Jose Rizal, Martial Arts Warrior

Jose Rizal (middle) with Juan Luna (left) and Valentin Ventura.

Jose Rizal (middle) with Juan Luna (left) and Valentin Ventura.

"My hands are shaking because I have just had a fencing bout; you know I want to be a swordsman." Jose Rizal, age 18, to Enrique Lete, November 27, 1879.

Jose Rizal was born a frail, sickly child. To compensate for his small size, he devoted himself to a regimen of exercise and body-building. He had a private pastime he called higante (giant), in which he would stand on tiptoe and stretch his body, legs and arms. He studied arnis de mano (stickfighting), dumog (wrestling), suntukan (boxing) and fencing (foil and rapier), which became lifelong disciplines to him.

Even in Europe, he pursued his martial arts interests with almost fanatical zeal, despite illness and near-starvation. In Spain he continued his study of fencing at the famous school of Sala de Armas y Carbonell. He spent afternoons fencing with Nelly Boustead, Juan Luna and Valentin Ventura.

Rizal also pumped iron. Dr. Maximo Viola remembered that him boasting to the members of a gym in Berlin, Germany, that he would beat their strongest man within two weeks. At this time he had been forced to turn vegetarian due to persistent lack of funds. Said Dr. Viola: "To triumph in his desire he tried lifting great weights under an unaccustomed diet." Although the smallest in the gym, Rizal did succeed in vindicating himself.

A contemporary in Madrid described Rizal: "He was then in his thirty-first year. The first impression one had of him was of wholesome vigor and physical well-being. He was rather slender of build, but all muscle and sinew, compact, for he never remitted in his exercise."

De Cadena

There is no record of the style of arnis Rizal studied. However, from his uncle he may have learned the prevailing system of stickfighting in the Tagalog region called pananandata or escrima.

Arnis de mano figured prominently in his college life, when he was called upon to use it against Spaniards who called his countrymen "chonggo" or monkey (Filipinos paid in kind by calling the Spaniards "bangus" or milkfish). Indeed there were frequent encounters between the two groups. Rizal became something of a street lord of a campus gang, ready to face a whole pack, one at a time.

Unfortunately, at one such encounter, he was deserted by the members of his gang called "Companerisimo" (Comradeship) and was pounced upon by a contingent of about 12, and was left bleeding and nearly unconscious in the street.

Rizal was, however, not a hot-headed ringleader whose temper exceeded his prowess, but a real expert. On one occasion, he and the best escrimador in Calamba, Laguna, his hometown, had a bout; Rizal was hit on the forehead. Requesting a return match two weeks later, he underwent a thorough preparation and won.

To reach that stage where he could defeat the town's master practitioner, Rizal must have had tremendous speed, technique and calculation. He must have learned to link his techniques fluidly, without interruption, so that they became, in the jargon of the art, de cadena, an unbroken concatenation of attacks, parries, feints and defenses, which left the opponent no breathing space.

Mister Cool

Rizal became master of the foil, saber and dueling sword, and acquired a legendary reputation for grace and technique.

He also became an expert marksman. Witnesses from the period say that Rizal could shoot through the mouth of a bottle and put a hole through the bottom without breaking the bottle itself. From 25 yards, "he could pick the circles ('oros') of a gambling card." Like many of today's martial artists, Rizal could not resist showing off. He mailed a target board full of holes to Valentin Ventura, himself an expert shooter and fencer, who predictably wrote that he was impressed. Writing to Antonio Luna, Rizal said, "I am sending you a target containing ten bullet holes; it was seven and a half meters from me." Then, he added in mock humility it seems to me, "I shoot slowly, but with perseverance I shall become a fair shot." Caveat: Rizal presented no witnesses to these feats.

Ironically, sometime later, the tipsy Luna made some reportedly unsavory remarks about Nelly Boustead. Something like "baka ang Noli mo maging Nelly" (Your Noli might become Nelly). It was a cutting pun and Rizal took umbrage and challenged Luna to a duel. Nothing came of it though because Luna, now sober, apologized. I wonder if he was somehow intimidated by the reputation of Rizal.

Biographer Pedro A. Gagelonia surmised, "Had the duel prospered, Rizal's fate would have been jeopardized. It was a fact that he was probably better in the use of pistols than Luna but the latter was a better swordsman. In duels, the challenged party had the option of weapons, hence, Luna, logically, would have chosen the sword." This was the consensus of the Filipino exiles in Europe, too, but Rizal had a different view: "Luna is a nervous and impulsive temperament. I am cool and composed. The chances are he would not have hit me, while I could have hit him at will, but certainly would not have killed him."

