Saturday, May 27, 2017

Home Sweet Home

It feels so good to go home doesn't it?

Home is where you belong, where you can relax and feel comfortable.  Where you BE YOU.  In the absence of any other plan, home is where you would choose to be, together with your family.

For those of us who have frequently moved jobs, moved house, or even moved countries, "home" may not be easy to define.  In my case, as much as I love Yokohama the dojo equally feels like "home".  After a long week at work I am really looking forward to going to the dojo on Friday night to see my Kali family.  No matter what happens at work, my home is my refuge, my safe place where I can leave the outside world OUTSIDE and just have some "quality time" with my class.

Instead of collapsing on the couch in front of the TV, I choose to be on the mats sharing and learning while we train.  It is sometimes said that we make our living from 9-5 but we make our life from 5-9.  In my case, I prefer that 5-9 (7-9 actually) to be at the dojo whenever possible.  There are not too many other places I feel so comfortable.

My first dojo was a converted car garage in Bloomington Heights Illinois.  It felt like home.  Since then I have trained in dojos big and small all over the world.  Some famous and other you wouldn't recognize even if you stood right in front of them. Many of them felt more like home than where I slept at the time.  I fondly remember the KM dojo on Yan Kit Road (humble beginnings) and look forward to being back at the KM HQ in Singapore (one of the best dojo in the world).  Walking up the stairs feels nostalgic and I get a bit emotional every time I pass through the door there.  It feels like a place I BELONG.  The energy heals me.

KM Japan's dojo is a little rental studio in Roppongi near the subway station.
It can feel cramped with a full class, and it is not luxurious by any means, but when I am there I feel a great sense of contentment.  I hope it can be a refuge for us to think about our training and not about work or other worries.  I hope our students feel like part of our family and that they belong, too.

There is no secret formula in martial arts, no magic recipe or sacred scrolls.  There are no shortcuts.  There is only training.  Good, honest training and persistence which improves our skills over time.  Martial arts is the Great Equalizer, since regardless of body type if you have the will to train and invest the time, you will see the results.  The years teach much the days never know.

Of course, good teachers and good training partners matter.  A LOT.  They help you maximize your investment of time and energy and encourage you to remain motivated.  Some days energy is low and stress is high, and the Family is there to keep us focused and make sure we don't skip class if we could be there.

There's No Place Like Home.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Trial By Fire

(thanks for the inspiration KJ)

Friday night training followed by a meal together with my students.  For me it doesn't get much better than this.  We talk about a lot of things.  Sometimes we joke, but sometimes we really explore some of the substantive elements of our lives.

This time one of my senior students confided, "I've never been in a fight.  Not a real one, anyway...except a bit of pushing and shoving on the playground.  Not a real fight, though.  How can I teach people about fighting if I've never had to fight?"  A legitimate question.  Rory Miller (career department of corrections officer and author of several excellent books on violent encounters) would suggest that if you haven't done it, you shouldn't be teaching it.  I am not sure I fully agree though.

My explanation was that it all really depends on what you are teaching and what you expect your students to learn.  In the case of Sgt. Miller, his goal was to prepare corrections officers to survive working daily in a hostile environment where they would be challenged by intimidating physicality, potentially multiple (and/or armed) attackers who would need to be made complaint and restrained if necessary.  To achieve this, a menu of practical and devastating self-defense reactions was necessary for the officers' safety.  He taught based on his decades of direct experience handling these encounters.  It works.

By contrast, one of my favorite teachers refused to train his own country's special forces, generally considered an extremely lucrative and prestigious contract.  His reason?  They were field operatives so he would have to teach them to kill, and he was not sure how they would use that knowledge or on whom.  Thus, he wasn't comfortable teaching them.  He said NO.

If you plan to teach soldiers who will be in combat, or officers in the field, or anyone else in harm's way I agree with Sgt. Miller and suggest you do so from your own direct experience. There are many outstanding FMA practitioners who are or have been active law enforcement or elite military.  That is what they offer.

At the same time, there are also many excellent teachers who aspire to something else. Their mission is to help students build their character and discipline and prepare them for the challenges they will face outside the dojo in school, at work, and at home.  They want to give their students the confidence they will need to excel in life and achieve their goals by becoming better people.

My brothers and sisters teaching the KM Kids classes in Singapore are testament to this with the magnificent leaders they help grow.  My role models in other schools like Sensei Ramlan of ShudokanMaster Krenz and Shihan Borkowski are testament to this with the thousands of excellent black belts they have taught that are changing the world for the better.  Of course, my own teachers, Guro Fred and Guro Lila of Kali Majapahit, have a lifelong mission of personal development, health and spirituality which continues to be a great influence on how I choose to live my life.

