Friday, April 28, 2017


by Phillip Starr

Do what you cannot possibly do.
Make the impossible possible.”
-Masutatsu Oyama
Founder of Kyokushin karate

I first heard those words many, many years ago and I took them to heart. Martial arts were my great passion and they remain so to this day. I wanted to push the envelope; to see just how far I could go. I read about numerous masters of times past and determined that I would do what they'd done. After all, they weren't gods; they were men just like me. If they could do it, I could do it.

Many of you are probably shaking your heads and thinking, “What a fool... That's a fine way to get hurt very badly. Or killed. You were certainly a very foolish young man.” And looking back on those days, I'd have to agree with you. But I wasn't stupid.

I read about the legendary “arrow catch”, which is an extremely dangerous technique that involves catching an arrow in mid-flight. The legendary “godhand”, Master Masutatsu Oyama, said that of 1,000 students, only one or two would attempt to learn such a technique. And of the 1,000 who set out to perform it, only a couple who be successful. It kind of makes you wonder what happened to the 998 who failed, doesn't it? But I didn't consider that. I was never much good at math, anyway.

I was still in college and young enough to think that I was invincible; that I could be one of the “one or two” who would succeed. “If they can do it, I can do it”, I thought. One of my students was a very skilled archer who owned a good recurved bow and he agreed to work with me, We spent months practicing together. Eventually, I would face him at the opposite end of a basketball court. An arrow-net was placed behind me to prevent arrows from striking the walls of the old college gym. Just as he released the arrow, I'd pivot and catch it.

This isn't something that can be accomplished after only a couple of weeks of practice. I may have been foolhardy but I wasn't stupid. We started out by having me simply stand off to one side and observe how quickly the arrows passed by me. Then I would reach out and try to grab them. It was a slow and gradual process that required some considerable time. I would go on to demonstrate this technique at several demonstrations.

I also wanted to test myself by breaking large stones. Starting with very small ones, I eventually succeeded in cutting a 25 lb. stone with my sword-hand. My hand shook uncontrollably for three days but I was pleased that I had accomplished what I'd set out to do. I continued to train until I could shatter a “paver” brick (which is a little more than an inch thick) with my fingertips and split a coconut with a single blow.

Now, I'm not bragging. I've never been one to indulge in self-aggrandizement. I've never had much time for people who do. The point of this short essay is simply this; although what I pushed myself to do was often very dangerous, it had a very profound impact on my mind and spirit. Martial arts isn't just about learning some exotic forms of kicking and punching; it's also about pushing yourself beyond what you perceive as your limits. It's about setting goals and then going beyond them. If you mindlessly practice a few punches and kicks once or twice a week, you're not really practicing martial arts; you're dancing. Without proper spirit, martial arts devolve into little more than some nifty-looking calisthenics.

Certainly, I'm not suggesting that you run to the nearest sporting goods store and purchase a good bow and a handful of arrows or drive through the countryside until you can find a 20 lb. stone. After all, techniques such as the arrow-catch are fraught with danger and anyone who aspires to do them must train very carefully and gradually. You must push yourself slowly, step by step. Remember that when I trained to perform these things I was young, in excellent physical condition (I suppose my mental condition could be called questionable), and I had practiced martial arts for a very long time.

What I'm suggesting is that you strive to push yourself past your “limits.” After all, it's YOU who set those limits in the first place! It's going to take some considerable work and sweat to get to the very edge of your limits... and then it'll require more than just sweat to go beyond them; it's going to take time, guts, and belief in yourself.

Monday, April 17, 2017


by Phillip “Pete” Starr

Although the term, "kung-fu" (also, "gongfu"), serves as a generic term for Chinese martial arts, use of the term in that regard is actually a misnomer. As most of you already know, "kung-fu" refers to a fine, high level of skill that is developed over a period of time through hard work. Thus, "kung-fu" can actually be applied to any martial discipline as well as many other activities that require rigorous and regular practice over a period of time.

