Ancient Thai Art Combines Spirituality with Deadly Fighting
By Antonio Graceffo
“Some people have found their way. Others are looking for the way. I was a fighter once. I hadn’t found the way yet. It is ok. We will search and search until we find it. If people don’t know any better yet, how can we blame them? We have to allow them to search.”
Explained Kruu Pedro Villalobos. Originally from Madrid, Spain, Kruu Pedro had been both a Muay Thai champion and a Theravada Buddhist monk. He left the monkhood to continue his practice and teaching of the sacred art of Muay Thai Sankha.
Muay Thai Sangkha combines the techniques of ancient Muay Thai (Muay Boran) with spirituality, philosophy and Krabi Krabong, fighting with sticks or swords. According to Kruu Pedro, Krabi-krabong dates back to the era of the Sukothai Kingdom, founded in 1238, following the decline and fall of the Khmer Empire 13th – 15th century. By this time, the Khmers, the Burmese, as well as Northern Thailand had developed fighting arts. King Rama I saw the skillful masters of the north and brought them to Bangkok to train the army.
In a small teak house, on a quiet soi, behind Wat Suandok, in Chiang Mai, Kruu Pedro Villalobos, a former Thai monk and professional Muay Thai champion, walks me through his shrine, explaining each of the fascinating artifacts of the Buddhist, Brahman, and Hindu Religion. It is here that Kruu Pedro meditates and prays each morning and each evening. Among his prayers, Kruu Pedro sends thanks up to his spirit teachers, asking them to open his mind so that he might be a better teacher of the Thai martial arts.
In demonstrating the effectiveness of his art, Kruu Pedro expertly kicked me with the ball of his foot, pinpointing nerve endings in my thighs, abdomen and chest. He put absolutely no power into the strikes, but it was still painful. I couldn’t imagine him hitting me at full force. The strike with the ball of his foot to the front of my thigh almost knocked me over.
“I teach when I can and I follow when I can.” His said in absolute humility. On his website, ancientmuaythai.com, Kruu Pedro has a list of the Ajarns, the spirit teachers who teach him his art.
“This one is Hanuman, the white monkey from the Ramayana.” Says Kruu Pedro, pointing at one of the many pictures adorning the altar. He points to another and says “This represents the five Buddhist elements: earth, water, wind fire and ether.”. I was about to snap a photo of one of the small statues, when Kruu Pedro cautioned me.
“Please, no photos. This statue has a spirit in side.”
“This one was given to me by a cave monk. He is Pra Ubpakut, the doctor of the Buddha and the father of Reiki and all of the healing arts.” Other images included Pra Ganesh, the elephant God of the Hindu religion. Kruu Pedro pointed to a likeness of a fierce warrior. “This is the Tiger King, Prat Chao Sua. He went in disguise to the town and fought in competitions.”
Kruu Pedro explained about one very ancient looking statue. “This was given to me by the father of one of my students. In his family they had been Nak Muay (Muay Thai fighters) for generations. Before they fought, they always prayed before this statue.” Kruu pedro held the statue in great reverence, out of respect for the generations of merit and spiritual energy it contained. “This one has a fighting spirit inside.” He assured me.
To the side of the shrine was a beautiful sword. “I put bone and hair from a famous monk inside of the handle and sealed it with pure silver. Now there is a spirit inside of the sword.”
I had expected bags swinging people jumping rope and pounding the focus mitts. But what I found was a glimpse into ancient Thailand, made all of the more unusual by the fact that the teacher was a farang, a foreigner.
Kruu Pedro teaches his students his own form of philosophical wisdom, which I refer to as Pedroisms.
“I like people who walk, not people who talk.” He said, meaning he preferred monks who helped people, rather than monks who talked about helping people. In the fighting arena, he meant that he preferred fighters to people who only talked about fighting.
Another Pedroism was “What you practice, you will become good at.” He believed that practicing wrong made you wrong. “If we are Muay Thai fighters, we must run. But if we only run, we will be runners, not fighters.”
For myself, I would find out the next day that I was becoming better at writing about fighting than actually doing it.
In order to train with his team, Pedro required I become his student. The next morning, I was to report to him with the following items: 5 white lotus, white candles, 5 jasmine, and 9 incense.
While Kruu Pedro taught me the delicate art of folding the flowers to make them appropriate for the offering, he explained. “I only want to teach good people. I believe that if a teacher teaches a bad student, and that student hurts someone, the teacher gets some of the bad kharma.”
It came as a bit of a surprise when Kruu Pedro said, “Muay Thai is not a sport.” He went on to say. “We don’t fight for the ring. I think two people fighting is not a sport. I don’t like it. But if they want to, my students can go to the ring to learn to defend themselves.”
