Once I had a dream.
In it, I had the good fortune to be living in
Monterey. I don’t know why Monterey, but I
recognized it, and it was bright and beautiful.
While there in the dream, I befriended an old Japanese
gentleman, for whom Monterey became home after leaving a
World War II internment camp. Within his
community, he was a revered master of weapons
arts. During our brief time together, he seemed
eager to pass some of his knowledge to me.
Though only a dream, I could see life was difficult for
him. He existed hand to mouth, and when not
teaching, he was looking for work. English was not
his language of choice. He spoke it, but only when
necessary. Perhaps because of that, he never
achieved the notoriety his skills warranted, and lived
very modestly, depending on the generosity of others.
He told me he had come for me because he had been
watching from the other side, and saw my struggles with
training, particularly with the weapons, "If I could put
it all into a purse for you to take, I would." Of
course, the constraints on his English made detailed
explanations impossible. He had me demonstrate
what I could do, and he studied my movement for what
seemed an interminably long time. Then he had me
repeat, so many times, I could barely continue, and
fought with myself, demanding another part of me wake me
from the dream. What I took from my
experience came only after agonizing repetitions and
corrections under his close scrutiny. He showed
the way, and I learned by doing. He saw his role
as being like a strong wind, blowing away the chaff,
leaving behind only that which had substance. I
thanked him, then woke.
Now that wind blows in some other place. Those of
us fortunate enough to have met him hold tightly to the
substance which remains. I think of him even
today, as Sensei. In time, I encountered and
worked with living masters, who were equally influential
in my training, most notably Isidro Archibeque, but also
including Dave Bird, James Tille, Steve Armstrong, Don
Wasielewski, Roy and Russ Kauffroath, Robert Atlas, and
even some others, who would prefer not to be
named. When I use the expression "Sensei" in the
article, I am referring to all of them collectively, as
well perhaps to one or two of them individually.
For you my friends, here are their lessons. In
this small way, I am putting it all into a purse for you
arts are a "path of knowledge."
This distinctive path presents a singular
contract to all students who tread it. Sensei
emphasized, "Whether you study Karate, Kung Fu, or some
other kindred pursuit, the arts are a partner with whom
you make a solemn compact. Performance returns
growth. Perform and you will be
rewarded. Fail to perform, and you'll get
Sensei believed the martial arts promised unlimited
accomplishment. Over the course of a lifetime,
anyone, with the proper spirit, could become a
master. Yes, times might come when further growth
seemed impossible. Even then, the mission is to be
patient and to learn. That is the rule!
Never lose sight of it.
“Know” Your Weapon
Sensei made it
clear from the start. At the root of weapons study
lies the special relationship that exists between man, and
the world of objects. Studying a weapon rekindles
this relationship. "Everything is a weapon.
Wherever you are, whatever you have, know how to use it in
every conceivable way."
Understanding this, and making it your reality are not
necessarily the same.
"Understanding means talk, and has no substance!" he would
say. “Take fire. There is a world of
difference between understanding it on a philosophical
basis, and knowing it on a practical basis. Anyone
can "understand" fire by observing a burning match.
But no amount of learning, study, or observation can give
the practical understanding that holding your hand over a
flame will. It is the same with the arts.
People "understand" movement. With
understanding, they execute perfect kicks, and dazzling
combinations. Then, they master the "philosophy" of
fighting. Thereafter, so long as they fight on
a philosophical basis, they are successful. However,
philosophy means nothing on the street. Beautiful
sidekicks and dazzling combinations will not even slow an
opponent who knows only self preservation."
Pillar I is to know your weapon. Select a
weapon. Then make it part of you. If you sense
limitations to the weapon, look within yourself for the
solution. There is nowhere else.
In the End, Everything is a Weapon
everything is a weapon...," Master Archibeque spoke, eyes
darting toward the handkerchief as he wiped sweat from his
brow. On that sultry August afternoon, we had
already finished an exhilarating warmup. Showing
defenses, he ordered I attack with the mid-sized
stick. As I did, he flared the handkerchief,
parachuting it over my head. While I struggled to regain
my bearings, he grabbed the corners of the handkerchief
and launched a front choke, driving me to the ground.
