Zen and the art of self-defense

Special to The Times

Here comes ex-Navy SEAL Richard "Mack" Machowicz. Roaring, handsome face turned homicidal, black eyes now merciless, Mack rushes me with preternatural speed and grabs my throat in a crushing grip. A glass necklace pops off my neck and sprays beads over the polished wood floor of the Santa Monica Zen Center. Then I'm gone, body still thrashing and flailing, but brain checked out. There but not there.

I know, because later I watch the footage of the choking demo. Otherwise I can't remember those 10 seconds at all: Mack throttling me and twisting me down onto my belly, grinding my face into the mat, asking if I'm through. When I stand, tears of humiliation slide down my face. The seven other participants gaze at me in horror and pity. The one other woman, Nancy Marks, looks at me with anger, telling me later: "I was furious at you for being the helpless woman, for not fighting back."

If Mack had wanted to, he could've killed me. I would've died, leaving behind nothing but an ineffectual scratch, a jagged red line scratched eye to ear on the side of Mack's face. I always wondered if I would survive such an attack. Now I know.

All strangers, the eight of us meet for the three-day F.I.S.T. (Fundamental Intensive Skills Training) Bukido course. We hail from Jacksonville, Fla., and Ames, Iowa; from Salt Lake City, St. Louis, Indianapolis and Los Angeles. We are here for different reasons, each seeking something. Each jumped through hoops to get here -- hoops such as locating the half-hidden Zen Center with no handholding to grease the experience.

"I've had people call me from the airport," Mack says. " 'How do I get to the Zen Center?'

"I say, 'That's part of the test.' "

Mack believes if clients want something bad enough, they'll figure it out.

He spent years of trial-and-error cooking up his own distinctive blend of SEAL training flavored with Zen. He calls the result "Bukido" (which means, loosely translated from the Japanese, "way of the warrior spirit"). Samurai who steeped themselves in Zen, he says, learned indifference to discomfort, fear and the threat of death.

Some might balk at Mack's training, thinking the force excessive, the violence extreme, over-the-top. But those who are drawn to his no-limits philosophy are seeking a wake-up call. The participants bring some secret shortcoming, an unseen barrier that they are ready to cut through. For Bukido's special dose of shock-time reality, offered quarterly, they're willing to pay $1,500 -- just for the privilege of getting brutalized by Mack.

"THIS doesn't look like a martial arts school," John Rivera says that first early morning. It's dark, not yet 6 a.m. We are inside the immaculate center. On the wall, an ancient Buddhist gong, a shelf for incense and an American flag. On the snack counter, boxes of bandages and bottles of Tylenol, arnica gel tubes and ice packs set the stage for fear, for anticipation of bruising, wounding, breaking and bleeding.

Rivera, a fit silver-haired businessman from Indianapolis, found Mack, 38, when his 2000 book, "Unleash the Warrior Within: Develop the Focus, Discipline, Confidence and Courage You Need to Achieve Unlimited Goals," popped up on an Amazon search for "goal setting." In the book, Mack, a 10-year Navy SEAL vet -- a sniper and hand-to-hand combat specialist -- shows how to apply a warrior mentality to everyday life.

Rivera, like many of the F.I.S.T participants, has never seen Mack in person until today. But there he is, standing quietly near the counter, chewing on a bagel, greeting the participants.

Low-key in a black "Bukido" T-shirt and simple karate pants, Mack commands attention with the unmistakable intensity in his black eyes. There is a coiled readiness to his body. His skull is buzzed as clean as a farm-fresh egg.

Mack is studying to be a Zen priest. Each grueling day of our training will end in a meditation session with the center's head priest, William Yoshin Jordan Sensei, a rabidly patriotic, weather-beaten guy with a scolding voice.

Nancy Marks approaches Mack, asks him whether he's ever killed anyone, and what was that like. Mack answers by quoting the oft-quoted Marine sniper who told the embedded reporter who'd asked him "What'd you feel?" after a hit. "The recoil of the rifle," the Marine replied.

Travis Healy worries that he's too passive in his daily life. A tall, soft-spoken Mormon family man from Utah, Healy emanates an unassuming but rock-solid presence. Seeking a more take-charge attitude, Healy applied Mack's combat principles from "Unleash the Warrior Within" to his business and saw immediate results. He's hungry for more.

Each night -- after 12 to 13 hours of practice drills involving endless nose smashes, radial hits, groin kicks, eye gouges, blows to the sciatic nerve, skull grabs, tumbling, feinting, grappling and falling -- when we are bruised and sore, shaken and exhilarated, we fold our creaking knees into the formal zazen sitting position, try to meditate for half an hour without falling asleep, and then try to answer Bill's irritating questions about Truth for another half-hour.

