About U ba Than Gyi

Dr. Maung Gyi's father, Sayaji U Ba Than Gyi, became a key part of the post-war Burmese government. A brilliant scholar and masterful martial artist, U Ba Than Gyi had played a key role in the establishment of the Military Athletic Club in pre-World War II Burma. Now, he would find himself in an ideal situation to further the goals of the Military Athletic Club: U Ba Than Gyi would become the director of the Burmese program of physical education and athletics. To Bando's great benefit, U Ba Than Gyi seized the opportunity to travel throughout the country under the auspices of the government. He sought out masters of the martial arts throughout Burma from many styles and systems.

The British had originally suppressed the native Burmese martial arts, as had been the case with the rulers of Okinawa. And, as was the case in Okinawa, the indigenous Burmese martial arts had not disappeared altogether. Instead, masters and families had kept the suppressed systems alive in secret. Now, U Ba Than could travel the nation openly and confer with these living legacies.

U Ba Than was particularly interested in organizing the knowledge of the surviving masters in Burma. Their arts had been preserved within close-knit family structures, or perhaps disguised for preservation in the form of folk dance (as in China and Okinawa), or in forms of entertainment, such as the theater and the opera, as in the Chinese opera. In addition, some clever progenitors had hidden the essence of some systems in the guise of sports activities, channeling aggression and conflict into an arena between two men as opposed to training groups to undertake resistance against the government.

Eventually, martial artists from many styles came to visit the Elder Gyi's (U Ba Than Gyi’s) compound and demonstrate their various systems. Those demonstrations were very demanding. "Masters" who could not perform on their promises faced a series of aggressive "reality checks".  For example, Dr. Gyi relates the story of one "master" who claimed his martial prowess would allow him to defeat ten attacker simultaneously. A test was arranged by the Gyis at a soccer field. Ten attackers were arrayed against the "master". The "master" was simultaneously attacked by all ten. 

Resurgence of Bando Boxing

As he undertook to gain widespread credibility and acceptance across stylistic, racial/ethnic and class lines, U Ba Than organized the traditionally brutal and savage indigenous Bando Boxing, in an attempt to make it safer and to reduce injuries and fatalities. At that time in the early post-World War II period, Bando Boxing was not yet "Westernized." The Thais, however, proved less resistant to change and fairly readily westernized Muay Thai.

U Ba Than Gyi's son, Maung Gyi (Dr. Gyi), was a participant in these bouts. These brutal experiences made an indelible impression on Dr. Gyi. To this day, he insists that Bando be highly effective in combat.

Reviving Bando Boxing was a critical way to establish credibility for U Ba Than Gyi with the "underground" martial arts culture. His involvement in the Military Athletic Club and his force of personality all combined to uniquely qualify U Ba Than Gyi as the man who could elicit the essence of the underground systems from the remaining masters.

One enormous problem facing U Ba Than Gyi was the difficulty encountered in resurrecting and reviving systems without offending the holders of the knowledge. A keen political balancing act was needed to satisfy the demands of surviving "traditional" masters, heads of family systems, various monk sects and ethnic groups. Thus, as U Ba Than traveled the country and contacted a growing network of such persons, he interviewed them and gained their confidence gradually.

As he began to perceive the nature of what had been driven underground, U Ba Than Gyi concluded that a real part of the Burmese culture had been threatened with extinction. In Burma, the martial artist lived as a critical part of the society. Not only could one punch and kick, but was a kind of “Renaissance Man” or "Renaissance Woman."

The Burmese martial artist was, traditionally, in addition to being a repository of knowledge concerning methods of harming or killing the individual, a repository of knowledge concerning health and healing. Frequently, martial artists were indigenous medical practitioners to whom the community turned for treatment from illness and injury.

Moreover, the martial artist in Burmese society was sought after by the populace for his or her understanding of nature, animals, plants, the elements, geography, language and customs, as well as historical fact and cultural traditions. Frequently, because of their advantages in these areas, they were called upon to act as arbitrators of disputes, or as judges. Thus, the Burmese martial artist, prior to the British suppression of the arts, had served in a highly respected position in the society. Therefore, the presence of the martial artist in a community or in a given situation, was the presence of a person of wisdom (a physician, herbologist, scholar, warrior, philosopher, jurist) and was the symbolic infusion of great power and justice into a community environment or an inter-personal or inter-group transaction.