"My computer's working!" laughed Archie as I bounced
in the dust. I attacked again, coming for the top of
his head. He blocked upward, using the handkerchief
as a snare against my stick. Suddenly, the snare
snapped outward, launching my stick into space.
We continued for hours.
I attacked with a knife, and then a sword. He
responded by snagging me, strangling me, smothering me,
lifting me off the ground, and blinding me, always using
the handkerchief. There seemed no end to the
multitude of techniques he improvised on the spot.
Sometimes, he did the likewise with other common
objects. One autumn, we snacked on nuts while
watching TV. He reached over, took an acorn, a
pecan, a brazil nut, and a walnut. For over two
hours, he showed how each could be employed in unique
nerve attacks against incoming aggressors. Each held
its secrets. What worked for the walnut did not
necessarily work for the acorn. What one lacked in
maneuverability, it gained in hardness. The brazil
nut may have been awkward, but its shape allowed for nerve
crushing attacks not available to the rounded
shapes. They almost seemed to have been designed by
a gifted craftsman, giving each its strengths, and each
Let the Weapon Teach You
"The weapon is
equal to any master in what it can show you, if you are
receptive. Remember, it has a life of its own.
You and the weapon move together. Take care of
yourself, and the weapon will take care of itself."
He stressed, "Weapons must be treated with the same
respect you would reserve for an honored companion.
I can think of countless instances where students failed
because they did not show proper respect to their
weapon. The weapon simply tolerated the abuse until
the critical moment. When its powers were most
needed, it responded with awkwardness."
"Approach a weapon as you would a person. Empty your
mind! Purge yourself of prejudice and bias!
Let go of your conclusions! Let the weapon be
itself, think for itself, move for itself. Don't do
the thinking for it, and don't force it into a mold.
Every weapon has a personality. Some are friendly,
some playful, some impatient, some arrogant, and some
viciously independent. Identify a weapon's traits
before you form a partnership with it. If your
personality and that of the weapon are not compatible,
nothing can smooth the relationship. The outcome is
a dead end. If you sense a troublesome relationship,
terminate it at once. You may be avoiding serious
Our Bo stood
six feet tip-to-tip, its white oak sturdy enough to drop
an opponent with one solid strike.
"The Bo is a weapon favored by masters, if only because of
its delightful personality. It is friendly,
trustworthy, and patient. Moreover, it is
omnipresent. Variations can be found in practically
Sensei added "The Bo
tolerates all but the most glaring errors. As a
teacher, it is patient and generous. When one
technique is mastered, the next drops into your
consciousness serendipitously. As a partner, it is
dependable. Nothing more can be expected from a weapon. If
the same were true for people, mankind would be content
and at peace."
Though Sensei had great skill with the Bo, he seldom
forced technique onto the aspiring practitioner. He
took me aside, put a weapon into my hands, then
demonstrated the first moves. Periodically, he
checked progress to ensure I hadn't detoured.
Occasionally, he added a move or disarm gained from his
own experience with the Bo. What, with practice, it
wasn't long before I surprised even him with new
The Middle Stick
As the length
of a Bo diminishes, it takes on new characteristics of
movement. The shorter staff covers less area on
defense, has less extension, a smaller amount of leverage,
and less momentum on impact. Smaller and lighter, it
gains in maneuverability and speed, opening a whole new
universe of lightning attacks, disarms, and close-in
counters. This is the domain of the middle stick.
Ours averaged 28 inches in length.
Like the Bo, the attitude of the middle stick is
friendly. Its demeanor is fast and furious.
