Tracy's Kenpo Karate Shreveport, LA

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What's In A Name?

    The name of the martial art that we practice is kenpo.  Questions often arise as to the correct spelling of the word kenpo, as it is often seen with the spelling kempo.  There are many places one can go to research this, but suffice it to say that the word is spelled keNpo, and pronounced keMpo.

    But what about the meaning of the word?  Kenpo means fist law, or law of the fist.  Given the reputation of kenpo the martial art, this definition conjures up an image of people enforcing law and order through the use of their fists or fighting skills.  On some levels, this may be accurate, but there is much more to it than that.

    The word kenpo is Japanese.  It's Chinese equivalent is chu'an fa.  Chu'an fa is an approximate term used by monks that practiced a section of the Vajramukti Buddhist Arts that were concerned with ritualized movements containing the principles of health preservation, weaponless self-defense, and meditative insight.  (The Bodhisattva Warriors, Terence Dukes)

    The actual T'ang Chinese character for chu'an (meaning closed or clasped hand) is representative of the Sanskrit term mukti.  Vajra is associated with thunderbolt, perhaps related to the concept of enlightenment achieved thru physical training. 

    A disciple of the Shakyamuni Buddha was fearful that the Buddha might die without having taught a vital principle.  When questioned, the Buddha picked up a handful of leaves from the ground, and asked the disciple whether he had more leaves in his hand than the tree had on it's branches.  The disciple replied that the tree contained more leaves.

    The Buddha said it was the same with his teaching.  What he had taught could be compared to the leaves in his hand, and what he could have taught could be compared to the leaves on a tree.  The Buddha went on to explain that he taught with an open hand the material that his disciples needed to reach enlightenment.  In other words, his teachings, though finite, opened the mind to an infinite amount of knowledge.

    The word chu'an, or clasped hand is used to appropriate this method of learning.  Mastery of the Vajramukti method was considered esoteric and difficult, and was taught by a few masters to a few students.

    The word fa, meaning law, is representative of the Sanskrit term dharma, meaning natural law, or teachings of the Buddha.  Dharma is a typical suffix used to describe most arts, crafts, and practices associated with Buddhist arts.  It can also mean techniques, methods, or manner of practice.

    Together, we get the term dharmamukti, meaning clasped handed teachings of natural law, or clasped handed teachings of the Buddha.

    The history of our style of kenpo has its roots with the Vajramukti School of Buddhism, an esoteric style of weaponless self defense, ritualized movement, health preservation, and meditative insight, taught by few masters to a few disciples.  The art made it's way to China where it was called chu'an fa, and from there to Japan, where it is known as kenpo.

    There are representations in Buddhist mandalas of the Buddha representing powers achieved through this type of practice.  Interestingly, a few more well known derivatives of the Vajramukti school are the Vajrapani school, the Vajrasattva school, and the Vajradhara school, meaning respectively He of the Thunderbolt Hands, Essence of the Thunderbolt, and He Who Grasps the Thunderbolt.

     Charted, Vajramukti can mean either "the clasped hand thunderbolt" or "liberation thunderbolt."  The significance to our art form is that our art, taught in the clasped hand method, can lead to spiritual liberation.

    One of our most famous modern kenpo ancestors, William Kwai Sun Chow, was given the nickname Thunderbolt by his instructor, James Mitose.  Mitose was not known for being very open about where he or his art came from, but he left many clues along the way.

    The connotation of law of the fist as being a fist fighting art may also be where the myth that kenpo is not an effective kicking style comes from.  Fist law is a teaching method, not a description.  In kenpo, kicks are trained equally with the hands, and trained for accuracy as well as power and speed.  Kenpo has been known for decades for it's emphasis on precision striking, but precision kicking is equally effective, and should be equally emphasized.

    While on the subject of names, it should be known that our parent art called Kosho Shorei Ryu Kenpo by James Mitose has never been found in the formal listings of schools or ryus in Japan, leading many to believe that Mitose and his teachings are fraudulent.

    I believe that the name was made up by Mitose, and that there are clues contained within it as well, a subject for the next part of this series.

David Hopper

Yodan, Tracy's Kenpo Karate

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