Throughout the Orient it is understood by most persons who endeavor to train in any martial form that substantial skill cannot be acquired quickly and any teacher who promises otherwise is nothing more than a charlatan whose main interest (and skill) lies in separating a student's money from his wallet. At the same time, there are those who come from the other end of the spectrum and insist that students must practice this or that training routine (and pay for it every month, of course) for an extraordinarily long period of time if he or she hopes to acquire a high level of skill.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle and students must be careful about selecting a good teacher.

In the West we are accustomed to things being accomplished fairly quickly. We have microwaveable meals (which aren't really food....), instant entertainment (just turn on the television), quick diets (which don't work), and so on. When we want something, we want it NOW. When martial arts were first introduced to the West, a number of enterprising instructors realized that a great deal of money could be made by short-cutting training routines and providing forms of "instant martial arts." My own teacher envisioned this happening although his young pupil (moi) just couldn't see it coming down the pike. But it arrived like a thunderbolt and it's here to stay.

No doubt, some of the old, traditional training routines were extremely tedious but they were necessary for the development of genuine martial skill (as opposed to what is presented nowadays as being martial skill). Westerners, being the way they are, sought to find short-cuts through much of what they regarded as "unnecessary, old-fashioned, unrealistic" training. Many honestly believed that they had found ways to shorten the training process but the truth is much different.

My teacher likened the process to making tea. To make tea the old way takes time and any attempt at hurrying the process will only ruin the drink. To be sure, we now have "instant tea" but my teacher couldn't stand the taste of it. There's tea and then there's tea.

Even so, most of those who have undertaken the study of a traditional martial discipline with the understanding that it's going to take time to develop real skill will still often catch themselves "shaving corners" and trying to take "big steps." Such attempts at hurrying the training process and the evolution of genuine skill almost always result in frustration and/or injury.

I knew one young man who wanted to develop large callouses of his punching knuckles. He beat the living bejeezus out of his striking post (which was incorrectly made and was akin to hitting a tree) and mangled his hands...he didn't realize that hardening the hands is NOT the primary objective of training with this particular device, and he finally had to give it up. Of course, he then argued that training with the post was "old-fashioned", unnecessary, and unrealistic.

Another fellow dreamed of being able to execute his form with the same precision, grace, and power as his teacher. He trained his form for 2-3 hours every day, suffering pulled muscles as well as numerous other minor injuries. He ultimately gave up, insisting that forms were "old-fashioned", unnecessary, and unrealistic.

And yet another student envied the uncanny fighting skill of his seniors. He dreamed of becoming an invincible warrior and practiced shadow-boxing and sparring incessantly. When he engaged in sparring practice he often went at it with a bit too much power and the wrong mind-set (he was determined to "win"), so, of course, he often went home with bruises, cracked ribs, black eyes, and many other booboos. He finally gave up, saying that traditional training was "old-fashioned", unnecessary, and unrealistic.

Progress in real martial arts comes in what I call "baby steps"; little steps that are sometimes too small to even measure or notice right away. Regular practice is essential. After all, a toddler will never learn to walk if he or she only tries to do it once in a while. So, if you train (at home) just every now and then, you can be assured that you're getting nowhere. On the other hand, if you're training at home 3 days a week or more and you're taking your time (taking "baby steps"), you can be confident that you're developing genuine skill - and if you keep at it long enough you'll develop real "kung-fu."

Wednesday, April 12, 2017


by Phillip Starr

     At the very beginning of any form, there is a brief period where you just stand still in a "natural" stance and relax. You're not "damp-rag" relaxed but you're not like a wooden soldier, either. In the internal schools of China (Taijichuan, Xingyichuan, and Baguazhang) this is known as the state of "wuji" (also, "wu-shi") and although most contemporary practitioners tend to ignore it, it's really a very important part of the form. In fact, it's so important that if you don't do it right, your entire form is wong Other martial arts - from aikido to karate to iaido - also use this concept and "positioning" but they call it by different names.

