree of contact that is permissible in Chisao or sticky-hands training. Do we play to first touch, or should every exchange end with someone on the floor? Alternatively, other instructors are attempting to shift the art’s standards of practice in even more basic ways. Given the repeated failures of the traditional Chinese martial arts in ring (by which I really mean on YouTube), some instructors favor a reorientation of the art towards basic skills training on the one hand, and more modern forms of sparring on the other. They argue that this will produce more competitive fighters who can stand up to MMA trained athletes in the octogon.
Others question whether that is (or should be) the goal of traditional Wing Chun training.  Training to win in these sorts of situation naturally advantages certain kinds of specialists, and yet many individuals were drawn to the traditional martial arts precisely because they offered a more well-rounded view of physical culture, health and culture.  Hence when we debate the goals and norms of practice within the Wing Chun community, the actual questions being invoked are often much larger than points of pedagogical efficiency.  Again, the adoption of new standards of practice create winners and losers.  By in large individuals who have specialized in competitive sparring have not been able to specialize in sticky-hands to the same degree, to say nothing of the more esoteric aspects of “internal training.” There are only so many hours in the day and we all have to make hard choices as to how to allot our training time. The idea that one person can really be an expert in all areas, that mastery sidesteps comparative advantage, is among the most pernicious myths of the martial arts. 

There are always economic consequences to shifts in practice. Some careers and schools will prosper, others will recede.  Our community’s standards of practice are contested precisely because they create winners and losers.

Live by the Sword
One of the really interesting things about the renewed interest in combative weapons training (whether in the Chinese martial arts, HEMA or lightsaber combat) is that very often these debates over values and standards can be observed directly in the material culture of the community in question.  Does your organization mandate the use of fencing masks in pairs practice? Or does it instead expect its students to “learn control?” If armor is worn, how much?  The use of nylon training blades allows for a generally less expensive kit.  Metal wasters, in contrast, require practitioners to invest large amounts of money in specialized gloves, plate gorgets and heavy padded jackets.  Thus, the increased realism of the metal blade comes at a very real economic cost.  And in any case, the same high-tech armor that allows one to compete “in a realistic way” also enables a wide range of behaviors that are probably not very credible from the perspective of the historical battlefield (intentionally seeking double strikes in certain HEMA tournament settings comes to mind).
One only has to visit any HEMA Facebook group to find elaborate discussions of these issues, many of which are distilled down to questions of material culture (“Should we create more specialized fencing helmets to allow for more robust thrusts to the face?  What types of gloves should be mandated, or prohibited, in this event?”) Yet these debates are rarely ever focused solely on questions of equipment design. Instead they often place the competitive nature of modern HEMA tournaments into direct opposition with the sport’s more academic and historically sensitive roots.  Debates over training blades, masks and gloves are often spirited exchanges about what sort of place the HEMA community should be.  Once again, this will impact both the social status of economic fortunes of many established or up and coming teachers.  Its very difficult to be a true expert in both aspects of the arts at the same time.
Unsurprisingly, we see similar discussions within the lightsaber combat community.  Should we restrict the wall diameter of the polycarbonate blades to 2mm, or allow the heavier 3mm blades?  Should fighters be able to compete with no gear (Ludosport), minimal gear (mask and gloves, as in the Sport Saber League), full gear (add elbows, knees, chest, as is required by the French Fencing Federation), or are we going to send our athletes out in heavy head to toe protection (the Saber Legion)?
This choice is more than aesthetic, though aesthetics are often explicitly invoked in people’s justification for one standard or another.  Most lightsaber leagues prohibit thrusts as polycarbonate tubes do not flex, and they are unwilling to impose the same barriers to entry on their athletes as the Saber Legion, whose armor tends to be much more extensive and expensive. Ludosport, on the other hand, carefully restricts and monitors the techniques of their fighters so that their game can be played safely no safety gear. But that end up imposing a different sort of barrier to entry in terms of the time and training that is necessary to ensure that each fighter has fully internalized the sports physical culture on a subconscious level before ever stepping foot in the ring.  As a relatively new sport, each school of Lightsaber Combat is forced to debate and establish all of its own standards.  Indeed, they use these standards to differentiate themselves from each other in an increasingly crowded landscape.
As a historian of the martial arts, I should also point out that there is nothing particularly new or post-modern about this situation.  Both Hurst and Bennett’s discussions of the practices that would eventually lead to modern kendo note that the early Tokugawa period was marked by heated debates about the benefits of various sorts of training gear (the bamboo shinai, the gloves, masks and chest piece, all of which evolved separately long before being brought together into a single standardized kit.) At that time a number of traditionalists noted that the habits and mindset of martial artists engaging in competitive fencing with safety gear was moving farther away from the requirements of the battlefield, not towards it.  In contrast they continued to advocate the use of wooden bokken and training by Kata. In their view these more abstract forms of training perpetuated fewer myths about the realities of combat.
The contestation and fragmentation of standards of practice within a given community is not a new phenomenon.  Indeed, the fact that they create economic or social winners and losers suggests that a degree of market fragmentation may be the natural order of things.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Developing Discipline

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at Kinetic Fighting on developing discipline, which as martial artists, we need by the truckload. The full post may be read here.

In my work as a leadership consultant, there have been a few recurring themes. Dealing with failure is one, and discipline is another. These topics are closely related, in that failure can often result from lack of discipline…and in some cases, it is practically assured.

In my last blog on discipline, I made the point that discipline is not dependent on your level of motivation. In fact, it cannot be, by definition. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines self-discipline as “the ability to make yourself do something, even if it is difficult, so that you can achieve a goal”.

The key word in this description is ‘difficult’. When things are easy and fun, discipline is hardly necessary. But, as I learned through many years of soldiering, discipline is what you fall back on when things get tough. When the difficulty is so great that all your focus is on the obstacle, or the pain, that you’re facing, your goal and its appeal can disappear from view. No problem for the disciplined: you’ll keep putting one boot in front of the other, staying the course until the goal again becomes visible. And it will then be those few steps closer, fuelling your motivation to continue.

Not everyone, of course, has this level of discipline.

Disciplinary Deficit

Interestingly, I’ve met people who are somewhat successful, but have still fallen short of their own goals. They fell short not because of a lack of talent, but a lack of discipline. Yes, talent will get you a start, but only discipline will enable you to reach your full potential. 

These talented people who struggle to move beyond their gifts are in need of the same discipline embodied by relatively untalented, yet somehow successful, individuals. Some people will inevitably take longer than others to become elite in their chosen craft, even if working at a higher rate — but discipline will always trump talent in the long run. (You might have previously heard me talk about this here.)

So, what if you lack discipline? What can you still achieve? I’m going to make a strong statement here and say, you can’t achieve very much — certainly nothing meaningful.

There is no silver bullet to being successful, no single ‘big break’ moment. Watch how many people waste their biggest resource, time, by ‘waiting’ for a breakthrough or the chance of a lifetime. I’m sure you’ve heard people say, ‘I could have done (insert achievement here), but…’, as if there is no time and no way to still achieve their goal. Unsuccessful people are never short of one thing: excuses. They will often assign blame to others and fail to take responsibility for their own mistakes. Successful people, on the other hand, are very good at taking responsibility for everything they do, and having the discipline to see things through.

Here’s the good news, though: we can all develop self-discipline, regardless of who we are and where we have come from. We weren’t born with discipline; it’s a quality we can either adopt or reject, cultivate or neglect. Being disciplined is something we must choose to do. 

