Martial arts history is replete with tall tales of philosophy and heroism. Zen in the Art of Archery and the story of Bodhidharma traveling to the Shaolin Temple are two prime examples. Why do martial artists find them so compelling? Keith Vargo explains.

When a person uses the word “myth,” he is usually pointing out that something is false. What’s more, he is claiming it’s a falsehood many people believe is true, such as urban myths about illegal kidney harvesting or murderous lunatics who make threatening calls from within their victim’s home. These stories aren’t true, but many people believe they are. They don’t seem especially powerful or meaningful. Maybe “myth” isn’t the right word for them. A myth is a story meant to convey a fundamental truth or belief. Usually it’s a mixture of history and fantasy, a kind of cultural ideal. It is, in short, a story so compelling that it doesn’t fit into the easy categories of truth or falsehood. The martial arts are full of myths. For instance, there are stories about Japanese warriors being taught swordsmanship by tengu, or mountain goblins. I don’t think anyone believes goblins were the origin of kenjutsu, but it’s still a story, not a lie. Some people think tengu were actually yamabushi, mountain ascetics whose ritual privations were supposed to give them special abilities. The underlying message is that the secrets of swordsmanship originated in a single-minded, religious devotion. The tengu story is a little closer to what we normally think of as myth, but there are grander stories in the martial arts that mean a lot more to people. Two of the most popular are the myth of Shaolin Temple and the myth of Zen in the art of archery. Most martial artists know the general outline of the Shaolin Temple story: A monk named Bodhidharma traveled from India to China as a missionary for Dhyana (Zen) Buddhism. He found the disciples there in poor physical shape, so he taught them exercises to improve their health, thus enabling them to meditate for longer periods. Those exercises eventually developed into an original martial art, from which all forms of kung fu, kenpo and karate descended.


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Many writers and researchers believe this is myth, not history. There probably was a Bodhidharma, and there are historical records of fighting monks. But it’s unlikely that the Indian patriarch fathered the martial arts. Historians point to records of fighting arts in China long before Bodhidharma’s arrival. Also, the one work attributed to the Indian patriarch, the I Chin Ching (Muscle-Change Classic), suggests he taught the Chinese monks yoga, not kung fu. So why was the story told to begin with, and why does it continue to be so compelling? Probably because it expresses the martial ideal better than the complicated, incomplete and sometimes contradictory facts of real history. Shaolin Temple was likely the first place in the world to produce what we think of as a martial art by combining wisdom, meditation, discipline and fighting skills into a way of life. To be continued in Zen In the Art of Archery, Bodhidharma and the Shaolin Temple: Martial Arts Fact or Fiction? (Part 2) About the Author: Keith Vargo is the author of the book Philosophy of Fighting: Morals and Motivations of the Modern Warrior, a collection of a decade's worth of his thought-provoking Way of the Warrior articles from Black Belt magazine. To learn more about this martial artist, visit his website at keithvargo.org.
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Do you want to maximize your self defense skills? Learn the game of combat chess and most importantly the queen of all moves.

Allow me to intercept those who would object to the title of this article. I'm not claiming that there's a secret move, shortcut or hack that will give you the edge in any fight. Even if there was an ultimate weapon or strategy, you likely would avoid it because you
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Looking to buy some weights to gain some strength?

Looking at Dumbbell, Kettlebells or Weighted bar? How about an all in one that won't just save you some good amount of money but also space? Look no further, we bring you the GRIPBELL!

Let's face it, when we do want to work on some strength building, we don't want to go around shopping for 20 different weight equipment things. That would just not want us to even do any sort of strength training. But what if we only needed a few, a few that can do the things we want without having 20 things lay around? That's where the GRIPBELL comes in. Let me clarify with you first, these are not some heavy duty, muscle exploding weights, they are for building the level of strength we as martial artists want without going crazy and insane in bulk sizing!

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Many different types of "blocks" are taught in most martial arts school. We are taught high blocks, low blocks, middle blocks, knife hand blocks, etc. Some schools will also teach how to use the legs to block an attack, as well.

The purpose of this writing is to possibly open some minds to the possibilities of going outside the box and considering alternatives to the basics.