Martial arts is a vehicle for self-improvement, at least it is for me.

My personal goal is not to prepare my students to kill or maim other people, although the techniques we learn can easily do so if needed.  I have been in violent encounters before (although fortunately not for a very long time), and I continue to feel regret for the harm I caused.  It was not worth the risk of going to prison for aggravated assault.  Learning how I would react under stress was not worth the guilt I feel for having injured another person.   I would have preferred not to know if my skills really worked.

In the end, every teacher has to decide what he or she is teaching their students.
What they learn is as much from what and how we act as it is from what we explicitly teach.  If we exhibit the qualities we want from them, we will influence our students to follow our example and someday exceed us.  I think this is the dream of all good teachers.  It is certainly mine.

See you at class.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Under the Surface

This picture's function is to remind us that fundamentally we are the same.
From the picture, we cannot tell the race, religion or sexual orientation of those people.  It challenges us to look under the surface, past what we see with just our eyes.

I like this picture.  I like it a lot.

However, it is only the first step toward a much deeper awareness of who we are and why we are.

I'd like to take this further...
I'd like a picture where what we see is only what we really are --- our souls.

Who we really are is not the bag of meat and organs that contain us.
It is not even our skeletons (although that is a good start).
This human body is a temporary form for us to reside in during this chapter of our soul's story.  Nothing more, nothing less.

It is here as a vehicle to help us explore and discover, very useful to bring us closer to our potential.  We are all made of the stars, since at some point that is the scientific origin of our matter - all matter actually.  That is where we come from and to where our physical bodies must inevitably return.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  I wrote about this some years ago, using the analogy of cups (body) containing water (soul).

However, we are more than just our bodies.  We are beings of energy and it is precisely that energy, Life Energy, which connects us all - it always has and always will.  Our souls are timeless and our existence immortal.

I do not and will not accept any attempts by others, especially by governments and religious institutions, to promote division and separation of people based on arbitrary criteria like race, gender, sexual orientation, social status or religious beliefs.  I know in my heart we are all one; we are all connected.  Eternally.  I love and accept everyone who loves and accepts me and will never allow myself to be influenced otherwise.  I will allow my soul to shine brightly in the lives of others and light their way just as they light mine.  Together.

I hope for a future when this is the common understanding and we finally let go of what tears us apart so we can truly be connected.


Sunday, May 07, 2017

I Am One

(spoilers ahead)

"I am One with the Force and the Force is With Me".

Anyone who has seen the latest Star Wars movie "Rogue One" probably remembers this epic line said by blind martial arts master Chirrut Imwe (played by Donnie Yen).

He uses this line like a mantra, repeating it as he performs heroic feats of incredible bravery.  These scenes are some of the most powerful and moving in the entire film.

I both love and hate the idea of the Force in the Star Wars universe, loving it since it hits correctly on many important Buddhist teachings and at the same time hating it for often trivializing these truths by delivering them, for example, from the mouth of an animated puppet (Master Yoda) .

One of my favorite aspects is the way that Chirrut's martial arts beliefs EMPOWER him to go beyond his limitations, whether they are his blindness, or even a fear of death.  Through his training, he becomes more than he otherwise would be, able to achieve the right perfect action in the right perfect moment - a lofty goal to which all of us on the Path aspire.

There are many religious institutions which are grounded in negativity and guilt.
Their goal is to make you feel bad for what you have done, or maybe even for just thinking or feeling something they don't condone.  These ways of thinking restrict believers' ability to express themselves and leave them feeling desperate for praise and validation by some divine entity (or by its' Earthly agents).
  • I prefer a belief system which gives us comfort and enables us to rise above our circumstances, challenging our limitations and helping us to become greater than we were without.
  • I prefer a belief system that helps us overcome our fears, rather than using them to control and limit us.  
  • I prefer a belief system based on positive encouragement and reinforcement, where the individual is supported by a community of like-minded brothers and sisters who help each other achieve each new set of goals.
  • I prefer a belief system based on compassion and forgiveness rather than revenge, where we are encouraged to let go of our negative emotions rather than find justifications to act on them.
  • I prefer a belief system based on inclusion rather than exclusion, where we are allowed to celebrate the connections that help bring us together rather than dwelling on the differences that would keep us apart.
  • I prefer a belief system based on personal accountability, where we neither ascribe blame nor give recognition where it does not belong.  We do not pray for help - we start by helping ourselves and each other in the here and now.
  • I prefer a belief system that emphasizes LOVE over hate and that helps us understand and experience that this is the true power of change.
  • I prefer a belief system that reminds us that The Revolution starts with us, WITHIN US, and reinforces that we must be the agents of positive change in our own lives.
We choose to accept who we are --- or  we choose to make the necessary changes to become otherwise.  We share this sacred journey together, hand-in-hand, toward our own successes.

