I was in the Tao Garden, Doi Saket, Chiangmai, Thailand, attending the International Congress of the Healing Tao last September 2010. Recovering from jet lag, I received the first of many messages in the evening. One was from Ned Nepangue, a friend from Cebu, Philippines, asking me to call Johnny. Then another e-mail from Vic Ramos, a fraternity brother of Johnny’s, came within a few minutes telling me that Johnny, my “old sparring partner,” had passed away. Myla Salanga, his daughter, who lives in California, sent me the same message. So did Jopet Laraya, my martial arts classmate and Johnny’s disciple, from Hongkong.
A few more messages came, confirming Johnny’s death and sending me condolences.
The next few days I walked in a daze. I taught a couple of classes at the conference, one of them a sequence called “Twin Dragons Chasing the Pearl,” from a form – Cross Fist — I learned from Johnny in 1964.
Johnny was my first Shaolin master. He was one of the constants in my life, a great influence on my journey. I met him back in the early 1960s, a great presence in the university campus, a respected member of the Beta Sigma Fraternity. He used to come to my dorm room to teach my fraternity brother, a student of law like me. They would practice right there in the small space beside the bunk beds.
One day, Johnny and I met at the law school cafeteria and sat down at the same table. He asked me why I was not studying with him. I said I did not know that I could. We made an appointment for a lesson right then and there. It was the most important decision I had made at that juncture in my life.
On my first lesson, Johnny told me to stay in a very low horse position when we began. What he did to me for the next 3 hours or so was incredibly graphic — and painful. He kicked me, pushed me, rode on my thighs and back, asked me to walk around, slapped me all over. It was something I had not seen even in the kung-fu movies where the hero was asked to do 100 repetitions of a technique until he was bone-weary. Johnny’s method, presumably transmitted from Grandmaster Lao Kim, was meticulously sadistic in a benevolent way. I mean it was meant for a purpose, and that purpose was to test my patience, endurance and determination, and inculcate in me certain mystical values, and to build me into a warrior. Well, I don’t know if I became a warrior, but it certainly tested my patience. As for the mystical experience, I think I attained that, too, because at a certain point when I was about to collapse, I felt an enormous energy welling up, I saw a different reality, I reached a different level of awareness. I came back the next week and took some more of the same punishment. By that time, the novelty was gone, and I was ready to endure because I knew that to have a view of what it is at the top, you have to climb the mountain, by yourself.
When he graduated with a degree in pharmacy, after shuttling from one course to another to prolong his Kung-Fu studies with Grandmaster Lao Kim in Manila, he went home to the island of Cebu to run the family business. On one of his visits to Manila, he introduced me to Lao shifu, then in his 70s, and asked him to take me as a private student. The old man could not turn him down because Johnny was like his own son. It was a rare opportunity for anybody to be taught as an indoor disciple by Lao Kim, at the time considered to be the patriarch of Chinese Kung-Fu in the secretive world of martial arts in Manila.
Whenever Johnny visited Manila, we would get together to take lessons and have dinner with Lao Kim. Johnny would also show me his new fighting techniques. One time, he stayed in Manila for a month and he and I studied Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan and Pa-Kua Chuan at Hua Eng Athletic Club in Binondo. He learned both 108 solo form and Pa-Kua in just a couple of weeks. When I saw him again, he had added astonishing components to his system: potent jing and trapping. That’s how he was, a serious and dedicated searcher. He studied karate, kundalini yoga, Tetada Kalimasada, he was a black belter in aikido. He was into cross-training and mixed martial arts even before there was a name for them.
In late 1970, I migrated to the US. I studied with Mat Marinas, an arnis de mano/Philippine stickfighting master in Queens, NY. Meantime, Johnny began exploring the different styles of stickfighting (also called escrima) in Cebu. He studied different styles and eventually developed his own system called “Arnis de Cadena Pronus Supinus.”
There were times when yet another foreign delegation would come to see him. Johnny would make them wait on mainland Cebu while he stayed in Bantayan, an island that until recently was accessible only by land transportation and by ferry. I was with him in Bantayan in 2004 when he said how tired he was of the endless challenges he had to face in his life. But in his search he wanted to test himself against the best.
He had had several serious cardiac procedures since the mid-80s, one of them in Texas, and I did not think he should be fighting again and other practitioners should have respected the fact that Johnny’s body was no longer as supple and strong as in the 60’s and 70’s when he used to fight 4 opponents at the same time. Nonetheless, in the prevailing martial arts culture, there was no rest for the master.