How do we "see" the Truth? Each person who tries to answer crawls up to Bill, sits cross-legged on a cushion before him and hazards a guess. Most elicit snorts of derision from Bill and chuckles from Mack.

Many of us kvetch afterward, Healy most of all. What's this got to do with self-defense? And yet it is Healy who goes up nightly and battles with the question. We watch as he grimaces, and puzzles, chews the back-and-forth Buddhist cud, reaches somewhere deep down inside until on the third and final night, his face wet with tears and sweat and strain, he sees things he needs to see. How his marriage is stagnant, how he's the walking dead, barely aware, how he does not really "see" his children, how he is filled with fears he didn't even know he had.

His mightily wrestled insight moves many of us, despite our cynicism.

Facing the F.I.S.T.

Unlike the other male participants, journalist Brian Hodges looks as if he never threw a punch in his life. With his bleary night-owl eyes and Southern drawl, Hodges talks about nursing a lifelong fascination with Navy SEALs, Delta Force and other real-life heroes. He always wondered, "What the bleep makes somebody do something like that? Where do they get the courage?"

Then one day while bookstore browsing, Mack's fierce face challenged him from a jacket cover. He had no bleeping idea what he was getting into.

Hodges gamely struggles through, but sustains a banged-up knee and a sprained wrist. Bruises splotch his skin by the third day, the day he snaps.

As the final test, each participant must face the dreaded Man in the F.I.S.T. Suit. One of the co-instructors will don a padded suit and crash helmet and confront us with three surprise scenarios. The scenarios might include: haywire homeless man harassing you at nighttime ATM, would-be murderer packing concealed weapon, drunken idiot itching for bar fight. Under pressure, the participants must use the knowledge and moves they've learned.

The Man in the F.I.S.T. Suit is a bruiser from Brooklyn, a fireplug crossed with a pit bull. Even without the suit he's scary. You can hit him in the chest and your fist bounces back, crumpled. Never mind that he looks like the Michelin Man. He's lethal.

Before the participants face the Man in the F.I.S.T. Suit, Mack cautions us to pull our punches. Hit the target, but don't hurt the aggressor. To demonstrate, each participant must put on the helmet the aggressor will wear and absorb one punch to the face and one to the jaw, special-delivered by Mack. So we know how it feels.

The participants don't realize this is a hurdle itself -- until the first one steps up. Wham!!! Mack lands a practice blow that rocks Hodges' body and brings tears to his eyes. Then another that practically lifts him from the mat. By the time it's his turn, Hodges hasn't recovered.

He phones in two scenarios, barely avoiding getting "killed." In the middle of the third scenario, Hodges winces, steps off the mat. "I'm too sore," he says. "My ankle's messed up."

"DON'T FEEL SORRY FOR YOURSELF," Mack bellows. Then shouts the chilling slogan: "Not dead, can't quit!"

Hodges stops limping, returns to the mat and knocks the Man in the F.I.S.T. Suit onto his padded butt.

"I hated, hated having my weaknesses exposed," Hodges says later. But now he understands more what makes a Delta Force-type guy tick. "Mack gave me a glimpse of the determination you have to have. Don't worry about what can happen to you. You focus on the job you have got to do."

When Hodges returned to Jacksonville, he found he had a rat problem. "He had eaten through a hose connecting my clothes dryer to the wall and was crapping everywhere.... Normally I would've whined about that for a week ... but I went to Home Depot, bought a rat trap and killed the little...."

Finding strength

Nancy Marks, a painter and children's book author, is an attractive brunet with sparkly green eyes. Marks has a quick, warm, smile -- unless she's screaming her lungs out as the aggressor.

At first, she had trouble taking that role. "After I kicked someone in the groin, I'd ask, 'Are you OK?' " But soon enough she's found her voice.

Marks signed up only because her teenage son, who'd taken the course the year before, insisted. But despite Marks' inexperience and her protected, plush life, she is tough. Determined. Steely. A hell-raiser wrapped in a yoga-trim society lady's body.

The last day Marks experiences a different sort of awakening. She, like Hodges, is reduced to tears during the pull-your-punches drill. "That blow on the helmet. Boom. The force of that blow, what it did to my nose and face -- I got a taste of what real violence could be." By the end of the course, Marks taps "a deep, guttural, rooted anger to protect myself. Something I didn't even know I had."

Coulter Bayard, an Iowa farm boy in his 20s who stumbled across Mack's book, used the principles ("crush the enemy called fear," "guarantee the win," "never grow complacent") to ace his GRE and get into grad school to study cyber-security. With his carrot-top, pale skin, sad eyes and few words, he wins Most Likely to Buckle, along with Hodges. But Bayard proves more the warrior than any other participant in the final showdown with the Man in the F.I.S.T. Suit. His ferocity is awesome. For some reason, he seems to want it more.

