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Kempo: The Ancient Ultimate

Dr. William Durbin
There is an old legend that tells of a rural Samurai, who once while
intoxicated ran afoul of a Buddhist monk. The monk had no weapons
and the Samurai insisted on a fight. The monk first placed his joined,
prayerful hands up saying he had no desire to fight. The Samurai
laughed and drew his sword. The monk then turned his open hands
towards the warrior, saying I have no weapons, where is the honor
of killing an unarmed opponent. Honor would be served by riding
the earth of yet another cowardly monk, replied the Samurai. At that
the monk smiled and covered his right fist with his left hand, stating
that his weapons were always with him.

Naturally, the legend records that the monk then soundly defeated
the Samurai, who then repented of his behavior and gave up
drinking in order to become a disciple of the monk, adding the
monk's martial art of Kempo to his training. It is from the teachings
of Kempo brought by this legendary monk, and it is believed many
others, that such Japanese skills as Torite, Muto, and Aiki, were
developed. Many styles continued to call the skills Kempo, while
others derived new names to express their relationship to the new
master's martial arts.

Legend holds that to the Japanese martial artist, and the Okinawan
ones as well, that Kempo was the great, most ancient, and powerful
of all martial arts. Ancient scrolls and old masters who were of the
Kempo lineage were sought by Japanese and Okinawan martial
artists from which to learn. Even in modern times true Kempo,
meaning the complete martial art with all aspects of techniques and
skills, is thought to be the superior and most dangerous fighting art.
In 1985, a report was done in Japan that stated that Kempo trained
practitioners, both Japanese and Okinawan, were considered the
most dangerous fighters, and as such were required to monitor their
skills more heavily in that if they were in a self defense situation
their skills would be considered as bearing a weapon.

The Kempo trained monks of ancient time, being of the Buddhist

tradition, were under the directive to 'do no unnecessary harm' to
any living creature. There are stories of monks who carried this to
such an extreme that they would not even kill the bugs which
inhabited their temples, or even clothing. Yet Buddhism tends
towards a strong principle of practicality, especially those of the Zen
sect, and thus they knew that when life was threatened there were
times when action must be taken.
This tradition is reputed to have begun with the great patriarch
Bodhidharma. It is said that he was a Kshatriya, warrior, of India,
who was trained in the fighting art of Vajra Mushti, diamond fist, and
became the twenty eighth patriarch of Buddhism. He then traveled
to China to teach his version of Buddhism which emphasized
meditation, which he felt was the real tradition of Shakyamuni
Buddha. Ending up at the Shaolin monastery, he meditated strongly
for nine years, noting the poor health and mental laxity of the
acolytes. During this time he also noted that many bandits plied the
Honan area, terrorizing the local villages, as well as, harassing the
temple itself.

It is said that at the end of the nine years of meditation,

Bodhidharma felt that the monks at the temple were ready to learn
from him, having witnessed his strength and dedication to the faith.
He is reputed to have said, something along these lines, 'Fighting
and killing are wrong, but it is also wrong not to be able to defend
yourselves. Though we do not believe in the weapons of war, in
order to protect ourselves from those who would harm us, let us
make each finger a knife, each hand a sword, and each arm a

He then began to teach the monks movements based on the Vajra

Mushti, at the early times being simply a method of using the fist,
palm, and feet. It was originally called Shih Pa Lo Han Sho; or in
Japanese, Juhachi Rakan Shu, 'the eighteen hands of an enlightened
man'. Later it was called Chuanfa, merging the ideas of the Vajra
Mushti and the Dharma (or law of Buddhism). Thus Chuan/Mushti,
meaning fist, and Fa/Dharma, meaning law. Chuanfa, fist law, which
in Japanese is Kempo.

There has been some criticism of the Bodhidharma legend, saying

that while he in fact did found the concept of Zen, he had nothing to
do with the establishment of the martial arts. Those who have this
contention point out the fact that the two writings of Bodhidharma
are merely exercise and philosophy books. But what must be
realized is that Bodhidharma felt that the fighting skills were too
dangerous to put down into manuals. Thus he wrote an exercise
book which could prepare the individual for martial arts training and
a philosophy book to prepare a mind of peace to receive and not
abuse the training. Bodhidharma changed the fighting art he had
learned as an Indian warrior, Kshatriya, into a martial art. He did this
by adding what is called Wu Te in Chinese or Butoku in Japanese,
meaning peaceful virtue, to the training. In these early years of
Shaolinssu Chuanfa, Shorinji Kempo, training, all teaching was done
personally from senior monk to junior monk, senior nun to novice
nun. Nothing about the martial art was written down.
After Shaolinssu Chuanfa spread throughout China, and eventually
to all Oriental nations, manuals did in fact begin to be written down
by monks, warriors, and martial families, but even then the masters
of these arts felt that their skills were too dangerous for public
dispersal, and these manuals were only for disciples or family
members. In some cases only the actual successor to the
headmaster of the system was allowed to see the 'secret' manual.

In Japan and Okinawa many different styles of Chogoku Kempo,

Chinese martial arts, found their way to the Buddhist temples and
eventually was spread from there to the warrior families. There was
always a close relation between the temples of Japan and the
warrior clans. Most of the martial arts of China to influence Japanese
martial arts were those developed prior to the sixteenth century.
This is why the five animal forms never influenced the Japanese
arts. In Okinawa, however, both the early and later styles of Chinese
martial arts were influential.