This is an empowering notion. I’ve encountered successful people from all manner of different backgrounds, and what they all have in common is discipline. None of them drag their feet. Regardless of profession, gender, privilege or poverty, discipline allows the weak to become strong and the strong to become stronger.

Developing Self-Discipline

Discipline will yield best results when applied to things we’re passionate about, as the resulting drive and motivation help us to get going. But, as discussed previously, motivation is short-lived and easily derailed without discipline. So, with that in mind, it’s worthwhile thinking of discipline as a goal within itself, and developing it as such. Then, it’s always in your toolkit for whatever mission you take on. In your mind, you know you’re capable of exercising it as required. It’s a part of your character.

Try this: set yourself a daily task that has no essential value other than to show self-discipline. Basically, you’re exercising discipline for its own sake. There’s a lot of that in the army — I mean, who needs an ironed shirt to be effective in combat? It’s in the martial arts to some extent, too. For you, the task might be as simple as making your bed each morning, if you usually don’t bother. Or, maybe you’re up for more of a mental challenge and resolve to start every shower with a minute of cold water. The less ‘drive’ there is to complete the task for its own intrinsic benefits or enjoyment, the more effective it will be for honing self-discipline. And yet, you can likely see how even these simple activities could have some peripheral benefit. Choose something that’s difficult but has a positive side effect.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Zen, Samurai and Martial Arts

It is a common misconception in the popular understanding of martial arts that Zen, the practice of the Samurai and Martial Arts in general all are mixed up together. Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at the Asia Pacific Journal that makes the argument that this is not the case (or the exception rather than the rule.

The full article may be read here.


The relationship between the samurai and Zen Buddhism is often traced back to the thirteenth century, which saw both a rise of warrior power and the increased introduction of Zen teachings from China. The affinity of warriors for Zen is generally explained by their ability to identify with Zen teachings and incorporate them into their lives. As Winston L. King writes of Zen, “from the beginning of Zen’s ‘new’ presence, its meditation and discipline commended themselves to the samurai, of both high and low rank.”6 The modern Zen popularizer Suzuki Daisetsu (D.T. Suzuki; 1870-1966) was one of the best-known promoters of theoretical connections between Zen and Japan’s warrior class. In his best-selling Zen and Japanese Culture, Suzuki claimed that Zen was “intimately related from the beginning of its history to the life of the samurai…” and “…activate(d)…the fighting spirit of the Japanese warrior.”7 The martial arts are often portrayed as an important point of intersection between Zen and the samurai, epitomized through a number of popular works. The most influential text linking Zen and the martial arts is Eugen Herrigel’s (1884-1955) orientalist 1948 book Zen in der Kunst des Bogenschiessens (Zen in the Art of Archery).8 Herrigel’s contentions rested largely on a personal fascination with mysticism and Zen, combined with confusion arising from a serious language barrier between himself and his archery instructor, Awa Kenzō (1880-1939).9 Through the influence of these and other modern interpreters, the martial arts have come to be seen as a window through which Zen and the “samurai spirit” are accessible to millions of people around the world today.

This article will show, however, that the relationship between Zen, samurai, and the martial arts is neither as close, nor as ancient, as it is widely believed to be. In fact, the accepted connections between the three are largely products of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Japanese thinkers in an era of rapid change sought answers and legitimacy in ancient and noble tradition. To this end, this article first considers the historical evidence to question the supposed close connection between Zen and the samurai, as well as Zen and the martial arts. It then provides an overview of the development of bushido in the late Meiji period (1868-1912), which completely revised popular understandings of the samurai. The article then considers the activities of promoters of martial arts and Zen Buddhism in the development of bushido, as they sought to tie their causes to the burgeoning new ideology. Finally, this article looks at the ways in which the Zen-samurai connection became established in mainstream understandings of Japanese history and culture in the decades leading up to 1945, and how this view continued to be accepted largely without question in the postwar period.

Historical backgrounds

The popular view that Japanese warriors have long had an affinity for Zen is not entirely incorrect, as Zen institutions did have several powerful patrons in the Kamakura (1185-1333) and Muromachi (1336-1573) periods. On the other hand, recent scholarship indicates that Zen’s popularity among the elite was most often motivated by practical considerations rather than doctrine. Martin Colcutt argues that Zen teachings were too difficult for many lower-ranking warriors, “most of whom continued to find a less demanding, but equally satisfying, religious experience in the simpler Buddhist teachings of Shinran, Nichiren, or Ippen.”10 Colcutt further argues that even at its peak in the late fourteenth century, Zen could be called “the religion of the samurai” merely because most of its followers were warriors, but this did not mean that most warriors followed Zen, let alone reach a high level of practice.11 As other scholars have demonstrated, the vast majority of warriors followed other schools of Buddhism, including both established and new orders, with more accessible teachings.12

Among elite military families, patronage of Zen was based on political, economic, and cultural factors that were largely unrelated to doctrine. On the political front, Zen presented a non-threatening alternative to the powerful Shingon and Tendai Buddhist institutions that dominated Kyoto and were closely allied to the imperial court.13 Economically, trade with China was an important source of revenue for early medieval rulers, and Zen monks’ knowledge of Chinese language and culture, combined with their administrative abilities, made them a natural choice as ambassadors to the continent. As Zen institutions grew, the frequent sale of high temple offices became increasingly lucrative, eventually bringing even greater income than trade with the continent.14 With regard to the cultural importance of Zen to elites, Zen temples conducted diplomacy with Song (960-1279) and Yuan China (1271-1368), which were the primary sources of artistic and cultural innovations in this period, including tea ceremony, monochromatic painting, calligraphy, poetry, architecture, garden design, and printing.15

Political, economic, and cultural considerations were the primary factors behind the official promotion of Zen institutions by the Kamakura and Muromachi shogunates, although there were a few military and court leaders who attempted to delve more deeply into Zen practice. The shogun Hōjō Tokimune (1251-1284) is reported to have been a devoted student of Zen, studying under the Chinese monk Wuxue Zuyuan (1226–1286). An anecdote related by Colcutt provides a glimpse into the shogun’s practice, including some of the difficulties experienced by his teacher: “Discussions on Zen (zazen) were conducted through an interpreter. When the master wished to strike his disciple for incomprehension or to encourage greater efforts, the blows fell on the interpreter.”16 The major Zen temples consolidated their positions as wealthy and powerful administrative institutions, but as the medieval period went on, there was a serious decline in doctrinal content. By the late fifteenth century “little or no Zen of any variety was being taught in the Gozan [major Rinzai institutions].”17

The situation was similar in other Zen schools. These underwent a major dilution of doctrine through the increased displacement of Zen study by esoteric elements and formulaic approaches that made teachings more accessible.18

The doctrinal connection between the Zen schools and Japanese warriors before the seventeenth century was certainly superficial, and even after this time, there is little evidence of exceptional samurai interest in Zen doctrine. In contrast, a number of scholars argue that samurai engaged with Zen practice rather than doctrine, and the martial arts are often invoked as supposedly providing such a connection: “The ethos of modern martial arts is derived from the Japanese marriage of the samurai code to Zen in Kamakura times,” when the “samurai practiced martial arts as a path toward awakening.”19 Heinrich Dumoulin’s seminal History of Zen takes a typically vague approach, reflecting the lack of evidence linking Zen and the martial arts. On the one hand, Dumoulin speculates that “Long before the introduction of Zen meditation, Japanese infantry-archers were probably acquainted with Zen-like—or better, Yoga-like—practices such as breath control.”20 On the other hand, Dumoulin cites Herrigel’s problematic account as evidence for a Zen-archery connection, claiming that Herrigel’s instructor Awa Kenzō was “full of the spirit of Zen,” when Awa himself denied having any connection with Zen.21 At the same time, Dumoulin concedes that the evidence for a strong link between Zen and archery is circumstantial: “Like all aspects of Japan’s cultural life during the middle ages, the art of archery also came under the formative influence of Zen Buddhism.