On the last morning, Marks asks whether this training can really sink in in three days. I'm taking the brief opportunity to catch my breath. To stretch aching muscles. To readjust my sports bra. Then Mack turns to me: "You'd know what to do now, right? If I came at you with another attack?"

I'm already shaking my head no. "Please, once was enough," I say, in a voice still wheezy and weak from the first strangulation, but here he comes. Again. Ex-Navy SEAL. Sniper. Trained killer. Bearing down on me. Dark eyes lasering controlled mayhem, growling, flying closer like a fiery-maned nightmare. Then he is here, breathing hotly in my face, wrapping his lethal hands vise-like around my still sore bare neck and crushing. Again.

I stare him in the eyes. I examine him closely: the grim-set mouth, the faint hair clouding his upper lip, his eyes. Target. I breathe. Visualize. Prepare. It's not about what he's doing to me, but about what I can do to him. Not dead, can't quit. The chants cycle through my brain. Then, still breathing, I scream, as I've been trained, a blood-curdling "Eeeeeeeeyyyyyyyyyyyyyeeeeee- eeeeeessssssssss!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" and stab my fingers directly into his sockets with a rapid, focused, decisive move. And, unbelievably, Mack ... backs ... off.

Then grins a mega-watt grin. "Nice job!" Sweat streams from my pits, down my spine, from my brow. I am still seeing. Still watching Mack, now casual Bukido guy again. But I am not back to normal.

Something has catalyzed in my racked body, in my weary brain. Something new: The meditative Zen training and the hyperphysical self-defense training have actually fused. They have fused, and improbably bloomed into a glorious, unshakeable, tightly clenched internal fist.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

A martial arts style to fit every temperament

With a spectacular selection of martial arts classes in Southern California, it's less difficult to find a school than to figure out which style is right for you.

Bukido

Self-defense for the mind as well as the body. Overcome your fears and overcome your attackers.

Bukido Institute: classes in Santa Monica by appointment only; next class is Feb. 17-19; mailing address is 1223 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 581, Santa Monica, CA 90403; (310) 772-8287; www.bukido.com

Tai chi

Often taught in slow motion, tai chi is a gentle, meditative Chinese art practiced by those seeking to promote mind-body health, balance and relaxation rather than self-defense. Some classes teach fighting applications, but most are noncontact. You'll learn to coordinate breath with repetitive, circular movements resembling a dreamlike dance. Tai chi builds strength and teaches you to go with the flow.

Pasadena School of Tai Chi: classes in Pasadena (922 Huntington Drive) and Santa Monica (1220 2nd St.); (626) 798-5949, www.cataichi.com

Tai Chi Chuan Academy, 5820 W. Manchester Ave., Los Angeles; (310) 379-5396, www.tungkaiying.com

Aikido

This Japanese method is not a competitive sport. Rather than blocking an opponent with force, you relax your mind and body, and use circular movements to pivot and step aside. Opponents are thrown off balance and then pinned. Sound easy? It's not. But with no pain and no violent sparring, aikido is a civilized martial art. Perfect for the antiwar activist or a mediator specializing in conflict resolution.

Aikido Center of Los Angeles, 940 E. 2nd St., No. 7, Los Angeles; (213) 687-3673, www.aikidocenterla.com

Chushinkan Dojo, 7212 Orangethorpe Ave., Suite 8, Buena Park; (714) 523-2255, www.chushin.com

Musubi Dojo, 1420 N. Claremont Blvd., 204 A-B, Claremont; (909) 625-6639

Jujitsu

Think wrestling with sweaty men. With an emphasis on ground fighting techniques, jujitsu students grapple on the mat until one fighter forces an opponent into submission using a joint lock or chokehold. A practical method of self-defense and a full-contact competitive sport, jujitsu is a manly man's martial art. But if women can stand the close contact, jujitsu can be defense against sexual assault.

Rickson Gracie International Jiu-Jitsu Center, 11755 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 40, West Los Angeles; (310) 914-4122, www.rickson.com

Beverly Hills Jiu-Jitsu Club, 912 1/2 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 854-7664, www.bhjjc.com

Karate

A Japanese martial art meaning "empty hand," karate is a fighting method and way of life influenced by Zen Buddhism. Practicing barefoot on hardwood floors, students wear white uniforms and carry no weapons. Karate emphasizes defeating opponents with single concussive punching, kicking and blocking techniques. Fighters generate kime, or focused power, by violently exhaling and contracting the muscles of the body while letting out a guttural shout. Karate is for people of all ages and sizes seeking discipline and striving for mental, physical and moral perfection.