     To understand how to stand correctly in wuji, you have to dig into the fundamental concepts of Chinese cosmology. You're all familiar with the double-fish diagram of the Taiji ("Tai-Chi"). Yin and Yang. Yin represents the negative polarity and Yang is positive, although each one contains an element of the other - the potential to turn into the other. Extreme Yin eventually becomes Yang and extreme Yang turns into Yin.

     It is said that when the universe was created, that's when Yin and Yang were created (the stage of Taiji was created) and gave birth to the "ten thousand thing" - which, in ancient Chinese terminology - means "everything."

     But what existed before the creation of Yin and Yang? What was there before the Big Bang?


    The kung-fu teachers who first tried to teach their arts to Americans in a second language (Engrish) had a tough time trying to find the right
word(s) to define the state of wuji. Many of them settled on "nothingness" or even "vacuum." But using those words only created more confusion.

     Their students would stand in the position/condition of wuji and just be "blank." Like a wet rag. No-thing. And that's not wuji at all.

     Before the creation of Yin and Yang there was the condition of wuji but it wasn't "nothing." It wasn't a vacuum. You can't get "something" out of "nothing." And yet, what wuji is, is neither Yin nor Yang.

     It is Potential. That is, it has the potential to expand outward and become something. It has the potential to explode into Yin and Yang.

     I know this sounds like so much Oriental mumbo-jumb but listen up, Buckwheat.

     When you stand at the beginning of your form you must be neither Yin nor Yang. You must be in (an imitation of) the state known as wuji. You aren't "empty." You have the potential to move and become something...

     When an iaido practitioner kneels (in seiza) and prepares to execute a particular kata (form), he/she begins by relaxing and breathing down to the tanden (dantien). He/She makes three calm breaths before performing the first movement. During this time, he/she is not yet "performing the kata." There is the potential for movement but movement has not yet occurred. It is the stage of wuji.

     If you think about the first movement (or any movement at all), if you think about what you're's not wuji because you're moving. Internally. And that's going to affect the way you begin - and finish - your entire form. Your body will be too tense or tensed in the wrong places, your mind is distracted and running ahead of where the body is, and your spirit is scattered. So is you chi. Remember that where your yi goes, your chi goes.

     So reflect on this concept for a while and try to get a feel for what it is. Then apply it to your forms and the rest of your practice.


Sunday, April 2, 2017


by Phillip “Pete” 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.  

Monday, March 27, 2017


by Phillip "Pete" Starr

When I was a young, aspiring martial arts teacher, I was absolutely convinced that there were, concealed within various martial arts systems, special secret techniques that were taught only to the most advanced practitioners. My teacher insisted that this wasn't true but I thought he was just trying to pacify me. I KNEW there were silver bullets and come hell or high water, I was determined to find them.

The years passed and I spoke to other well-known martial arts masters of the day. Like my teacher, they assured me that there are no silver bullets. Even so, it took me some time to finally discover the truth of their words. There are only basic techniques and various principles.

My teacher's teacher, Zhang Zhaodong, spent his younger years working as a bodyguard and bounty hunter. He became very highly skilled in both Xingyiquan and Baguazhang and came to be regarded as something of a national hero, who stood for truth, justice, and Mom's rice pudding. In his twilight years (I believe he was in his 70's), he was approached by a group of residents who lived in a particular area of the city in which he lived.

They told him that a group of young ruffians had been bullying them, forcing them to pay for protection from bad elements. Several of the older folks had been beaten for refusing to comply. They asked their folk hero for help.

Although he was silver haired, Zhang did not hesitate or refuse. He placed himself on the street where these younger hoodlums frequently walked. It didn't take long for them to notice him and they walked up to him, telling him that he had to pay for their protective services. Naturally, Zhang suggested that they put their services where the sun doesn't shine and they lunged at him, intent on teaching this old man a lesson he wouldn't soon forget.