Blocking is taught as a way of protecting oneself from harm. Truly, we don't "block" anything, as a non-martial artist would think of it. What we call "blocking" is more of a redirection of an opponent's attack, or even a counterstrike against the opponent's attacking limb.

To block something would mean to put something, like your arm, leg or other body part directly in front of the attack. That would certainly hurt and possibly cause some damage. The goal should be to move the attack out of the way in order to prevent injury and provide a way to fight back. For example, many schools teach blocks as a limb moving toward the strike such as a circular high block.

The movement required for a block might have other uses, if you keep an open mind. The blocking techniques can also be used as attack techniques. For example, your "low block" may be used as a striking technique against the outer thigh of the attacker. Your high block might be used as a strike to the jaw. The set up for a block can be used as a deflection, as well as the actual block.

Doing a block or a series of blocks will most likely not end an attack. A block needs to be followed by a counterattack. While the block is usually taught as a separate technique in order to learn it correctly, it should also be used in combination with a counter.

The more you know, the more you realize how much you don't know. Intensive books can and have be written about basic techniques. With this writing, I am hoping to create interest in exploring the additional possibilities for what we have been taught and what we teach others.

About Grand Master Stevens

GM Stevens has been training in taekwondo for 47 years under the tutelage of the late legendary Grand Master Richard Chun. He holds an 8th degree black belt and is certified in the USA and in Korea. Grand Master Stevens is a member of the Board of Directors of the prestigious Richard Chun TaeKwonDo World Headquarters organization. He has been very active in his community and has been a volunteer with the Glen Rock Volunteer Ambulance Corps for over 11 years. He is a certified member of C.E.R.T. (Community Emergency Response Team).

Gary Stevens Taekwondo is located at 175 Rock Road in Glen Rock, New Jersey.

For more information: call (201) 670-7263, email: StevensTKD@aol.com or go to www.StevensTaeKwonDo.com

Having partners at or above your skill level is important for improving in your martial arts training. At some point, however, you will probably find yourself with a shortage of skilled partners, especially if you are an instructor.

This can happen for any number of reasons: students can move away, change their work schedules, start a family, etc., and just like that, you find that you're the highest-ranked student, or sole instructor, in your gym or dojo. This doesn't have to be a bad thing. In fact, if you take advantage of it, even working exclusively with lower-ranking classmates or students can improve your skills.

I used to host a twice-a-week training session at my dojo where I invited mostly black belts from other schools (as well as a few of my advanced students) to come and run drills. It was a blast. These were tough two- to three-hour sessions where I got to work with fighters of all different sizes, speeds, and technique preferences. My sparring improved dramatically over the next few months, and I don't think I've ever been in better shape. But unfortunately, it doesn't always work out that way. And as the old saying goes, "You gotta work with what ya got." So, make it hard on yourself.

I like to set handicaps when fighting my students. Specifically, I focus on forcing myself to work on improving my weak areas. Is you right leg weaker than the left? Then only kick with the right leg when sparring your students. Not much of an inside fighter? Don't kick at all. Training with partners of lesser skill not only helps you improve your weak points but gives them an opportunity to improve as well by working on strategy. It's also great for building their confidence. It can also be a low-cost opportunity to test new techniques and combinations, which benefits you as well.

In grappling, just like sparring, there is little benefit to wrapping lower ranking classmates into pretzels over and over, for them or you. Instead, let your partner put you in a bad situation. Let them get the mount; help them sink in that choke or armbar. If you start standing, such as in judo, allow your partner to get the superior grip before attempting a throw. This way you will get comfortable working out of a weaker position and your less-experienced partner can perfect their technique (and get experience using multiple techniques, if you get out of their first one).

You might think that giving advantages like these to students who may be far beneath your skill level is much of a challenge. Trust me, you'll reconsider that sentiment when you wind up sparring a 6'5" novice with zero control over his strength after deciding to only use your weak leg, or have a 250-pound green belt lying across your diaphragm trying to get an armlock after you let them get the pin. Remember, this is exactly what you signed up for: a challenge.

If you find yourself at the top of the heap without partners who are sufficiently challenging, there is no need to despair. Use it as a low-stress opportunity to improve your weaknesses and develop avenues to help your less experienced classmates and students to grow. You may even be surprised. One day they might present more of a challenge than you ever imagined!
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