July 24, 2000
Sifu William Cary Callahan
Upon the request of a few individuals within the Chi Lin community, I’ve decided to send in an article for the web page. What I submit here in this writing comes from a variety of influences starting from my karate training with Jim Goode, my tae kwon do training from a variety of instructors, and of course my kung fu training with Mike Snyder. Let it also be known that I’m expressing my opinions with regard to these influences, drawing conclusions from my own experiences and my interpretation of them. I cover a number of topics that I choose to at this time, to the level of detail that I choose to describe them. Therefore, I may not cover aspects of interest the reader has, to the level of detail they might desire. Try and keep this in mind as you read on.
Due to my diverse background, almost anyone who reads this will find statements they will agree, as well as disagree with. That’s fine with me either way. For the record, I’m not a grand massa talkin’ down to the masses……….but I’m not a student looking for praise or approval in writing this either. I’m just tellin’ it the way I see it. No disrespect intended.
At the present time, I’m a 3rd degree black belt in Shotokan Karate after 14 years - with six years teaching experience, a 3rd level sifu in Chi Lin Chuan Fa after 10 years - with six years teaching experience and a 1st degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do after 13 years - with 3 years teaching experience. Therefore, consider the source as you feel appropriate.
Martial Arts Background
For those of you who don’t know me, and for some of you who do, I’m going to go into a little detail regarding my background, so you know where I’m coming from.
I was born in Arlington, Virginia but moved to Beckley, West Virginia when I was five years old. I grew up in the Daniels, Beaver and Shady Spring area. One of my hobbies was to watch boxing with my father. When I was about 9 years old I received an Everlast punching bag that hung in my bedroom doorway for a year or so. My dad was no formal martial artist, but he taught me basic punching combinations to get me started.
When I was about 11 years old I met Mike Dillon. Mike was one of my dad’s friends who played basketball with him from time to time. Mike and several of the other guys in the basketball group became like older brothers to me. Besides shooting hoops with my dad, Mike was quite a skilled martial artist. I’m not sure what his formal martial arts background was, but his practical fighting skills were evident. I believe his father was a drill instructor in the Army and had taught Mike how to defend himself. Mike Dillon was a powerful puncher and kicker and taught me basic boxing hands and not so basic kicking skills. As a matter of fact, when I took my first karate class, many of the upper level students and one of the black belt instructors thought I was brown belt in tae kwon do from one of the local schools, even though I hadn’t had any formal training. To this day I credit Mike with teaching me my favorite kick, the reverse crescent, as well as most of the nunchaku technique I know.
The first formal martial art style I studied was Shotokan, Karate as taught by Ace Toller and Jim Goode. I started right around the age of 15. Jim and Ace were both great martial artists in my opinion, but Jim would become my biggest influence. His technique was very complex and powerful, he was definitely a focused martial artist. He has swift, sharp technique to this day. Whether he’s doing a punch, kick, block or sitting in a stance, the precision and knowledge are there. He was very disciplined as an instructor and was looking for people who not only appreciated what he did, but who wanted to learn as well……………there I was. To describe Sensei’s style is not easy. I like to think of him as the Beethoven of karate (less famous of course). In other words, he has a strong root in the fundamentals of traditional technique but has taken his art a step farther by looking deeper into the subtle possibilities of what is there and has the ability to express it with clear focus.
After I got to purple belt I moved back to Northern, Virginia. I couldn’t find a Karate school anywhere, but I couldn’t throw a rock in any direction without hitting a tae kwon do school. So, I signed up at Jhoon Rhee Tae Kwon Do. I had very good instructors there that had excellent kicking skills and free sparring ability. The linear style of the katas was similar to Shotokan, except for a different arrangement of movements and a stronger emphasis on kicking. Forms were used as a training tool but not emphasized as self-defense training the way that I had been taught in Shotokan. But I must say the kicks were great and the free sparring extremely educational. It had a kick-boxing flavor to it.