Witnesses said that Zhang became a blur and within seconds, the three young pukes were on the ground& unconscious. Many people (including a number of his students) said that he certainly must have applied some kind of secret techniques to defeat three young men but Zhang insisted that he'd just used some very basic movements. There are no secret techniques.

There are special principles upon which all of the techniques are based. These principles can only be learned gradually. After several decades of practice, I have come to understand that principles are the important thing& regardless of technique. Without the proper application of certain principles, technique is worthless.

Students often wonder why I usually begin drills with a basic reverse punch (pengquan). “Surely”, they think, “We have learned this technique! We've learned the principle(s) that make it work, too. Why do we keep repeating it?” And the answer is, “No, you haven t learned all of the principles. Yet. Keep practicing and you will eventually understand. A reverse punch isn't just a reverse punch. A front kick isn't just a front kick.”

There's more to it than you can see. What is seen is just the outer shell. But like a glacier, there's much more that lies beneath the outer surface. You must study, practice, and find these principles. A good teacher is indispensable. Just as “Enlightenment (nirvana) isn't what you think”, so it is with the simple reverse punch.

Monday, March 20, 2017


by Phillip Starr

All martial disciplines feature various forms of kamae, which are physical postures that practitioners assume just prior to engaging an opponent. Most of them are proactive; designed to provide a measure of protection against an assailant's attack. In this wise, they may be compared to a shield. However, the proper kamae should also bring many of the practitioner's bodily weapons to the fore. Thus, he is prepared to defend himself and deliver a quick counter-attack.

The traditional martial disciplines wherein the warrior was armed with some kind of weapon often featured “openings”, apparent flaws in the postures that could be exploited by the enemy. However, these gaps were intentional; they were actually traps that were meant to ensnare an unsuspecting foe. The warrior meant to tempt his opponent into trying to take advantage of his supposed weakness. Naturally, the opening had to be rather small; if it was too obvious, his adversary would see the flaw for what it was.

Using this type of tactic could provide the feudal warrior with a real advantage. He would know from what quarter his enemy's attack would come and he'd be prepared to deal with it instantaneously. He wanted to induce his opponent to attack a target that wasn't really there.

It's interesting to note that the bare-handed martial forms didn't utilize any kind of formal pre-combat kamae. Early films of karate instructors (many of whom would go on to become some of the most famous teachers in the world) show them engaged in jyu-kumite (freestyle sparring), which, was a new innovation at that time. There is no distinctive placement of the arms and hands.

As time marched on and more karate enthusiasts began to participate in this new-fangled exercise known as jyu-kumite, well-defined kamae began to emerge. Not unexpectedly, they initially often resembled a type of kamae used in classical kenjutsu (swordsmanship). Their interest was in winning the match. They wanted to score points against the opponent while preventing him from doing the same thing to them.

With the advent of karate tournaments in the West, the kamae underwent further modifications, especially after the introduction of padded gloves and footgear. Fighters assumed the kamae that one would expect of a Western boxer, whose hands are employed to protect his face and head (thus preventing a knockout) whilst his arms and elbows are used to protect his torso. Because striking below the belt and kicking into the groin and legs are not permitted, there is no need to concern oneself with their protection.

The differences between the classical forms of kamae and the more contemporary versions may not seem glaringly obvious but a little introspection will reveal the truth. The feudal warrior's primary concern was the destruction of his enemy and the preservation of his clan. Self-defense was of secondary importance. His approach to combat was aggressive; his intention was to draw his enemy into a trap and utterly destroy him.

After the disappearance of the feudal systems, the emphasis shifted to a more personal level, that of self-protection and defense. And when competition walked onto the scene, winning the game became the first priority.

