Oswald Rivera

Author, Warrior, and Teacher

Tag: Kung-Fu

Why do I practice martial arts? I became interested in it because of my military service. As a Marine combat veteran in Vietnam, it initially seemed like the natural outgrowth of my training. What I did not anticipate was that it would play such a major role in my civilian life.

Like most who approach the martial arts, I wanted to augment my capacities for the self-defense that I had learned in the Corps. Because I had discovered Karate while in Japan recuperating from wounds I suffered in combat, that system remained my initial focus upon returning to the States.

However, it did not take long for a game-changer to appear that would forever alter my direction. While exploring various dojos, I happened across Alan Lee’s Chinese Kung-Fu Wu-Su Association, a school in midtown Manhattan. I became enthralled by the seemingly delicate movements that could have such a devastating impact upon an opponent. Our system is a mix of hard and soft, aggressive and defensive, combining everything, including weapons, into a singular fighting style. But more than that, it is a system that uses the mind to cultivate the development of life energy; thus it is truly a holistic system, one that is able to enhance fighting abilities while developing emotional health and well-being.

Ironically, this structure had a calming effect on me…something wholly unexpected. As Grandmaster Lee himself can attest, when I joined the school I had issues. As many vets from many wars have discovered, transitioning home from combat is not easy. What had kept me alive in Vietnam was not appropriate once I got home, and I found myself trapped in self-destructive emotions and behavior as I struggled to adapt. Moreover, I was older than the other students, not only in years but in what I had seen and done. Grandmaster Lee understood my turmoil and took the time and effort to help me through this period, imparting not just his fighting knowledge but also his spiritual understanding of life’s value and purpose.

Forty years later I am still learning the power of our system. We who train at the School certainly do not claim that our system is the best, but it is different, and that difference is what helped me find my place once I returned home from Vietnam.

Our school does not endeavor to produce only impeccable fighters; we endeavor to create whole individuals. The goal is not to be a warrior, per se. The goal is to become fully who you are. As Emerson said: “The purpose of life is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived well.” This is why I still practice Wu-Su, as we call it. While I achieved my master ranking years ago. I’m not interested in learning another kick or punch. What keeps me coming back is the “chi” development, cultivating my greatest self and living it with courage.

Note: Here, insert 3 videos (1: Me against my fellow Master, Sidney Camille (spear vs. double staff)/2: Me against Dr. Lanes (knife vs. knife)/2: Me against one of my students, Reggie Zephyrin, one of my tigers (butterfly knife vs. butterfly knife).
Suggestion: would it be possible to connect, here, to connect to the school website/page? They have a biography of me as one of the administrating masters of the school, as well as the school history.

Martial Arts – Power Forms

Today I’m diverting from the usual wine and dining posts to focus on my beloved martial arts, specifically, Kung-Fu Wu-Su, the system which I have practiced for 35+ years. If you check out the December edition of Inside Kung Fu magazine, you will find among the articles one on a specific form we use in our system. The article features your truly and fellow Master Robert Thomas showing some of the specifics of the form. In this case, Kung Lei Chuang, or the Skill and Power Form.

I know well the controversy about the pros and cons of forms, or what are called “katas” in Karate. For the uninitiated, forms (or katas) are a fixed series of different poses or continuous body positions that include ,many techniques within a system. The beauty of forms is that they enable a practitioner to practice a series of techniques in sequence. They put together the techniques in a certain combination and they strengthen the internal and external body components. The drawbacks with forms is that they are limited to the techniques practice by the master who developed the form.

Some masters, among them Bruce Lee, did away with forms altogether and emphasized teaching techniques only. Where forms were concerned, Bruce Lee termed it as the “Classical Mess.” I do not follow this thinking. I still practice forms, and I practice them diligently. We have twelve basic forms in our system, and we think that’s enough. It’s true, if we exclusively practiced forms we would have no students left in the Chinese Kung-Fu Wu-Su Association Forms are an integral part of our system but not the end-all be-all of the system.
The Skill and Power Form, for instance, is one of our advanced forms. It’s name implies what it is: a sequence of vital movements designed for hard strikes and tough encounters. Unlike most forms or katas, it is not linear. It traverses in four directions, each preceding and following a singular movement. This form is not only good for exercise but it can be used for fighting as well. It’s got two power kicks, but its emphasis is on the hands and turning, shifting (inclusive of one jump kick). To me it is a premier form. One never gets bored practicing it and you learn something anew everytime you do it. If all forms were as interesting and applicable as the Skill and Power Form, the debate about the usefulness of forms (and katas) would have been solved years ago.
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David Carradine: Requiem

It came as a shock to hear about the death of actor David Carradine, 72, in Bangkok, where he was working on a new movie. Most of us recall Mr. Carradine from the ground-breaking TV series of the 70s, Kung Fu. By Mr. Carradine’s own admission, the series was both a blessing and a curse. It gave him not only national but international exposure, but it got him typecast forever with that role. Even though he made other movies such as “Bound for Glory,” possibly his best role, where he portrayed folk singer Woodie Guthrie, it was forever the series, Kung Fu, that was attached to his name.