Training begins at 08:00. The students enter the house, and Pedro conducts the Buddhist Chanting. Next, they skip rope, and do a structured workout until 11:00. The structured work-out consists of fifteen basic exercises which are designed to train the fundamental fighting skills. In this evolution of training, students will cross the training floor, hundreds of times: step 45, slide, step hop on one foot, drop, step, slide, step back, pivot, slide, turn, drop, jump, one foot, the other foot, no feet…
The workout routine was one of the best I had ever witnessed for laying down a solid foundation of movement. Many schools have students pounding away on a bag on their first day. Some never teach movement and angles. “People try to build house from the roof down.” Said Kruu Pedro. For this reason, the Muay Thai Sangha students were building from a solid foundation, up.
When this exhausting exercise was finished, the students practiced Krabi – Krabong, until noon. After lunch and a good siesta, they returned for afternoon training. They began by skipping rope, stretching, and shadow boxing. The bag work was another impressive evolution of training. Bag work was timed. Students train for three minutes, with one minute break, the same as they would in a real fight. During the break, however, they did pushups. At the beginning of each round, the lead student would call the specific techniques to be worked that round. For example, one round might be push kick, another might be elbows or round-house. Kruu Pedro had his students training without gloves. “I want them to learn power and endurance of pain.” He said. After a few rounds of barehanded bag work, a new student would be bleeding from the knuckles. The seasoned students, on the other hand, had knuckles carved from stone. When those hands were later wrapped in a real fight, the opponent would feel them, like two daggers piercing the padding.
Bag work was followed by pad work, where Pedro dictated the pace of the training. Some students would get too aggressive or pushy, burning up their air and energy. To remind them to slow down, Kruu Pedro would kick them in the thighs, or slap them with the pads. “Calmate!” he yelled. The rest of the session consisted of sparring, running, and ground fighting. The training day ended at 19:00 with chanting and meditation.
“We must be hard on the outside and soft on the inside.” Pedroism
“Without self-respect so you cannot learn. Without compassion, you cannot teach.”
“If People do wrong, no problem, as long as you want to improve. If you want to change your life I will help you.”
“Those who follow the religion and practice inside can teach, but he must have understanding, if not, he could never be a great teacher.”
Although no longer a monk, Kruu Pedro follows the Brahman precepts: love, for all people regardless of race, rank or sex, compassion, self-respect, and thinking before you take action. In addition to the Brahman precepts, Kruu Pedro follows the 5 precepts of Buddhism. Don’t kill. Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Don’t take intoxicants. And, don’t commit adultery
Every step of Kruu Pedro’s program is focus on some aspect of self-betterment. Taking a holistic approach to training, Kruu Pedro said, “We train, mind, body, spirit and heart. The mind is trained through meditation and chanting. The heart is made better by surrounding yourself with flowers, candles, incense and water. Helping people, sharing, talking and giving are all from the heart. Muay Thai trains the body. We help the spirit by studying the Dharma and the teachings of Buddha.
“A student doesn’t have to tell me he wants to improve. I can see it.” He went on to say, “My teachers taught me never tell people what to do. You teach by example.”
Pedro realizes the students live complicated lives, in a modern world. He doesn’t expect them to shave their heads and go cold-turkey on all of their indulgences.
“Step one is stop dong bad things. Step two is improve slowly, slowly.” He said, simplifying his philosophy.
“I don’t care if a student’s Muay Thai is good or bad. I only care when he comes back to me and says, Kruu, you changed my life.”
For the most part, Pedro’s students weren’t professional fighters and had little or no interest in becoming professional fighters. They were university graduates in their late twenties and early thirties who worked professional jobs in their home country, saving their money to come and train with Kruu Pedro.
Why would anyone subject themselves to this type of suffering?
Pedro explained that first his students learned martial art for self defense, health, and self-respect. “Later if he wants to fight pro, ok I can train him. Fight and win ok. Fight and lose ok. No problem, just do your best.” Once again, Pedro stressed that the motivation to train must come from inside, not outside. “You shouldn’t fight for money and winning fights. You fight to win life. We train to create a family and to support each other, which is so important in the world today.”
Kruu Pedro allowed me to get into the ring with one of his leading students, a 1.95 meter tall behemoth, named Titan. Titan followed the precept of compassion, and never hit me hard, although he could have killed me. After only a few months of training, Kruu Pedro’s students had achieved a level of fitness and technique which many fighters will never achieve. The reason for their success is simple, good fundamentals. When I closed on Titan, he was all knees and elbows. When I tried to make distance, he was all kicks and leaps.
Pedro explained, “The reason your western boxing doesn’t hold up well against Muay Thai is because when you come with in your punching range, (8-12 inches) Titan can hit you with elbows, which are much more effective.” When I stepped out to medium range, Titan’s punches could land, because Muay Sangha fighters are taught to use longer hooks and straight punches than classical boxers do. At long distance, of course, he could kick me at will.
“We train to fight at all distances and all angles.” Explained Kruu Pedro.
As an excuse to take a break from training, I asked Kruu Pedro a few general martial arts questions. First, what did he think of my hero Tony Jaa.
“Tony Jaa has a great body. His movies are good.”
More generally, I asked what he thought about martial artists using their skills to make movies.