West Los Angeles Karate School, Brentwood Youth House, 731 S. Bundy Drive, Los Angeles; (310) 737-7890, www.wlakarate.com

Japan Karate Assn., 1218 5th St., Santa Monica; (310) 395-8545, www.jkasm.com

National Karate Institute, L.A. Central Dojo, 1440 Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles; (213) 483-8261, www.aakf.org/wr/NKI.html

Tae kwon do

A Korean martial art and Olympic sport similar to karate, tae kwon do emphasizes leg techniques. Fast, precise and powerful kicks are the main weapon, some performed while jumping or spinning. There's also a smattering of punching and blocking. Given its friendly, respectful culture, tae kwon do is one of the most commercial martial arts and is popular among women and kids. If you're courteous and have a can-do attitude, try tae kwon do.

Do San Tae Kwon Do, 3328 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles; (213) 383-2220

World Mission Taekwondo Assn., Choong-Hyo Mission Taekwondo, L.A. Black Belt Center, 3750 W. 6th St., No. 107, Los Angeles; (213) 487-5959, www.chmts.tripod.com

Chambliss Taekwondo, 23377 Hawthorne Blvd., Torrance; (310) 791-2970, www.chamblisstkd.com

Capoeira

An Afro-Brazilian martial art created by slaves, capoeira typically is practiced to live music and disguised as a dance. One of the most acrobatic and aerobic of martial arts, capoeira artists stand on their hands and perform rhythmic kicks, sweeps and takedowns. They use evasive maneuvers and feints to trick opponents. If you're young, limber and into world music or break dancing, capoeira will help you get your groove on.

Brasil Brasil Cultural Center, Capoeira Batuque, Mestre Amen, 4325 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City; (310) 397-3667, www.capoeirabatuque.org

Omulu Sul Capoeira, YMCA Torrance, 2900 Sepulveda Blvd., Torrance; (310) 372-1967, www.omulula.com

Grupo Capoeira Brasil Los Angeles, Mestre Boneco, 5557 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 935-2224, www.capoeirabrasil.com

Krav Maga

A modern self-defense system developed by the Israeli defense forces, Krav Maga is quick, practical and hard-core. Translating to "contact combat," Krav Maga is not for show. You'll learn simple, instinctive defensive techniques against realistic attacks by armed and unarmed assailants. With punching, kicking and other forms of brutal hand-to-hand combat, this is for aggressive types who want to bash some brains.

Krav Maga National Training Center, 11500 Olympic Blvd., Suite 150, Los Angeles; (310) 966-1300, www.kravmaga.com

Krav Maga Long Beach, 1136 E. Willow St., Signal Hill; (562) 424-4666, www.kravmagalb.com

Kung fu

The flashiest of the martial arts, this Chinese form was popularized by Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. Kung fu fighters frequently wear brightly colored costumes and use poles or impressive swords. They punch, jump, kick, flip, twirl and land gracefully in the splits. A wooden dummy is often used to train in place of a sparring partner. If you love the spotlight and dream of martial arts movie stardom, kung fu may be for you.

Shan Tung Kung Fu Assn., 1154 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena; (626) 577-0525, www.kungfuusa.com

Dap Ga Kung Fu, 13509 A&B; Telegraph Road, Whittier; (562) 941-8799, www.dapgakungfu.com

Michael's Institute of Choreographic Arts, 2432C Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 396-5655, www.kungfula.com

Muay Thai

If you want to kick the steroid habit and still have a shot at winning that no-holds-barred Ultimate Fighting Competition, muay Thai just might do the trick. With a long history in the Thai military, Thai kickboxing can and does kill.

Fighters use elbows, shins, hands, feet and knees to punch and kick opponents to a bloody pulp. They practice clinching, or grappling while standing. If you have some serious anger management issues, muay Thai could be a nice alternative to going postal.

Muay Thai Academy of America, 11024 Vanowen St., North Hollywood; (818) 760-3880, www.muaythaiacademy.net

Pro Training Inc. Sityodtong USA, 3817 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena; (626) 577-7800, www.protraininginc.com

Inosanto Academy of Martial Arts, 13348-52 Beach Ave., Marina del Rey; (310) 578-7773, www.inosanto.com

Judo

Also an Olympic sport, this Japanese martial art, meaning the "gentle way," incorporates techniques of jujitsu, with a greater focus on throwing. Judo as a sport allows no kicking or punching, so judoka use their opponents' momentum to throw them off balance. With a focus on safety and values such as perseverance and loyalty, judo is for those with a strong work ethic who tend to play by the rules.

Santa Monica Family YMCA, 1332 6th St., Santa Monica; (310) 393-2721, www.ymcasm.org

Gardena Judo Club, Japanese Cultural Institute, 1964 W. 162nd St., Gardena; (310) 323-6051, www.gardenajudo.com

Academy of Judo and Zendoryu Karate, 2703 Artesia Blvd., Redondo Beach; (310) 370-3553, www.alljapankarate.com

-- Jenny Hontz

Rachel Resnick is a novelist in Los Angeles. She can be reached at weekend@latimes.com.

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