Among the many famous master archers of that period, not a few had had Zen experience. They did not, however, form any kind of association.” Furthermore, “The different archery groups in Japan have maintained their independence from the Zen school.”22

While many promoters of the Zen-samurai connection focus on the Kamakura period, others situate the relationship much later in the Tokugawa period (1603-1868): “The application of Zen theory and practice to the training of martial skill and technique, and the investing of the warrior life with spiritual values, are really Tokugawa phenomena.”23 As evidence for this latter claim, modern Zen popularizers often cite the interest in swordsmanship displayed by a few Zen figures during the early seventeenth century. However, this does not mean that a significant number of Zen practitioners were also swordsmen, nor does it mean that a majority of the innumerable fencing schools had any Zen connections. As Cameron Hurst writes, “We have to be very careful with the idea of combining Zen and swordsmanship or asserting that ‘swordsmanship and Zen are one’ (kenzen ichinyo). There is no necessary connection between the two, and few warriors were active Zen practitioners.”24 Dumoulin also addresses this subject, writing that “During the Edo period, the art of swordsmanship—like the independently popular art of archery—was inspired just as much, if not more, by the prevalent teachings of Confucianism.” He continues: “it is clear that the military arts of archery and swordsmanship do not belong essentially to the world of Zen, despite certain close relationships.

Both arts maintained an independent identity of their own.”25 Dumoulin’s claims in this regard are based on the popularly accepted connections between Zen and the martial arts, rather than historical evidence.

The ideal of the Zen swordsman is epitomized by the writer Yoshikawa Eiji’s (1892-1962) influential, and largely fictional, portrayal of Miyamoto Musashi (1584?-1645) in his best-selling novels Miyamoto Musashi, first published between 1935 and 1939. Relatively little is known of the historical Musashi, and Yoshikawa fleshed out his narrative by adding many details and anecdotes.

One of these involved having Musashi study under the Rinzai Zen master Takuan Sōhō (1573-1645), although there is no evidence that the two men ever met.26 Here, Yoshikawa was inspired by modern promoters of the Zen-samurai connection, and especially the ideas of his close friend, the nationalist Yasuoka Masahiro (1898–1983).27 As Peter Haskel implies, Takuan would have to wait until the modern period to have his greatest influence, as his writings were first picked up by bushidō ideologists in the late imperial period and then revived by businessmen—the so-called “economic soldiers”—in the 1970s and 80s.28

With regard to the historical Takuan, while he had no discernible connection with Musashi, and was not a skilled swordsman himself, he did provide guidance to the fencing instructor Yagyū Munenori (1571-1646).29 In his writings to Yagyū, Takuan explained the advantages of Zen training to swordsmen, stating that the concepts of “no-mind” and “immovable wisdom” applied to all activities, including fencing, but this was only one of his interests.30 Takuan was not exclusively interested in martial matters, and his writings were certainly not only addressed to warriors. William Bodiford summarizes the influence of Takuan’s Record of Immovable Wisdom (Fudōchi shinmyōroku), which was finally published in 1779, as follows: “…Takuan’s instructions have been included in innumerable anthologies addressed not only to martial art devotees but to general audiences as well, and thus they have helped promote the popular perception that Zen is an intrinsic element of martial art training. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that success in the martial arts demands mental discipline, a topic about which Zen monks (among others) have much to say.”31

A similar situation can be seen in the case of Suzuki Shōsan (1579-1655), a samurai who experienced various battles before becoming a monk. Suzuki is often cited by later writers attempting to link Zen and the warrior class, especially as he wrote precepts specifically for samurai and had actual military experience. However, the image of Suzuki’s teachings as “warrior Zen” was created through careful selection of his writings, which span half a century and vary widely. Over his lifetime, Suzuki included elements of Daoism, Confucianism, Pure Land Buddhism, and Shinto in his teachings, and his attitude towards death did not always reflect the stoic detachment later attributed to samurai Zen.

While some of his texts speak of eliminating the self and drawing energy from death, elsewhere Suzuki wrote of his own fears of death and argued against killing. “What I teach is Buddhism for cowards,” Suzuki wrote, later adding that “If it was up to me I’d say I practice just because I hate death….Everybody loves Buddhism. I know nothing about Buddhism. All I work at is not being subject to death…” Of his own abilities, Suzuki stated that “The only thing I have over others is the degree to which I detest death. That’s what’s made me practice with the warrior’s glare. Really, it’s because of my very cowardice that I’ve made it this far.”32 Suzuki’s precepts for samurai should further be seen in the context and goal of his best-known work, Right Action for All (Banmin tokuyō), which addressed all classes and sought to promote his own interpretation of Buddhism as the correct faith.33 Like Takuan, Suzuki desired to demonstrate that his teachings could be applied to all activities and classes, and warriors were merely one group that he felt could benefit from them.

A third Tokugawa-period Zen figure often cited by proponents of the Zen-samurai connection is Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1768), an influential figure in the Rinzai school.34 Hakuin believed that his teachings could be useful to all classes, and also discussed specific ways in which Zen practice could be of use to samurai. However, this should be seen in the context of his desire to spread Rinzai teachings, rather than as evidence of any exceptional interest in the samurai, who Hakuin described elsewhere as “useless.”35 Hakuin echoed the thoughts of many of his contemporaries when he wrote of the “timid, negligent, careless warriors of these degenerate days,” who had declined from a long-past ideal. “They scream pretentiously that they are endowed at birth with a substantial amount of strength and that there is no need to depend upon being rescued by another’s power, yet when an emergency arises they are the first to run and hide and to besmirch and debase the fame of their warrior ancestors.”36 Hakuin’s harsh criticisms of his samurai contemporaries have generally been left out of modern works seeking to place him in a “samurai Zen” tradition.

Relatively few Zen figures showed an interest in the martial arts, and their attitudes did not necessarily align with the interpretations put forth by modern promoters of “samurai Zen.” On the other hand, like samurai in general, martial arts practitioners in the Tokugawa period were largely ambivalent towards Zen.37 Although many fencing schools incorporated spiritual elements, these were typically an eclectic mix of Shinto, Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, and folk religion specific to the individual teacher.38 In his detailed case study of the Kashima-Shinryū school of martial arts, Karl Friday has argued that it was “compatible with almost any religious affiliation or lack thereof,” and various generations of masters drew upon a wide variety of different religious and philosophical traditions to construct their own spiritual frameworks.39 This applied to many different schools of martial arts in Japan. Alexander Bennett describes even early schools of swordsmanship as resembling “pseudo-religious cults,” a condition that became more established during the peace of the Tokugawa period.40 Spiritual elements, especially those borrowed from esoteric religious traditions, were important marketing tools for martial arts schools, as they promised prospective students access to unique and secret knowledge unavailable to outsiders. Later, around the turn of the twentieth century, promoters of Zen took advantage of this ambiguity, and portrayed Zen teachings as having been the dominant force in the typically opaque mixture of spiritual traditions that coursed through the martial arts schools of the Tokugawa period.

