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.

Thursday, March 2, 2017


by Phillip Starr

You only live twice;
once when you are born,
and once when you look death in the face.”
-Old Japanese Saying

In 1980, a television mini-series that told the fascinating but fictional story of several Dutch seamen and their English captain who had been shipwrecked on the coast of Japan in the 17th century. The Englishman was favored by one of the most powerful leaders in the small island nation and he insisted that the foreigner be taught how to speak Japanese as quickly as possible. This was a daunting task and the daimyo (territorial baron) decided that the responsibility for this task would fall to the local villagers with whom the Englishman had daily contact. If the Englishman was unable to speak Japanese within six months, every living soul in the village would be put to the sword.

The captain argued that this was terribly unfair; he could not possibly learn the language in such a short time and his failure to do so would result in the deaths of many innocent people. Even so, the daimyo's order stood. The foreigner considered the situation and then quickly scooped up a tanto (dagger) and threatened to take his own life if the order wasn't rescinded. He held the knife to his belly while the daimyo reminded him that suicide was against the foreigner's religious convictions. But the Englishman was determined and swore that he would kill himself unless the daimyo canceled the order. The daimyo flatly refused.

The tension was almost palpable as the foreign captain realized that the daimyo had called his bluff. The scene was played very well and I could easily imagine what was going through the captain's mind as he considered his options. A samurai who served the daimyo was seated next to the captain and his body tensed slightly as he sought to feel what was in the foreigner's mind.

Then the Englishman's countenance seemed to relax and his eyes looked far into the distance. He had accepted his fate and smilingly accepted death's coming embrace. As he moved the plunge the dagger into his belly, the waiting samurai lunged forward and wrestled the weapon away from him. The captain realized that he was not, in fact, going to die. He had looked death squarely in the face. The young lady who accompanied the foreigner everywhere and acted as his interpreter touched his shoulder and told him that he had entered into a new life; he had been “born again” because his former life had, for all intents and purposes, ended when he had looked into the eyes of death. He had stepped into a new life.

The concept of losing one's fear of death is, I believe, central to the practice of any martial art. Death is, after all, at the hub of all human fears. It is perhaps the most basic fear that we carry in our hearts and although it is useful in so far as ensuring that we don't act foolishly and do something terribly stupid, it is a stumbling block for those who tread the martial path.

When we face an opponent, whether it is a practice partner or a genuine assailant in a real life and death struggle, we must be ready, willing, and able to fully commit ourselves to the task at hand, which is the resolution of the conflict. This may require that we destroy the enemy. If we are concerned about our own survival; if we cling to the hope that we will survive and escape the clutches of death, we will be unable to fully commit ourselves. We will “hold back” one way or another – physically, mentally, and/or spiritually – and this flaw presents a skilled opponent with an opening that he can exploit. Only when we toss away our attachment to life can we be truly free to live fully and totally commit ourselves to any given task.

But how is this to be done? How can we free ourselves from this base fear? Different groups have approached this quandary in several different ways. Many of them suggest forms of meditation and introspection. Others say that the way lies in religious beliefs. But my own personal opinion is that the key lies in relentless, spirited training. It isn't something that can necessarily be achieved quickly but with concentrated effort, it is attainable. In the practice of individual basic techniques and kata it is essential to imagine that you are facing a real enemy who intends to do you grave bodily harm or take your life. When you engage in forms of two-person practice such as three-step or one-step fighting, your partner must have the intention of striking you with full power. You must respond in kind, without regard for your own survival. You must fully commit yourself to the destruction of your foe. However, both of you must remember that this is only practice and it is essential that you maintain absolute control over your techniques to avoid injuring each other. Of course, beginning students do not yet have the necessary skills to practice in this way and they should never attempt to do so. Rather, they should gradually build up to kind of gutsy practice over time. And of course, this kind of training should always be monitored by a qualified instructor.

It is my opinion that the real spirit of the martial ways cannot be fully realized without this type of bold practice. Yes, I see you over there on the sidelines shaking your head. You say that this kind of training is just too dangerous? Well, it's well to bear in mind that we practice a form of martial art. It's not an aerobics class, shuffleboard, or scrapbooking. Go back and read the old Japanese saying at the beginning of this short essay...

