A perfect day, blue skies, warm sun and a gentle cool breeze–in the shadow of the Hangshan Temple, Kenpo has come home. I stood there thinking “How’s that for a little responsibility?”
After all these years and many experiences in the martial arts this is the first article I have ever written myself. Not because I didn’t have anything to say, but because any time I came up with a concept I always thought that there was so much more to do and learn before I could bring some kind of closure to the idea. Well, that finally happened during the week of August 22nd 2005 when I was invited by the Chinese government to participate in the first international forum on martial arts. I was requested to give both a demonstration of American Kenpo Karate and give a speech on this related topic to the members and guests of this forum. I brought my top student Trever Sherman with me and together we went to seek out the origin of this life commitment we share with so many called American Kenpo.
We really had no idea what we were going to find, but we were defiantly up for the journey. Arriving in Beijing in the early morning hours and greeted by the government officials we were taken to an amazing hotel called The Purple Jade Hotel for one day in the city then the next day on a 4 hour bus ride to Datong. We went to Datong because just another 40 minutes outside was the destination that would bring an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment and ultimately a homecoming of sorts. This is what is referred to as one of the 5 magical places of martial arts in China, and for all intents and purposes the origins of martial arts and Kenpo Karate as we commonly think of it today. Although there are older fighting systems well documented from the Egyptian and Roman eras, the famous Shaolin Temple and the 4 other associated locations are the places of legend, myth and fact. This truly special place, called the Hangshan Temple, is sometimes referred to as the “hanging temple”.
Well prepared, we began our journey from the hotel in Datong together with 4 other busloads of martial artists from around the world as well as other producers, directors and government officials. Both the city and country side was remarkably similar to Mexico we thought as we motored along wondering how this day would play out. I will never forget the first time we saw the temple, winding around the mountains to a clearing and there it was. It didn’t look real at first, placed so high up on the side of a dramatic and steep mountain. Over 1,500 years old, the temple rises over 100 feet into the air from its anchor in the mountainside. It is the only one of the five temples where the three main religions of China are practiced at the same place, not only Buddhism but Taoism and Confucianism as well. Our guide told us that we would return after the presentations to be held in a clearing just ahead. As we turned the last corner we were shocked to see over 12,000 people all waiting patiently for the day’s events. Along with the demonstrations of various styles of Chinese Kung Fu there were recognitions by the government and other performances of traditional Chinese song and dance. Overwhelmed somehow comes up terribly inadequate to describe the time, place and emotions. The crowd cheered as we all emptied the busses and made our way to the reserved seats in the front of a red carpeted stage some 60 feet wide and 30 feet deep.
Just prior to this trip, as fate would have it, I had met a wonderful martial artist by the name of Nelson Armstrong who not only is a qualified black belt in his own right, but a Chinese/American martial arts historian. He graciously agreed to give a presentation on his life’s work and research during a seminar I conducted in Eureka, California. Because of this and my own research prior to the trip I came to China with a solid concept of our history. As most of our students know the word “Kenpo” is the Japanese term for the same art known in China as “Chuan fa”. In fact they mean the same thing –“fist law”. But what I discovered much to my surprise is that this translation doesn’t refer to “the law of the fist” as we often surmise. The fact is that the fist is the protector of the law, it directly refers to the protectors of the Buddhist religion.
If you will allow yourself to think this way for just a few moments we can trace the art of American Kenpo directly to the empty hand art of Wu Shu, called Chuan fa. That means this amazing art of “personal defense” or “escape patterns”, as it is originally referred to, was the art taught to the Bodhisattva Warriors, the protectors of Buddhism, in a way the original knights templar–and we are all their direct descendants. Although I have spent many years of my life researching and inquiring of many different religions and belief systems, I had only a cursory knowledge of Buddhism and this encounter opened the door for me to really plunge in.
Metaphorically Buddhism’s journey of self discovery and self actualization mirrors the journey of the martial way. Not “the” path to discover who you are in all of this, but “a” path of discovery, a way to learn about yourself and celebrate the fact that you are here. You see, that is the point of the martial arts, and how it deviates from the various sport fighting systems of the day. There needs to be a real sense of grace, beauty and realization of the common good mixed in with the physical mastery to be a complete journey. A balance of the yang to go with the yin as it were, or as Nagaboshi Tomio points out in his book Bodhisattva Warriors, “non-spiritual physical arts practitioners may get attached to their own supposed virtues or attributes. Such an attitude closes the door of the path”. A concept that is lacking so much in the over-commercialization of the martial arts so prevalent in the United States and now other developed countries as well. That is why staying connected to the old school ways is so important to me, my students and many of my friends in the martial arts world. And that is why I have remained so closely connected to my original Goju-Ryu instructor Hanshi Lou Angel. You see, Mr. Angel tested for and received his third degree black belt directly from Gogen Yamagucci in Tokyo, Japan in 1963. It is with that sensibility that I was raised in the martial arts by Hanshi Angel and it is how I pass on the arts to my students.
