AN INTERVIEW WITH
CHARLES BONET HANSHI
Founder of Shorin-Kai International
“Unless you know what that urgency feels like from experience, you cannot understand how drive evolves.”
Written by Lydia Alicea
Edited by William Rivera Kyoshi
Martialforce.com Online Magazine
Although he is recognized by many as, “La Pantera (The Panther)” a characteristic image created from his roles in martial arts films back in the 1970s, there are those who acknowledge quite differently. Not that his notoriety from acting should be lessened in any manner; a little known fact: he is perhaps one of the earliest, Hispanic martial artist, to star during the explosion of martial arts films in the 1970s. There are far more who know and remember Charles Bonet as an extremely talented yet ‘deadly’ karateka, a force to be reckoned with a known reputation.
As I spoke to Charles Bonet Hanshi, I searched for the ‘how he did it,’ at a time when karate had not yet taken hold in the New York City arena, and dojos were far and few.
I got it because I understood what he meant from the above-mentioned words. ‘Unless your experiences never created a sense of urgency that becomes your drive, you cannot understand why.’ His experiences growing up became his rites of survival, fighting to defend him, until he reached a point where he no longer wanted to feel fear and pain, repeatedly. Intense fear becomes motivation and drive. Yes, I do understand.
He too was fortunate to have learned karate-do in the early years, traditionally and hard-core.
Please read on to learn more about “La Pantera” Charles Bonet Hanshi.
Martialforce.com: Hanshi, please tell us where you were born and raised.
CHARLES BONET: “I was born in a little village high up in the mountains of Puerto Rico, called Comerio. I later came to the mainland of the United States in 1948 where I grew up in the Lower East Side of New York City until about the age of twelve. At that time, it was a predominantly Italian neighborhood, and our family was one of the first Hispanics to move in. We later moved to Washington Heights in Manhattan.”
Martialforce.com: Entry of the Martial Arts in the United States began after World War II during the 1950s. Growing up during this period were there influences out there that may have sparked your interest in the arts.
CHARLES BONET: “In New York City, depending upon where you lived, there was a very good chance that as a Hispanic, you were faced with the reality that some people did not like you. Particularly in the Lower East Side, where there were not many Hispanics and there were pockets of streets in deplorable conditions, riddled with crime, poverty and violence, with a fight always waiting at every street corner. Yes, I had my share of fistfights. For me, the environment where I grew up was my ‘catalyst’ to seek the arts. My father Julius Luna was also a great influence in my life.”
Martialforce.com: At what age did you begin studying the martial arts? How were you introduced and who was your first instructor?
CHARLES BONET: “I began at the age of fourteen. Like many teenagers, I was always involved in some form of altercation with other kids, many who were much bigger and stronger than me and better street fighters. I knew I needed help. I had heard about Master S. Henry Cho’s Dojang on 23rd Street through a friend, Julio LaSalle who was one of his students. My training under Master Cho was great and indeed, he was a phenomenal instructor.”
Martialforce.com: Your family later moved to Washington Heights (Upper Manhattan in NYC for those unfamiliar.) During this period, would you say it was difficult to find instructors who taught martial arts for those who sought it?
CHARLES BONET: “It was definitely hard, because of the small number of dojo operating at that time. Grand Master Antonio Pereira, founder of Miyama Ryu Jujutsu, ran a dojo located in Washington Heights. My father studied there.”
Martialforce.com: This may sound like an obvious question to ask a martial artist: what was it about you that pushed you to want to learn?
CHARLES BONET: “I would have to say that the struggles I faced growing up with an increasing need to learn how to properly defend myself, instilled a sense of urgency in me to react by learning how to properly protect myself. Unless you know what that urgency feels like from experience, you cannot understand how drive evolves.”
Martialforce.com: Describe the experiences of your instruction.
CHARLES BONET: “To be honest, after ending my instruction at Master Cho's Dojang, I began what seemed like an endless search to find the ‘right’ school. I studied karate in various YMCAs, PAL's, or with some psycho want-to-be sensei, I met along the way. I literally became a ‘ronin’ moving around for better than seven years, learning from whomever offered to teach me.