Some of the systems believed to have been influential in the

development of Japanese martial arts were; Shorinji (Shaolinssu)
Kempo, Shin (Divine) Kempo, Rakan (Lo Han) Kempo, and Hokuha
(Northern school) Kempo. These arts were basically palm and fist
skills, and in these early years, without set patterns. Thus the
Japanese monks and marital artists began to develop their own
ways and methods of developing the skills, making them uniquely
Japanese. Most of all the skills developed along the cultural lines of
Japan, adapting themselves to deal with the Japanese methods of
fighting. The Sohei, warrior monk's, Kempo was very
comprehensive, since they never knew what kind of battle they
might find themselves involved in. The Ashigaru, foot soldiers,
developed strong throwing skills, since most strikes would have
been ineffective against the light armor worn by their opponents.
The Bushi, Samurai warriors, who fought in heavy armor, developed
the skills of attacking the wrist, arms, and shoulder joints, which
became the foundation of the Aiki arts.

Some of the Japanese Ryu which are suppose to have close ties to
Chinese martial arts; Kosho Ryu Kempo, Sato Ryu Kempo, Togakure
Ryu Nimpo, Fukuno Ryu Jujutsu, Ryoi Shinto Ryu Jujutsu, Yoshin Ryu
Jujutsu, and Kito Ryu Jujutsu. There are many others that either
have a strong Chinese influence or actually developed from these

In Okinawa, there were three main points of influence; twelfth

century, fourteenth century, and eighteenth/nineteenth centuries.
Among the many Chinese styles to influence Okinawan martial arts
development were; in the twelfth century, Shorinji Kempo, Shin
Kempo, Rakan Kempo, and Shoreiji (southern temple style) Kempo.
In the fourteenth century it is believed these styles were introduced;
Tai (Korean) Kempo, Butosan (Wu Tang mountain) Kempo, and
possibly, Rikugo (universal) Kempo.

It was during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that Okinawa

became truly fascinated with the training being done in China. Up
till that time, the Okinawans had practiced their indigenous art of
Te, which had been influenced by Minamoto Bujutsu in the twelfth
century, and the Kempo influences of China. The Okinawan
practitioners began to do a more in-depth study of all martial arts,
adding in the Jigen Ryu Bujutsu of the Satsuma clan and researching
the current Chinese styles. Interestingly enough, while they studied
each of the arts in depth, they never just adopted a style from
another country, but rather picked what was useful and adapted it
to suit their particular needs. The Chinese styles to influence the
Okinawan martial arts at this time were, from the external styles;
Goken (five animal form) Shorinji Kempo, Sekka (red spear) Kempo,
Ko (tiger) Kempo, Ryu (dragon) Kempo, Hakutsuru (white crane)
Kempo, Shi (snake) Kempo, Hyo (leopard) Kempo, Cho (long fist)
Kempo, and Koke (Hung family) Kempo. The internal styles to
influence Okinawan martial arts were; Taikyoku (Tai Chi) Kempo,
Hakke (Pa Kua) Kempo, Hekikai (Pi Kua) Kempo, and Kei I (Hsing I)

The external styles were the main influence of the Okinawan schools
of; Shorin Ryu, Shorei Ryu, Okinawan Kempo Ryu, Shorinji Ryu, and
Kushin Ryu. While there is an underlying external influence on the
following systems, they also have a strong influence from the
internal schools of China; Goju Ryu, Uechi Ryu, and Hankonan Ryu.
Finally there are several Ryu which are a balance between the
external and internal schools, having elements of both lines of
Okinawan development. These are; Isshin Ryu, Shito Ryu Karate,
Tozan Ryu, and Mabuni Shito Ryu Kempo Karate. One final style
which merits supreme consideration is Motobu Ryu, which preserves
the ancient Minamoto influence of Aiki skills, along with all three
internal Chinese elements, and all superior aspects of Okinawan
martial arts development.

When Okinawan martial arts were first introduced to Japan, they

were known as Kempo, which is one of the reasons that the
Japanese originally gave the art so much credence. If an art was one
of the Kempo lineage, then the Okinawans knew that the Japanese
would give it serious consideration. Choki Motobu, Gichin Funakoshi,
Kanbun Uechi, and Kenwa Mabuni, all used the Japanese fascination
with Kempo to help draw attention to their Okinawan martial arts.

Both Japanese and Okinawan practitioners of Kempo realized that

they would possibly face the Katana (long sword), or the Wakizashi
(short sword), and thus had defenses specifically designed to defend
against these weapons. Another weapon that a Kempoka,
practitioner, might have to face was the Bo, a typical weapon of the
common man. The Kempo practitioner learned to use all the
weapons that s/he might have to face, for to know the weapon, was
to also know it's weaknesses. Then there was the fact that once
engaged in a battle, if possible the Kempoka would take the weapon
away from the attacker, for future use, if there were more than one

Ever since the first Kempo trained monk battled an attacker, the
legend of the temple martial arts began to grow. Kempo has a rich
legacy of combat effectiveness, technical proficiency, and superior
ability. Tall tales grew up around the practice of the Kempo masters.
The secret skills of the Yamabushi (mountain ascetics), Sohei
(warrior monks), and Tengu (heaven's dogs), were sought by many
martial artists in the hopes that through the special skills they
gained they would become invincible. The legendary beginnings of
many Ryu are steeped in the stories of masters meeting
outstanding masters of esoteric or divine nature, and learning the
Kempo skills they had to offer.

Yet the real secret of Kempo was always in the fact that it inspired
in the practitioner a willingness to be dedicated to hard and
consistent training. And this is the lesson modern practitioners need
to learn today. If anyone would be a great martial artist, they must
be willing to put in the hard work and daily practice that is a part of
all the stories of the great Kempo masters. Regardless of the source
of the Kempo style, the lesson always came down to dedicated
practice. So be like the masters of old and practice hard, seeking
the secrets of Kempo.