From the various perspectives of samurai, Zen figures, and martial artists in the Tokugawa period, the evidence does not support a clear and significant connection between Zen and the martial arts or any “way of the samurai.” Conversely, the texts most frequently cited as sources of bushido in modern Japan contradict many of the assertions made by promoters of Zen. Tokyo Imperial University philosophy professor Inoue Tetsujirō’s (1856-1944) 1905 collection of Tokugawa-era documents, The Bushido Library (Bushidō sōsho), established the core of the bushido canon until at least 1945, and his selection continues to have a strong influence on scholarship today. When Inoue was selecting texts for this collection, promoters of Zen were still in the early stages of engagement with bushido discourse. The texts chosen by Inoue were quite diverse in their interpretations of the duties and obligations of samurai, but were almost all in agreement in their rejection of Buddhism, reflecting the dominant sentiment among Tokugawa samurai.41 The Bushido Library includes writings by Kumazawa Banzan (1619-1691), Yamaga Sokō (1622-1685), Yamazaki Ansai (1619-1682), Muro Kyūsō (1658-1734), and Kaibara Ekiken (1630-1714), all of whom are frequently cited by modern bushido theorists.42

Friday, February 07, 2020

Injuring Someone Isn't Self Defense

At The Way of Least Resistance, there was a post about how the notion of horribly injuring an attacker in the name of self defense really isn't a good idea. An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.

A particular approach in reality-based self defence (RBSD) is becoming increasingly popular: that of learning how to inflict maximum damage to dangerous attackers.
On paper this approach looks like it could have merit - and correspondingly any criticism (of the kind I'm about to make) might seem to be totally inappropriate.

After all, consider this example:

"He came in the door of my office and shot two people already. I saw him drop down for a reload. When he dropped down for the reload, I was able to tackle him and get him on the ground. Then the first thing I saw was his eye, and I gouged his eye out, which stopped him from going on." 
I got this from an article titled "How to Horribly Injure Someone". And yes, it is worded in such a way as to be rather unobjectionable in philosophical terms: first an horrific scenario is created - one where the worst violence is not only justified but arguably required. Next, the use of that violence is posited and you are invited to challenge that use (which, of course, you cannot).
All that's left is for a particular RBSD school to point out that while most people can stomp quite effectively on a can of Coke, they can't really stomp on a human head. It seems that people need to be taught to be violent. Enter the aforementioned RBSD school.

Anyone like me coming along and criticising this sort of approach will seem like a namby-pamby, goody two shoes who is all about "theory" rather than "reality".

And it will seem particularly namby-pamby of me to argue against such approach when 2 other examples where such violence would be totally inappropriate have already been canvassed, namely:
 "A guy comes into the bar and pushes me, and tells me that's his seat, so I reach out, and I grab his hair, and I gouge his eye out." 

"I'm pulling into Whole Foods. I'm waiting for a parking spot for two minutes. A guy comes in with a Mercedes and grabs my spot. I get out of the car, pull him out of his car, throw him up against the car, and gouge his eye out, your honor."
Um - no. I guess those aren't appropriate...

But I'm sorry to say, I can't let this one go through to the keeper. Because, in my view, the "injure your attacker horribly" approach to RBSD is so totally flawed that I can't help but see it as the height of irresponsibility as regards self defence advice/training.

Look, don't get me wrong: in the first scenario where it's justified, I haven't got any issue with the approach (at least, not in principle: if you think gouging someone's eye is easy, you're in for a rude shock). If you have some terrorist or other mass murderer coming at you after killing other people, you're probably going to want to know "how to horribly injure" that murderer. But as a general RBSD guiding principle, the approach is highly dangerous (for you and others) and deeply inappropriate. Why do I say this? For the following 3 reasons:

1. What kind of violence are you likely to face?

Violent crime rates are plummeting in the US and the rest of the developed world. They have been plummeting for many decades now. Your chances of facing a scenario of the kind warranting eye-gouging are slim. That's not to say the chances are non-existent: they just don't register much on the scale of things you should prioritize.

Consider: the odds of encountering terrorism for US residents are still around 1 in 45,808. Yes, they face a much higher risk of murder (1 in 249) or assault by gun (1 in 358) but the latter statistics include killings and assaults that are carried out when people are sleeping, breastfeeding or in myriad other situations where they would be unlikely to have the opportunity to pre-empt the attack with an eye-gouge or other "horrible injury".

Statistically speaking, what kind of violence is someone in the West far more likely to face? How about a domestic altercation? Or (if you are a man) a fight outside a pub with a drunken yobbo? Or (if you are a woman) a sexual assault on a university campus?

In respect of the last of these, consider the case below and ask yourself how "necessary and reasonable" an eye-gouge etc. would have been in the context of such an assault.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Chinese Martial Arts in 1928

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at Kung Fu Tea. A lot happened in 1928 in China with regards to martial arts. The full post may be read here.

1928: What Happened in the World of Kung Fu?
-The Central Guoshu Institute was established by the Nationalist (KMT) government and subsequently held its first national martial arts tournament in Beijing.
Cheung Lai Chuen was in the midst of expanding his chain of commercially successful White Eyebrow schools throughout the Pearl River Delta. This helped to introduce thousands of new students of all ethnic and linguistic backgrounds to the “Hakka” fighting systems and led to Cheung gaining various teaching positions at regional police and military academies.
Chen Fake was invited to teach Chen Style Taiji in Beijing.
– In Kao-t’ou Village (western Henan) deadly violence broke out between two rival martial arts groups who both claimed to function as local militias. One was a chapter of the Red Spear Society backed by regional landlords. The other was called the “Bare Egg Society.” It supported and organized landless peasants who were not eligible for membership in the former group and whose leader felt that they had been wronged and humiliated by it (see Perry, 173-174).
-In Foshan Ng Chung So taught Wing Chun and may have still owned a ceramics shop (the family business). At the time he (rather than the “Three Heroes of Wing Chun”) was the main personality advancing the art in the region. Note that most of his students seem to have been well-off sons of local industrialists and business owners.
Yang Style Taiji Sword including Taiji Long Boxing was published by Chen Weiming.
Wang Xiangzhai (a Xingyiquan master and the later founder of Yiquan) defeated Hungary Inge (holder of a professional lightweight boxing title and a boxing instructor at the Shanghai YMCA) in a public bout in Shanghai.
-In an act of violent retribution Shi Yousan, an officer of warlord Feng Yu Xiang, burned the Shaolin Temple and many of its outlaying sanctuaries. The conflagration consumed the monastery’s priceless library and much of its Qing era martial arts heritage.
-Building on the commercial success of a new generation of martial arts novels and radio shows, the “Burning of the ‘Red Lotus Temple’”, the first truly successful martial arts film, was released to the public.

Saturday, February 01, 2020

The Old Masters Sucked

Below is an excerpt from a thought provoking article that appeared at The Martial Poet. We almost all take it on faith that our ancestors in martial arts were giants and the standard of practice today makes us amoebas by comparison. Is that right? 

The article explores that question. The full post may be read here.

Models of cultural comparison can be problematic, in that they often lead to gross overgeneralization and emphasize the differences between cultures while neglecting their similarities. With that in mind, cultural gaps are one of the major sources of misunderstanding in traditional martial arts.

East Asian cultures are largely Confucian-based, and one of the primary tenets of that belief system is “filial piety”, i.e. ancestor worship[2]. This translates to respect for both tradition and authority[3]

Parents and grandparents are held in very high esteem, and family lineage scrolls are prized possessions. The same is true in martial arts, where lineage is used not only to determine Ryuha or style, but, in many cases, quality as well. Some lineages, especially more direct ones to an original source, are of greater prestige than more obscure sources, even if the resulting technical skill is the same.

This bleeds into the narratives about Okinawa’s martial arts pioneers as well. Books such as Richard Kim’s The Weaponless Warriors and The Classical Man, Nagamine Shoshin’s Tales of Okinawa’s Great Masters, and Mark Bishop’s Okinawan Karate gives us stories full of superhuman feats including levitation[4], puncturing walls with fingertips[5], and kicking ceilings that are over four metres tall[6].

