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“Danny [Inosanto] came to Parker [Edmund K. Parker] as a kicking specialist and by the time he earned a black belt under the Kenpo founder, Parker had infused his own brand of deceptive hand work to Danny’s movement to round him out. One day, he touched a special cord in Danny with just a few words:
‘Have you seen the art of escrima?’
‘Stick fighting,’ Danny replied.
‘No, there’s more.”
(From Dan Inosanto’s book The Filipino Martial Arts)
I started my study of the Filipino martial arts (FMA) in 1989 with the sole aim of learning how to fight – with weapons and against weapons. I eventually got what I want but as I delve deeper into the FMA I learned that there’s so much more.
Looking back, I now see the FMA as a portal to other fields of knowledge. Through the FMA, I realized the richness of the history and culture of the Philippines. Unlike other martial arts that focus mainly on combat, the study of FMA offers more to students who want to learn more than just fighting skills.
My exposure to the FMA led me to other areas of learning among them religion and spirituality, medicine and healing, ancient technologies (metallurgy, weapons making, navigation, sea warfare), art (tattooing, ritual dances), physical culture, philosophy and of course history.
It has been said that the Philippines was 400 years in a convent, or under Spain and 40 years in Hollywood, or under the United States. Growing up, I am not unlike most Pinoy kids afflicted with colonial mentality. It’s always easier for me then to appreciate anything that is foreign and that was the case even in my choice of martial arts. Truth be told, I started my martial arts journey not with the FMA but with traditional Chinese and Japanese martial arts. But an internal transformation was bound to happen the moment I was introduced to the FMA. I remember browsing through an old martial arts magazine and being astonished to learn that one of Bruce Lee’s opponent in the movie Game of Death; Dan Inosanto is a Filipino-American and the art he featured in the film is Filipino stick fighting. That article inspired me to begin my research into the FMA.
Someone somewhere said that the skills of arnis, escrima and kali are genetically ingrained among Filipinos. It’s a tall claim but seemingly true to me for I took my study of Filipino weaponry like a duck to water. The body mechanics, mentality and techniques of the art perfectly matched my physique and psyche. The art is for me and I am for the art – it’s claiming my birthright.
The physical training was just an entry point. I would discover later on things that would make me proud of my identity and heritage as a Filipino.
Contrary to what its conquerors wanted to portray, the early inhabitants of the Philippines were not savages but were warriors with a sophisticated civilization.
By ethnicity, I am a Tagalog-Pampango and I never felt so proud to discover that my ancestors were so skilled in fighting that they fought in overseas wars as mercenaries. Tagalog mercenaries participated in overseas conflicts among them the local wars initiated by the exiled Sultan of Malacca against the Portuguese in 1525. The Pampangos on the other hand, the Macabebes in particular were harnessed by Spain to fight against the Chinese pirate Limahong, the Moros, the Dutch and the British.
But a real standout was Panday Pira (1483 to 1576). This Filipino blacksmith and metallurgist who was credited for inventing the lantaka (a small cannon that could be rotated and maneuvered at any angle) was said to be a resident of Barrio Capalangan in Pampanga. So skilled was this Pampango that he was later hired by the Spaniards to make cannons for them.
I grew up with an uncle who practiced hilot, which is the Filipino method of bonesetting and therapeutic massage. My study of the FMA gave me a renewed appreciation and respect of this healing art. Examining it through the perspective of modern mind-body medicine, I realized that there is solid science behind hilot and other Filipino healing arts. But what is more amazing is that the early Filipinos knew the dark side of this skill. Their deep knowledge of herbology for instance could be used either to heal or kill. I discussed this in detail in my article “A Lost Art: Ancient Filipino Methods of Concocting Poisons.”
But the greatest thing that transpired out of my study of the FMA is that it gave me a solid sense of identity. It made me realized that I came from an honorable race and that we have something worthwhile to offer to the world. Through the FMA I have made a lot of friends in other countries. It is indeed heart warming to see how the study of the humble martial arts of my country forged friendship and brotherhood among men of different races. Despite its brutal nature, the FMA can indeed be harnessed for the betterment of the world as expressed by the following words of Inosanto: “Hopefully, if people can appreciate the Filipino martial arts, they can appreciate other aspects of Filipino culture. If they can appreciate the Filipino culture, it is my hope that they will appreciate things in other cultures as well. This understanding may help to bring the people of the world closer and, hopefully someday, they can live in harmony and peace.”