“I think it depends what Tony and his teacher do with the money they earn. Maybe they will help many people.”
Jackie Chan came to mind as someone who was using his money and fame to help people. Every time you turn around in Asia, you hear of some other program, sponsored by Jackie Chan. He is educating the poor in Cambodia, leading anti-smoking campaigns in Hong Kong, saving the tigers and rain forests, and teaching physical fitness to children everywhere.
I asked how Pedro felt about trainers who had never fought.
“What you can do, what you can teach, and what you can apply may all be at different levels. Some people can be great at training and terrible in the ring. Some people can be great trainers but they were never great fighters.”
Angelo Dundee may or may not have even been a boxer but he is arguably the greatest trainer who ever lived. Angelo trained 15 world title holders, including the greatest of all time, Muhammad Ali.
“People have a gift at birth, karma and they can develop. Their good deeds earn them merit, and help to determine their rebirth.” Explained Pedro. “Some people, very special people are born with an ability to teach, without ever having been a fighter, but these are very rare.”
I have fought in about ten countries, but Thailand is one of the few countries in the world, where the national sport is fighting, brutal, hard hitting, bone-wracking fighting. And the Thais, in general, are some of the best fighters, pound for pound in the world. Thailand is one of the few countries where an 18 year old boy, 65 Kgs, will be matched with a heavyweight pro from Europe, and win.
The obvious question I asked Kruu Pedro was, why?
“A unique gift which the Thai people posses is a tremendous respect for the teacher. Spirit teachers, angel teachers, help to open the mind and help to develop their respect for the teachers and they learned more.”
North East Asia Japan and Korea, where I had trained for the last seven months, are famous for a number of grappling arts, such as: judo, sumo, sirrum, jiu jitsu, shoot wrestling, submission wrestling, pancrase, and many more. But In Thailand, and most of Indochina, no actual grappling art seems to exist. Muay Boran contains joint locks and manipulations, leg and arm breaking techniques, clinch, sweep, throw, and stand-up grappling. But they cannot fight on the ground, and there doesn’t seem to be a unique art of pure wrestling.
“The Thai arts were developed for soldiers to use on the battle field. Soldiers don’t want to go to the ground because they can only fight one opponent at a time, and going to the ground would expose their back.”
“Why are there so many martial arts in China, Korea, and Japan but really only one in Thailand?” I asked.
“In Thailand the art was used for fighting in wars and in the ring. So, it basically had a straight line development, over a period of hundreds of years, focused on succeeding at these two goals.”
At some point, there was only one goal and Muay Thai was used, nearly exclusively, for the ring. It is also significant that the Theravada monks, in Indochina, were not allowed to practice martial arts. In the Mahayana countries, China, Japan, and Korea, the reverse was true.
“Monks were allowed to practice martial arts, but they weren’t allowed to go to war or to fight in the ring. So, they began branching in countless directions of martial arts practice. Each branch became a separate martial art or form of martial arts.”
Today much of what is taught in traditional martial arts, such as Shaolin Kung Fu, Karate, or Hop Kido won’t actually work in a real fight or in the ring. This is because the arts weren’t actually designed for these applications.
These traditional arts were probably viable martial arts at some time in the past. If everyone used Hop Kido strikes and kicks, for example, then Hop Kido blocks would work, but if we use modern techniques, such as Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, western wrestling or boxing, the traditional arts are less effective.
This brought me to my favorite subject, Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) such as UFC and the Pride Fighting Championships.
“The MMA took the best of everything and combined it. If your goal is fighting, then Muay Thia is the best thing. So far, there is nothing better. Then combined with some wrestling and it is the most effective way to fight. But that only helps you achieve the goal of fighting noithing else.”
“UFC is not art.” Said Kruu Pedro. “Because there is no spirit. When you get old, what then? I can practice till I am a hundred, because I am concerned about improving and doing the best that I can. So, when I am seventy I will do the best I can at seventy and that will be good enough.” Kruu explained that sport martial artists, such as in MMA or K-1, would reach a peak and then be in state of steady decline for the rest of their lives.
“Also, with MMA who are their students? Maybe they are bad people. I am very careful about who I will teach. If the student is not a good person, I give him his money back and send him away. But, if you are a professional trainer, you care only about winning. So, you will take the strongest student, even if he is not the best person.”
Kruu Pedro was quick to point out that he didn’t dislike the MMA or K-1. “Some people have found their way.” He said. “Others are looking for the way. This is the same for teachers. If there are teachers looking for the way, I don’t interfere. I was a fighter once. I hadn’t found the way yet. It is ok. We will search and search until we find it. If they are teaching MMA or they are teaching everyone, including bad people, but they don’t know any better yet, how can we say they are bad? How can we blame them? We have to allow them to search.”
Antonio Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is the Host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” The Pilot episode, shot in the Philippines, is running on youtube, click here. The Monk From Brooklyn – Kuntaw in the Phillipines Antonio is the author of four books available on amazon.com Contact him Antonio@speakingadventure.com see his website www.speakingadventure.com