As practitioner of Shaolin Style King Fu for over 35 years, I feel we owe a debt to Mr. Carradine and the TV show for popularising the art. I was an avid fan of the show. It sought, in its own way, to explain the concept of Kung Fu while still being entertaining. Though I may have had qualms about the way Kung Fu fighting was portrayed in the show, I still found it vastly enjoyable. What it lacked in realism it more than made up in entertainment.

David Carradine was the eldest son of John Carradine, a prominent character actor of the 1940s. He was in his thirties when he got the part of Kwai Chang Caine, a Taoist monk fleeing from the law in China by escaping to the America West in the 19th century. Actually, Mr. Carradine got the part through a fluke. And this is the controversial part of the story. The one person credited with the original idea of an “eastern western” was none other than Bruce Lee, who had given Kung Fu (or Gung Fu) its first exposure in the 60s TV series, The Green Hornet. In it he played the Green Hornet’s sidekick, Cato, who was adept at this “inscrutable martial art.” Bruce Lee had pitched the idea with the possibility of him playing the lead in the show. Unfortunately, given the temper of the times and, yes, the racism, it was believed that American audiences were not yet ready for an Asian leading man on TV.

Mr. Carradine, who had appeared in movies and Broadway, was given the role. It helped that he had studied dancing, primarily ballet and tap dancing, so that he was agile and limber enough to portray the martial arts master and monk who, when he wasn’t spouting Confucian sayings, was setting things right in the Old West—and only when violence was absolutely necessary. Mr. Carradine himself had complained that after the first TV movie, when the show became a series, the Federal Communications Commission got involved and they set some rules and guidelines. To whit, no one was to be killed in the show; and the fight sequences had a limited time in which to be shown. So, usually, the fight sequences were reserved toward the very end of an episode and, in some cases, were displayed in slow motion to make it more stylized (which the FCC loved).

The show itself was not, admittedly, historically accurate. Not that most TV viewers cared at the time. Since Bruce Lee had been turned down for the role, the story line was changed so that the protagonist was a half-Chinese, half-American boy who enters the Shaolin Temple. He is trained and then sent out as all monks are to do good works in the countryside. However, in an altercation he kills the Emperor’s nephew while protecting one of his masters from the Temple. So he goes on the lam to America. The concept of a Shaolin-trained monk traversing the American West in the 1870s is captivating but for the fact that it could never have happened. By the time of the Quing Dynasty in China (1644-1911), the Shaolin Temple had been destroyed by the government, because of fear of rebellion. All its monks had been forced to flee and they started training in secret, and eventually their martial arts techniques spread to the general population.

As noted, Mr. Carradine was not, like Bruce Lee, a martial artist. He did study martial arts sometime later, mainly Tai Chi. As for Bruce Lee, denial of the role only added to his frustration about making it in America. He went back to Hong Kong, where he had been raised and found, to his amazement and pleasant surprise, that the audiences there loved his portrayal in The Green Hornet. In fact, in Hong Kong it was known as the Cato show. The rest, as they say, is history. He started making movies there and changed the whole concept of the martial arts feature. Honestly, prior to Bruce Lee coming on the scene, most of the martial arts movies (and I’ve seen most) were positively dreadful. The scenery, the choreographing, the acting, everything was terrible. Not for all, but for most. Bruce Lee infused the martial arts genre which his vitality and gave it sophistication. He led the way for all the others that came after.

As for Mr. Carradine, my prayers and condolences go to his family and loved ones. It is sad that he passed away at this time. His career had been given a boost with the Kill Bill saga, in which he played a mastermind of a gang of assassins who is hunted down by his protege played by Uma Thurman. It was the typical Carradine role: understated but affective. He will be missed.

Everyone is Kung Fu Fighting: The Blog Post

Was I really there?
(photo credit: Federico Delvai)

In this month’s issue of Vanity Fair there is an interview with Gisele Bundchen (who is on the cover), a Brazilian supermodel well known in the fashion industry. Ms. Bundchen, aside from being a top fashion model, champions such worthy causes as AIDS awareness and preservation of the environment. And this is all to her credit. The interview denotes how she became a fashion model, her demanding work schedule, and how she maintains her equilibrium. The interview makes note of her passion for the martial arts, particularly, Kung-Fu. It states that she has taken up the art with a vengeance, how she practices constantly, and “there’s no day off.” It mentions she even trains Thanksgiving Day and New Year’s Day.

