Back East-Wind Martial Arts

January 11, 2007

Dear Mr. Toppins-

It has been a very busy year since I had the great honor of earning of one of the few Black Belts you have bestowed during the course of your career as an instructor, but it has given me an opportunity to consider just what you and your instruction in Bok-Fu Kenpo has meant to me.  A simple thanks will never be enough for the nearly immeasurable value you have added to my life, but it is a point of beginning, so I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the time, energy and devotion you have given me to first make me a good martial artist, and even more importantly, a better human being.

Any journey in martial arts is intensely personal and what is significant to me may well have a vastly different meaning or interpretation to another student.  While you are well aware of the specific facts of my history with your school, as your only current non-instructor Black Belt, other students may find my experience illuminating so I will recap it in some detail.  Feel free to cut and paste any portion of this letter you think may be beneficial to others.

I first became exposed to the martial arts when I was quite young, 8 or 9, through an instructor in Beverly Hills name Bruce Tegner.  Mr. Tegner had an interesting mix of Kenpo and other arts that he taught in a fairly informal setting.  While he helped develop my interest in the field, I never developed a strong enough connection to continue training with him for more than a year or two, although I continued to practice on my own various kicks and strikes I learned while in his dojo.

In High School, I found myself competing in a number of varsity level sports from football to wrestling and track with little time for an extracurricular activity such as karate.  This changed significantly when I arrived at the University of California at Berkeley when I found I neither had the size nor skill level to compete in my old sports at an intercollegiate level.  But I still found myself drawn to a more structured training environment than that offered by intramural sports and most personal endeavors.  By the end of my sophomore year, I was fortunate to discover a nearby martial arts school in Berkeley, Westwind Kung Fu Karate.  The introductory lessons there rekindled my interest in martial arts.

During the next two years, I trained with several instructors at Berkeley and enjoyed a fair amount of success in the interschool competitions.  At that time, my focus was truly upon the combative aspects of the art and I found its fundamental philosophy of delivering multiple, rapid and powerful strikes while maintaining a strong centered core very appealing.  I felt it offered an adaptable approach to self-defense with a broad range of tools its students could call upon to adjust to real-world situations.  It also seemed to me to develop what I have come to believe is an essential component of a martial arts, a controlled level of emotional intensity.

Shortly after my return to Los Angeles following my college graduation, I sought a venue to continue my education in martial arts.  Since I lived on the westside of town, I was immediately drawn to the Kenpo school on Sepulveda Boulevard that was still operated as an Ed Parker facility.  I thought that school would allow me to return even more closely to the source of Kenpo.  Unfortunately, my visit to the school was discouraging.  I saw a host of Brown Belt students doing techniques with only a fraction of the speed, energy and intensity I had come to expect from Westwind Blue Belts.  Their kicks on the heavy bag were desultory and it appeared that they were simply heaving their bodies in a direction with no hope of maintaining any semblance of balance or control in the very likely event that the technique did not land as hoped.  All in all, it left me with an image very different from that I come to expect from someone adept in Bok-Fu Kenpo Karate.

At that time, I explored other options to maintain my interest in martial arts, mostly Korean systems such as Tae Kwan Do and Kuk Sul, but did not find what I felt to be the right fit.  At about that time, I heard that you (whom I knew vaguely from the Westwind days) had opened a Bok-Fu school in Riverside.  Coming to train in your school in about 1983 was like returning home; I liked what I saw.  But I certainly did not relish the idea of driving 150 miles round trip for a Karate lesson!

Little did I realize that the demands you made of your students in order to advance through the system were even greater than those I had known in the Westwind School.  Belts came neither quickly nor easily.  But I never signed up to take martial arts to earn belts; I signed up to learn to defend myself.  Over time, I even discovered that the main reason I spent 3 hours driving back and forth to see you was not about learning self-defense and it was not about belts; it was, however, about the constant challenge of self-improvement that each lesson with you represented.  There was not a time I left your school when I felt I had not found another fragment of control, strength or speed that helped move me closer the goal of mastery over my body and my mind.

In truth, I have no illusion that I will ever attain the lofty goal of mastery over my body or mind; I won’t.  One of my favorite quotes, however, expresses it better than I ever could, "It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive."  The destination, whether it is tangible such as a black belt or esoteric such as mastery of the self, is not so important, what really matters is the journey.

For me, while I started to learn about self-defense, I learned so much more that has benefited me throughout my life, including:

  • The importance of focusing on what you are doing at the moment.  With all the rapid techniques in Bok-Fu Kenpo, it is easy to let you mind wander to the next strike, but you then lose the focus on the one you are doing so it becomes ineffective.  This knowledge has benefited me tremendously in business and life.
  • Don't accept mediocrity and strive for continuous, but incremental, improvement in everything I do.
  • The key to any important achievement is hard work, patience and perseverance.  I will fail but success will ultimately come when I get up one more time than I get knocked down.
  • I am capable of more than I imagine.

Pretty heady stuff to discover hidden within the study of martial arts considering I started with a goal of learning to kick and punch.

These lessons I have learned from you obviously go well beyond martial arts.  They have been valuable enough for me to: invest tens of thousands of dollars in lessons, drive some 200,000 miles back and forth over the course of 25 years, return to the study of the system after being out for five years with a back injury and generally devote a considerable part of my free-time to the study of Bok-Fu Kenpo.  Given a chance to do it over?  I would in a second.

In martial arts, I do not think there is any right way and there are many paths to develop fighting skills and the self-enlightenment the study can develop.  It is certainly my hope to continue to expand my knowledge of the martial arts.  Wherever else I may journey, however, I will stand upon the foundation you have given me, both in martial arts and in life.

Thank you for everything.

With Warmest Regards and Affection,

Mark A. Rosenthal