Frequently, the exchanges run their course before the free
roving eye registers what's transpired. Attacks are
to the joints and critical body targets. Once the
opponent is injured, he is immediately disabled and
Sensei referred to it as the mistress. Those of his
students with an affinity for the middle stick, were
always with it. When they jogged, a stick was in
their hand; when they traveled, a stick was in the back
seat of their car. After class, they could be seen
standing for hours in front of the mirror, working
concepts. Sensei joked he was teaching sticks, some
of which had adopted humans as partners. Whether you
specialized in the middle stick or not, you knew it was
practical. It was always where you needed it, if you
had the knowledge.
The Short Stick
stick embodies "cobra." Usually constructed of
exotic hardwood, and extending to twelve inches, it is
preferred by the more experienced fighter. This is
because it enhances the "inside" fight. Gone is the
comfortable distance provided by the Bo, or the speed and
ranginess of the middle stick. Like the cobra, the
short stick holds its position patiently, then explodes,
countering to a pressure point, joint, or vulnerable
bodily organ. Of the three, the short stick is
perhaps easiest to learn. Conversely, it is the most
difficult to master. Because of its small size, the
margin for blocking error is large. It is
exclusively an insider's weapon, those who study the short
stick become expert at inside fighting as an ancillary
Pillar VII: The
This is the aristocrat of weapons.
In line with its complex demeanor, the sword may be the
most formidable of all weapons to learn. One student
described, "Empty hand technique is like addition and
subtraction, working with the Bo, algebra. The sword goes
far beyond. There's no other weapon quite like it,
no other skill as exacting. It's almost as though
everything done before, is but preparation."
It demands perfection. Movements that were
inconsequential with other weapons become important with
the sword. Against a skilled attacker, even minor
errors result in disfigurement or death. What
may be a valid block with the empty hand, results in loss
of limb against the sword. Recognizing the
consequences of a touch, slash, or hit, the sword defender
learns to close all openings to an opponent.
Repeated exposure develops a new array of
instincts, senses, and movements. If asked, "Why are
you holding the sword low? Why is your foot at a
right angle? Or, what is the next move you would
make from that position?" you will have definite
answers. With swords, everything has a purpose,
everything has a reason, everything leads to something
else. This is the principle of "Oneness."
Sword concept is "one thought." In action, it is
"one move." Defense and offense are "one." You
learn to see attacks in your blocks, and blocks in your
attacks, and to use them simultaneously and effectively in
Having mastered the sword, you'll have new strength of
limb and continuity of movement. Others will marvel
that your moves seem to leap from the void. Your art
will be characterized by spontaneity, explosiveness, and
economy of technique. Facing others, you'll feel
they are moving in still frame. While you are
smooth, they are rough and riddled with stutters. As
they search for openings, you have already penetrated.
The knife is
the "great equalizer." An opponent with a knife can
defeat you, no matter what level your skill. This is
the "knife wielder's advantage." Once a knife is
present, anything can happen.
In attitude, it is transparent. It reflects and
magnifies the personality of the wielder, rather than
changes it. It can be forceful in the hands of the
thrust-and-kill attacker, or subtle and tentative in the
hands of one who prefers to hit and run.
There are some who are adept at throwing the knife.
Others shudder to think that one would be thrown. My
practice is to use a fighting knife for fighting, and a
throwing knife for throwing. In essence, they are
two different weapons. Regardless of what you're holding,
throwing should be done only when the hit is certain.
There are many theories on throwing the knife, and I have
experienced two. The Western School recognizes a
knife spins and rotates when thrown. The thrower
always knows his position relative to the target.
For me, the knife half turns at five steps. That
means if I'm standing five steps from my opponent, I
release by the handle. At eight steps, the knife
will do a full turn. Therefore I release by the
blade. At eleven steps, one and a half turns, the
handle again...and so forth.
Hap Ki Do Master James Tille, an adept at knife throwing,
graciously shared his training techniques, and the
concepts he had studied in Korea. He brought samples
of knives common to his school. Upon inspection,
they appeared to be metal bars, weighing close to one-half
pound apiece. Handles and razor sharp edges had been
machined into each. When asked to demonstrate his
throwing technique, he stepped off about twenty yards from
the target. With what appeared to be complete
disregard for distancing, he slowly raised his hand.