Recognizing this, U Ba Than Gyi gave these surviving masters the deference they deserved, and asked that they share with him, for posterity, their knowledge. The reaction to Gyi's shrewd and genuine inquiries was outstanding; some 200 masters met with him, taught him and demonstrated their methods, disclosing the history and context of their heritage.

The Common Thread: "Principles"

As he pursued the laborious process of systematizing this huge body of evolved knowledge, U Ba Than began to realize that, despite varied origins, purposes, outward manifestations and historical contexts, all martial systems shared, at their root, certain immutable and common principles. He also noted that there was an inevitable overlap between related (but not identical) systems.

For example, the Cobra and Viper shared many similarities, as did the various cat systems, such as Black Panther and Tiger. It was just this sort of organization of previously disconnected and inchoate knowledge that was U Ba Than Gyi's great contribution, achievement and breakthrough.  U Ba Than asked this question: How do we share this knowledge with other interested individuals in a limited time? Many of the systems included as an integral part of their existence a rich and complex body of legend, myth, religious practice and encrusted tradition. These qualities required years, even a lifetime of study in order to assimilate the system.

As he engaged in cultural archaeology, restoration and preservation of the Burmese martial arts culture, the impossible task facing U Ba Than Gyi was this: how do you test the validity of the myth? He began to sort out family legends, stories, myths and traditions which could not be verified, and began to reduce his information to a system of principles. He left his son volumes of encrypted notes on the systems and principles he unearthed.

Animal Systems: A Repository for Principles

U Ba Than Gyi began to see that once these foundational principles could be discerned, articulated and removed from needlessly mythic contexts, a hierarchy of principles, strategies, tactics and techniques could be constructed. This would provide, he reasoned, a coherent, comprehensive, and consistent approach to martial disciplines across virtually all stylistic lines. The Elder Gyi established this structure. He organized, sifted, and classified his tremendous wealth of knowledge gained from hundreds of masters over many years.

In U Ba Than Gyi’s approach, a set of combative behaviors was termed as a system. The system dealt with offense, defense, counter-offence and the like. The system consistently utilized the pervasive and sound underlying principles Dr. Gyi’s father had discovered to formulate reasoned responses within a chosen context. For example, this meant that a large and heavy man chose Bull or Python.  U Ba Than Gyi removed other indigenous components of the behaviors which he felt were not necessary to understanding and manifesting the underlying principles. An example of these "removed" components could be beliefs in numerology, astrology and various superstitions.  Instead of creating a new mythology, the Elder Gyi took what we might recognize as a very Western and scholarly approach. He utilized the animal systems he constructed as a composite framework for particular strategic thoughts, tactical decisions and physiological weapon selection. But why did he choose animal systems to be the expository mechanism for his unique synthesis of fundamental cross-style principles? Why not a geranium style?

The answer remains rooted in myth shared cross-culturally down to the present day in numerous cultures, and across racial/ethnic boundaries. For example, there is the powerful German Eagle (and the American Eagle), the Russian Bear. Further, family crests in Europe feature animals of certain types as symbols for the family unit.

Dr. Gyi explains that we can only conclude, therefore, that a fundamental and powerful part of the human psyche is clearly fascinated with and identifies with animals.  U Ba Than Gyi chose the animal systems as unique repositories of the various principles for a wide variety of reasons, not the least of which was a three-fold analysis of why martial artists had instinctively imitated animals historically. First, there seemed to be a mystical attachment to certain animals along historic and cultural lines which increased the likelihood of students undertaking rigorous training to master the system. Second, we are humans feel awe for these animals and the grace of their motions. Thirdly, we feel that by acting as an animal, we escape from ourselves and in turn liberate ourselves from societal strictures of behavior and response. We liberate our instinctive levels of personal physical capabilities, what other systems may attribute to chi or ki.

The Fundamentals of Animal Systems, Fundamentals of All Systems

Dr. Gyi's father would lecture, focusing on the fact that he had discovered three pillars of all systems. First, all martial systems go through a problem solving process. The practitioner asks the question: how do I solve the problem with the resources I have?

