A conversation with Paul de Thouars
In 1986 a training partner of mine went to the United States to train in martial arts, and when he came back he talked nonstop about a Silat system called Bukti Negara he had trained a little in and its head instructor Paul de Thouars.
Sometime later I had the pleasure of attending a workshop with uncle Paul and watched as student after student was gently closed down and levered to the floor with minimal effort. The art was truly baffling and scary in its efficiency all at the same time. I managed to train for a few years in Bukti Negara before a change of job meant a change of location. I later became a part time MMA coach but I always hoped to one day continue my Silat studies and perhaps get a chance to train with uncle Paul again. This year thanks to some students of Paul, I managed ask Paul some questions about his lifetime of study his art.
MAI: When did you start your training and how long have you been studying your art?
PDT: I started in 1948 under my uncle Ernest (ventje) de Vries, at that time I didn’t understand anything. The understanding of the art came much later after I trained with uncle John de Vries. He gave me ten keys to understanding the art.
MAI: What was Serak/Bukti Negara designed for is it purely for self preservation and how did Bukti Negara come about?
PDT: Serak is for self preservation and was never meant to shown in the open, I made a promise to my uncle John to guard the art and only teach it to family and close friends.I struggled with the promise, of course I wanted to teach, so for that I created Bukti Negara and used components taken from Serak. In this way I could teach in the open.
MAI: What was training like when you first started training in Serak, where did you train (In the attic I understand)?
PDT: When I started with my uncle ventje in 1948 it was in Bangkok (Thailand) it was only for some months because we where at a prisoners of war camp from there we went to New Genuea, that was around 1950 and in 1955 we went to Holland where I restarted my training again with my uncle John and yes it was on his attic. In Indonesia I trained already a bit with Uncle John in Palembang.
MAI: How did you train, did you have to spend time learning Jurus (the eighteen upper short forms of the system) first and then the applications?
PDT: The training always started with drills, mostly hitting drills, walking in a straight line and hit over and over again. Horse stances, hand traps, foot traps and counter to counter drills. After that juru, just a few and my uncle showed applications from the jurus.
When I got the eighteen jurus uncle John started to sidetrack me to see if I really could do the jurus without thinking, he let me do the jurus and started to talk about other things so he could see where I went wrong and when I did I needed to start all over.
MAI: Was the training harsh and did you do any body strengthening etc?
PDT: The training was harsh, but I guess it was a different time, nowadays everything is different, the old way of training was only for a few, and for those who really wanted to learn.
MAI: Do you have any training stories about uncle Ventje or John? (I hear uncle Ventie was a tough teacher).
Stories about my uncles, I have many, especially my uncle Ventje he really was a fighter and even wanted to try out Mas Jud (his teacher) several times.
Uncle Ventje was also trained by Mas Rhun, when he came back from Mas Rhun he wanted to try out Mas Jud. Now the thing was, there was a rattan chair in the living room of Mas Jud and uncle ventje ended up with his head between the rattan sticks of the chair, Mas Judt had to help him out from that. My uncle Ventje sure had some guts. This is only one story there are to many to tell. Both my uncles de Vries were one of a kind and you don’t see teachers anymore like they were.
MAI: When did you first start teaching Silat openly in the states?
PDT: I started teaching in Pasadena, in 1964. I felt at the time I was not qualified enough to share with people. We training behind closed doors, my first student was Lesley Hooper in Texas, and Martin Beijer, Bill Carls, there were about seven in total. Some have passed now.
In 1971, I visited uncle John de Vries in Holland, he was sick. He told me at the time “you haven’t changed; I will give you ten things”. I thought he was going to give me ten things, but I didn’t realise his meaning was that he had already given them to me; these were the elements of Serak. It was after he passed on that I realised what he meant and he had already passed these ten things on to me. It was John de Vries who made me the teacher I am today and I can never pay him back for what he has given me.
In 1972 John de Vries passed on and I wanted to keep his legacy alive but we still trained behind closed doors as I promised him I would not teach openly.
MAI: What are the juru’s for?
PDT: The jurus are the alphabet of the art, for example a hit in a jurus is like “A” and an elbow can be a “B” and so on. You can’t fight with a jurus but with the components you can but only when the understanding is there.
MAI: What should you think about when you train them?
PDT: You have to focus when doing a jurus and learn from its movements, every answer is in the jurus, that’s way I’m still studying only one art, and one life isn’t enough to get the full understanding of the art.
MAI: How often should a student train the jurus?
PDT: How much a student needs to train them, well I guess you can train them as often as you can, because its not about what you know its about what did you understand of it.Some students will understand after a while, with some it will take a lot of time while others again will never understand it.
MAI: What are Langkas and does it matter if you learn jurus first or footwork first etc.
PDT: Langkas are just as the jurus and each has his own alphabet also. Call it the way of the feet and if you see the platform which we use on the floor it’s only a dead platform, it will show you nothing. Again you have to understand your footwork towards the position of the opponent. When you do understand there’s no platform anymore, there is no langka tiga, langka ampat and so on, all become one.
MAI: Does each Serak or Bukti Negara teacher have his own flavour when he teaches the art?
PDT: Yes, every teacher teaches towards his own understanding and mentality, but also to the level of the students understanding. How can you explain the deeper insights of the art when the understanding isn’t there yet? So it’s not the teacher that sets the teachings but the student. It all depends in how much and how many times the student trains.
MAI: We live in a consumer society, where most people seem to want shortcuts and to get everything now, do you see value in training just one art and also in a more traditional way (the old way).
PDT: There are no shortcuts in the art, if I would teach the old way there wouldn’t be a lot of students because it’s too boring, the time we live in is different then back then. We need to teach differently now and give a student trust instead of fear. We need to use communication skills, Philosophy skills and so on. So this is another reason why I created Bukti Negara, with that I could teach in a more social way and give people a taste of the art.
MAI: What do you think about modern arts such as MMA/cage fighting?
PDT: All arts are good, it’s not the art that’s bad or better, it’s the player that is. If you train five days a week in MMA or another one trains one time a month Bukti Negara for example is it the art that’s better?
MAI: What advice would you give to a beginner student just starting out in the arts, Do you have any training tips for the silat student, things you wish you had figured out or been told earlier?
PDT: My way is to give beginning students trust and my advice for a beginner would be “learn to the best of your abilities” Give trust to your teacher as your teacher will trust you.
And remember a teacher is never greater then a student.
MAI: How do you see the art progressing/going over the coming years, Do you want see Bukti Negara flourish and Serak to remain in the background as a closed door system?
PDT: My wish is that Bukti Negara when I’m not there anymore will be passed on to the next generations if that’s possible and with the help of god. Also my current PDT Board of Directors in Butki Negara and Serak will take care of that as I’ve asked them to safeguard Serak upon my passing.
It’s my wish that Pentjak Silat Pukulan Bukti Negara should be taught to the public and the PDT Board of Directors shall continue to advance the curriculum.
Serak on the other hand will always be a closed door system as I promised my uncle John as he promised his teacher Mas Jud.
Every teacher or uncle in our lineage of Serak made the same promise and we have to honour that. I know many ex students broke that promise, I’ve always asked them to keep Serak closed and teach Bukti Negara to the public. They are responsible for their own deeds there’s nothing I can do about it, it only makes me sad that through them I’ve broken my promise to my uncle John.
MAI: Uncle Paul thank you for the interview, I wish you every success with you upcoming European tour to further promote Bukti Negara.
PDT: You are welcome.