I have long been interested in what makes Shaolin Kempo work. Naturally, practice was a large part of the answer, so I practiced at every opportunity. I asked questions of my early teachers and this led to better technique time and again. It was in my second year as a black belt that I was shocked to the core. Friends of my instructor needed someone to teach for them at one of their locations. As their curriculum was different from my instructor’s curriculum, they gave me an instructors course. Excited to learn more and to teach I eagerly accepted. The course was not a pleasant experience at all. I learned a great deal, to be sure but I did not enjoy their way of doing business or teaching. During one of these instructor course I saw them doing a combination differently than I had been taught, moreover it seemed quite ineffective. When I asked the question I was told that the combinations are concepts and are not meant for fighting. I immediately felt the need to begin a pilgrimage to find a sacred pool that I may wash the sacrilege away and purify myself before the Lords of Kempo once again!!!
I settled on going home lighting some incense and meditating for 2 hours. Then I understood my mission: Champion the effectiveness of Shaolin Kempo! 🙂 Yes, I had an interesting youth. The good thing is that this determination fired my desire to learn the history of our art and to refine my understanding of mechanics.
Fast forward through reassuring discussions with my old instructors, history discussions with Matt and Kenpojoe, Mark Urban’s great website, martial talk, studying taiji, teaching, practice practice , practice, learning Naihanchi system through Soke Cuevas ,becoming Prof.I’s student and more and I am where I am now: Forever a student, godan, an effective fighter and a knowledgeable instructor. However, those instructors were at least half right. The combinations hold and convey the fighting principles of shaolin kempo, in the same way traditional karate forms are instruction manuals for fighting. To be clear, the combinations work very well for self defense. Technique-wise, they are a little less easily adapted to competition sparring; and, in my experience most cannot succeed in point sparring…but that is a game of tag, so who cares.
I almost threw away the Pinans from my curriculum at one point because they are not truly Shaolin Kempo. I do not make such decisions lightly, so I researched them and studied them deeper than ever before. What I discovered convinced me that they needed to stay. We simply needed to work them better.
Then, I took what I learned and turned my attention to getting the same out of our lineage forms…the Katas 1-6, Honsuki and the forms from Fred Villari. The Katas are not “composed” in the same idiom as the traditional karate forms. I initially concluded that the katas are merely line drills and lacked the sophistication of the more traditional forms. They are fine repositories of movement, yet lacking in depth. So, why then consider then the back bone of shaolin kempo along with the combinations?
I found an answer in the combinations themselves. By treating the combinations as mini forms, they came alive for me in a new manner. It took a while for me to solve a difficult perception problem, yet once I did, everything changed. To some it may seem obvious, however, the constant connecting our Shaolin Kempo history back to it’s roots resulted in some (or maybe just me) missing the significance of the “breaks” in the development.
Recall that Ed Parker said that his art comprised approximately 10% of what he had studied from the Mitose-Chow lineage. Note that when Fred Villari declared himself 10th degree, the BB magazine article actually quotes him as saying he has mastered the art of Sho Tung Kwa.
I had for too many years equated Shaolin Kempo flow with American Kenpo flow. Armed with this correction of the obvious I began to see the evolution in our katas, with 6 kata coming the closest the Shaolin Kempo flow. Prof.I sometimes refers to 6 Kata as a “celebration of the combinations”.
This is the key. Shaolin Kempo flow is found in the combinations to a far greater degree than in 1-5 Kata. The controls, angles, and rhythm of striking, grabbing and felling are to be extracted from the combinations in order to take more out of 1-5 Kata.
For instance, the sequence after the first turn in 1 kata reveals something completely different if you look at it with AK flow eyes than if you work the concepts of combinations 3, 22 or 45 in there. Suddenly, we move away from a simple rapid series of strikes and blocks (nothing wrong with a rapid series of strikes to be sure!) to a more sophisticated folding of a body, chokes, locks and takedowns.
Use the keys that are in the combinations and apply them to our forms while keeping in mind the language of forms (to a lesser degree with 1-5 kata) and our knowledge grows. The higher forms tend to follow more closely the instruction convention of the traditional forms. Yet, still, the way to add life to those forms; and, find the ways that they add to our ability to express shaolin kempo and to fight with shaolin kempo and to defend with Shaolin Kempo is to use the keys in our combinations to steal the art for ourselves and our students.
Of course, this is my understanding and my way with Shaolin Kempo, not everyone will agree.
Training is truth.