As a practitioner of Shaolin Kung-Fu for some 35+ years, I can understand the fascination, especially among those of us with an artistic bent. In our school, The Chinese Kung-Fu Wu-Su Association, numerous artists study with us. By that I mean actors, musicians, performers, dancers and, yes, even models. We’ve also had stunt-men and stunt-women join our ranks. What I’ve discovered is that the martial arts, because of its intense physical and mental concentration is a viable training tool for those in the arts. It keeps one in shape, and keeps one balanced. The aerobic training methods we use in our school is perfect for anyone—and not just a performer—to keep their well being.

When our school began back in 1967, Kung-Fu was just about unknown in the Continental U.S. There were Karate schools and Judo dojos but this thing, Kung-Fu, was considered something somewhat esoteric. It wasn’t until the Bruce Lee craze in the ’70s that it started coming into its own. In fact, my first exposure to it as a teenager was in the old Green Hornet TV series in which a young Bruce Lee portrayed Cato, the Green Hornet’s sidekick, and who was adept at “Gung Fu”—whatever that was. I didn’t get into training until I came back from Vietnam and was looking for a Karate school to supplement the training I had in the Marine Corps. I kind of fell into it. I came to the school, liked what I saw, and started taking classes. At that time we didn’t have many “artistic types” taking lessons. Admittedly, the school was geared toward those from a certain urban environment who just wanted to learn how to fight. Thankfully, that mindset has changed over the years so that today, apart from the usual self-defense, we also teach breathing, concentration and meditative techniques in order to insure maximum well-being, both externally and internally. And those in the performing arts find this beneficial, as witness the rigorous training of Ms. Bundchen.

Don’t get me wrong. You don’t have to be a supermodel to acquire the bug. Anyone in relatively good health can pursue whatever martial arts they desire for whatever purpose they desire (hopefully to improve themselves). That’s the beauty of martial arts, be it Kung-Fu, Karate, Jiu-Jitsu, Judo, Capoeira, Tae Kwon Do, and even boxing: the only person you’re competing against is yourself. I’ve discovered that if you take your time at it, maintain good eating habits and a healthy lifestyle, the rewards will be enormous.
Ms. Bundchen (or Mrs. Tom Brady), in her interview, talks about maintaining that healthy outlook, especially in terms of diet and nutrition. She reveals that, what works for her, is to have several small meals a day, rather than having two or three heavy meals daily. Even if you only have one big meal a day, the body has a tendency to store fat, so it’s best to regulate your caloric intake with small portions regularly. Of course, it does take discipline to maintain any kind of dietary regimen (ask anyone who’s ever dieted). Again, Kung-Fu, and the martial arts in general, instill this discipline. Figure it this way: just keep yourself active, even if its taking daily brisk walks.

Following this health kick, below is a simple salad recipe that is nutritious and beneficial. Usually my recipes run the gamut, from steamed to deep-fried. My cultural heritage is such that it embodies all methods of cooking, some more healthier than others. Like all else, one has to learn how to pick and choose from what is given on your plate. I like to think that most of us choose the healthier alternative—although once in a blue moon it’s just impossible to resist that chocolate sundae or blueberry cheesecake. A treat, now and then, doesn’t hurt. But, again, only as a treat.

The recipe is from my first cookbook, Puerto Rican Cuisine in America (Avalon Books).

(Ensalada de Tomate y Pimiento)

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium green bell pepper, cored, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch strips
1 medium red bell pepper, cored, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch strips
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 large ripe tomatoes, cut into slender wedges
1/4 cup black pitted olives, sliced in half
1/4 teaspoon fresh or dried oregano
2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley

1. Heat oil in a large skillet and add bell peppers and garlic. Stir-fry over medium heat for 3-4 minutes.

2. Add tomatoes and saute 3 minutes.

3. Stir in olives and oregano. Cook over low heat for 2 minutes more.

4. Sprinkle with parsley and served.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

Friends, that’s it for now and, please let me know what you think. I would especially like to hear from those who have had personal experience with the issues I’m covering. So all you martial artists out there, and cooks and chefs, and personal trainers, or anyone who has anything to say, be it tips, praise or critique, just drop me an e-mail at mroswaldrivera@gmail.com All comments are welcomed.

And (as they use to say in the old Bob and Ray Show), hang by your thumbs and write if you get work.

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