Master Willie Lim is known for his expertise at analyzing and interpreting kata and he has traveled around the world making a difference in our understanding of the real self defense found in every traditional martial art.
With the advent of MMA and the long-time marketability and preference for kick and punch martial arts styles, many argue that the true essence of traditional martial arts have been diluted, and in some cases, lost for all time. With the passing of the great masters, many styles have been modified to accommodate business interests including the entertainment industry and teaching arenas. As with many other sports and activities, change and growth can be a good thing. With the passage of time and the progression it allows, greater opportunities and growth can occur. However, it could be argued that the traditional martial arts styles must remain authentic. Correct application and stylistic qualities of the traditional arts are easily lost. While many styles do retain their authenticity, politics, big business and ego conspire to water down others.
There is one man doing his best to keep the flame of traditional martial systems burning. His name is Master Willie Lim, and he is known best for his emphasis on analyzing and interpreting kata (forms) as they were passed down from their originators. It is Willie’s aim to retain the life preserving, self defense techniques that are hidden within the kata.
Anyone belonging to the 1970s and ’80s martial arts community, and even the broader fitness industry, in New Zealand have heard of, been influenced by, or have trained with the man himself.
A martial arts icon, Master Willie Lim began his teaching career in 1970, eventually pioneering Tae Kwon Do (of which he currently holds an eighth dan) and Tai Chi in New Zealand while operating several fitness centers.
Willie Lim was born in Penang, Malaya, in 1946. In 1961 he began studying his first martial arts style, a mixture of Judo and Kyokushinkai karate. Along with his Tae Kwon Do credentials he has a seventh degree black belt in Ryukyu Kempo Karate and is an expert in Sing Ong Tai Chi. He also received the nomination for Martial Artist of the Century.
Willie Lim is established as a leading martial arts figure and has taught the form, function and philosophy behind what has become one of the world’s most popular martial forms: Tae Kwon Do.
“I believe I learned a lot about myself from teaching TKD and from my own mistakes,” says Lim. “This helped me to be a better teacher and, business-wise, everything just fell into place. I believe a lot of the success occurred through being in the right place at the right time and having a strong student base that was very supportive of what I did. I would say at one point we would have been the most active group and the largest operating in New Zealand.”
As Lim evolved as a martial artist, demand for his expertise increased and, in 1989, he moved from New Zealand, the country he so impacted, to share his knowledge internationally.
Since leaving New Zealand, Master Lim has specialized in analyzing and interpreting kata (the various hyung/katas, or original time-tested techniques of the masters from which they originated) and how they specifically relate to realistic self defense.
Says Lim, “upon leaving New Zealand I based myself near San Francisco and taught applications of Karate/TKD forms and private self defense classes. I also found a new direction by immersing myself in the study of Tai Chi. Presently I teach Tai Chi where I am based at the different resorts here in Scottsdale, Arizona, and in Jamaica, and I also teach at Cancer centers using this art as a healing modality. I travel to Europe twice a year to teach applications of forms and have been doing that for 19 years now. I also teach in Malaysia and Thailand yearly.”
Critically important for the mastering of any style is analyzing and interpreting kata as they were originally taught.
The kata,” said Lim in a 1994 interview, “contain the life preserving techniques of the Masters. These were well hidden within the kata and were only passed on to a privileged few (in some cases the first born male).” Master Lim is critical of how various kata have been diluted since the inception of the arts they form. “Kata as we are taught today is too simplistic,” Lim continues, “as it dwells in the realm of block, punch and kick. Even when we get to Black Belt we are still practicing elementary interpretations, only with more finesse and power.”
Asked how he has evolved as a martial artist throughout the course of his career Master Lim says, “I look at everything as a journey and the search for the truth in my own eyes.”
Master Lim is also known for his belief that martial artists today are products of watered down systems. “What we are learning today in terms of Karate/TKD,” says Lim, “has already been watered down, hence the reliance on strength and brute force. Real art relies very little on that. Martial artists buy into a structure and, because of that, buy into the hype of rank recognition. Many can talk the talk but very few can walk the walk.”
With his belief in retaining the purity and integrity of the martial styles he teaches, Master Lim is an authentic practitioner of his craft, capturing the true essence of each of his systems. For him the martial arts is all about mastering a process, not attaining rank. “There are so many ways that the arms and legs can move and the way certain techniques can be applied. I meet different martial artists who tell me about their systems and boast of the number of techniques they have, of the ranks they hold in different martial arts. While these are good people, I tell them I have one concept and I keep refining this concept before walking away. In martial arts any system is a process. People keep learning more forms as they buy into a structure. You have all the alphabets in the world, but can you form the letters? That is what the martial arts are about.”
Once an instructor using a systematized class structure to teach his style of Tae Kwon Do, Master Lim eventually broke away and began freelancing, becoming a self-confessed rebel of sorts. He shifted from organized martial arts federations, with their inherent political structures, to concentrate on what he does best, teach authentic martial arts with no restrictions.
“Federations are fine and good,” says Lim, “if they really look after the people that support them, but often it is just a structure to feed those at the top. When people buy into a structure they clamor to be what this ot that organisation stands for. The strength of a martial artist or an organisation is not the piece of paper they issue, but the respect you have without that paper. There are so many masters around. No one can make himself or herself a master, it is the people they have taught through the years and the high regard in which they are held the gives credence to that title. I prefer to be able to work with anyone, without having any restrictions placed on me.” Asked if there is a common thread that runs through all martial styles, a particular essence a martial artist, irrespective of their art, should aim to understand and derive from, Master Lim says, “Irrespective of styles we are all on the same journey. Some get there faster, others slower. We all have different ideas of what is right or wrong and what we choose to learn is based upon personal preference. The sooner we understand this the better the world will be for the martial artist.”
In Tae Kwon Do there is the sporting side and the traditional or self defense side that is instrumental in learning this style’s nuances. For those who train specifically to enter tournaments, Master Lim has the following advice: “The practitioner must have a comprehensive understanding of the arsenal they have and to realistically know what they can do with it in a sporting situation and his physical condition must be up to par so as to not injure himself and his partners in this context.”
And what does Tae Kwon Do have to offer as a martial art compared to other arts, including Tai Chi? In what ways can each style compliment the other?
Says Lim, “TKD, like any combat sport, can be used for self-defense if the exponent has a realistic level of understanding of the art, but Tai Chi is an art that refines all the other arts if you know what you are looking for. Tai Chi can help the Tae Kwon Do exponent learn to be soft and have a better flow, and thus move better.” The key to becoming a successful martial artist, including what a practitioner, regardless of style, should aspire to attain throughout their journey is, according to Lim, “to have a good head on them and to understand that they are on a journey and to get the help of those with better experience to guide him, and to mentally stay focused on the journey.”
Long known for their health benefits, as well as self defense and competitive applications, the various martial arts can offer something for almost everyone. Asked what he considers the most effective martial art from a health standpoint, Lim says, “If I were young then I would consider a pugilistic art like Karate/Kung fu or Tae Kwon Do most effective, as this would give me a strong body while helping me focus on certain aspects of the art. At this point in my life I would consider Tai Chi more suitable for me as I need to stay safe and the training demands my mind “presence”.
And is there a superior combative art? “Baked beans are baked beans, the question is what brand do you prefer?” says Lim. “The exponent makes the style effective. No I do not believe that any one system has a monopoly on effectiveness. The whole individual that understands his system well would be the best advert for his system.”
And this, it seems, fits perfectly with Master Lim’s martial arts philosophy: “There is no destination in real learning – we are perpetually evolving.”
Edited by Dana Stamos