In so far as actual self-defense is concerned, you usually don't have time to adopt some kind of formal kamae. Things often happen to quickly for that. It's best to utilize the principles of the formal kamae in common, everyday postures. These are often referred to as shizentai (natural postures). After all, it's from these positions that you may have to move quickly and defend yourself. It sounds simple enough to do but it will actually require some considerable practice. This is why the founder of aikido, Morihei Uyeshiba, said, "Kamae is for beginners. Shizentai is for advanced pupils."

Tuesday, March 14, 2017


by Phillip Starr

Most karate enthusiasts have heard the classical quote from the Father of Japanese Karate, Gichin Funakoshi, “Karate ni sente nashi.” This may be translated as, “In karate, one does not make the first move.” Many students and instructor alike believe that this means that one should not make the initial attack. This, they say, also implies that one should not use karate to bully other people or start fights. It's a nice thought but it shows a total misunderstanding of the quote.

One of Gichin's best pupils, Shigeru Egami, put it very succinctly:

When you are as one with your opponent and move naturally with him without opposition, then there is no such things as a first strike. The meaning of “karate ni sente nashi” cannot be understood until you achieve this state.”

Egami actually makes his statement with two very important points. It's essential that you understand both of them. The first statement tells us, “When you are as one with your opponent...” This is what is known as “connecting” with the opponent. It is not a skill that can be achieved quickly. It requires a great deal of concentrated, repetitive practice over time. Some regard it as a sort of mystical ability that is realized by very few. Perhaps it is a mystical thing; I never thought of it in those terms. But it can be attained by anyone who's willing to put in the required time and effort.

Learning to connect with your opponent isn't necessarily something that is consummated in a flash of blinding light. For centuries there have been established, progressive training routines that, when practiced correctly, will ultimately lead to the realization of this unique skill. And therein lies the rub; most martial arts practitioners lack the patience and resolve to continue with these routines (which, by the way, are outlined in my book, “Martial Maneuvers”).

Once this ability is achieved, you will “feel” your opponent's intentions and know when he is about to attack. His attack doesn't begin when he begins to move a particular part of his body. Rather, it begins in his mind. When he decides (in his mind) to strike you, his brain must then give the command to attack. It will send signals to various parts of his body and the physical attack commences. If you can learn to “feel” the moment when his brain gives the command to the body to go into “attack mode”, you can preempt the attack with a swift, overwhelming counter-offensive. The opponent is unable to defend himself because he is in the “attack mode.” To switch gears and go into a “defense mode” simply requires too much time and he is actually helpless!

The second statement, made as a part of the first one is, “...move naturally with him (your opponent) without opposition...” This indicates that you have taken control of what is known as “the interval.” You are, in fact, controlling your opponent's movements without his being aware of it. The concept of interval is a bit difficult to describe; it is something that must be directly experienced.

Basically, it may be defined as “the rhythm of the conflict.” The next time you watch a professional boxing match, pay close attention to the rhythm of the bout. In the opening round the two combatants “feel” each other; they try to get a sense of the opponent's timing, rhythm, distance, and spirit. Before long, one fighter will begin to control the match. If you watch carefully, you'll notice that one fighter begins to control his adversary's movements! Once he is able to do this he can “set up” his rival, causing him to move exactly as he wishes. As each new round begins, the “leader” immediately takes charge of the rhythm of the fight and his rival has no idea of what's happening. Naturally, this gives him an enormous advantage over his unsuspecting opponent. Consequently, he is usually the victor and walks home with the prize.

This is a skill that can be acquired only through many, many hours of practice with a variety of partners. Reading about it or intellectualizing about it will be of minimal help. Only hands-on experience will foster its development.

So, back to the beginning of this essay, “Karate ni sente nashi.” Master Egami is, of course, absolutely correct. Only one who has learned to connect with his opponent and control the interval can truly understand this teacher's enigmatic statement. As with most things in the martial arts, there's a lot more to it than initially meets the eye.