Jose Rizal (right) fencing with Juan Luna in Paris

Jose Rizal (right) fencing with Juan Luna in Paris

Here, Rizal pointed a finger at three bushido (samurai) principles. First, know your enemy and exploit his weaknesses (Sun-Tzu). Second, avoid unnecessary killing. And three, strive for serenity. Rizal's suggestion was, swordplay demands not just technical proficiency but also psychological balance. He used the words "cool and composed" which in martial arts mean a mind in repose. Like Sekiun and Takuan, Japanese masters of swordsmanship, Rizal emphasized the psychological against the merely technical.

Rizal: Warrior

Rizal's martial qualities have understandably been eclipsed by his other accomplishments. Yet when he died, he had behind him at least 25 years of experience in the native regimen of arnis de mano, suntukan and dumog; 20 years in fencing and weightlifting; and about 15 years in marksmanship.

A layman may find it hard to understand the kind of physical, mental and emotional peak a martial artist like Rizal achieves. When an escrima master goes through a pattern, his whole being is behind every movement, every stroke. Totally centered, he focuses all his faculties -- power, breath, muscles, body, mind and spirit -- into that single strike. A master marksman reaches the same intensity. He blots out everything, including himself and his ego, and becomes one with the target.

Fighting with a master is a different plateau altogether. How to respond to an attack, which may be real or feigned, demands tremendous coordination of eye and body. When a stick is whipped, it travels a maximum of 150 miles per hour. At close range, this acceleration takes only a split second from inception to impact. A defender has to react instantaneously to avoid, divert or stop the blow. There isn't much time to decide what specific technique the defender must employ -- only his instinct, sharpened by training, can help him with a precise and, hopefully, appropriate answer -- or else. Within that almost infinitesimal span of time, the martial artist determines different coordinates -- the distance, position, direction not only of his body, legs and arms but also his opponent's, and moves accordingly. How much more complicated it becomes when one considers that the forces constantly shift. And then again, what does one do in the face of a synchronized multiple attack?

Rizal’s public gym in Calamba (circa 1887) combined classes in wrestling, weightlifting, fencing, marksmanship and arnis de mano. It was probably the first integrated martial arts club in the country.

The expert acquires a skill so spontaneous it's like second-nature. S/He moves without hesitation. Neither fear of death or injury nor extraneous thought must intrude into his mind. He becomes, after years of discipline, a person who's centered, one who has broken through the dualism of nature and the contradiction of body and mind.

It is not an easy passage to that level of expertise often described as mystical. A student has to endure pain and loneliness until body, mind and reflexes respond mechanically, until the weapon becomes a mere extension of the hand, until finally the discipline becomes "artless art."

Back to Bothoan

Rizal lamented the loss of the ancient martial heritage. Said Rizal: "The ancient Filipinos had army and navy with artillery and other implements of warfare. Their prized krises and kampilans for their magnificent temper are worthy of admiration and some of them are richly damascened. Their coats of mail and helmets, of which there are specimens in various European museums, attest to their great achievement in this industry."

The ancient barangays had a martial arts culture. With the coming of the Spaniards and Roman Catholicism, it was slowly decimated. When weaponry was banned by the Spaniards, the Filipinos gradually forgot their ancient martial prowess and discipline. They began to adopt the new culture and religion of the foreigners. By the time of Rizal, Filipinos in the colonized areas had been reduced to using sticks instead of the deadly kali weapons and the schools sometimes called bothoan, where the art of war, the techniques of weaponry, herbal medicine and assorted expertise were taught, had become a mere footnote in Morga's Sucesos.

As if to remedy the situation, Rizal organized martial arts groups for Filipinos. Rizal's public gym in Calamba (circa 1887) combined classes in wrestling, weightlifting, fencing, marksmanship and arnis de mano. It was probably the first integrated martial arts club in the country. He also proposed the inclusion of martial arts in school curricula.

Of course it is difficult to visualize Rizal, the intellectual giant, the Renaissance man, as the resident sensei of a local dojo or even as an oriental guru but he did teach martial arts to Filipinos of his time, and not for divertissement and sublimation it seems. I suspect he also dreamed of resurrecting an ancient tradition -- that of the Filipino as a warrior.

War in Miniature

No doubt his martial arts training taught Rizal the principles of war. As it is understood by martial arts teachers, sparring -- with fists or weapons -- is actually war in miniature. As on a battlefield, two adversaries size up each other, using spies to study each other's weaknesses, making strategies for victory, considering variables of combat such as speed, strength, size, technique, terrain, distance and timing. Like it or not, a practitioner who goes through the routine daily, as Rizal must have done, would develop certain reflexes and as important, an awareness of principles of combat which negate mere size.

The popular belief that a martial artist rushes into battle, without thought or preparation, certainly has no foundation in fact. An escrima student learns how and when to attack, to ascertain and exploit the vulnerabilities of his opponent, to create a beat ("kumpas") by which he hypnotizes his foe, to distance himself through footwork and body weaving ("indayog ng katawan"), to create illusions of speed and height, to set traps and ambushes, to wait for his adversary to make a mistake and to initiate the action. He is taught not to be foolhardy or impulsive or temperamental. He must consider all elements, including his own resources and his opponent's strategy, to win.