Soon Mr. Sherman and I were called to the back stage area to prepare for the demo. Meeting other Chinese performers, none of which spoke any English and some had never seen a white boy other than in the movies, we stretched out and repeatedly walked through our demo. As the time went on so slowly I asked Mr. Sherman to join me in the tent for a brief moment to reflect on how we got here. We spoke of the history of our art and the sacrifices made by so many that have allowed us to be present at this moment. The depth of the emotions was very real and added much to the totality of the experience.
Perhaps Einstein was right and energy can never be created or destroyed, it just transfers from one event to the next; then maybe in some way my Kenpo teacher and mentor Mr. Ed Parker could feel this. Or maybe my recently deceased mother could feel pride in her son’s accomplishment of such staggering proportions.
Then the time came for us to go next to the stage and get ready to perform. It was at this very moment that I felt the sun and the cool wind on my skin in a way I never felt before, so incredibly alive. I was so taken by the emotion of it all I had to consciously change my focus just to the physical performance now seconds away. I became concerned that my concentration would be so taken from me by these emotions that I might trip on the red carpet on my way up the stairs. The moment came, we entered stage and hit the demo with every expectation we could have imagined. Spontaneous applause from throughout the audience assured us that we were not the only people enjoying this display of violent poetry we call American Kenpo. In just a few minutes it was over, but only the physical part; we were changed forever.
After the demo the group returned to the fantastic hanging temple for a tour. And here we were, at one of the places where it all began. Full circle is what I thought, walking through the temple with all the feelings and emotions of the event just finished. There were so many moments where we felt a sense of completion, not just of the demo but of the many many years of study and sacrifice that Mr. Sherman and I have shared these past 10 years together and all the many years we have trained in the martial arts previously. Hence the motivation for this article, that feeling of closure that calls clearly to me as never before in my life.
Similar to the metaphor in the martial arts that a good instructor gets his students to believe in him and a master instructor gets his students to believe in themselves, this path is not for the closed minded. I have always pursued my relationships with my students with the idea that discovering themselves through this art is far more important than any belt, trophy or self aggrandizement you can achieve. The Journey is the destination in this case and much of life as well. Of course the down side of this approach is that you need to have the courage to let your students go if they choose to do so, even if you disagree with their direction. Easier said than done, but this is the point.
The next day I gave my speech to the organizational committee and participants back at the hotel in Datong. I spoke of the embarrassment of the over commercialization of the martial arts in America, and the empty accomplishments of so many. I highlighted that in the over 25 years of studying and teaching coupled with the 11 movies I have starred in I could have hundreds of black belt student all over the world, but I have 37. And that there are some schools and teachers who prefer to keep to the old ways and pursue accomplishments in the arts through time-honored dedication and discipline. After the speech a monk from the Shoalin Temple came up to Mr. Sherman and myself and invited us to stay with them for a month and study. As you can guess, that will be another article in itself. Constantly amazed at how little most instructors demand of their students for their requirements for belt advancement I find myself continually clashing with the larger commercial martial arts community. This reality is especially true for those schools located outside of the USA and in popular vacation spots of the world. So many instructors use black belt promotions to pay for their chance to travel abroad and see the world, and the students know it.
A few days later we returned to the city of Beijing and the Purple Jade Hotel, staying here alone for a couple of days before we went on to the next leg of the’ round the world trip to Europe. Early one morning I went for a walk among the beautiful gardens and nature path around the property. A time to reflect on the enormity of this experience and the end of our trip to China and the homecoming of Kenpo. Under these extraordinary circumstances my mind was free to wonder at life’s complexities and challenges. Understanding my mortality and my work to find solace in comprehension of my place in all things, I reflected upon the inherent conflicts of the world and the history of man’s inhumanity to man. If one looks at man’s history on the planet– the genocides, mass murders, government and religious extremism, racism and a list of atrocities that unfortunately would fill this and many other articles, the concerns of our future are inescapable. Rounding the corner of the path, in the middle of this beautiful scenery, was a young Chinese woman pushing a stroller bearing her infant son. She was talking to him in her warm and reassuring voice, making him feel safe and secure in this tumultuous world waiting for him just a few years ahead. As I walked past she had stopped to pluck some purple wild flowers blooming next to the path and was teaching her son to smell them and appreciate natural beauty. How profound to come upon this now, I thought, realizing that what I was looking at is the reason we must continue forward and look to the beauty of life and try to surround ourselves with it at any and all opportunities. It is these moments of clarity in a world of confusion that so many of us live for.
I know that my approach to the martial arts is not for everyone, and that’s ok. Because, you see I just can’t find the handle on the idea that my needs or desires are as important as all those who have come before me and sacrificed to keep the spirit of the martial way throughout time. And that is all it comes down to anyway– what you do in this life, how it benefits others and respects those who paved the way before us. As instructors put more red stripes on their black belts the responsibility to keep the way alive becomes more and more dependent on them, not less. One of my favorite Einstein quotes is “unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth”. If we don’t reflect on this something very special will be lost forever, and that will be very sad. It is to this end that I remain dedicated, and remain in pursuit finding a few like-minded people to share this obsession.
I thank you for taking the time to read this article, and I look forward to sharing more of my experiences and thoughts with you in the years to come. Maybe in a few months more or a few years more, but with any kind of luck I will be around for a while.