I continued to study Shotokan from Jim while training in tae kwon do. I would visit often, spending several hours going over forms and technique with Jim. This created some strife on both sides. What Jim would fix from the supposed bad habits I picked up in tae kwon do, my tae kwon do instructors would fix it back when I got home again. I even had an argument with one of my tae kwon do instructors about how to do a sidekick. He threatened to call Grand Master Rhee to see if I wanted to discuss the matter with him. I declined.
All in all, the positives outweighed the negatives. During my senior year I received my black belt in Jhoon Rhee Tae Kwon Do and Shotokan Karate.
I then went to West Virginia University, starting in 1990. It was there that I met John Perrott and Mike Snyder. If I remember correctly, the night I walked into the West Virginia Martial Arts Association, (for the first time since the mid 80’s while on a Chi Lin Reunion) was the night that John Perrott received his 1st degree black belt in Shotokan from Sam Boyd. This is also the very same association that Jim Goode received his black belt from Master Sam Boyd and Master Dennis Decker, around the early 70’s. Because of my connection to Jim that could be traced back to the Association, I was allowed to join the school as an instructor and began teaching karate with John.
Shortly after I began teaching, I met Mike Snyder. I’m not exactly sure how we met, but I think one of the first things he started doing was correcting my technique. What can I say, after watching some of the forms and how Mike moved, my eyes were opened. I didn’t understand it exactly, but I knew it was cool. Mike’s skill is phenomenal and anyone who knows him, knows what I’m talkin’ ‘bout. To me Mike is the Jimmy Hendrix of kung fu. What does this mean? Well, based on what I had seen up to that point in my short career, he had a new way of doing things that worked, yet he had a strong connection in sound martial principles and concepts.
I learned that power didn’t have to be linear and external. In observing Mike, power was often springy, 3 dimensional moveable alignments, coming out in a wave or bump, emphasizing hip rotation and a relaxed spine. The Tai Chi influence from Liu Ping Zhang has definitely been introduced into the Chuan Fa that Mike teaches. I wish I had a quarter for every time Mike said, “You need more hip rotation, elbows down, shoulder relaxed, tuck your hips under.” I would be rich.
This Chi Lin Chuan Fa stuff was the most complex form structure (kata) I had seen. The first form I learned was Tiger. This form, when done with speed and precision, is as complex as the master level forms of other styles. Mike was very detail oriented and this showed in the class. Even though classes were informal they were not discipline free. The classes were small due to the fact that most people couldn’t hack it or else they wanted a costume and a belt system. This meant more personal attention, similar to an apprenticeship as opposed to a mass following of glory seekers. This increased the learning curve for those who stuck around.
I graduated from WVU in May of ’96 and moved back to Northern Virginia again. Since then I’ve taught Chi Lin Chuan Fa and tae kwon do in the area. I’m currently at the Black Belt Academy in Fairfax, Virginia, and have been in this location since 1997.
Martial Arts Philosophy
I approach my Chi Lin class with the concept of a three link chain. The three links are Art, Exercise and Self-Defense. Like a chain, these links are separate components, yet they are directly connected together. You can’t pull too far in any direction without engaging upon the other two links. All of the links must be strong in order to withstand the stress that may be applied to the chain. Who can defend themselves without sufficient strength and/or muscle tone...the exercise. Who can defend themselves without the technique and concepts behind it to shape the energy...the art form. The combination of art form/technique through exercise leads to self-defense when applied, either through free sparring, one step sparring, focus pad drills or chin na.
There’s a difference between someone walking through a form as opposed to performing it with precision, power, speed and intent. You can feel the intent - and that’s the difference.
There are certain characteristics we all have and use in our daily lives. These are speed, coordination, balance, strength, power, flexibility, shape formation, timing ………….etc. Basically, these are ingredients that are combined to varying degrees to produce technique for any given task. In martial arts training we conceptualize and define these individually, but develop them in a variety of combinations. Punches, kicks, blocks…….they all have a demand for these elements to some extent.
