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A brief history of Japanese Kenpo

The origins of the martial arts are wreathed in mystery. The story goes back into ancient history. The earliest origins of Kenpo as we know it today are somewhat vague, due to a lack of historical documentation. The most widespread account of the origin of Chinese and Japanese martial arts is credited to the 28th East Indian patriarch of the Zen Buddhist faith a man named Tamo.

The man was also known as Bhodidarma and was known in Japan as Daruma Daishi. As a Zen Buddhist he wished to spread this philosophy to the Chinese as a missionary venture. It was not uncommon for travelling priests to be able to fight, as they would obviously be in danger on their wanderings, from both wild animals and robber bands.  In today’s world we would regard it as rather odd, to have a priest who can ‘cage fight’ and really kick it, but in the rather more dangerous past, this was not unusual. Even Siddhartha Gautama [c.563-479 BC] himself had been a warrior before he became Buddha [which means ‘awakened’ or ‘enlightened one’], when he established Buddhism; he saw no contradiction in promoting a philosophy of love and peace, and also being a skilful exponent at fighting and self defence techniques

When Daruma arrived in China, is disputed and dated to about 515-530 AD, Bhodidarma reached the court of emperor Wu at Chein-K’ang in China, where he was warmly received, he stayed here for a period of time spreading his philosophy of Zen Buddhism. He eventually left the courts to continue his travels, when Tamo arrived in China, the country was mainly run by Canton warlords who ruled with an iron fist, they had banned all weapons for the peasants and the general public, so that they would be better able to control public disorder, general unrest and rioting with their superior military might. Unfortunately these same war lords were not so good at controlling the roving bands of marauding bandits and warring factions, which left the general public unarmed and at the mercy of these killers.

Tamo made extensive journeys within China, endeavouring to teach the Zen philosophy which in essence said that ‘one must coexist with nature and the surrounding environment’. He promised that if people would do so, they would have a better understanding of nature, and of their own individual relationships.

The people basically rejected him, initially, because they felt that in times of war, famine and general strife, this philosophy was unreasonable. Not to be defeated Tamo, headed north to the Henan province and into seclusion in the now famous Shaolin temple [Shorin in Japanese] to teach his Zen philosophy. The road to understanding Zen philosophy was a long one, with many hours of verbal instruction, and the monks of the Shaolin temple, were physically not up to the task, as Tamo found out when many students fell asleep during his lectures, to get them fitter, and hopefully more attentive, Tamo introduced physical exercise, so he decided that he would teach them his system of unarmed combat, ‘Shorin Kempo’ [Kempo in Chinese and Kenpo in Japanese], and began to teach them the original eighteen hand movements of the martial arts, for both defence and offence.

Initially to increase their fitness, alertness and awareness, so they could at least have the energy to listen to his lectures. In addition to being credited with the development of the martial arts; Tamo is also accredited with developing the principles of using a wooden staff approximately five to six feet in length called a ‘Bo’ in Japanese, as a weapon for self defence in 517 AD.

Tamo managed to be accepted by the monks, because the marauding bandits were constantly harassing these peaceful people, and he showed them how to defend themselves, and keep within their vows of peaceful co-existence. He told them that ‘peace is within each of you’ and not within the world. As a result of this clever move Zen doctrine become the foundation of study for Monks within China’s religious structure. Under Tamo’s tutelage the monks grew to become formidable fighters, and a match for any opponent.

During the Yuan Dynasty [1260-1368 AD] there was a considerable improvement in the martial arts in the Shaolin monastery, a monk called Chueh Yuan had increased the original eighteen hand movements, to seventy two and in partnership with Li Ch’ing and Pai Yu-Feng increased the movements to one hundred and seventy. There are many forms of Chinese combat; the generic term for Chinese martial arts is Wu-Shu not Kung Fu. Kung Fu simply means well done, for any number of accomplishments not necessarily martial arts! Some Chinese martial arts have been recorded as far back as 3000 BC, by the Yellow emperor Huangdi who was a famous Chinese general who introduced Jiao-di, an early form of wrestling to his armies, to which many strikes and locks were added later on. Bhodidarma is credited with being the founder of Chinese Kempo, Mainly because he added the healing aspects to Kenpo also the meditative practices of Yoga and Zen, making it more of a complete system which we know today.

It is said that to graduate from the Shaolin Monastery, the monks had to complete the ‘corridor of death’ this was a corridor equipped with 108 dummies which were triggered into action by the body weight  of the initiate, as he proceeded along the corridor he could trigger up to five of these attacking dummies at once, many of the monks died in the process, many more were injured, if the monk made it through the ‘Corridor of death’, He had one final and painful task to perform which was to lift up a burning urn, using only his forearms, this red hot urn had an embossed dragon on one side and a tiger on the other side, which resulted in the Monk having a brand on his arms for life. Some monks found this task too daunting, and chose instead to defect and run off to the more southern areas of China and began to teach parts of the Shaolin self defence system, that they favoured most. As an example some taught straight line ‘linear’ power moves, some would teach softer, flowing ‘circular’ moves, as time passed the animal forms were developed by studying nature, therefore the eagle, praying mantis and monkey styles were developed and many more.

Zen is inseparably linked with Karate and every master of Kenpo or Karate seeks a more enlightened experience by studying Zen. The fact is that all the major developments in Shorin Kempo were achieved by various priests through the years, as an example one priest Chiao Yuan coordinated and developed all his techniques after studying the fighting methods of five beasts-tiger, leopard, snake, crane and the mythical dragon. Yim Wing Chun was taught Chinese boxing by another Shaolin Buddhist nun called Ng Mui, who went on to defeat larger opponents.

Finally, the close connection between priests and medicine resulted in not only discovering vital points on the human body where cures could be applied, but also points where Kenpo attacks could be directed for best results, this is a tradition we adhere to today, we have an old saying in Kenpo ‘if you want to learn how to kill you must first learn how to heal’.

As time passed the ‘Wu Shu’ as the martial arts is called in Chinese, become an integral part of the Chinese lifestyle, mainly because they were constantly in a state of war, and the techniques were lethal when used for self defence.
From China our form of Kempo spread north to Mongolia, east to Korea, then south east to Okinawa, eventually reaching the Japanese mainland where it become extremely popular due to the effectiveness of this powerful martial art, after the Kamakura era about 1200 A.D the soldier class the Samurai, [which means to serve] found it particularly welcome as it met their needs, for combat also the Zen philosophy, with its attitude to morality and mysticism appealed to the warriors sensibilities. The real attraction for the Samurai was that Kenpo gave them discipline that made them capable of great endurance and excellence in fighting, by giving them, training in the art of war and special psychological skills and insights into both themselves and the opposition, that made them legendary warriors the world over. 

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