In 1963, I began instruction with Sensei Eddie Reyes, a Goju-Ryu instructor, who saw my desire to learn. Sensei and I had known each other for a while and were good friends. We worked out frequently until I left Master Cho’s Dojang. We then teamed up for about five years training in some of the most treacherous conditions possible, on rooftops in the dead of winter, at the parks in knee-deep snow, barefooted. Our dojo, (if you can call it that), was a dirty, filthy basement in an old tenement on Audubon Avenue near 178th Street. The place was rat and water bug infested, with a dirt floor with water leaks all over it. Our ‘makiwara’ board was nothing more than a support beam with splinters and mold. Each time we punched it, dust would fall off the ceiling. The building superintendent would ask us not to punch the beam because it felt like the building was about to fall. Back to the rooftop we went! If winters were Hell, summers were a notch above Inferno.
Sensei Reyes did not talk much about his teachers yet he would always bring up Master Peter Urban and Thomas Boddie. Reyes was a proficient teacher, dedicated to his art, trained hard and cared about me, not only as a student but also as a friend. In 1967, I enlisted in the Marine Corps.”
Martialforce.com: Growing up, did you participate in other sports such as baseball or basketball?
CHARLES BONET: “Not really, Karate was more than enough for me.”
Martialforce.com: As you mentioned, you later entered the Marines. Did you serve in combat?
CHARLES BONET: “Yes, in 1968, I served in Vietnam for approximately thirteen months, stationed in Hue City, Quang Tri, Phu Bai, and Dong Ha, all in the DMZ area, while pulling a split tour in Okinawa, long before the U.S. pulled out. I participated in classified assignments, which I am not at liberty to discuss.”
Martialforce.com: As you served, were you able to continue practicing karate?
CHARLES BONET: “Yes, all the time, every chance I had. I taught fellow Marines Karate-Do on my own time. It is what kept us sane and in touch with what we were doing.”
Martialforce.com: Did you apply the skills acquired from your early years of training in the Martial Arts into practice as a Marine?
CHARLES BONET: “I sure did, to enhance my disciplinary and mental strengths and attitude.”
Martialforce.com: At some point, you were stationed in Okinawa. Did you seek instruction?
CHARLES BONET: “Yes, I was stationed in Camp Hanson Marine Corps Base, just outside of Kin Village where O'Sensei's Shimabukuro's dojo was located. I could not wait to meet him.”
Martialforce.com: Talk to us about your initial meeting with Grand Master Eizo Shimabukuro.
CHARLES BONET: “I felt like a child in a candy store, while being nervous and anxious at the same time. As he walked towards me, I could not decide whether to run or crumble like a cookie. Marines do not run, so I decided to stand fast. O'Sensei noticed my nervousness, and immediately smiled, making me feel somewhat comfortable. I immediately bowed in respect, but afraid to look him in the eye trying to decide if I should look at his red obi (Ju Dan: 10th Degree black belt.) My thoughts ran the gamut, as I stood before this world-renowned karate-do Master, and the legitimate red belt on the island of Okinawa. I could not believe he would soon become my teacher.”
Martialforce.com: Once your term ended, did you return to New York City?
CHARLES BONET: “No, I did not return immediately. Once I was stationed at Henderson Hall Marine Corps. Base in Arlington, VA, I began teaching at Georgetown University where I established a karate program.”
Martialforce.com: Once you returned to New York, you then opened a school.
CHARLES BONET: “Yes, in 1972, I opened my first dojo on Tremont Avenue, right off Washington Avenue, in the South Bronx, called ‘The Bronx Budo-Kai.’ Although I needed to relocate it several times, it remained a strong dojo with dedicated students and competitors. It is still there run by my senior student, Luis Fernandez, Kyoshi-San. In Miami, we have a school known as “The Miami Budo-Kai.” Our schools are close knit, like family. The relationships between my black belts and I go back over 35 years.
After 1999, I moved to Arizona where I currently live and teach privately. I have concentrated on conducting seminars and running our newly established organization, The Shorin-Kai International headquartered in Miami, Florida.”
Martialforce.com: How many students do you presently have?
