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Martial Arts: Karate

The Art of War, Sun Tzu: Ancient Wisdom For Martial Artists - Part 1

By By Gary Music

The nature of my work -- bouncer and bartender through college and 22 years in the military in dangerous places all over the world unfortunately put me in many self-protection situations.  I am still here so I did something right.  What was it?

I used defense to protect myself.  Sounds simple but I think you will discover in the following article the concept of defense is more complicated than most martial artists understand.

I began my martial arts training like most in the early 1970's, practicing taekwondo, Japanese karate-do and judo at local martial arts schools.  My instructors were highly competent in their various martial arts but something was missing. I did not realize it at the time but I do now.

Now fast forward to 1980.  I was a second dan in several "do" styles and I thought of myself as accomplished in the martial arts.

Stan Hart demonstrating a defense against a shove.

Then I met the late Sensei Stan Hart, a collector of martial arts if you will.  Sensei Hart like myself also had black belts in various "do" arts such as Aikido and Shotokan karate-do.  But Sensei Hart also studied a rare form of Okinawan kempo (a term often used for karate) that I had never seen. His kempo was completely defensive in tactics, something that seemed to follow strategies laid out by the famous Chinese military tactician Sun Tzu.

The first time I met Stan we were in a parking lot of a Chinese restaurant.  He was trying to explain defense to me, a young strong karate man who thought he could knock down a brick wall if he so wanted.

I told him, "Stan I have no idea what you are talking about and I am a second dan in karate and taekwondo. I am sure my instructors would have told me these things".  So Stan said, "attack me and I will show you".  I asked him, "what attack?"  Stan replied, "You choose the attack since you are the attacker".

So I grabbed him by the right shoulder and launched my right hand at his jaw.  I did not hold back; I went after him hard.

I immediately felt his cover stop my attack and at the same moment felt a sharp pain on the inside of my left knee.  Fleeting moments later I felt a pain in my neck just below the ear.  This all happened in what seemed to me at the exact same moment.  I was out -- I mean drool on your chin on the asphalt out.  Sensei Hart had a student for life.

Now please don't for a moment think I am putting down "do".  I continue to study judo, taekwondo and karate-do and will do so all my life. I also competing in many tournaments and have had a wonderful time. Through this training I have also developed a moral code and a work ethic that  I will always value.  I am simply pointing out that this kempo had an entirely different emphasis, one of defensive tactics and technique -- one demonstrating a very high level of art.  

Sun Tzu On Taking "Whole"

Sun Tsu (Drawing by Joshua Davis)

Sun Tzu, the famous Chinese military tactician and philosopher, once said: "In sum, the method of employing the military. (1) Taking a state whole is superior; destroying it is inferior to this. Taking an army whole is superior; destroying it is inferior to this. Taking a battalion whole is superior; destroying it is inferior to this. Taking a company whole is superior; destroying it is inferior to this. Taking a squad whole is superior; destroying it is inferior to this."

"Therefore, one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the most skillful. Subduing the other's military without battle is the most skillful" (Chapter 3 Strategy of Attack).

Sun Tzu's ancient text on military tactics, "The Art of War," is not only a source of wisdom that only applies to military principles. It can equally be applied to personal self defense too.  Could it have been an influence that contributed to the defensive tactics and strategy used in Shuri's kempo (karate)? There is no way know, but Sun Tsu's strategy is in some ways strikingly similar to the old style Okinawan kempo bred from Shuri (Okinawa's capital).  

To understand Shuri kempo (Shorin-ryu) from Okinawa it helps to thoroughly understand Sun Tzu.  The running theme throughout the Sun Tzu is the concept of taking the enemy "whole".  This is directly related to the concept in Shuri-te (meaning Shuri hand, an old term for karate or kempo) that developed in the capital city aimed at protection of life. 

Sun Tzu tells us to take an enemy whole is superior to destroying the enemy. Shuri-te kempo's philosophy tells us that the goal of kempo practice and that of a skilled kemp practitioner is to protect life. This is not simply a philosophy of peace or altruism, but actually outlines a principle that gives us a tactical advantage when protecting ourselves.

Defensive advantage is the least understood tactic in self protection and I will help you understand this important concept.  It is also important to note when I use the term Shuri-te kempo I am not referring to a specific style of martial art, but simply to the methods used and practiced by the Shuri palace guards and students who trained under Bushi Matsumura, the great Shuri karate teacher, diplomat, body guard to the Okinawan king who many consider the founder of Shorin-ryu karate (Shuri-te). Many modern karate styles from Okinawa, Japan and Korea are descended from this tradition, so the following information will be useful when practicing these styles.

Sun Tzu on skill

Sun Tzu said: "So-called skill is to be victorious over the easily defeated. Thus the battles of the skilled are without extraordinary victory, without reputation for wisdom, and without merit for courage." Chapter 4 Form

The Art of War is a 6th century BCE treatise on strategy and tactics primarily concerning a state’s ability to protect itself.  So why is it important to an individual martial artist?  For one it is one of the best guides to recognizing skill -- skill in yourself and others.  This may seem like an easy thing to do but believe me this ability is not highly developed in the general population.   Sun Tzu principles, tactics and strategies can also aid you in recognizing things that are utterly unskilled.

Sun Tzu said: "In seeing victory, not going beyond what everyone knows, is not skilled. Victory in battle that all-under-heaven calls skilled, is not skilled. Thus lifting the down of an autumn leaf does not mean great strength. Seeing the sun and the moon does not mean a clear eye. Hearing thunder does not mean a keen ear." Chapter 4 Form

So what is Sun Tzu trying to tell us here?  Several things, beginning with the fact that many things that appear skilled are simply demonstrations.  Rehearsed demonstrations show little skill besides the skill of demonstrating.  Many times you will see a rehearsed self-defense demo that looks astounding, but the skill being evoked (self protection) is not present at all.  In itself this does not hinder the martial artist but spending your time practicing to demonstrate skill instead of actually becoming skilled is detrimental.