Friday, February 10, 2017


by Phillip “Pete” Starr

The phrase “martial arts master” seems to have a particular sort of image associated with it. Many people immediately picture a white-haired, bearded, wizened old recluse of some kind who spends at least half of his time meditating on the mysteries of life and the other half practicing ancient martial arts techniques that have been cloaked in secrecy for several hundred years. The master is wise in all things; he is able to provide sage advice in every aspect of life, including (but not limited to) personal finances, marriage, virtually every facet pertaining to physical and mental health (and, by the way, he is perfectly capable of treating most illnesses and injuries via his high level of knowledge and skill in ancient forms of Eastern medical therapies), purchasing a home, preparing one's annual income tax return, or even how to field dress a deer.

I can see some of you smiling while others laugh openly. Those who laugh are probably those old martial arts teachers who've actually had students approach them with questions about such things. I have. All of them (that's right; go back and look through the list). How to field dress a deer?, you ask. You betcha. And many other equally bizarre subjects about which I know absolutely nothing. Yes, I have practiced and taught kung-fu for most of my life. I am also an acupuncturist and I hold black belt grades in two forms of Japanese karate. I enjoy practicing iaido, too. But my understanding of personal finances, investing money, marriage and generally understanding women are right up there with my knowledge about how to field dress a deer, rebuilding a truck's engine, or treating schizophrenia. I have, by the way, been asked about each item mentioned in this paragraph.

People will not be easily dissuaded from the image of the wizened old master that they hold firmly in their minds. A perfect example would be my dear friend, Master Arthur Lee (dec.). Arthur was probably the world's highest authority on the old Shaolin Fut-Ga system and his skill was truly second to none. But you'd never guess that this kind, well-dressed Chinese gentleman knew anything about the martial arts. Slightly built, soft-spoken, and extremely polite at all times, Arthur's demeanor never revealed his tremendous skill. He had worked for Sears for many years and was always ready to laugh and share a joke.

My kung-fu uncle, Master Ming Lum (dec.), is another fine example. One of Henry Okazaki's earliest jujutsu pupils in Hawaii, Master Lum was also very highly skilled in Choy Li Fut. And he would certainly be one of the last people anyone would suspect of being a master of a martial art. He stood perhaps 5' 4” (on his tiptoes), had one prosthetic arm (with a blunted hook instead of a hand), and smoked like a train. And no matter what the weather or the event (such as festivals, funerals, and weddings), Uncle Ming always wore a brightly colored Hawaiian shirt. However, he was hailed as a renowned master by virtually every martial arts teacher who ever met him.

Authentic masters may well work as train conductors, plumbers, school teachers, or any other profession. The real ones don't walk around with their chests puffed out, proclaiming their accomplishments. They're ordinary people except for one thing; they've walked a path that most people will never see.

Sunday, January 29, 2017


by Phillip Starr

There is a saying that tell us, “The music is not in the notes, but the silence in between.” This is a very profound statement that can apply not only to music, but to martial arts as well. Just because there seems to be a “space” between the notes doesn't necessarily infer that they are void. The next time you watch the performance of a kata, pay close attention to the the spaces that seem to exist between the individual techniques and postures. Is there anything there at all or are they truly empty?

I have seen many practitioners almost prance through their sets, placing great emphasis on the techniques but the spaces in between their blocks, punches, and kicks were just so much dead territory. They were simply “posturing”; their forms amounted to nothing more than a rather lengthy facade of martial arts poses, as if they were being photographed for the cover of a magazine. Oftentimes, they would drop their hands to their sides before executing the next technique!

In genuine, traditional forms the placement of the hands and feet in the so-called “empty space” is very specific. There are reasons for that, not the least of which is the fact that various striking, kicking, joint-twisting, and throwing techniques are often concealed within them. The spaces are not really empty at all! Moreover, dropping the hands or waving them about meaninglessly provides the (imaginary) opponent with large openings, “windows of opportunity” through which he can deliver an effective counter-strike.

This same idea applies not only to the performance of kata, but to the practice of combination techniques as well. What seems to be an “empty space” in between the individual techniques must not be barren. You must ensure that you don't open the “window of opportunity” too wide and provide your enemy with easy entry. The placement of your hands and arms, your legs and feet, and your physical posture must be very precise so as to afford you maximum protection during the execution of your combination.