CHARLES BONET: “Too many for me to count. It would be a very large number from teaching for over 35 years. I can say that during the many years of teaching, I have only promoted seven black belts that began with me as children. I am not in the practice of easily promoting to black belt and ‘selling’ the black belt for the sake of making a buck. I am a firm believer that students must earn it and prove they are worthy.”
Martialforce.com: Do you teach children and adults similarly?
CHARLES BONET: “Not really. I am tougher on adults than I am with children. With children, I concentrate on the rudiments of respect, discipline and character development. More often, I teach children apart from adults to eliminate distractions. I gradually evolve them into the adult classes so they can gain a sense of responsibility and appreciation from the adult students. I find that adults love working with children. It also gives the children an understanding of being wanted and cared for even under demanding circumstances. They soon learn that adults have to work just as hard as they do to succeed in their training. In addition, if they stay long enough, they will learn that karate-do has more to do than just punching, kicking and breaking boards.
My Sensei did not believe in teaching children. He believed it was too demanding for them. In addition, the spirituality aspects might be too difficult for them to grasp.
This brings to mind his youngest son "Abu,” sneaking up, hiding behind the concrete stairs to watch. We could see him but never ratted him out. All of a sudden, you heard "Mama-San" chasing him off the steps and ordering him to get back in the house. He knew O'Sensei could not see him, because he had his back turned towards him. It was a funny thing to watch.”
Martialforce.com: Over the years, have you found it necessary to change the manner in which you teach?
CHARLES BONET: “In some ways but not by much. Teaching children taught me to be more patient. However, I am still as tough, better yet, even tougher today than years past. I will always be Gung-Ho in how I present karate-do to children.”
Martialforce.com: Have you ever experienced the 'Gunslinger Syndrome' where someone wanted to pick a fight just to say he beat you?
CHARLES BONET: “It was an everyday occurrence at my dojo in the South Bronx. People came from all over, just to get a sense about me. They would take my free tryout class to get me on the tatami for kumite. Needless to say, they learned very quickly, I was no joke. Some of them actually became students of mine because they saw something they liked.”
Martialforce.com: Today, do you consider yourself a traditionalist and feel it is important to continue to practice and teach according to the forms passed down?
CHARLES BONET: “Yes I do. Without kata and its history, we have nothing but another fighting approach. What makes us different from other ‘martial art’ schools is that we continue to study kata completely, from the inside out. Karate-do is very spiritual, from sitting in zazen daily to studying the Bushido code. Take a person you are teaching how to kick, punch as well as block. At the end of the day, you still have the same person, no different than he was before. Now, you take this person you have taught as I mentioned, but this time get deep inside his heart, his thoughts and teach him to call upon his inner strengths and spirit. Get him to understand the inner powers available to him through Karate-Do. In addition, you are developing a man with potentially destructive power and the fearlessness that any man needs to survive in this world. Yet, in spite of this tremendous force, he will be gentle and humble in all things. Teach the soul, not the body. These are the goals you want your student to reach, with an instructor who adheres to traditional ways and forms.”
Martialforce.com: Have you competed in tournaments?
CHARLES BONET: “Yes I have. Some which I have supported were hosted by: Master Fred Hamilton, Master Henry Cho, Master Aaron Banks, Master Gilberto Rodriquez of Puerto Rico, Master Preston F. Carter in New Jersey, and Master Tommy May in Westchester, New York.”
Martialforce.Com: Would you recommend cross training in another form of Budo?
CHARLES BONET: “Yes, so long as it does not conflict with your chosen art.”
Martialforce.com: Do you have a favorite Kata?
CHARLES BONET: “I would say ‘Chinto’ a very ancient kata taught only to a few dedicated students.”
Martialforce.com: Discuss the kata you teach.
CHARLES BONET: “We have in the Shorin-Ryu system, 23 forms as taught by Grand Master Eizo Shimabukuro of Okinawa. They are: "Seisan, Nahanchi sho, Nahanchi Ni, Nahanchi San, Ananku, Wanshu, Pinan Sho, Pinan Ni, Pinan San, Pinan Yon, Pinan Go, Kusanku Sho, Kusanku Dai, Basai Sho, Basai Dai, GojuShiho, Chinto, Bo Sho, Bo Ni, Sai Sho, Sai Ni, Seiunchin, and Sanchin.....23 kata, thousands of moves and a lifetime of study and training.”