Certain common narratives–for example, the disciple who is rejected several times by the master before ultimately being accepted as a student, or the sickly child who becomes healthy because of their training–are archetypes that are not meant to be taken as literal truth. Buddhist texts often do the same, using identical stories in a wide variety of biographies. In the tradition of Chinese training manuals, authorship was commonly attributed to a long-dead historical figure as a form of tribute[7]–and again, it was understood that this was not meant to be taken as literal truth.

So what are we supposed to understand when reading the obviously embellished tales about the great martial artists of the past? And, realistically, how would these figures have fared in the world of modern martial arts?

Most Things Improve:

In a Ted Talk titled “How Not To Be Ignorant About The World”, Professors Hans and Ola Rosling discuss the misconception people often have that the world is going to hell in a hand basket[8]. The reality is that most things across the world are improving.

Across all sports and physical activities, feats of speed, strength, and endurance are routinely being rewritten by today’s athletes. Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile was a groundbreaking accomplishment, but entirely unremarkable by today’s standards. In 1920, roughly a century ago, the winning time in the 100 metre dash at the Olympics was 10.8[9]. In 2016, the person who finished last in the finals did so in 10.6 seconds[10].

It would be absurd to believe that, for some reason, Karate is the only exception to that trend. While the old masters were, by all accounts, outstanding for their generation, it is hard to believe the common sentiment that they would be superior martial artists if a time machine could transport them to today’s epoch.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The Myth of Chiburi

Chiburi, or "flinging off the blood" is a signature movement in Iaido kata. What does it really mean and what is it for?

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at Kenshi247, where the author explores this questions. The full post may be read here.

In many iaido ryuha, chiburi is a fundamental part of kata. Chiburi, usually written 血振 in Japanese, literally means “shaking off blood,” and the image presented is that of flinging the blood of a defeated enemy off the blade with a deft movement before resheathing. Perhaps mainly due to the prevalence of Muso Shinden-ryu and Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu, some people believe that chiburi is a universal aspect of iai. However, many ryuha do not practice chiburi, and there is the opinion – which has become more widespread recently, thanks to the sharing of knowledge via the internet – that shaking off blood in this way is in fact impossible. If this is the case, then what purpose does chiburi serve? Is it pointless? Why do some ryuha practice it? And was it really ever intended to remove blood from a blade?

Chiburi is a modern reading of a word that appears in the densho of Eishin-ryu as either 血振 or 血震. The original pronunciation is most likely chiburui, which is the reading you find if you look the word up in a Japanese dictionary such as Iwanami Shoten’s Kojien. In his book Koryu Iai no Hondo, the late Iwata Norikazu quotes another Eishin-ryu teacher, Morita Tadahiko, as being correct in his assertion that “chiburui” is the accurate term and that “chiburi” is in fact a mistaken reading (the word “chiburi” that appears in the dictionary actually refers a method of preparing fish). Iwata sensei also notes that both Oe Masamichi and his own teacher, Mori Shigeki, referred to the motion as “chiburui.” However, for the purposes of this article I will use the term “chiburi” as that is what most people are familiar with, and for better or worse it has become common parlance in most iai circles.

Most beginners learning iaido will be taught that the motion of chiburi is intended to fling the blood from the tip of the sword after cutting. In most books on iaido too, chiburi is described as serving this purpose. Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu and Muso Shinden-ryu also contain chinugui (wiping the blood from the blade with a cloth, paper or the fingers) in a small number of techniques in the first teaching level of Omori-ryu (Shoden/Seiza no bu). In Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu at least, this is technically done by putting one hand inside one’s hakama and using that to wipe the blade. In practice however, the shape is performed but the blade is not really wiped on the hakama. According to Mori Shigeki, this is because this because the oil used on swords in Oe sensei’s day would soil the clothes.

Despite more people becoming aware of it recently, the idea that chiburi isn’t really a practical method of removing blood from the blade is not recent – it has been expressed by teachers in Japan for a long time. Kono Hyakuren, 20th soke of Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu, wrote in his book Iaido Shintei:

“Chiburui: this takes the form of shaking blood off your sword and onto the ground.

However in my experience, when cutting with a sword very little blood actually gets stuck to the blade. Nevertheless, placing emphasis on zanshin and spirit through the form of chiburui makes it a useful tool for development.”
Kono sensei was not alone in his understanding of chiburi primarily as a method of developing zanshin. Nakayama Hakudo wrote:

“In batto, chiburi is always performed in each kata before sheathing the sword. This motion cannot clean blood from the blade completely, but it should be thought of as a purifying action. The period between chiburi and noto is very important in battojutsu, as it is a manifestation of zanshin in the kata. Every school of iaido has a different set method of performing this action. A few peculiar methods are as follows:

“In Kanshin-ryu, a piece of paper kept inside the kimono (kaishi, 懐紙) is used to wipe the blade clean.

“In [Shindo] Munen-ryu, the sword is pointed downwards so the blood drips off the tip.

The sword is then brought around in an arc to the left side of the body, thus flicking the blood off the blade.

“In Hazama-ryu, the sword is rested on the left shoulder, and the blood wiped off onto the shoulder.

“In Fuchishin-ryu, the sword is pinched between thumb and forefinger, which are drawn from the base of the blade to the tip to wipe off the blood.

“In Hayashizaki Hon-ryu, the sword is held in the right hand and first brought in a small motion to the left, then in a large motion to the right before sheathing.

“Other schools such as Omori-ryu, Kikusui-ryu, Kaishi-ryu, Tamiya-ryu, Shingan-ryu,

Tetchu-ryu, Hasegawa-ryu and so on also all perform chiburi differently. In addition, there are schools that do not perform chiburi at all. Some schools will discard the saya behind them after drawing the sword, showing the determination of the swordsman as he instills his entire being into the sword. Discarding the saya expresses the swordsman’s preparedness to die in combat (sutemi, 捨身) – once the sword is drawn, it will not be returned to the sheath. In Kyoto, I saw a man perform this kind of chiburi under the title of ‘Takayama-ryu.’ However, I look upon this as an exception to the general rule.”
 Here Nakayama sensei asserts that while not all schools practice what we would today term chiburi, all seem to have an emphasis on zanshin before resheathing, which in many schools is manifested in the simulated or actual cleaning of the blade. Schools of iai that perform chiburi largely seem to be from the Hayashizaki family of ryuha, such as Tamiya-ryu, Mugai-ryu, Suio-ryu and Shinmuso Hayashizaki-ryu. In schools that are not descended from Hayashizaki we often find other forms of cleaning the blade. A form that does not seem to appear in Hayashizaki-derived schools is kaiten chiburi, where the sword is spun in the hand and the tsuka struck. This can be seen in venerable ryuha such as Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu, Kashima Shinto-ryu and some lines of Takenouchi-ryu. 

Other non-Hayashizaki schools, such as Seigo-ryu/Shinkage-ryu, Hoki-ryu, Sosuishi-ryu, Tatsumi-ryu and so on may completely omit chiburi, opting instead for chinugui or, to an outside observer such as myself, apparently nothing at all. Of course third-party observation can only take us so far – for example, discussions with an experienced practitioner of Hoki-ryu revealed that while the school may seem not to have any blade-cleaning portions of its kata, chinugui motions are actually concealed in the noto itself. Despite the numerous differences between ryuha, however, I have yet to encounter a school that does not display clear zanshin – whether expressed during the act of cleaning the sword or otherwise – before sheathing the weapon.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Ma Family Tong Bei and Piqua

Below is a post that appeared at Kung Fu Tea, which describes the rich martial tradition of the Ma Family, which practices Tong Bei, Piqua and other Chinese Martial Arts. The full post may be read here.