Second, all martial systems (by definition) deal with a rule making process. The Elder Gyi would argue that all systems, even military ones, had some fundamental rule-making process. For example, a soldier in combat would possibly face a situation where there could be an issue about killing apparent non-combatants (children with grenades in Vietnam, for example). What are the rules?

The third pillar U Ba Than Gyi articulated was the fact that all systems require their practitioners to make choices within the broader context of rules, as they complete the problem solving process.

In addition to these shared conceptual processes, Dr. Gyi's father also argued that these processes yielded a well-defined set of common physical aspects in all systems, ways in which the combative equation could be solved. For example, all systems, to some extent or other, have HOLDS, BLOWS and THROWS. Judo emphasizes grappling; Tae Kwon Do emphasizes kicking; Western boxing emphasizes a limited arsenal of hand techniques.

Going even further, Dr. Gyi's father realized that all systems could be viewed from one of three intentional viewpoints. That is, the ultimate context or application of the system could be identified. Once this was accomplished, its conceptual processes and physical manifestations could be mapped and studied. These intentional/contextual perspectives indicate that systems can have one (or more) of these three elemental objectives: AESTHETICS, ATHLETICS or COMBATICS.

With these three sets of three analytical tools a complex three dimensional analytical system for dissecting and reconstructing systems to serve a variety of purposes can be created. It now becomes more apparent that the breadth of U Ba Than Gyi's contribution to the martial arts stretches far beyond the Bando system. These analytical tools can be used with increasing sophistication to understand systems and to facilitate communication between systems. They are the heart of the Bando animal systems.

Personal Combat As Metaphor For Larger Conflicts

Although Dr. Gyi's father sought to eliminate unnecessary cultural artifacts from martial systems, he did not seek to have these systems exist in a moral or philosophical void. Elder Gyi discerned that martial systems inherently dealt with three types of conflict: conflict with others, conflict with nature, conflict with self. Today, most martial arts deal only with the first type of conflict, and in a very limited way (sport rules, etc.) These systems omit political and other solutions.

Bando has, historically, dealt with all three in a comprehensive fashion, realizing human limitations in each category. For example, in addition to the "conflict with others" issue, we must also realistically think of conflict with nature. How does our art help us in that regard?  Most martial systems ignore the national or group levels of conflict. How would we deal with these? Bando in its richness considers this, too, but realizes the individual may have little immediate control over the final decision in such conflicts as whether or not a nation/tribe will engage in warfare. Thus, we seek to determine ways in which we can constructively function in that environment. Bando also seeks to study and understand and to properly function in a group conflict of smaller scale, such as family or extended family issues. All this was a part of the traditional Burmese systems which U Ba Than unearthed and systematized. Therefore, many families preserved these traditions as means of dealing with and surviving conflict. This survival tradition was deeply linked to family and group/tribe existence, so U Ba Than faced nearly insurmountable barriers in getting the older holders of this knowledge to share it. Nonetheless, he accomplished this after years of travel and effort.

Choosing A System

Dr. Gyi asked U Ba Than Gyi how one should select a system in which to train. U Ba Than's reply was to choose NOT the system you liked best intellectually, but rather to choose the system most suited to you physically. One's physical potential must mesh with the animal, or the student must move on to another animal system. The animal systems are rich and diverse enough so that each student can find a "home" in at least one system. The system should not harm the student's body.

Once the student finds a "home," certain techniques in the system require an enormous amount of "regularities" (that is, consistent and persistent drilling, conditioning, and execution) to build the required reflexive muscle memory. These "regularities" give the student skill and self-confidence, as well as a sense of belonging in the animal's tradition.

Click here for more about the Bando Animal Systems.

Hanthawaddy Bando: A Summary

By the end of the 1940s and the early 1950s, U Ba Than Gyi's efforts had begun to flower. He had systematized a number of approaches into a distilled and internally consistent style called "Hanthawaddy Bando". This system is by no means all of Bando or all of Burmese martial arts. It is, as Dr. Gyi calls it, a piece of the larger puzzle.

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"Kaphar Hunne Ghanda Marnu Ramro" - "It is better to be dead than live a life of a coward".

- The Code of Conduct of the Bando Discipline