About six or seven years ago, I was waiting for my turn to present at a demonstration that my school, Inti Ombak Pencak Silat, was putting on as part of an Indonesian cultural exhibition. Immediately before our presentation was a gamelan (traditional Indonesian music) and dance performance. I was set to demonstrate jurus , which is a set movements either unarmed or with weapons analogous to, but more fluid than, the common perception of a form or kata. I was nervous because I was new to practicing this martial art and, as I was to become accustomed, the performance was to be done with a minimal amount of preparation.
I was reviewing my form in my head when one of the performers exited the stage and walked past me. He look down at me, costumed in gold and bright colors, and asked: “Do you know pencak silat?” I replied in the affirmative and he replied, “Silat players know black magic” and walked off. I later found out that performer was a pesilat (practitioner of pencak silat) himself.
Silat Players Know Black Magic
What does that mean?
Maybe it has to do with silat’s marriage of highly effective martial arts techniques with mysticism. While pencak silat shares many motions in common with martial arts such as Wing Chun, Jiu-Jitsu, and Karate it just seems to be more feral and animalistic. In many styles of silat, ferocious facial expressions and sounds are used as part of kembangan or free-flow movement. When you view the bestial grace of a Sumatran or Sundanese harimau (tiger style) practitioner, it is easy to lend credence to the legends of spirit possession and mysticism in silat.
Demonstrations of internal martial arts prowess by Central Javanese silat players include eating glass, breaking tempered steel pump handles with bare hands, and other similar exhibitions.
Silat players know magic, allowing them to do things nobody else can do, and perhaps see things nobody else can see.
In apparent contrast to what the western mind would consider superstition, you have highly rational and effective methods of self defense. Silat techniques use advantageous positioning through clever footwork, manipulation of body mechanics, and psychological manipulation to overcome an opponent.
The techniques shown in the recent films Merantau, The Raid: Redemption, and The Raid 2: Berandal have provided western audiences with a glimpse into what is still a largely unknown martial art in this country. While choreographed, these movies do a good job of showing what a silat player is capable of doing to an opponent whether armed or unarmed. Additionally, the popularity of the kerambit knife is increasing (you see them everywhere now) but not many know about the Filipino and Indonesian martial arts from which this weapon is derived. It is perhaps unfortunate in some ways that Pencak Silat is being introduced in this manner. The art has many other facets, much like Chinese gung fu, that are in danger of being ignored.
“If you are to be a silat guru you must teach bela diri, you must teach tenaga dalam”. These are words from a mentor and Guru (Indonesian language term for teacher, applied to instructors of Pencak Silat) of mine that have also stuck with me.
Proper Practice Of Silat Balances The Internal And External
You cannot ignore the spiritual aspects of silat because they are integral with the physical side of the art. A Guru of Pencak Silat is not only a master practitioner of martial arts, he or she is also a teacher, spiritual advisor, and healer. Practice of traditional Indonesian martial arts is very rough; bruises, dislocated joints, broken bones, and cuts are very common. Silat teachers and students maintain this level of training by being highly skilled in traditional healing arts using a combination of herbal medicine and traditional massage techniques.
During the course of my training I have had numerous minor injuries and the application of massage has remarkably reduced swelling in an ankle and herbal medicine has helped prevent a cut on my leg from becoming much worse. The use of traditional breathing exercises has improved the respiratory health of myself and my students. Whether through increased focus and confidence, or something else, use of these exercises can help one break steel (in the form of 3 stacked 12-inch steel bastard files) with your hands or perform other feats of martial prowess.
Balancing The Spiritual Side Of Practicing Pencak Silat With A Logical World View
By profession, I am a formally trained scientist. How can I balance the spiritual side of practicing Pencak Silat with my logical world view? Sometimes in the past I have felt ridiculed on both sides of this issue. On one side, some of my rational colleagues have looked at me askance because I meditate under waterfalls and practice a martial art with mystical accompaniment.
Mostly I feel reluctant to speak of my experiences during meditation or during my four trips to train in Java with the masters there because I feel like people will look askance and scoff at seemingly superstitious practices. Due to my professional and rational outlook on life, I have also felt excluded by my fellow silat practitioners who dismiss me as skeptical and dismissive of traditional spiritual practices (referred to as kejawen).
As a scientist and a silat player, I look at internal martial arts very simply. Is it useful? In summation, I find internal martial arts (I will use this term as a catch-all to refer to massage, meditation, breathing exercises, and mystical practices) to be very useful. Why? The breathing exercises used in Inti Ombak Pencak Silat’s Tama Yoga help increase my lung capacity and respiratory health. I had severe allergies when I started practicing silat but they are gone now. Is this significant? No. Do I care? Not really, my allergies don’t bother me now.
I am also seeking to maintain my flexibility so that I can continue practicing skillfully into my 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s; these exercises also help with that. As a biologist I find obat, traditional Indonesian medicine, to be very interesting as I believe that there are many useful compounds that have yet to be mined from traditional medicinal practices. Excellent examples of this are the antimalarials quinine and artemisinin, which were both used in herbal medicine before helping millions overcome severe malaria infection.
Javanese acupressure massage hurts, but it has worked to relieve pain and swelling from injuries sustained during training in myself and others. Meditation helps me relax, sleep when I am up late writing down my ideas as I am now, and make sense of complex problems. These topics have all been discussed elsewhere.
But what about black magic? What about mysticism in silat? These serve a function as well.
Pencak silat is bela diri, it is self defense, but it is also tenaga dalam, it is inner power.
The use of mantras and talismans can instill confidence in a practitioner. As an experienced fighter or martial artist will agree, confidence and fighting spirit are essential to winning and staying alive. Ultimately, there is more to this. The philosophies of pencak silat styles are tied in with indigenous religious practices. Traditionally, a silat practitioner would journey to haunted beaches, into dark forests, and pray at holy sites to gain power or to find pusaka or sacred objects.
How do these concepts fit into an ultimately pragmatic martial arts system? At this stage in my training, I find myself to be more and more curious about this aspect of pencak silat. My experiences in Java have whetted my appetite for ritual and I hope to keep an open mind and an open heart going forward.
If you would like to experience some of the magic of Indonesia and pencak silat, please consider going to our public training camp to be held this May. I found going with a group to be a great watershed for training with the masters, and the networking opportunities to be afforded at these gatherings are great for setting up future adventures on your own later!
Charles Brandon Stauft has been training in Silat since 2006 and teaching for the past 4 years. He is the head instructor for Inner Wave Pencak Silat New York where he teaches occasional seminars in New York City, a number of private students, and a class at Stony Brook University in Pencak Silat basics. He has mainly trained under Guru Daniel Prasetya and also with instructors in other Filipino and Indonesian martial arts both in the United States and Indonesia. He has been lucky enough to go to intensive camps in Bali and Java as well as a number of seminars in the United States. Recently he has also taken up historical European martial arts (HEMA), specifically German longsword fencing in the Lichtenauer tradition.