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The Art of Bengjun

July 2, 2008

Pete Starr Author Photo


Yes, you’ve probably never heard this term before…in Chinese, anyway. It’s better known by its Japanese pronunciation, kuzushi. Generally, kuzushi is translated as “break balance” and it’s heard most frequently in the grappling arts of judo, jujutsu, and aikido.

The characters for kuzushi are pronounced “bengjun” (that is, bung-joon) in Chinese. One author stated that the first character (“beng”) means, “to demolish” but that’s incorrect. “Beng” means, “to collapse.” The second character (“jun”) refers to balance or equilibrium. The term “demolish” would seem to infer a violent, explosive action and bengjun/kuzushi needn’t be so overt. The word “collapse” fits it better; a smooth and often subtle movement that causes the opponent’s equilibrium to collapse, to fall in on top of itself.

Not long ago I spent some time on my computer watching judoka (judo practitioners) competing in various events. I think what I saw would have had Dr. Kano (the founder of judo) turning over in his grave. There was little in the way of real technique being displayed. Instead, the participants yanked each other this way and that in a contest of strength. Many throws were successfully executed only because one competitor simply hoisted his opponent up and then slammed him into the mat. The “ju” of judo, which means roughly, “to yield, to give way”, went right out the window.

At the other end of the spectrum are films taken of Kyuzo Mifune, one of the last 10th dans in judo. His techniques were as smooth as silk and his methods of kuzushi were often extremely subtle, hardly more than a slight shift. Masterful.

Bengjun is an essential ingredient in all grappling maneuvers. All. Grappling. That includes joint twists and even chokes. Without it, chin-na (joint twisting, choking, and seizing) techniques can be very difficult, if not downright impossible, to apply effectively. And there are few things worse than a botched joint technique because there you are, close enough to swap spit with your opponent, and your vicious joint technique just sort of fizzles. That’s definitely an “oops!” moment.

So if you haven’t been practicing forms of bengjun when you practice the various chin-na techniques, you need to go back over each of them and determine just how it is to be done. Or better yet, ask your instructor.

And as for throws…well, most throws simply can’t be done without correct bengjun unless you plan to literally lift your opponent up with whatever strength you have and toss him through the air. The films of Mifune showed him practicing with men who were less than half his age. They were in their twenties and he was in his late sixties and the smallest of them probably outweighed him by at least forty pounds. Mifune couldn’t have weighed more than 110 pounds after a hefty meal. Yet, he tossed his opponents around like so many rag dolls!

But there’s more to bengjun than subtle forms of pushing or pulling prior to executing a throwing technique.Hearken back to one of my previous writings that rambled on about the true qualities of balance. Those of you who have parted with a small amount of money and purchased a copy of my book, Martial Mechanics, have ready access to this material. It states that one’s balance (perhaps a better term is “equilibrium”) consists not only of one’s physical posture but also one’s mental poise. You’ll recall that the two are interrelated; if you lose one you almost always lose the other. So. You can execute bengjun by “unbalancing” the opponent’s physical body or mind!

To unbalance his mind you need to cause him to lose his shengxin (in Japanese, zanshin) – his mental/spiritual centeredness and poise. For instance:

• You can try to cause his mind to “stop” somewhere. Draw his attention to a particular place or thing so that he focuses on it. A simple feint is a good example of this.

• If the opponent becomes fearful or loses the will to fight his spirit is in disarray and he can be easily defeated.

Remember, if his mind becomes unbalanced his body is also placed in a condition of instability. A story that illustrates this idea involves the founder of judo, Dr. Jigaro Kano. Kano was on an American ship, talking to several officers about the benefits of his new judo training. The Americans wanted to test Kano’s skill and brought in a young seaman who was the champion boxer of the fleet. They asked Kano to demonstrate his skill and have a go with this young bruiser.

Now, Kano was hardly suited up for such a contest. He was wearing a three-piece suit and tie. Besides that, he knew that if he injured the American fighter he would also injure relations with the Westerners.
The two faced off, the boxer in his shorts and wearing boxing gloves and Kano in his business suit. Kano calmly reached into his coat’s breast pocket and pulled out a small handkerchief, which he deftly tossed into the air. As the boxer glanced at it Kano slid in quickly and threw him easily.

THAT is judo. And it’s also an excellent example of the highest level of skill in bengjun (kuzushi). It’s unfortunate that so few judoka today strive to reach this level of excellence.

It occurs to me that bengjun is an essential part of any technique, whether it’s a throw, a joint twist, a kick, or a punch in the nose. To make the technique truly effective the application of bengjun is an absolute must. Nowadays, karate and kung-fu practitioners pay no attention to this subtle concept and they simply flail away at each other until one fellow manages to whack the other. It’s kind of like a pillow fight. It may be martial but it’s not martial ART.

Not only must the opponent be mentally or physically unbalanced as the entry to the technique is performed, he/she must be held in a condition of instability until the technique is completed! This isn’t difficult to figure out if you’re executing a throwing technique or a quick punch but try to imagine the application of a joint twist or a choke; the opponent must never be permitted to regain his/her balance and he/she is ultimately brought into a position of control.

In the execution of combination techniques, whether the combination involves two or more strikes (or kicks), a strike and throw, a strike and joint technique, or whatever – the opponent must be kept off-balance at all times. That’s going to take some considerable practice.

And remember, unbalancing the mind is the same as unbalancing the body.

So, even in percussive disciplines such as karate or kung-fu you must unbalance the opponent prior to executing your technique. This is the true art. It is also a barometer by which one can measure a practitioner’s real skill. A beginner’s attempts at bengjun/kuzushi are large, overt, and sometimes heavy and clumsy. An intermediate student’s skill is a little more refined. A master’s skill is very subtle and may be very difficult to see unless you know what to look for.

Needless to say, real masters are very few and far between.

A martial arts practitioner for nearly 50 years, Pete Starr is a black belt in Kyokushin karate, trained in traditional shao-lin, xingyiquan, and baguazhang, and the author of The Making of a Butterfly. He lives and teaches in Omaha, NE. Order Martial Mechanics on Amazon, HERE.

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