The Lost Teachings of Shaolin Kempo

For an style which is relatively new, it seems strange to say there are lost teachings. Many would claim otherwise, yet the astute observer will notice a difference in what is taught and what is explained to students of Shaolin Kempo. When you take a step back from the rush to be Black Belt, an instructor or a devotee to a particular lineage, you see pieces of the art most miss. I challenge you to think about the art and find insights to the things you have already learned.

Shaolin Kempo is often described as an art that is “50% punching and 50% kicking”. However, as any student of kyu-rank will attest, there is an emphasis on punching and hand techniques. Is this a discrepancy? No, and here’s why.

Like many other styles, Tai Chi Chuan to name one, hides many techniques within its kata sets. This is also true in Shaolin Kempo. Kicking attacks and defenses are hidden in the required Combinations and forms. For instance, when a foot is unweighted, as in the cat stance, you can execute a kick. Therefore, many of the wazas which have cat stances can include a kick to the groin or mid-section. Additionally, the use of legs, knees and feet in the trapping and grappling arts is an important element to effective Kempo techniques.

A similar situation occurs with another aspect of Shaolin Kempo. Jujitsu is reportedly a core element of this style, yet very little time is spent on grab techniques and escapes maneuvers. Is this too a discrepancy? No.

Just like hidden kicking techniques, grabs are also hidden. Jujitsu, or grabs, are applied in a myriad number of techniques. They are found in Combinations, during the initial attack and defense, and later on during the follow through. A perfect example of this hidden quality occurs in combination 16. After the initial “Snapping the Twig” attack, the next technique is “ikajo” — an arm and wrist lock. Besides these hidden maneuvers, there is another interesting fact about relation of Jujitsu and Kempo.

The true founder of Shaolin Kempo, Grandmaster Sonny Gascon, trained many years in Jujitsu. When he developed Shaolin Kempo (or Karazenpo Go Shinjutsu), his previous skills in Jujitsu were retained within the traditional curriculum. However, many “later” masters have allowed this portion of the Kempo curriculum to atrophy thereby eliminating this vital skill from the Kempo repertoire.

In most Shaolin Kempo schools, there are six katas and five pinans. Students often ask, “Why aren’t there 6 pinans?” In fact, there are six pinans. Since the 1940s, this mysterious sixth form has adopted the moniker, “the lost pinan”. One of the key principles of Kempo is symmetry. This symmetry is reflected not only in the techniques but in the organization of the style.

Pinans originated in Okinawa, developed by Okinawans who were taught by Chinese gungfu masters. “Yasutsune Itosu (1830-1915), of the Shuri-Te system, developed the Pinan, peaceful mind, series of five forms around 1905.” (N. Paranto, 1996.) Early Kempo (from Okinawa and Japan) only had five pinans. The sixth was added during the 1940s during the development of Karazenpo Go Shinjutsu as a curriculum.

One aspect of Kempo which is lost and harder to discern is its relation to the Pilipino arts. For those artist who cross-trained in Pilipino Kali-Escrima, you may have noticed a familiar flow of foot work and hand work. This is no coincidence, nor is it parallel evolution. It stems from Shaolin Kempo’s roots and origins. Below is a quote about the founder of Shaolin Kempo.

While Victor [Gascon] was a child, his father ran chicken fights in the back yard. There always were several old and young Filipinos which could be seen playing sticks during breaks in the fights. Victor especially remembers them showing the “dancing” footwork and empty hand applications. [KGS/BBS, 1995]

Weapons training make up a portion of a complete martial arts style. The training exist within Kempo, yet — like so much of the style — it is left to atrophy. Without this portion of training, Shaolin Kempo is incomplete. It is vital to learn the Pilipino weapon sets and the traditional Chinese weapon sets to truly understand Shaolin Kempo.

Why do portions of the Kempo curriculum disappear? Shaolin Kempo is becoming a diluted art form. Incomplete training of the instructors exacerbates this sad fact. Many schools rush aspiring students into instructor positions to establish their lineage and satisfy their egos. The patience expected of Asian students by their Asian masters is missing in America. This patience has its rewards — a full and complete martial art style.

The splintering of Kempo in the 1970s and 1980s has obscured the true lineage and roots of this style. Cross training has also diluted the history of Kempo as instructors try to fill in missing gaps of their training. Hopefully, new organizations like the Karazenpo Go Shinjutsu Association can help educate and train others in the remaining portions of the Shaolin Kempo system.

The solution to this dreadful trend is to re-commit oneself to learning all about Shaolin Kempo — true or false. Then eliminate the false. Research the roots, discover other students of the style to exchange knowledge and techniques. Shaolin Kempo is not only a martial art style, it is a family which needs to stay together.