Sun Tzu tells us defeating the easily defeated is not skill.   An attacker throwing a preplanned attack at a manageable speed is very easily defeated.  This builds little skill and should be the very beginning progression.

Sun Tzu on training and demonstration martial arts

Sun Tzu said: "And so when he seeks advantage, lure him. When he is in chaos, take him. When he is substantial, prepare against him. When he is strong, avoid him. When he is wrathful, harass him. Attack where he is unprepared.  Emerge where he does not expect it. These are the victories of the military lineage. They cannot be transmitted in advance" (Chapter 1 Appraisals).

Demonstration training permeates the martial arts world.  Many two-man type training sessions are simply to learn a technique which can then demonstrated later for an instructor or for an audience.  Many martial artists make a living doing seminars and must make the technique "look good" to sell themselves.

Most martial artists practice against a specific attack at a specific moment.  The problem with this type training is the attacker will actually pick the time, place, method and most importantly he will pick the victim.   The victim does not get to pick the attacker or any of these advantages.  Sun Tzu would tell you that methods for victory cannot be transmitted in advance.  This caveat specifically pertains to techniques against known attacks.  We must somehow advance beyond this type of training.

Sun Tzu on defense

Sun Tzu said: "Invincibility is defense. Vincibility (vulnerability) is attack. Defend and one has a surplus. Attack and one is insufficient" (Chapter 4 Form).

In addition Sun Tzu said: "Of old, those skilled at defense hid below the nine earths and moved above the nine heavens. Thus they could preserve themselves and be all-victorious."

You simply cannot practice offensive martial arts methods for self protection. You are not the attacker, you are the defender.  You must use defense.  This is your only real hard advantage, for Sun Tzu tells us that there is invincibility in defense and vincibility in offense.  An attacker cannot use an offensive movement without opening a hole in their defense.  You as the victim cannot attack first, it simply will not happen.  The attacker picks the time of the attack, not you.  The fact the attacker’s method is offense is your only advantage; he must have an opening if he uses offense.  Since you are using defense you can have no openings; don't give up your only advantage.  Remember that the attacker owns time, ground, method and choice of victim.

When I watch martial artists practicing self-protection I almost always see them using offense not defense to stop the attack.  Why?  Because they can. The nature of the attacker – defender relationship is too cooperative when it should be confrontational.  This is not philosophy I am referring to. It is tactics and strategy.  It boils down to this: If you can use an offensive movement against an attacker who starts first he is not a threat. In Sun Tzu's own words, he would be easily defeated.  Don't train to protect yourself against the easily defeated, train to protect yourself against the most viscous and tenacious attacker one could imagine.  Do not underestimate your attacker. If you do you will most likely have very little foreknowledge of his ability or intentions.

Part 2 of this article will discuss Sun Tsu's concepts related to training, concepts about appraisal and knowledge of self and attacker, and the subject of knowledge of self and attacker.


The information and Sun Tzu excerpts are taken from the Demna Translation of the bamboo text of the Sun Tzu.  This is a publication of the Shambhala Publication Company. wants also to thank Joshua Davis, know as "Bear" amongst his friends, for his drawing of Sun Tsu.

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About The Author:

Sensei Gary Music began training in Sang Moo Kwan Taekwondo in 1973 at the age of 13. Sang Moo Kwan Taekwondo is an offshoot of Shotokan Karate-do. Sensei Music attained a rank of first Dan in 1976 at the Gary Harris Taekwondo Institute in Mansfield Ohio. Gary began weight training at this time with his father, James Commodore Music, (101’st Airborne WWII and Korean war Vet) who also taught Mr. Music boxing, shooting and survival skills. These skills were later honed in the military as a USAF aviator and parachute rigger specialist, Officer Music retired from the military in 2002.  During Sensei Music's 22 years in the military he traveled worldwide searching out instructors in Japan, Okinawa, Korea, Philippines and Thailand honing his hard style striking skills and becoming one of the countries leading authorities on old style kata training and advanced bunkai. Sensei Music also holds a black belt in Ju-jitsu, training with notable instructors such as Dr. Don Smith (taught by Donn Dreager at the Kodokan) and John Saylor founder of Shin Gi Tai Ju-jitsu (seminar based). Sensei Music’s primary instructors are the noted Aikido and Karate Master Vic Louis, Kempo Master, the late Stan Hart and kicking master and fighter the legendary Bill Wallace.  Sensei Music continues his study of Karate-Do to this day attaining 6th Dan ranking in Shotokan Karate-Do and Taekwondo. He also is ranked at 6th Dan in Shuri-te Kempo, and is the Chief Instructor for the Shuri-te Kempo Technique Association and the Ohio Kettlebell Club in Shiloh, Ohio. Sensei Music began studying Shuri-te Kempo with the late Sensei Stan Hart in 1980.   All of Sensei Music’s rank is certified through the AIKA. Mr. Music’s kettlebell training began 6 years ago in his basement as a self training hobby. In 2009 Sensei Music decided to search out the leading authority on kettlebells and receive formal training from Pavel Tsatsouline and the RKC staff. He is now a cert I RKC instructor and member of the RKC Advisory Board, and training for a RKC cert II level. Sensei Music is available for seminars at .

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Sun Tzu, military tactics,self-defense, defensive tactics

Read more articles by Gary Music

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