An Overview of Ma Shi Tong Bei
By Chad Eisner
My background in Chinese martial arts is varied and diverse. I have been lucky enough to study with some of the best teachers working, both famous and unknown. My first art is Taijiquan, which my teacher Gabriel Chin learned from the Yang Ban Hou lineage. Later I studied Wushu with Ma Chao of the Beijing Wushu team. Ma Chao introduced me to a style called Ma Shi Tong Bei, and since that time I have developed an enormous love and devotion to this style. In my experience, no style encompasses more of the history, science, and spirit of martial arts from China better than Ma Tong Bei. As such, I would like to share my love and obsession of this style with my readers.
Ma shi Tong Bei 馬氏通備is one of China’s most venerated and accomplished martial arts. 

The system has produced top competitors, teachers, and scholars. Ma Shi Tongbei is one of the most advanced styles of “mixed martial art” a phrase becoming more wide spread with the popularity of the sport of MMA. Tong bei is based in history, drawing on methods of the past and from different traditions. But it also has its eyes set on the future. Always growing and attaining new knowledge, the system is still alive and growing.

The Ma Family: a brief introduction.

The Ma Family is one of the most prestigious Hui Muslim families of Chinese martial art. The Style’s founder, Ma Feng Tu 馬鳳圖was a General during the Republic period and was instrumental in the National Guo Shu movement of the same time. His eldest son, Ma XianDa馬賢達 was influential in the creation of the new Sport of Wushu and was a huge proponent of saving ancient methods by looking at other current methods from other sources like boxing and fencing. His son, Ma Yue , my teacher, was one of the first students to receive a degree in martial arts from Beijing University, was among the first San Da (Chinese kickboxing) and Duan Bing (short weapon fencing) competitors in the early 80’s.

The youngest son of Feng Tu is Ma MingDa. 馬明達 Professor Ma is perhaps the world’s leading authority on Chinese martial arts history. He studies and teaches history in Gaung Zhou China as well as Tongbei at Jian Gong Academy with his son Ma LianZhan.

Tongbei Philosophy

The main idea behind Ma Tongbei is one of combining things into a whole. There are different contexts in which we use martial arts. But there are common skills that are needed in all of these contexts. Hitting, grabbing, kicking, throwing, and locking are all trained for various purposes in every martial art. What ever the context, one’s skills in these areas is paramount. The body mechanics involved, likewise, will be essentially the same no matter what context or culture.
Tongbei attempts to balance the skills in a practitioner by combining things with different philosophies and methods. Finding the universal mechanics and ideas behind martial art exercises and integrating them into a cohesive training regimen. The style its self starts from a base of three arts, Pigua劈掛, Baji 八極, and Fanzi 翻子 and then expands by using other exercises, methods, and weapons from other systems and even different cultures. A true “mixed martial art” system. Taking the strengths from one art to help mitigate the weakness of another. Or, more appropriately, taking stock of one’s own deficits and talents and training in order to connect everything so one has no gaps in their skills. For what ever purpose one has to apply those skills.
It is with this philosophy of combination, completeness, and discipline to the art and how that art exists in reality, that Tong Bei distinguishes its self. This has enabled Ma TongBei to grow and incorporate not just other Chinese methods, but those of modern sports like fencing and boxing.

The System

The method is famous for bringing several styles of martial art together into one system. Of these arts, three are identified as the bulk of the system and the main branches that the skills trained hang upon. The three big styles are Pigua, Baji, and Fanzi. Together with Chou Jiao, Tan Tui, and several other methods and sets, Ma Tongbei distinguishes its self as being both traditional and modern, regimented and free, scholarly and practical.
Each of these arts accomplishes a different goal. The name “Tongbei” means to prepare your skills and connect them into a single whole. Strength, speed, balance, agility, and athleticism should be complimentary to each other, without one area being overly developed. These three arts all represent many skills and ideas that should be brought to bear. This was the intention of Tongbei. To bring the skills from every conceivable area of martial arts in order to elevate the practice. Here is a quick over view of these styles and how they fit into the Ma Shi Tongbei training regimen.

Pigua: 劈掛

Pigua is the base of the system. Not only because it is is the parent art of Ma Fengtu, but because it is focused on the basic condition of the body needed for proper athletic development. Low stances and active footwork develop the lower body first by stabilizing the stance and then by quick and agile changes of direction. The upper body is trained with full extension of the arms and active rotations and manipulations of the shoulder.

The arms are controlled by the body, and more so, the core. The lumbar vertebrae play an important part in the movements of Pigua as does the lower abdomen, hips, and latissimi  dorsi.
The main points of Pigua are that the limbs should be at full extension. In the arms this means little to no bend in the elbow and in the leg it means low stances and long strides. The upper body benefits from the full extension of the arms by being forced to move first from the core, since artificial stiffness in the arms is near to impossible to produce while extended. This takes the entire shoulder girdle and Thoracic spine through their full range of motion. In the lower body, the full extension and flexion of the hips is paramount. Stances should be long, low, and stable when stationary and lively, light, and quick when moving. Being able to go between all three levels smoothly and with speed is the goal.

The training benefits the range of motion of the hips and shoulders. Recruitment of the core and back muscles stabilize the lumbar vertebrae and allow power to be transmitted to the limbs. The full extension of the arm increase impact and speed with relatively little limb recruitment. This saves energy and allows one to strike as full force for longer before succumbing to fatigue. The raising and lowering of the body in low stances and jumps is also in service of increasing athletic ability. Being able to move freely at full speed through these sets is difficult in the extreme. But the techniques and body methods are fundamental.
Pigua is named for its two vertical attacks/concepts. Pi 劈 means to chop or split and refers to the downward chopping motions so prevalent in the practice. Gua 掛means to hitch or hang and represents the opposite of pi. Namely blocking, hooking, and otherwise disturbing incoming attacks from the opponent.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

*Lam Hung Pak Mei: The Precarious Path from Koryu Bujutsu to Hakka Kung Fu*

Everyone has their own martial arts journey. Some people encounter a teacher/school/style and circumstances allow them to follow that single path for a life time. 

My own path has been somewhat more circuitous. Tae Kwon Do in high school (when Kung Fu the original series was on TV), then Yoshinkan Aikido as a young man. The Cheng Man Ching style of Taijiquan. Dabbling in Gao Style Baguazhang, an offshoot of Yiquan, a different school of Gao Style Baguazhang, Xingyiquan, Wu family style of Taijiquan, BJJ and finally back to my original CMC Taijiquan teacher until she retired and now with her senior student; while also working on a variation of CMC's Taijiquan on the side. 

Today we have a guest post from Jeremy Thomas, who trains and teaches Pak Mei in Arkansas and has had his own journey. Enjoy. 

*Lam Hung Pak Mei: The Precarious Path from Koryu Bujutsu to Hakka Kung Fu*


My step-father was an avid golfer. As a matter of course, I was to be as well. When I got my first set of (plastic) clubs, I immediately grabbed the driver, and struck a sword-pose akin to one of "Leonardo" from TMNT. We have a poloroid photo of it, hidden away in the attic. Needless to say, I don't golf.

That said, mechanically, a golf swing and a katana swing aren't terribly dissimilar..