In the practice of traditional martial arts, nothing is wasted and nothing is done haphazardly. Every movement, every gesture, is to be done just so. There's a reason for everything, including what appear to be “empty spaces” because they really aren't empty at all.

Saturday, January 14, 2017


by Phillip Starr

Tsutomu Ohshima, one of Gichin Funakoshi’s last students (and now a senior instructor of Gichin’s legendary Shotokan style of karate) tells a story about his teacher that illustrates the importance of the basic techniques of the art. Originally a schoolteacher in Okinawa, Gichin had introduced karate to Japan in 1923. He passed away in 1958. In his last months of life, Ohshima would literally carry him up and down stairs whenever the master was scheduled to give demonstrations. A few days before his passing, Gichin was sitting up on the edge of his bed practicing the basic forefist punch. He turned to Ohshima and said, “I think I’ve finally got it!” Ohshima wept.

Mr. David Lowry, in his excellent book "Moving Toward Stillness" relates a story about the late kendo (Japanese swordsmanship) master, Mori Torao. Master Mori had studied his art under men who had had to use the sword in actual combat. Needless to say, the training was extremely severe; in fact, prior to WWII the art was often referred to as gekken which means "severe swordsmanship." Mr. Mori taught in the U.S. back in the 60's.

A friend of Mr. Lowry's attended a clinic conducted by Master Mori and arrived early. There he found the legendary Master already in his keikogi (practice uniform), preparing for the class. Mori asked the young man if he would train with him for a while. The young man held Mori in awe and was thrilled with the request. Now he would get the chance to see advanced kendo techniques and learn from the legendary master! He was shocked when Mori asked if he might practice shomen uchi which is a frontal strike learned by every kendoka (kendo student) in his first class. "I still don't have it right," Mori explained.

Students who are still in the junior stages of training envy their seniors who are learning the more advanced forms and techniques of our art. The instructor may call out a cadence and force them to practice the most basic punches and kicks, but you can bet that the juniors are watching (out of the corners of their eyes) their seniors in the corner practicing the advanced techniques and forms and longing for the day when they will learn them. They tend to judge progress by how much they've learned; how much they've acquired.

Several decades ago, a good friend of mine named John Hutchcroft, who trained in a style of Okinawan karate told me that students of that particular system never said, "Yes, I know that form," or "I know this punch." I asked why. He explained that to say that one knew the form or technique indicated that one had truly mastered it. Instead of saying that they knew a given form or technique, they would say that they trained or worked it.

It's a small matter of semantics, I know, but it does indicate how seriously these people were about training and true understanding or mastery of technique.

The legendary founder of Kyokushin karate, Masutatsu Oyama, once said that after 1,000 repetitions one could say that one could perform a given technique. Only after 10,000 repetitions could one say that one had mastered it. He was slightly more generous with forms; after 1,000 repetitions one could say that one had mastered a given form.

The legendary Xingyiquan teacher, Hung-I Xiang (who passed away in the 1980's), was known to practice his pengchuan (the basic punching technique of Xingyi) daily. Even after more than six decades of training, he focused on constant practice of the most fundamental techniques. Wang Shujin, one of the most famous twentieth-century exponents of Baguachang was known to train daily in the system's most fundamental form and exercise, the Single Palm Change.

Any given martial art system is finite; limited in scope and curriculum. There comes a time when there are no more new techniques or forms to learn. Having explored every road, the student finds him or herself with only one choice; to go back to the beginning. In this sense, the road is circular and the last teaching is also the first. The greatest secrets lie within the most fundamental techniques and movements. However, they cannot be grasped by those who have not yet traveled the whole length of the road or path.

In my school in Omaha, I had (amongst other things) framed Chinese calligraphy, the characters for which meant, "Beginner's Mind." This was not intended so much for junior students as it was for the seniors. Once one has "gone full circle," one must come back to the original "mind" of a beginner. Only after coming full circle and back to this stage can one truly grasp the more esoteric teachings of the art.

Of course, there are some who, having reached a lower grade of black belt, assume that they have come "full circle." Puffing out their chests, they are proud of their accomplishments but the truth is that they have not come "full circle." They are still traveling on the "road." Those who have traveled its full length do not puff out their chests and rarely speak of their accomplishments. They have, after all, come back to the stage of "Beginner's Mind"; a blank slate upon which they will write and draw.