Martialforce.com: At what stage do you teach students bunkai (Application)?
CHARLES BONET: “I am usually very selective at what level I teach Bunkai. It can be very dangerous if taught improperly. By understanding bunkai, students will become aware of the damage they can inflict on other people. Therefore, I usually wait at least a year to start teaching them. I would rather concentrate on the development of kata and the spiritual aspects. Students need to understand the seriousness of Bunkai, so that they can appreciate it and use better control in its execution.”
Martialforce.com: Discuss the importance of one’s knowledge of bunkai.
CHARLES BONET: “As you know, in order to understand bunkai you must first understand kata. One without the other is useless. I pride in asking my students to explain various elements of the kata and to break them down in defensive situations. Their answers will indicate to me how far they need to go in their training before moving on to bunkai.”
Martialforce.com: Do you feel it is advisable for an instructor to study more than one form of Martial Arts or to concentrate on their chosen style?
CHARLES BONET: “I believe it is fine to study other martial art forms as long as it does not interfere with their chosen art or their teaching. I have always wanted to study the art of Aikido and I understand that it takes a lifetime to begin to grasp any martial art. I am in no hurry there is still time for me.”
Martialforce.com: How does Shorin-Ryu differ from other styles?
CHARLES BONET: “Shorin-Ryu is a very ancient form of karate-do. Its beginnings go back centuries, originating in the Shaolin Temple in ancient China. The style is not by any means superior to other systems, but it is the most ancient. The term Shaolin is broken down to Shorin in Okinawan.
The system incorporates strong offensive moves, and combines the use of various fighting forms making it unique in combat situations. It also combines the art of Kobujutsu (art of weaponry) in its teaching. Kobudo has always been a major part of Shorin-Ryu. The Okinawan people relied on it to defend themselves against ronin Samurai and invaders of their island.”
Martialforce.com: Does the style include grappling, restraining, and throwing techniques?
CHARLES BONET: “Yes, Shorin-Ryu is recognized for its use of grappling, throwing and restraining.”
Martialforce.com: What is your view of Chi/Ki?
CHARLES BONET: “Without it, you have nothing. In any martial art, ki (Japanese) or chi (Chinese) means life force, the very thing that differentiates them from sports. The martial arts are the development of mind, body and spirit, which in turn develops our approach in facing life’s challenges, conquering our fears, and facing death if necessary. Bushido is based on these principles.”
Martialforce.com: Changing direction, tell us about your undertaking in films.
CHARLES BONET: “I first appeared in a documentary entitled, ‘Super Weapon’ back in 1976 which highlighted many of the best martial artists in New York City of that period. I was later asked to star in a martial arts movie, ‘Death Promise’ and later worked with Grand Master Ron Van Clief in ‘The Black Dragon’s Revenge.’ There were several other films as well.”
Martialforce.com: What is the worst thing about karate today in your opinion?
CHARLES BONET: “This could become an extremely long answer. Keeping it simple, I would say the lack of providing quality instruction, ancient history, proper discipline, character development and long-term goals. Last but not least, the emphasis on money gains.”
Martialforce.com: What is the best thing about karate today?
CHARLES BONET: “The fact that there is a handful of quality and dedicated Sensei still out there, inspiring students every day.”
Martialforce.com: What future would you like to see for your schools?
CHARLES BONET: “I want them to continue to grow and to produce teachers that excel and exceed the challenges faced; to see the number of honorable men and women that really care about the art to increase and protect the art at all cost.”
Martialforce.com: Is there a particular message you want to share with your students or karateka?
CHARLES BONET: “Yes! I would like thank each of my students, past and present, for supporting me in all of my endeavors and have stood by my side when I needed them the most, in spite of my craziness through uncharted waters, no matter what the circumstances. In addition, I wish to thank them of giving me the honor of being their Sensei, and allowing me to learn from them, as much as they learned from me. They have given me the most priceless of all gifts, loyalty, trust, friendship and most of all, family. To all of you, I humbly bow with honor...Ush!” Charles Bonet, Hanshi, your Sensei.”
Martialforce.com: How can prospective students seeking instruction get in touch with you?