Many martial arts practitioners pursued him for his combat expertise and his instructions but he never did divorce martial arts from the energetic and philosophical aspects of self-cultivation. He was always looking for techniques that used the mind and Qi without relying on the physical. He wanted to use Qi to heal himself and others. He was a fount of combat knowledge but he was also a wise man, a very rare combination in the martial world that is inhabited by many violent types and rarely by refinement. He was always respectful of others, even those who were cross and rude. To Johnny, fighting was pursued with the detachment of zen. He never did fight anybody out of anger or resentment or personal issues. In this he was unique in the martial arts world, I believe. After a fight, he usually shared his techniques with his opponent. He had an open and benevolent nature. He had a generosity and wisdom that was beyond the comprehension of the ordinary man. And he was always humble, never denigrating anybody, even those he had defeated in combat. He was a paradox in the martial arts world, gentle, thoughtful, hospitable, fluid. I could have sworn that he was a Taoist sage!
When he passed away on September 10, 2010, I lost a friend, master and guide.
Om Shantih Shantih Shantih
Stories about Johnny:
He told me about his encounter with a famous Filipino fighter who tried to ingratiate himself to him by taking him to places in California when Johnny was there to visit his daughter Myla and her family. Johnny expressed his doubts about the man’s intentions when we saw each other in NY while he was visiting his brother. “I do not know what he wants from me,” he said. When Johnny returned to California, the intention of the man became clear: he wanted a fight. This man was known as somebody who boasted about beating up people apparently to build the legend of his prowess. He also claimed he was a “psychic healer” and bragged about his exploits with women. As Johnny related the episode, this man said:
“Johnny, what posture will you take if I attacked you?”
“You will see if you attack me.”
The man attacked and Johnny pushed him against a wall. Johnny could have inflicted serious injury, but he used the Press technique from Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan that was partly meant to stop an attack in its track. I do not know if that was enough to bring this man back to his senses, he was not hurt but it was a shock and an eye-opener for him. Perhaps he learned a lesson from Johnny, but then again, I do not know. Johnny was terribly disappointed by the episode partly because this man tried to befriend him and abusing Johnny’s trusting nature, tried to exploit it.
This second story happened back in the mid-60s when Johnny was a student in the University of the Philippines. It was late at night and Johnny had just got off the bus from Manila where he had been training with GM Lao Kim. As Johnny was walking home, he encountered a group from a rival fraternity. He was surrounded by about 30 of them. When somebody attacked him, Johnny went into what he called “ground fighting.” In this technique, it was difficult to hit him because he was down there most of the time, kicking and rolling. He managed to escape and inflict some serious damage to the muggers. Later a cop from the campus security knocked on his door and asked him to go to the police precinct. The chief told him that there were complaints that he had attacked and beat up some fratmen. But it was a charge that was impossible to prove because Johnny was alone against a big group. The charge was dropped.
The third story I can authenticate myself. In the 60s we used to spend hours doing nothing but forms and sparring. In 1966, on a Wednesday at about 12 am, it was during the Holy Week, if I remember, we had a memorable match. We had had numerous fights before, at different places. Sometimes we started at 8 o’clock in the morning and we carried the exchanges off and on until 1 in the afternoon. But this was the first time he had resorted to the technique. During a furious exchange, he stabbed my left leg and I fell. A bubble of blood formed instantly. It was one of those moments when life passes in front of your eyes. Johnny showed me how to massage the leg and put the blood back into the vein. Later, the bubble appeared again and grew to the size of a baseball. I went to see Johnny at his house in the campus. He slapped the baseball and spread the blood all over my leg. He made me drink two cups of dit da jow liniment made of 36 herbs. The recipe came from Lao Kim. My leg was black and blue for a few weeks. It was one of the scariest times of my life. Asked about it years later, he replied, “You were going to kill me. I had to defend myself.” I am sure he was exaggerating my abilities — and intention — because during the years we sparred I had never been able to touch him. I have photos to show what Johnny did, one of them I cannot publish because it shows the moment he delivered the thrust of the finger. Footnote: Dr. Guillermo Lengson, vice president of the Karate Federation of the Philippines under Johnny in the 60s, who also studied with Johnny, said of his sparring sessions with Johnny: “Sinagasa ako,” (literally translated as “run over”) referring to the technique of non-stop attack that Johnny had honed to perfection. I take it as a compliment to Johnny that there are martial arts practitioners who have adapted the word “sagasa” to refer to their systems.
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