I found this belief system --- in Martial Arts.   You can, too.


Thursday, May 04, 2017


"The best kind of friend is like steel sharpening steel..."

This quote was told to me back in September 1987 by my good friend Rob.  It is even written in the inside cover of my treasured copy of "Aikido and The Dynamic Sphere".  I was doing Aikikai back then, and Rob and I met while we were both taking a course in western fencing at College of DuPage.

When I started Kali Majapahit in Singapore, most of the first year I felt nervous in class. Guro Fred ran the classes himself and I wanted to do my very best every time.  It never felt like I did.  The techniques were complex and different from anything I had ever done before, so I struggled to keep up.  Still, I kept going to class and slowly got better.

Some of the best times were before or after the classes, or on other days when no specific lessons were planned.  I'd meet up with some of the other students and get extra practice in or just explore some of the ideas and concepts from class. We'd meet in Fort Canning Park or at someone's condo and use the common room or the roofs/balconies/void decks...anywhere we could find.

There was no pressure to perform, since it was just us.
With each other we would look at every aspect of every technique, breaking it down and working on it for as long as we could.
This really helped me improve.

When I teach class now, almost 9 years later, I move through the material quickly.
The KM curriculum is rich and complete.  There's a lot to cover in each class and I always feel a bit in a rush to move on so I can get through it all.  I also want to share as many examples as I can of each principle, to give each technique plenty of context.

Therefore, I  expect students to do as I did - find time to meet and train together and explore deeply what they have seen in class.  KM is about developing your own flow, nothing more nothing less, and that requires an investment of time outside of class, especially when KM Japan only has 4 hours of mat time per week.

The bonds I forged with my brothers and sisters in those early days will last all my life.  Long hours spent training together in parks, on beaches, rooftops and everywhere else helped me become the martial artist I am today and I will always be grateful for their fellowship and support.

Sharpen Each Other.

Monday, May 01, 2017


Perhaps you've heard that famous icebreaker question, "if you were stranded alone on a desert island and could have only 3 things what would they be?"

Answers vary from the practical (survival knife, water filter, distress signal) to the humorous (horny supermodel(s), iPhone, helicopter).  Sometimes the question includes parameters such as which three people, which three books/records, which three foods, and so on.

Interesting conversation starters, to be sure.  In my case, I like to think that if I had enough fresh potable water and edible food (bananas, coconuts, pineapples, fish, etc.) reasonable shelter and the ability to make fire that I might find a few sturdy branches to make into sticks and keep practicing Kali until I found a way off the island or got rescued.

You see, Kali is not something I do, it's something I AM.  It's as much a part of me as breathing, sleeping or eating.  I think about Kali all the time and I can't imagine my life without it.  I just couldn't be happy.  Luckily my close friends and family understand and accept this about me.  Sometimes I guess I get a bit carried away, but I just can't help it.

My martial arts journey has lasted more than 35 years so far and includes a lot of arts and styles I experienced along the way (karate, wrestling, boxing, ninjutsu, iaijutsu/kenjutsu, aikijujutsu, aikido).  Through Kali Majapahit I have been introduced to several FMA styles (Kali/Arnis/Escrima) as well as Hakka Kuntao, Muay Thai/Muay Boran, Silat and JKD.  I love them all, but finding Kali Majapahit in 2008 was the real life-changer.

Kali Majapahit gave me a frame of reference for everything else I had done, and everything else I will do.  It is my way of understanding movement and space, and helps me see all other arts and styles with a practical understanding.  Simply put, other arts fit into my KM framework, but KM cannot be fit into theirs.  Kali Majapahit gave me the freedom to explore how I could move and develop my own flow.  It will do the same for you if you let it.

After nearly 9 years of training, my KM journey has just begun.  Now, I am called on not only to train but also to share my discoveries with others as their teacher.
It's a heavy responsibility, but I am constantly amazed and filled with pride at how good my students and assistants are.  Their dedication truly motivates me to try harder.

What I want from my students is that they someday feel the way I do - that their Kali is a part of their life forever and not just a place they go on Tuesday and/or Fridays after work.  I hope they will find a sanctuary in martial arts training like I did; that it becomes a part of their life's rhythm without which they would feel something missing.  I hope it becomes a treasured investment of their time and energy that pays off in practical skills they can use and share with their loved ones.
I hope they become part of the global FMA family community with brothers and sisters around the world that love to train and share as much as we do.

I hope even if they were stranded alone on a deserted island, like me, their training would continue.