Coming from a rough-and-tumble mining town, Joplin, Missouri, fighting was as normal as brushing our teeth. In fact, at one time, Joplin was known as "Little Chicago", due to the high rate of violent crime. Mom took the initiative; and she found Mid-American Taekwondo, under Instructor Steve Atkinson, where I trained until reaching 2nd stripe green belt. I still have the belts, certificates and patches. To this day, I credit my TKD experience for my "clean" kicks. But, with no weapons program, I eventually lost interest.

And, I knew my mother's finances were limited. I'm a "Momma's Boy", and proud of it.

In 8th grade, bullying issues led me to start lifting free-weights; I was the 4th person in a school of around 600, to break 200lbs on the bench press. The next step was the wrestling team. I had learned in TKD sparring, catching kicks works; really well for me, personally. Turns out, I was more inclined toward grappling.. or so I thought.

I lost every, single match that year. "Discouraged" doesn't cover it. And then the clouds parted. The last meet of the year was an Ozark regional tournament; I pinned 3 opponents that day, and took 3rd place bronze in my weight-class. What changed in my approach?

I got angry.

We all know "The best fighter is never angry". I wonder about that; it really hasn't held water in my experience.

After graduating, I obtained a construction job on the road, "storm chasing". This is when I started looking at Budo, kenjutsu and Iai. After a particularly nasty job at a chemical plant, I resigned my position, drive 9 hours home, hugged my mom, and slammed open the phone book to the yellow-pages. I knew as soon as I read it; "Butokuden West Aikikai". The first phone call with Mr. Karriman was fantastically awkward:


"Mr. Karriman?"

"Hi, "Mr. Karriman", my name's John."

"Apologies, sir, my name is Jeremy Thomas and I'm curious if you teach kenjutsu?"

"Yes. We're a sword school. Why do you want to learn it?"

(Awkward pause, as I hadn't considered the "why" for one second)

"Well, for knowledge and the discipline.."

"Better answer than most. Class starts at 7pm. I appreciate punctuality."

"Y-yes, sir!"

Mr. Karriman is a life-long martial artist, ex-LEO, and taught P.T./Defensive Tactics to Academy recruits at MSSU (Joplin, MO). He was, by far, my strictest teacher to date. He had trained with likes of Risuke Otake-Sensei and Obata-Soke. He was a no non-sense teacher, austere and authoritarian.

Just what I needed at the time.

Karriman-Sensei did not give "atta-boy's". Mistakes were ruthlessly exposed. If you were the first one in the gym, you BETTER have it swept. When asked a question, there was no "yeah". It was "yes, sir" or "yes, sensei". He has seen the very worst of humanity in his LEO/Security/Other career, and, in his own words, around 2008, "I'm just now starting to feel a touch of compassion again".

There were times, simply being in his presence was mentally and physically taxing. If you ask any of Karriman-Sensei's students about him, one word will be a common thread: "Intense"

And the quality of martial-education I received under Karriman-Sensei was equivalent to a "Master's in Violence and Defensive-Tactics", from a "Martial Harvard". Everything for use. Economy-of-motion. Tac-con's (tactical considerations). Blades and sticks, galore. OOAD loop. Situational awareness. We even had CPR and Phlebotomy classes. Everything was meant for real-world application.

Daito-ryu is a style founded on the concept of law enforcement and security. The original techniques, the "Oshikiuchi" (secret inner palace art) had been kept within the Takeda clan for centuries, with oral traditions stating the system was codified in the early 1100's by Minamoto no Yoshimitsu (源 義光) who dissected corpses brought back from the battle-field. The musculature was studied for the purpose of learning kyusho-jutsu (vital-point strikes) and joint-lock techniques. This deep understanding of anatomy lends the art well to Law Enforcement and Security, as many techniques are nuetralizations rather than direct-damage blows, though atemi-waza (striking techniques) are frequently used to set-up, "soften" or follow-up to a throw or pin.

Some of my best memories, are of my Kendo bouts with Karriman-Sensei, in the dark gymnasium, after the rest of the class had went home.

Talk about an "eye-opening" experience.

I rarely deal in absolutes, but if I can impart anything I learned from those years of Daito-ryu, it's this: blades are NO JOKE. And I can say that, absolutely. If you are not familiar with the "21ft. Rule", I highly suggest using some "google-fu", and getting familiar.

I'm looking at you, shooters. 

In 2014, I learned about this mysterious and, apparently violent, art of "Bak Mei' through a roommate who had already been training with Sigung a couple years. My daughter had just been born, and eventually, Daito-ryu fell out of my budget.  Pak Mei was available and convenient; I had ZERO experience with Traditional Chinese Martial Arts. I just wanted to train.

Calling the transition "rough", is an understatement. Budo and Kung Fu have very different approaches to, often, similar concepts. Now, at this point, I want to explain, what, for me, was the hardest "transition" between a Japanese Koryu and a Hakka Kung Fu style:

Generally, Koryu is heirarchal, based on rank and seniority. That said, in my dojo, I could make a friendly challenge to spar/roll with a peer of any rank; right up to Sensei, if I wanted to lay in a bathtub full of ice the next day.

TCMA is familial; literally fathers, uncles, older brothers, younger brothers, etc. In my experience, who it is acceptable to "cross-hands" with, as the saying goes, is often unclear, and it seems that there is little desire to increase the transparency of what etiquette is appropriate, in regards to hard-sparring. As one example, a 9th generation student would not be allowed to engage an 8th generation student to a sparring match.

I'm not saying this familial system is "wrong"; how could it be, to survive this long? What I am saying is it is very different from Koryu ettiquete and protocol. To me, Japanese dojo ettiquete seems fairly straight-forward; respect for instructors and peers, self-control, appropriate language, appropriate attire. To myself, pretty simple. The ettiquete of the Chinese kwoon is, to me, extremely complex, if not convoluted at times. I've noticed in my own pai, individuals are confused about who is there senior or junior. Confusion about being a general student, lineaged student, or closed-door disciple.

In my opinion, this confusion leads to a fair amount of, at best embarrassment, and at worst, real problems between individuals or even other styles.

This is something that I am making great effort to research and understand. In time, I hope to be able to contribute to solving these confusions and misunderstandings. Thus, severely limiting the amount of related issues. Unity and solidarity is something I think we should all be striving for.

Now, to the "good oil"; my first meeting with Lam Hung Pak Mei Master Simon Lui Long Chun.

My first meeting with Lui-Sigung was amazing; he showed up after an all-night drive, hugged me and gave me a saber and a staff. He explained the basic movement of the waxwood gwun (staff) with a clever and quite hilarious sexual innuendo, which I don't think would be appropriate to repeat here. Then, it was an immediate dive into Jik Bo (our first form, straight-step), head-first, sink-or-swim.

I managed a fair doggy-paddle.

We trained 10 hours that day. And I was hooked on Pak Mei. Watching Lui-Sigung perform is like watching a shaman of ancient times, vigorously, violently weaving a spell of subjugation over his enemies. When Sigung performs, his entire countenance changes; there's not a trace of "Papa Lui". It may be cliché, but "demon" is accurate a description as anything else.

But, if I was forced to use one descriptive for Lui-Sigung, I wouldn't have to think twice: "Generous"

My Sifu, Ruston Aaker, is incredibly knowledgeable about body-mechanics, structure and breath-work. His dedication and depth of knowledge are concealed by his perenially humble nature; do not let his relaxed attitude fool you, he is incredibly skilled, particularly in sword-play. Working with him over the last couple years has improved my Pak Mei ten-fold, and deepened my understanding of what makes the system unique and special; worth preserving. Along with my 9th generation brothers, Jordan Bywaters and Robert Holcomb, we exchange thoughts, experiences and methodologies which leads to a collective group improvement; there's no possibility of us "not being on the same page". Sifu and myself have several commonalities, including an affinity for swordsmanship, both inside and outside of TCMA. It makes the relationship smooth and comfortable. I would like very much to think he would agree.