Requisites of Revolution

Like Sun-Tzu before him, Rizal believed that, "prudence and not valor is the first necessary quality of a general."

Preparation, allies, timing, discipline -- these were, to him, the prerequisites of a successful revolution. It bothered him no end that the Filipinos had inadequate weapons. He considered how long the logistics would last. Making contact with a Japanese minister who offered three merchant ships to ferry arms and ammunitions, he tried to borrow money for the venture but was rejected by a prominent Filipino.

Not the least of his concerns was, who would lead the rebels on the battlefield? He had met but did not know Andres Bonifacio. He dreamed that the noble Elias would lead the Rebolusyon. He settled for Antonio Luna -- yes, the hot-headed Luna -- to "direct the campaigns in case hostilities broke out." Rizal himself had sketched plans for fortifications in his travels; in fact he had written notes on military parapets with diagrams.

It is interesting to speculate what would have happened if a man like Rizal, trained in weaponry, a martial artist par excellence, had led the Revolution of 1896. He had rightly perceived the configuration of Asia, with Japan as the ascendant power and America lurking in the wings; had understood the weakened position of Spain in the face of the Cuban revolution and had correctly analyzed the role of the rich and the military in the struggle. Moreover, he appreciated the role of the masses, of materiel and of strategy in revolution, not to mention the need for unity and discipline.

A tantalizing speculation it is to cast Rizal into the role of a field marshal. However.

Strategy of Revolution

In his famous dialogue with Dr. Pio Valenzuela, Andres Bonifacio's personal emissary from the Katipunan, the revolutionary society of the 1890s, Rizal expressed his desire to secure more weapons for the Filipinos before the Spaniards got wind of the revolutionary underground, was willing to lead the revolution and, apparently to augment his military knowledge, was intending to go to Cuba to observe military tactics, "to study war in a practical way, to go through the Cuban soldiery if I find something that would help remedy the bad situation in our country."

Said Rizal, "I will never lead a disorderly revolution and one which has no probability of success because I do not want to burden my conscience with an imprudent and useless spilling of blood; but whoever leads a revolution in the Philippines will have me at his side." In short, Rizal wanted a strategic approach, a revolution by maneuver and tactic, a position that is consistent with his lifetime training as a martial artist.

Zen Death

There are many explanations for why Rizal died cool and composed. It is said he had a clear conscience, he was at peace with God, or he was a patriot who was eager to die for his people.

I agree, but I like to believe also that it was his lifelong practice of the martial arts that gave him that feral nerve. Wielding a sword against an adversary or aiming a pistol at a target, he had to steel himself, empty his mind, achieve egolessness and surmount the merely physical aspect of survival. He had spent years to attain what the Japanese call mushin no shin ("mind of no-mind"), that pinpoint concentration where intuition and reflex both responded instantly, without hesitation, where body and mind and spirit became one in the sword or the gun.

While the world tumbled about him, the gentle warrior went about his business of writing notes, saying goodbye, leaving legacies to his heirs, putting his affairs in order. As if nothing affected him. Even his request that he be shot in front or his incredible gesture of twisting around so that he would fall facing the Philippine sky evoked the grandeur or that idee fixe which, perhaps, only the warriors and samurai could have mustered.

Jose Rizal re-enactment of his execution (Source:

Jose Rizal re-enactment of his execution (Source:

Rizal wrote his immortal poem just before he died. Perhaps it's no coincidence that before their death, the samurai of Japan wrote poetry, jisei, a kind of "parting-with-life-verse" in the words of D.T. Suzuki characterized by what is known as furyu, an appreciation of nature amid tragedy and annihilation.

It was perhaps no coincidence either that Rizal died the eternal stoic, pulse normal, eyes alive to the beauty of the dawn, mind lucid and rational. It was a beautiful death, an exit without regrets, a samurai would have been proud of it.

Here was a man. A genius who, at 35, had accomplished bunburyudo, the martial artist's ideal exemplified by Musashi Miyamoto. Now, he faced martyrdom, the unconditional endorsement through death of his beliefs.

As shots rent the morning at Bagumbayan on December 30, 1896, he twisted his body and fell facing the sky.

For the samurai to learn
There's one thing only,
One last thing --
To face death unflinchingly.

-- Tsukara Bokudan (1490-1572)

Excerpted from “Jose Rizal: Zen Life, Zen Death,”first published by Philippine News in San Francisco in the early 1980s. 

Rene J. Navarro

Rene J. Navarro

Rene J. Navarro is a licensed acupuncturist, teacher of Classical Yang Family Tai chi chuan fist and weapons forms, Chi Nei Tsang organ massage, neidan/internal alchemy, and Daoist Yang-Sheng (Nourishing Life) regimen. He is a published poet and essayist.

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