We develop a sense of awareness with these within ourselves over many years of practice. Those who are more familiar with the use of what I call the elements, have the advantage in a self-defense situation. This requires years of practicing techniques to achieve muscle memory, dampening or excluding the need for moment to moment thought. To quote Zen, “Don’t think, do!” The response is there. Similar to language, forms practice is like saying you’re A,B,C’s, and reading simple sentences, while free sparring is similar to having a conversation. After you develop your language skills you speak without conscious thought. Responses occur in the moment. The goal is to take an outside art form and successfully splice it into your subconscious, making it a part of yourself. Good habits become natural, instinctual responses.
I believe one explanation into the mystery of Chi or Ki, is to refer to it as a moment when someone taps into and combines the elements without conscious thought in such a way that maximizes power and efficiency, yet the event appears or feels effortless.
The need for self-discipline to attain skills can also help in the development of a sharper mind. This mental focus can be used in other pursuits as well. To what extent this concept holds true depends on you.
In my experience, regardless of stylistic differences, there are certain techniques that appear in several different styles across the board. I call these, Core Essentials, because very few stylists are not familiar with almost all of them and they make up the core basis of a variety of styles. These include techniques such as the back fist, reverse punch, stepping punch, arm bar, front, round and side kicks………..the list goes on. Various styles have their version of these techniques yet they can be remarkably similar in structure and use. These are also the techniques commonly used in self-defense situations. I constantly stress the practice of these core essentials as the base set of tools one needs to be a successful martial artist. These must become second nature to the practitioner.
My classes consist of a wide variety of training methods. They include:
Internal and External (basic definitions)
Keep in mind that I’m providing basic definitions. Many people have a variety of different ways to explain the concepts of internal and external.
External – The use of muscular tension on or near the point of impact to tie the body together for focus in an instant. The tension around the joints helps the technique hold its structure and penetrate the target. The body may be relaxed, before hand, for speed, but as the technique approaches the target tension is applied to the structure so that the entire mass of the body gathers and moves together to the focal point of the strike or block. Most important is the idea of using muscular tension. Envision a solid stick being lunged forward in sharp motions. The stick is a solid, straight structure. The weight of the entire stick funnels into the striking end. Karate, Tae Kwon Do and other hard styles focus on this form of power, generally speaking.
Internal – The use of relaxation, allowing free flow of momentum and body mass. The fist or hitting surface may be hard but the rest of the body can be as relaxed as possible on impact. Power is transferred into the target through the alignment of the bone structure, not the muscle tension around it. The idea is that your own tension may keep your power from traveling through your body so that you are struggling against yourself. Lack of tension provides the gateway to power release. Power may come out in a bump or a wave. Envision a lead ball on the end of a chain. The chain is bendable and flexible but when swung it becomes a pathway for the momemtum to be transferred into the lead ball. The lead ball hits with force even though the chain is not a solid stiff structure behind it. Kung Fu utilizes this concept, generally speaking.
Internal and External are not completely separate from one another. An example would be to examine a Yin and Yang symbol. Besides Yin and Yang flowing around one another, they also contain a piece of the other inside themselves. In other words, hard style karate may be internal at moments and soft style kung fu may have moments of external emphasis or tension somewhere in the body, even if a small amount. Some describe internal and external styles based on appearance. Styles that emphasize flowing circular moves are called soft which may also imply internal. Some styles are more linear and snappy, emphasizing jolting bursts of energy, sometimes implying they are external in nature. The eyes can be deceiving though.
Keep in mind that circular flowing movements do not necessarily imply internal and hard linear movements do not necessarily imply external.
Chi Lin Chuan Fa, in the version I learned, is both external and internal, playing off linear and circular motion.
A belt is only good for holding your pants up and pretty certificates make nice wallpaper. This is true. Its not necessary to have a rank system to pass on skills and knowledge. Just because someone has a black belt doesn’t mean they’re beyond losing a fight.
On the other hand, symbols and their attached meanings have been used in every major culture I’ve ever heard of. Even though the American flag is just a piece of cloth, soldiers have died honorably to protect the ideals it stands for. It is the symbol for sacrifice, power, freedom, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I love my country and the flag symbolizes all of that wrapped up in one.
