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by Irvin B. Gill

There is a lot of material available to those who seek to better understand American Kenpo Karate. There are new self-defense techniques, different applications of the present material or definitions, books, videos and online sites devoted to Kenpo terminology, concepts and theories. However, no one has written on what defines American Kenpo Karate.

[The following article is an excerpt from the author’s new book, American Kenpo Karate: Key Principles and Rules.]

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What is the purpose of finding the Canon, the Key Principles, which determine exactly what American Kenpo is? This purpose it is to allow the practitioner to self-correct his or herself. It allows the system to expand and grow without perambulating through the underbrush as it were or even degrading into something completely different. It allows us to understand the whole of our Grandmaster’s wonderful system without having to know every bit of material. Consider this quote from Erwin Schrodinger (of Schrodinger’s cat fame) who said, “The best possible knowledge of a whole does not necessarily include the best possible knowledge of all its parts…” If we understand what defines the system called American Kenpo Karate and its smallest components (called quanta in physics), then we can understand the entirety of its system, even though we will not, cannot, experience the totality of Grandmaster Parker’s infinite insights into American Kenpo.

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Allow me to expand on this last statement. While Grandmaster Parker’s insights are not infinite precisely, they are in all practical terms to the human mind. The number is really, really big.

There is only a limited amount of material that comprises American Kenpo Karate. Some ardent Kenpo practitioners can perform all the techniques, forms and sets from one of the five different versions of GM Parker’s Kenpo. For those of you who are not familiar with American Kenpo, these self-defense techniques were created by GM Parker in order to demonstrate the concepts of his system. They are drills to develop skills. I was extremely guilty of tracking down any and all sets, forms and self-defense techniques and then learning the extensions of those techniques. I collected information. On any given day, I can even do about 90% of them passably. But something was missing, I wasn’t learning all the possibilities, there was no depth of knowledge. There was no flow.

One day, I dusted off my college skills and attempted to mathematically determine the number of possible variations within a single technique. I felt this would help me to better adapt to any situation that might arise. It would result in, I hoped, a course of study for a while. That was a bit optimistic. You see, it is mathematically impossible to study the entirety of one technique, let alone the whole system. This  stretched my math skills, so please bear with me. Or if math is not your cup of tea, jump ahead to the Introduction.

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There is a self-defense technique in American Kenpo called Five Swords. There are nine counts or beats created by the movements in this technique. Please refer to the pictures below.

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1) The attacker delivers a right roundhouse punch towards the defender’s head. Obviously, for the sake of demonstration, this picture demonstrates that the defender is in the correct depth zone for the attacker to connect with his strike. 2) The defender slides his left foot back into a right neutral bow stance to evade the incoming strike. Yet, he is still in a good position for his counterattack. Then the defender executes a right inward block to attack the attacking arm. 3) The defender then executes a right outward sword hand strike (a chop) to the right side of the defender’s head. His left hand is a positional check to the attacker’s right arm. 4) The defender pivots in place into a right forward bow stance and delivers a left palm heel strike to the opponent’s head while at the same time bringing his right arm down to a “chambered” position at his right side.

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5) The defender pivots in place back into a right neutral bow stance and executes a right vertical raised middle knuckle punch (a vertical dragon’s beak) to his opponent’s solar plexus, where the natural weapon fits into the target area. Note how the defender’s left hand has retreated to a middle guard for a positional check against any possible further attack from his opponent. 6) For clarity, both sides of Movements # 5 will be shown. 7) The defender’s left foot steps towards 4:30 into a deep right twist stance. He delivers a left outward sword hand (a chop) to the left side or back of the attacker’s neck while cocking the right hand high. This also can be a high positional check against a left-handed attack from his opponent as well as preparation for the next strike. 8) The defender pivots in place into a right neutral bow stance facing 10:30 and delivers a right downward sword hand strike to the back of the attacker’s neck as his left-hand retreats into a middle guard. For clarity, the camera’s orientation has been reversed so that the defender is now on the right side of the picture.

