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September 8, 2009
Phillip Starr demonstrating an example of freestyle sparring practice (from his book Martial Maneuvers)

Phillip Starr demonstrating an example of freestyle sparring practice (from his book Martial Maneuvers)

The following is the fifth installment in Phillip Starr’s monthly column. A practitioner of the Chinese martial arts for nearly 50 years, Phillip is the widely-respected author of the summer 2009 book, Martial Maneuvers, which focuses on internal martial arts. Check out his other titles, Martial Mechanics and The Making of a Butterfly at

I recently logged on to Ebay and won an antique Japanese scroll that bears the characters, “Ichi-go, Ichie.” It means, “One Encounter, One Chance.”  There’s more to this simple statement than meets the eye and I intend to place it inside my newly finished home training hall (which used to be a garage but my car will just have to suffer through the winter) so that when you walk through the door it will be on the wall right in front of you, reminding you of “Ichi-go, Ichi-e.”

Most martial arts practitioners, especially those who follow the martial ways of Japan, use this phrase to describe the basic premise and underlying philosophy of their respective disciplines.  That is, you must wait until just the right moment and then you commit yourself 100% to bringing the enemy down.  For such a technique to be successful the timing, distance, and rhythm must be just so.  The window of opportunity will be very small and you must set yourself on a “hair trigger” if you are to have any chance of being successful.

Your posture and stance (in Japanese, “kamae”) must be set so that you will be able to move instantaneously.  Your mind and spirit must be calm, like the smooth surface of unbroken water (in Japanese, “mizu no kokoro”), which accurately reflects whatever is placed before it.  Thoughts (“if he does this, I’ll do that…”) and emotions (fear, cockiness) act like pebbles that are tossed into the water, causing ripples and distorting the reflected image.  Even concern for one’s own survival must be pushed aside because such things only disturb one’s “centeredness.”

When the opportunity presents itself – and this can occur by itself or because you have actively caused it to happen, but that’s a whole different lecture – you mustn’t hesitate for even an instant.  You must act without the slightest hesitation (and concern for your own safety or survival will cause you to hesitate at this moment of truth) and bring the enemy down!

At the same time, “Ichi-go, Ichi-e” can refer to any situation in which you find yourself…and that includes your own training.  When you enter your training area, whether it be your bedroom, a motel room, your basement, or whatever, you have this one chance to improve yourself and your art.  What will you do with this opportunity?  Will you shrug it off and ignore it?  Slack off and do just one or two exercises and then give up?  Or will you put 100% into whatever time you have available, devoting your entire body, mind, and spirit to the task at hand?  Whatever it is that you is reflective of your spirit – your attitude – towards your training and, ultimately, yourself.  Is it at the top of your list of priorities or do you just pencil it in every now and then?

Remember that you’re a link in the chain of your art and style…and that art and style, and all of your martial arts brothers, sisters, uncles, and ancestors depend on you to be the strongest link that you can be.  A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  Will you be that weak link?  Or will you temper yourself and become a strong, dependable link in your chain?

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