It comes down to the fact that rank can help organize a group of people. It can be a valuable outward symbol of inner qualities and recognition of improvement. The belt or certificate is empty without the skills that go along with it though. Just because someone buys a black belt and puts it on doesn’t mean they are one. I feel that the use of rank is a good idea. However, the concept is perverted when the value of a symbol becomes more important than the virtues and skills it is supposed to represent.
I’ve trained under circumstances where visible rank was presented for my achievements, with belts to wear around my waist. I’ve also been promoted by the word of mouth with comments like, “You’ve achieved another level, you’re ready for the next form,” and that was it. The knowledge was the promotion. No uniform, belt or certificate. Either way is fine.
I personally choose to use a rank system of sashes with a color pattern resembling that of karate because the color scheme is recognizable and I think it helps promote the class. Unlike other schools, I don’t give patches and other trinkets out every five seconds. The sashes I give are not required to be worn in class, it’s an option. Even though I use a rank system, I don’t use it to bully students to practice. It’s not a political tool for me to wield as I see fit. Students who develop skills are the one’s that get promoted, and that’s it. I exercise the politics of no politics.
Keep in mind that when you get promoted, you’re receiving rank in your style, from your school, under the instruction of your teachers, fulfilling their standards. The standards and requirements of another school may be dramatically different. It is futile to argue over what style or method is better. There are only knowledgeable teachers and dedicated students. A style doesn’t make you good. A good teacher and hard work does.
Passing on the Knowledge
Some people think inside the box……..Some people think outside the box……………I choose to think inside a flexible box with doors and windows.
What does this mean and what am I referring to?
Some people feel that in order to achieve martial arts prowess, they must fulfill a fantasy idea of becoming the same as martial artists generations before them, following their rules and not changing anything. To think for themselves is a sin and they practically worship the concept of traditional is better. The idea that someone, in some far off place, a long time ago, had knowledge that they must go back and get through becoming a replica of their instructors, appeals to these folks. If it ain’t from the old country, they don’t want it. These people never become themselves in trying to become someone else. They become prisoners of a rank system believing their instructor, alone, knows best. This isn’t always the case.
On the other hand, some people believe that traditional technique is false and has no true value. They believe that today you have several generations of martial artists practicing impractical moves through the air. They believe that any new invention, new style or new idea is the best thing going. They change their mind every five minutes. This is the person who gets a yellow belt in karate, a brown belt in Judo and reads a book on kung fu. Then they declare themselves a master by claiming they’ve combined what they know and made up their own style. And they’ll let you read all about it for just $9.95! That’s right folks, just $9.95, plus shipping and handling. These people are usually lost because they lack having a solid foundation in anything, even if only to use it as a stepping stone to help shape their own creativity.
When it comes to passing on knowledge from generation to generation, teacher to student, I believe in a balance between the 2 extremes.
What does this mean and how can I illustrate it?
The human form is generally the same. The skeletal and muscular structure is very similar. At the same time, some people are taller, while others are smaller. We have different eye, hair and skin color as well. How does this apply to martial arts?
I believe that students should master the fundamental skeletal structure of their style (forms, drills, concepts) and do so with dedication to their school and instructor. At the same time, just as individuals are different, their technique will not flow exactly the same way as someone else’s. Some are better punchers, while others may kick better, etc.
After an individual has earned several degrees of black belt, some of these differences should not be seen as mistakes, but as different interpretations on a theme.
You only need to go to a tournament to see what I’m talking about. Many times, I’ve seen competitors do the same form with the skeletal structure being the same, while the meat on the bones, of their performance, was quite different. They did the same thing, but not exactly the same way.
This concludes my article for the web page at this time. Thank you for your time. Please send any comments to WVUSnake1@aol.com and I’ll try and respond in a timely manner. I said, “try”. Although it was intended at certain intervals of this writing, please excuse improper grammar.
See ya when I see ya,
---------- Sifu William Cary Callahan
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