Looking like he was doing Tai Chi, he released the knife
toward the target. The grins on our faces wiped
clean when, with a loud "thud," the knife planted
firmly. He proceeded to a new location, and
reproduced the outcome. We questioned him about
rotations, and distance from the target, and why he set
the knife on the flat of his palm. He replied that
as far as he knew, this was how to throw a knife. He
had never thought about the revolutions before, or about
whether to hold the handle or the blade. To him,
those issues didn't matter, and never presented a problem.
We asked him to teach us the technique. By the end
of the day, we were throwing his knives from all
distances, and consistently sticking the target.
Don't ask me to explain it. Just know that it
Archibeque, this was "the first lady of weapons."
Who would ever believe a defender could respond to an
attack by snapping a handkerchief into the attacker's
eyes, leaving him helpless and in pain?
Putting a knife into your hand, he would invite your
"What shall I do, Sensei?"
"Do anything you want...whatever comes to mind."
You lunge forward. The handkerchief snakes around
your wrist, pulls taut, and the knife is gone.
Instantly the fabric coils around your neck, and you are
falling to the ground.
"The handkerchief has no substance, no strength, no force,
and no form. Because no one believes you can do
anything with it, it is perhaps the most deceptive of
weapons. You can snap out at vulnerable targets,
entangle your opponent, lift him off the ground, gag,
smother, and blind him, all with a handkerchief."
It was easy to see why it had become a preferred weapon
for him. "Master the Handkerchief and you master the
rope, the belt, the chain, the towel and other like
weapons too numerous to list. Master the
Handkerchief, and you will always have a weapon, even if
it's the shirt off your back."
As has already
been mentioned, every weapon represents a family of
concepts, and a constellation of physical motions.
The Bo, the Sword, the Knife, the Middle and Short Sticks,
and now the Handkerchief are all styles in their own
The weapons described up to this point classify as
traditional vehicles of instruction. You have
reached the final destination when you can defend yourself
using anything from your environment.
On days when weather was too harsh for outdoor workouts,
Master Archibeque invited us inside. Before long,
his "computer" would start working and off he would dash,
returning with some cryptic object. It might be a
gum wrapper, a shoe, a comb, or even a plastic bag.
If the group puzzled about the plastic bag, he would
invite an attack. Instantly, the bag blocked the
assailant's nose and mouth, leaving him gasping for
air. On another occasion, a slice of bread was
crumpled into the attacker's eyes. Afterwards, the
student sat for minutes, eyes closed, shaking bread
particles from the lids. As for the gum wrapper,
Sensei walked up to the group, putting a piece of gum into
his mouth. There was an attack, and instantly, the
attacking student dropped to the floor in pain. No
one saw what happened. That is, until Sensei
revealed he had crumpled the wrapper, and used its stiff
edges against the attacker's facial pressure points.
Given to occasional levity, Sensei once ordered a student
to attack with a knife. Complying, the attacker
dropped suddenly to both knees. Looking for what bad
caused the collapse, we found that Sensei had hurtled the
shoe from his right foot, and struck the attacker's groin.
Nothing more needed to be said.
The more I saw, the more hopeless seemed the possibility
of ever approaching Sensei's understanding of
movement. However, as with all his teachings, he
communicated to levels within us that our conscious minds
could not distract. Over time, as I'd be eating
breakfast, standing at a bus stop, or even, playing cards,
I would be confident in what I could do should an attack
come unexpectedly. Soon, I too was disarming,
strangling, choking, gagging, and blinding with
handkerchiefs, belts, socks, wallets, car keys, sheets of
paper, newspapers, credit cards, pills, and candy
wrappers...or anything else for that matter. Without
knowing how, I had learned about myself, objects around
me, and the shared relationship between the two. As
Sensei often said, "They're all one in the end!"