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9) The right hand of defender on the right of the picture passes around the attacker’s neck. The defender then delivers the left-hand, inward Tiger palm to his opponent’s head as his right hand continued down into a low guard position, which also “chambers” his hand for the next strike. At the same time, the defender has started to turn to his left into a modified horse stance. Note the Angle of Incidence at the target area. 10) The defender delivers a palm down, upward, right hand sword or chop to the attacker’s throat as he pivots in place into a right reverse bow stance. 11) As the defender’s right hand checks the attacker’s position, he lifts his right heel into a right rear cat stance. This is the “chamber” for a modified rear kick. The defender simply bends his right knee to execute or “fire” the right rear kick. That entry path for the kick is an Angle of Entry which efficiently creates a preferred Angle of Incidence at the target area. 12) The right rear kick at full extension. The defender would next initiate the covering out maneuver starting with a right front cross-over step towards the upper right side of this picture, the original 4:30 of the engagement, and continuing with the rest of that movement which is covered later in this book.

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Now let’s break down the whole technique into smaller bits. Where do you put the commas, the breaks?

If you think of the technique as a molecule (a combination of various atoms which make a stable substance), then we can break that technique down further into smaller subgroups. Let’s call them applications, atoms if you will. Of course, each atom is made up of smaller and smaller particles. But they are unstable. The same is true with the basic components of any technique. They cannot stand alone effectively. A punch alone is not always an effective defense strategy. But if you add an evasive movement, a principle that allows us to generate energy and then the delivery of a strike (the aforementioned punch), you can create an effective and efficient action. The goal was to find the smallest pieces of the Five Swords that could stand alone. If you refer to the preceding pictures, we can break Five Swords down in this manner. Consider that this technique is like a sentence. It is composed of a beginning, an ending, and phrases in the middle set off by small pauses called commas. Each of these subdivisions of the technique can be considered a phrase. There are pauses which come after primary strikes, those commas if you will. For the sake of a drill, we will change the commas to periods and break the long compound sentence, a metaphor of the technique called Five Swords, into five small, simple sentences. Here’s the breakdown. Again, refer to the photographs above.

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These movements were demonstrated on the right side and can be done on the left side. This makes ten possible applications that comprise the totality of Five Swords. Also, the order of the selection of these applications is consequential. Try it for yourself. Look at the groupings above. If you perform A and then do B, it is not the same as doing B then A. Since the order which we do these actions matters, that makes these groupings “permutations”. (Hang in there!)

Let us cap our choices. We will only select up to five possible movements for our practice drill and no more. How many permutations are there encapsulated in this technique? We are not yet ready to do the calculation, because as they say on TV, there’s more.

Consider that if we select only one possible movement, we can only do it in one direction. What happens if we select two movements, such as A & B? Can’t we do A & B to just one side, or to another side, or A to one side and B the other, or finally A to the other side and B to the first side? That makes four possibilities. I will not bore you with the formula but given five choices from 10 possible movements in up to 5 directions and then grinding out the math results in 315,087,410 possibilities! That is just within one self-defense technique. Whew! Anyone interested can view the calculations at the end of this book.

Let’s try to grasp what that means. If you practice each one of those permutations of the technique known as Five Swords for only one minute and do 60 of them a day for just a single hour of practice, and you practice 365 days a year, then it will take you 14,377.7 years to completely practice one technique. There are another 156 techniques to go, plus other possibilities. GM Parker’s insights are indeed infinite as far as the human mind is concerned.

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American Kenpo Karate: Its Key Principles and Rules is that map for the Kenpo practitioner. This book explores the five key principles that are the reasons behind the physical movements encompassed by this martial arts system. Just because a movement involves a kick or a punch, it isn’t necessarily karate, let alone American Kenpo.

With that map, it is difficult to get off the track. Over 200 photographs demonstrate the concepts within this book, which was written so that anyone, martial artists and non-martial artists alike, can understand and appreciate it.

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