The engine that drives Pak Mei is "luk ging", a type of energy expression unique to Pak Mei. Developed through the "Six Parts of Power" or the six areas of martial force (neck/teeth, shoulders, waist, abdomen, arms and legs), and the use of the Four Energies: Float, Sink, Spit, Swallow, we develop a "sacred" ging, something akin to "scared/shock power on steroids". For a closer cultural perspective, the following is a poem from 5 Ancestors Boxing, describing the "4 Energies":


Swallow, like flood waters into the earth

Spit, like an arrow leaves the (bow) string

Float, like wind blowing through feathers

Sink, like a rock cast into a river

The "4 Energies" concept not being limited to Pak Mei, has yielded many different descriptions and expressions through the various arts which utilize the concept. Here is another, more pragmatic poem on the "4 Energies" --

Swallow, Spit, Float, Sink

攻爲吐 - Attack is Spit
守爲吞 - Defense is Swallow
進爲吐 - Advance is Spit
退爲吞 - Retreat is Swallow
快爲吐 - Speed is Spit
慢爲吞 - Slow is Swallow
輕爲浮 - Light is Float
重爲沈 - Heavy is Sink
化爲浮 - Neutralize is Float
凝爲沈 - Stiffening is Sink

Using the "Four Energies" and the "Eight Methods" are paramount; without them, it's not Pak Mei, no matter how fast or clean it looks. The spine is the largest kinetic spring in the body, and Hakka arts have made good use of that fact, to produce maximum force, even when there is little space to "load up" a strike, illustrated by the following Pak Mei poem:


"Hands don't draw back to extend forward."

The "8 Methods" or "Baat Fa" could be consider Pak Mei's basic/common "movements". It's a subject that requires in-depth study, that this article's limits will not allow for. If any are interested, I recommend my Sibak, Sifu Adam Chan's YouTube channel. He has a video for each of the Baat Fa, and explaind them in detail. For now, here is a list of the eight, as my Sifu presented it to me:

"Baat Ging: Eight Methods/Actions"
鞭 Bin: whipping
割 Got: cutting
挽 Waan: pulling
撞 Jong: colliding
衝 Chung: charging
彈 Tan: springing/bouncing
索 Sok: jolting (searching)
盤 Pun: revolving/cycle

It's about generating as much force in as short a distance as possible. Where Bruce Lee had his famous "1-inch punch" we go even further, to "no-inch power". This power coupled with Pak Mei's "3 Gates" targeting system, makes it exceptionally devestating and accurate; in general, strikes are targeted at the eyes, groin and in our lineage, particularly, the throat. We all know the medical implications of those techniques ---

Pak Mei's reputation as an aggresive art is well-earned. 

While it's true that many of our weapons forms were trades with other styles, Pak Mei mechanics are applied to the forms, so they are, in essence, Pak Mei. That said, the best suited to express those mechanics is the pole (gwun). Grandmaster Chuen Lai Chuen traded three hand-sets for a pole-set, at one point. "Continuous Double Tonfa/Crutch" (回環雙枴) is also a Pak Mei speciality, generally reserved for advanced practitioners. "36 Movements of the Big Fork/Tiger Fork" (三叉大扒) is especially treasured by our lineage, as our 5th generation Master Ng Yiu was reknowned for his skill with the Dai Pa (also known as "Tiger Fork"). His Dai Pa was so heavy, three students had to carry it together to the demonstration grounds. The Fork is still on display in Hong Kong. Sigung-Lui once told a story, that Master Ng would "throw a handful of coins" across the kwoon floor. Then, grasping his Dai Pa, he would "hit the coin with the tine, bounce the coin into the air, then thrust it into the wall". He repeated this for each coin. Another notable fact is that Master Ng removed many of the "crouching" sequences from the form-sets, as his large stature made them impractical. As a large man myself, I really appreciate that. In fact, my body style is similar to Master Ng's in build, and I try to model my general "shape" from his postures.

We have many other sets including quiang (spear), huedeidao (willow-leaf sword), zhan ma dao (horse-chopping saber), kwan dao (glaive), qiao deng (bench) and several more. For a weapons enthusiast such as myself, it makes for a good fit.

Over the last year, I've been making the awkward, challeging transition from student-to-teacher. To be specific, it's more of an "assistant-teacher" or "junior-intructor" position. This lead to the creation of the Joplin Pak Mei Athletic Association, the organization I teach through, under the auspices of the Simon Lui Pak Mei Athletic Association of Minnesota. While I've worked with both, I really find myself elated after a training session with the kids class. Their raw enthusiasm and boundless energy reignite my own passion for the arts, time and again. The wonderful thing about teaching children: they don't know what they can't do. They haven't put limitations on themselves, yet. If I ask an adult to do a forward break-fall (front flip) he is going to give me the "huh?" look. If I ask a youth... they just do it. Children are certainly more malleable; and very impressionable. They are watching and listening before and after "bowing-in or out" of class. I have to remind myself; "they are always watching".

"Lead by example" was the motto instilled into me, early in my martial career. In recent months, many reknowned Sifu, Sensei and advanced practitioners have left this mortal plane. Collectively, we have some very large shoes to fill. If not us, then who?

In the spirit of that question, I'd like to share a portion of the eulogy that my Karriman-Sensei wrote for his own Sensei, Richard "Papasan" Gordon, when he left this world:

"I’ll continue to hang out with older folks. I’ll continue to visit them in the hospital, and occasionally I’ll lose one. That’s just part of the trade off. They pass what they learn from their life and the previous generations to us and we repeat the process — mistakes and all. If we had them around all of the time we wouldn’t get a chance to find out how important paying attention is. We’ll probably find that we were talking when we should have been listening.

I learned a long time ago that if you want to learn the fastest, safest, best way to do something, you ask someone older. Do yourself a favor and find an older adult and let them mentor your socks off. It’s kind of necessary if we ever hope to fill their shoes."

-  Sensei John J. Karriman

I'd like to thank and credit my Sigung, Sifu and all my pai brothers for their input, suggestions and support.

A special "Thank You" to my Sibak, Sensei/Sifu Russ Smith, and his student, Brother Joshua Durham of Burinkan Martial Arts, in Dade, Florida. Sibak Smith has been an inspiration and encouragement to me, since we first met at the 2016 LHPM Banquet. I performed a single saber set, which I had to augment on-the-fly, to avoid striking a spectator. Sibak Smith not only noticed, but commended me for the improvisation. Those few words of kindness took root in my very heart. All of the poems in the article were provided by Sibak Smith. Many can be found in his recent book, "Principle-Driven Skill Development". I cannot recommend it enough, especially to those are, or are intending to teach.

Brother Joshua Durham has become a close, personal friend, and we have many great exchanges of ideas for our youth programs. He has also provided me with great materials and insight into the Huedeidao, or the more commonly known, "Butterfly Swords". Learning and seeing his process and methodology has helped me shape my own.

Thank you, both, gentlemen. Not only for your guidance and encouragement, but for simply making yourselves available to an overgrown adolescent, who likely gets over-enthusiastic at times.  

Myself, and the Joplin Pak Mei Athletic Association fully support Burinkan Martial Arts, and all the wonderful things they are doing for Traditional Martial Arts.

Joplin Pak Mei Athletic Association:

Lam Hung Pak Mei Home Site:

Sifu Ruston Aaker's page:

Burinkan Martial Arts: