Shorinji Kempo: Shaolin Kung Fu’s Kicking Cousin

Although martial arts movies and magazines have caused the popularity of numerous arts to skyrocket, shorinji kempo remains a mystery to most people. Even martial arts enthusiasts are frequently ignorant of shorinji kempo’s techniques and philosophy.

And they are almost always astonished to learn that the style has accumulated some 1.5 million students in more than 3,000 dojo in 27 countries. A single group, headquartered in the town of Tadotsu on the island of Shikoku, Japan, regulates all that training and testing.

However, with only 23 dojo in the United States and four in Canada, shorinji kempo is still an enigma to most Americans. This article will attempt to remedy that.

The History of Shorinji Kempo

Doshin So is the founder of shorinji kempo. Born in 1911 in a small mountain village high above the city of Okayama, Japan, he traveled to China at age 17 and lived there for more than a decade and a half as a special agent for the Japanese government. His work brought him into contact with several Chinese secret societies, and he learned the Chinese martial arts from instructors who had gone into hiding because of the Boxer Rebellion.

After training extensively in Beijing with a Shaolin master named Wen Laoshi, Doshin So was permitted to succeed him as the 21st master of the Northern Shorinji Giwamonken School. He started with various kung fu techniques he had learned in China, then added moves of his own and melded it all together. He named his creation “shorinji kempo,” which translates as “Shaolin Temple fist method.”

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Doshin So returned to Japan in 1946 only to find his nation in a post-World War II state suffering from moral decay and dismal self-esteem. Because of his concern for his country and desire to end its mass depression, he began lecturing young people. When he failed to get his message across, he realized that words alone were not enough to modify minds. So he opened a dojo and began the task of rebuilding the character, morale and backbone of the Japanese people by using his shorinji kempo techniques as the bait to attract new students and as a vehicle to teach his message of Zen philosophy.

In December 1951, Doshin So founded the Kongo Zen Sohonzan temple in Tadotsu with shorinji kempo as its main teaching; thus he was able to teach the art despite the Allies’ prohibition on martial arts training. Two years later, he created the Japan Shorinji Kempo Federation, and in 1974 he set up the World Shorinji Kempo Organization. In the 33 years that followed the founding of the art, he dedicated his life to developing young men and women into strong adults through his philosophical and physical teachings.

He wrote a bestseller titled Shorinji Kempo: Philosophy and Techniques, and in 1975 it was abridged and reprinted in the United States as What Is Shorinji Kempo?

In 1976, a movie was made about the life of Doshin So. It featured martial arts film star Sonny Chiba performing shorinji kempo techniques and playing the role of the founder. The film primarily dealt with Doshin So’s return to Japan after the war, the opening of his dojo and his rebuilding of his people.

Unfortunately, when it was dubbed into English and released on video in the United States, it was sensationally retitled Killing Machine, thus misrepresenting virtually everything the founder stood for.

In April 1980, Doshin So traveled to Shaolin Temple, where the Chinese priests welcomed him with a festive ceremony.

A stone monument dedicated to him still stands in the courtyard of the temple. He returned to Japan, and on May 12, 1980 he died of heart disease.

His daughter, Yuki So, then 22, decided to continue her father’s vision and serve as president of the World Shorinji Kempo Organization. Today, the system she oversees is used by police and military agencies in Japan and is recognized not only as a martial art and a religion, but also an entity that is committed to the betterment of society.

Shorinji Kempo: A Complete Martial Art

As a religion registered with the Japanese government, shorinji kempo seeks to follow in the ancient traditions espoused by the Shaolin monks — in short, unifying the mind and body through spiritual and physical development in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha. Because the art revolves around Zen meditation and Oriental medicine, it can offer students three main benefits: improved health, spiritual development and self-defense.

The self-defense component stems from the shorinji kempo’s reliance on combinations of “soft” and “hard” techniques designed to allow a weaker defender to control a stronger attacker by dynamically applying the laws of physics. That makes it perfect for women, children and people of all ages. Its curriculum can be broken down into …

The Combat Techniques of Shaolin Kung Fu’s Legendary Animal Styles

If you’re on the prowl for new ways to improve your martial arts skills and expand your knowledge base, the five animals of Shaolin kung fu are for you. By studying the fighting methods of the snake, crane, tiger, leopard and dragon, you’ll glimpse kung fu through the eyes of its legendary masters of yesteryear. Like them, you’ll be able to tap into the mental and physical characteristics of those denizens of the wild kingdom in a way that’s guaranteed to benefit all aspects of your training.

The concepts of the five animals is thought to have originated early in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) at Shaolin Temple, located on Song mountain in China’s Henan province, says Black Belt Hall of Fame member Eric Lee. “The animals of Shaolin made a huge impact on the development of kung fu and are still doing so today. That’s because the animals, like nature, offer the same insights today as they did centuries ago.

“In the beginning, the old masters studied the animals and adopted many of their habits. Those habits included how they rested, how they gathered and released their chi (internal energy), how they stalked their prey and how they fought. The five animals were chosen for their superior attributes for fighting and defense and for other mannerisms that contribute positively to human life.”

Practicing kung fu with the attitude of one of the five animals can help you see things more clearly, says Eric Lee, who began teaching the Chinese arts in Oakland, California, in 1970.“You’ll be more aware, and you’ll be more in balance internally and externally. The animals help you express yourself wholeheartedly in any direction. They’ll help you know what it’s like to be anything you want to be. If you let nature be your teacher, good things happen.”

Shaolin Kung Fu: Snake Form

Full-body awareness gives the snake a heightened sensitivity, and that allows it to use all its resources to accomplish its goals. The animal coils its body for speed and power, then strikes without hesitation or fear. It’s a relentless hunter that uses every muscle to push, slide, penetrate, wrap and eventually control its prey. The snake is a natural ground fighter— which is why grapplers often find its movements to their liking.

The snake hand, in which all four fingers are extended to strike like a spear, is the primary weapon. “You can move the snake hand up, down or from side to side using it or your arm to block, then you can strike your opponent’s throat or another vital area with the same hand,” Eric Lee says. “When doing snake moves, you can strike and lock simultaneously. Offense becomes defense, and defense becomes offense.”

A useful snake technique entails raising your hand like a cobra lifting its head, then relaxing your arm and shooting it out and back for a lightning- fast strike, Eric Lee says. In super-tight quarters, he adds, you can increase your effectiveness by switching to the snake tongue: Extend your index and middle fingers and hold them together as you jab them into a pressure point.

Shaolin Kung Fu: Crane Form

The crane epitomizes yin and yang as it passively stands on one leg for hours yet maintains its ability to kill in a heartbeat. When it springs into action, it’s the embodiment of subtlety and grace. The movements of its wings create hollow contours, allowing it to move with seeming effortlessness. It can adapt to harsh weather and fly through the severest of storms. In a battle on the ground, it uses its wings to deflect attacks and propel its body along a circular path. That, augmented by the animal’s long legs, enables it to use evasion techniques to create distance between itself and its adversary.

When an enemy is within range, the crane will slap with its wings and stomp with its feet, thereby creating openings for impeccably timed beak strikes. Its long, flexible neck enhances its attacks.

Crane training boosts your concentration and balance, Eric Lee says. “The crane style teaches you to lift one leg and use it for blocking or deflection. Then you can execute a fast snap kick out and back with the same leg.” You form the crane beak by extending your thumb, index finger and middle finger and hitting with their tips. It’s perfect for short- to medium-range strikes to pressure points and other vital areas, he says.

A variation of the fighting method uses dual crane beaks. After striking with one, it becomes a hook that pulls your opponent close. Then you attack with your other hand. Eric Lee recites an old kung fu adage: One beak lies while the other tells the truth. Your enemy never knows which hand you’ll use for offense and which for defense.

The …

Shaolin Empty-Hand Ground Defense

Black Belt Hall of Fame member Steve DeMasco demonstrates an empty-hand ground-defense technique using Shaolin kempo. Steve DeMasco is the author of An American’s Journey to the Shaolin Temple and has released two DVD sets through Black Belt.

The 5 Kung Fu Animal Styles of the Chinese Martial Arts

To longtime readers of Black Belt, Steve DeMasco needs no introduction. A student of the martial arts since 1968, he’s been a fixture in the magazine since his debut in the February 1998 issue. Over the ensuing years, he’s espoused his views on the physical and philosophical sides of the Shaolin fighting arts—specifically, Shaolin kempo. At the end of 1998, he was inducted into the Black Belt Hall of Fame as Instructor of the Year. In the following article, the New Hampshire-based master, who serves as Shaolin Temple’s cultural ambassador to the United States, continues the topic he started in his March 2007 Shaolin Path column by describing and demonstrating the self-defense techniques of the five animals of the Chinese arts.

Kung Fu Animal Style #1: Tiger

Popularity: high (for tiger), rare (for black tiger)
Shaolin saying: “Tiger strengthens the bones.”
Characteristics: strength, agility; considered one of the two most powerful animals in Chinese astrology
Strategy: tends to charge the opponent and attack directly with brute force, uses circular arm movements to overwhelm the enemy, relies on the arms but occasionally uses low kicks
Targets: any part of the body, especially those that react to tearing techniques
Physical requirements: relaxed muscles, speed, solid build, ability to adopt a strong stance and quickly change to another stance
Training: push-ups, sit-ups, calisthenics, sparring, chi-development exercises
Trademark: tiger claw, an open-hand grabbing and striking weapon formed by spreading the thumb and fingers, then bending them slightly
In legend: “It offers the power to shake the earth and to be the authoritative king of its lair,” kung fu master Rob Moses says.

Kung Fu Animal Style #2: Leopard

Popularity: high
Shaolin saying: “Bend fingers hard, like iron.”
Characteristics: strong, efficient, fast, technical, defined by accuracy, capable of stealth attacks
Strategy: strikes quickly to inflict pain, then follows up for the kill
Targets: soft-tissue regions and other vital areas, including the ears, neck, armpits, temples and groin
Physical requirements: relaxed muscles, supple strength, ability to quickly retract the arms and legs after a strike
Training: striking drills that develop accuracy and precision
Trademark: leopard paw, a half-fist that strikes with the second knuckles of the four fingers. It’s a rigid weapon that makes contact with a small, penetrating surface.
In legend: “It’s nature’s master of precision and prowess—sharp, efficient and lightning fast,” Rob Moses says.

Kung Fu Animal Style #3: Crane

Popularity: medium
Shaolin saying: “The spirit of the crane resides within the stillness.”
Characteristics: evasive, rarely offense-oriented, subtle, graceful
Strategy: keeps the opponent at a distance and capitalizes on the length of the arms and legs, tends to strike with the very end of the natural weapons, attempts to overwhelm the enemy with rapid hand strikes, evades using circular movements
Targets: soft areas such as the eyes, throat, ears and heart; sides of the head; ribs
Physical requirements: tall, long reach, ability to remain still for extended periods, good balance, concentration, minimal strength
Training: mobility-enhancing drills to develop the ability to maintain distance between oneself and the opponent, speed training, quick retraction of natural weapons, chi-development exercises
Trademark: crane beak, formed by bunching the thumb, index finger and middle finger together to strike with the fingertips
In legend: “It dances with accuracy and control, and offers weightlessness to rise above crises,” Rob Moses says.

Kung Fu Animal Style #4: Snake

Popularity: medium
Shaolin saying: “Hard like steel and soft like a rope of silk.”
Characteristics: deceptive, agile, fast, accurate
Strategy: relies on awareness, employs coiling motions and hisses to intimidate, uses whipping toe kicks to the lower half of the opponent’s body, utilizes simultaneous striking and locking techniques, avoids using the traditional fist
Targets: vital parts of the body, especially the eyes, face and throat
Physical requirements: thin build, quick muscles
Training: drills to increase explosiveness, which enables one to take the opponent by surprise; exercises that enhance balance and accuracy
Trademark: snake hand, which uses one or two fingers—or, in the case of the spearhand, all of them—to attack and defend
In legend: “It has extreme chi power, which helps activate profound sensitivity and enables all the muscles to work as one,” Rob Moses says.

Kung Fu Animal Style #5: Dragon

Popularity: rare
Shaolin saying: “Dragon fist trains the spirit.”
Characteristics: strong, smart, deceptive, unpredictable; includes traits of the other four Shaolin animals; considered one of the two most powerful animals in Chinese astrology and the sign of the emperor
Strategy: uses quick, snapping kicks that hit with the blade of the foot; uses the full fist and the forearms to strike; may combine physical techniques of the other Shaolin animals
Targets: any body part that can be grabbed; the head, which is simultaneously grabbed and struck
Physical requirements: relaxed muscles, ability to switch from soft movements to hard movements
Training: drills …

Rebel Isshin-Ryu Karate: Isshin Kempo’s Controversial Kata Concept

Black Belt featured the fist of isshin kempo founder William S. Russell on its April 1977 cover, along with a two-part feature on his take on the martial arts. Three decades later, we thought readers would appreciate an update on the evolution of the system through the eyes of its current leader, Christopher J. Goedecke.

If isshin-ryu karate, birthed on Okinawa in the mid-1950s, was considered a radical system for its unique karate techniques—like its thumb-on-top fist formation and forearm blocking—then isshin kempo, the American offshoot founded in 1970 by the late William S. Russell, can be considered a radical commentary on mainstream isshin-ryu.

Begin with a bewildering assertion from isshin kempo’s current leader, Christopher J. Goedecke: “There are no punches in the isshin-ryu kata.” The lanky, articulate sensei says that after nearly four decades of practicing traditional isshin-ryu forms, “the internal structure of isshin kata present immensely rich and layered techniques beyond the obvious kick/punch responses. It has become our challenge to unlock as many of these lessons as possible.”

Isshin kempo evolved around several core questions espoused by Russell. Trained in Western boxing with peripheral studies in aikijujutsu, mantis kung fu and the hung system of kung, he believed the early presentation of isshin-ryu kata appeared disparate from actual fighting. He wondered if the gap resulted from a misunderstanding of the depth of its kata by early American followers and wasn’t a design flaw. Years of professional boxing lessons with a Golden Gloves champion, a tough teenage street life and his enrollment in a pioneering New Jersey martial arts school prompted him to anchor his forms with more realistic interpretations.

“Russell never doubted the effectiveness of isshin-ryu,” Christopher J. Goedecke says. “Like other professionals, he suspected that pioneering American students had simply not penetrated their kata’s core lessons. No one expected any U.S. servicemen, in a few tours of duty, to walk away with a full grasp of the teachings of a master with 59 years of experience.”

Isshin kempo grew out of William S. Russell’s scrutiny of the isshin-ryu karate system he found himself drawn to in his early 20s. Considered a rebel for his radical ideas about turning stress into productive energy, William S. Russell had a physical prowess and curious mind that ferried him through the ranks to eventually helm one of New Jersey’s premiere dojo. The Bank Street School, founded in 1962, was a high-ceiling, two-room facility that covered nearly 3,500 square feet. Its teaching roster included some of New Jersey’s top instructors: Robert Murphy, founder of isshin shorinji-ryu Okinawa-te; Shimamoto Mamoru, All-Japan judo champion; Gary Alexander, founder of isshin-ryu plus; and Edward Doyle, American-goju headmaster under Peter Urban.

The 1,000-man dojo that William S. Russell built in the 1970s provided grist for his theories about karate’s potential to unify the body/mind complex and tap into stores of personal energy. In his 1977 Black Belt feature, he stated, “The principal aim of karate is nothing less than to make its practitioners into complete, fully realized human beings, both mentally and physically—people who can call forth all their resources and use their total capabilities at will.”

William S. Russell’s system has since expanded into a multifaceted martial art with numerous followers who’ve stuck with it for more than 20 years. William S. Russell named his fledgling art “isshin” for its kata curriculum and “kempo” for the classical values he infused into it.

“Although Russell’s focus later shifted into the motivational and psychological realms, he was a strong kata advocate who planted the seeds for a technical legacy through his keen perceptions of isshin-ryu kata,” Goedecke says. “Since its 50-year run in the United States, isshin-ryu karate has gone through some difficult periods of fragmentation with limited reunification. This created technical ambiguities that Russell sought to clarify by provoking intelligent dialogue about isshin-ryu’s kata.”

Although the language has changed since the 1970s, Christopher J. Goedecke says that isshin kempo’s most significant distinction remains that of following the enlightenment traditions of the martial ways. “Our overall objective is to achieve a healthy state of ‘no conflict.’ This is not a contradictory aim. To understand the nature of conflict, you must find an arena in which to explore it. Martial arts provide the perfect arena. Martial study is ultimately about cultivating peace.”

Technically, isshin kempo consists of the Shaolin-originated rokushu (six-palm pattern) and a compact short form called “double arrow,” which slightly resembles the I-patterned taikyoku shodan form still taught in some isshin-ryu schools. Students warm up with kempo yoga, and black belts practice internal-strength techniques. Other non-isshin-ryu influences include kobudo forms with a 3-foot-long hanbo (short staff).

“We do, however, utilize all the isshin kata,” Christopher J. Goedecke says. “For most isshin-ryu schools, that consists of eight essential forms generally taught in sequence as seisan, seiuchin, naihanchi,