Some musings: What’s in a name?

What is Nasruun?  What is “Bunga Lima”?  What’s the stuff you do- Silat? Kuntaw maybe? “Pangalay combatives”?  Why the blades (kalis, barung, budjak, etc.)?  Why the graceful, “dance-like” yet brutal execution to personal defense?  A myriad of queries; for quite some time (actually- relatively quite a long while at that…), I have dabbled with a lesser known fighting art from the Southern Phils. (coming from several ‘empty-hand’ martial-arts), a secretive survival art practiced by one of the most intrepid and ferocious tribes the Phil. Isles has ever known- that of the Tausug Moros from the Sulu Archipelago.  Now, lesser known (or secretive) never meant ”ineffective”; on the contrary- the knowledge these fighters have, had always been hidden from prying eyes, and was always the stuff of whatever tales were ever talked about them.  Some of its most basic ‘offshoots’ were even transformed into arts on their own merits (Pangalay dances/langkahs, Kuntaw lima lima, etc.).  Just do a cursory search on Google, and you’ll know what I’m pertaining to- voluminous texts, books, information on the Tausugs- more often, from foreign sources, sadly.  Several books on these Moros were by renowned athlete, soldier and author Vic Hurley, and will give one an intimate profile of how these warriors were grudgingly respected by American soldiers, no less (it pains me to realize that obviously- foreigners seem to actually have much more respect, awe and admiration to the martial prowess these men have as warriors, and not the Pinoy locals; quite understandable, I think, as the wrath these Tausug Moros and their cohorts meted to the locals during then, in their battles against the Spanish, was rather horrendously bloody.

But- I digress; these are matters for history buffs to debate endlessly (forever, even).  Again- what’s in a name?  Well, as I replied to a curious FB acquaintance asking about Nasrun’s meaning as well as what the group does, Nasrun Min’ Allah is Arabic for “Swift Victory- with God’s help”.  Do understand- Tausug’s are Muslims by tradition and close to Malaysia by virtue of Sabah as well as via trade, thus- the Tausug would intersperse Melayu, Arabic and Tausug vernacular, especially when discussing various things, from the mundane to the life-changing.  In this instance, my guro’s naming his group/martial brotherhood, ‘Nasrun Min’ Allah.   So- what about the Bunga Lima terminology? Back to my answering the FB acquaintance, I replied that Nasrun Min’ Allah (NM) is a Martial Brotherhood focused on the preservation of the Tausug’s survival arts & martial knowledge, locally known as ‘Bunga Lima’- just a simple, generic term to connote fighting or combat arts.

Now- one might ask: is this Silat? Is this Kuntaw? My personal point of view and answer- No.  What I know is, this is a combat art I learned from Salip Harun Ladjah, a Tausug born in Parang, Sulu.  Is this a tribal/traditional art- Yes, precisely because the art espouses cultural aspects solely performed by the Tausug natives from God knows when, with terms and a mind-set uniquely their own.  Is this similar to Silat and/or to Kuntaw? The answer: Maybe/Perhaps– as centuries of regular interactions/inter-trading have proven, assimilation/absorption of various skills/knowledge may and can have lasting influence on peoples, thus the potential resemblances.  But- this is where the identity and/or flavor now come into play.  The Tausug Moro mindset from the earliest recorded history of their forays into various battles to this day, have been known as quite ‘distinct’, with their ferocity and blade skills hugely acknowledged as a very deadly combo of expertise, tactics, and vicious straightforwardness.

The terms “Silat” or ‘Kuntaw’ historically used to identify  Tausug combat movements were just indifferently (or casually) accepted “as is”, given the similarities; to this effect, it can naturally be supposedly deduced, that the ‘Martial Arts’ side of the Tausug Moros were consequently seen as indeed, Kuntaw and/or Silat, etc., just so to put a “name” to the various fighting arts/techniques/tactics done by them.  Yet as I belatedly found out- this premise and understanding was very much incorrect: older, traditional Tausugs, especially from the mountains and gimba (jungle), when asked what they really use to defend themselves, give this simple answer: BUNGA LIMA, translated as Combat/Fighting Arts, and- goes much, much deeper than that.

So- how now the usage of the terms “Silat” and/or “Kuntaw”?  Again, the major culprit to this confusion: BRANDING.  During the days of Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons fighting- were there really ‘names’ or ‘brands’ to their fighting and/or killing methods? Or were these simply thrusts, hacks, slashes, smashes, with the intent to overcome? Well, coming from that perspective, I believe no “art” has a monopoly on how movement is to be expressed, and/or how movement is to be used in combat.  A case in point- boxing is as ancient as early humans (from way back to early recorded history, like ancient Sumer, etc.)- a ‘punch’ may mean the same action but with differing executions based on differing martial interpretations.  So goes with the Tausug and their fighting arts (and maybe, even other ‘tribal arts’ that never yet succumbed to popularity or commercialization).  Salip Harun, who never reached high school levels due to the 70s Mindanao conflict, will just say “Pinjak” na, when executing graceful, dancelike techniques (or when focusing on something internal (kadim)), and “Kuntaw” na, when fluidly doing hard, empty-hand strikes.  But when pressed as to what we were doing re the totality of the various techniques, he will flash his toothless grin and just say: “bunga lima” lang.  On a personal note, during my stay in Sulu, there was much confusion on my end initially, as early on, I used to think I indeed was learning “Suluanon/Joloano Silat” as taught by him, coming from his fighting experiences and war exploits.  Only when I really went deep in practice through the years that it hit me: it’s not so much as ‘learning’ but “absorbing” the art and making it ‘one’ with yourself, through intent, seamless movement, focus.

Which now brings me back to Nasrun and Bunga Lima; what is it really? Simply put- Bunga Lima is Tausug Survival Combatives- the Tausug ethos of a combat survival art as understood and practised by the Nasrun Min’ Allah brotherhood.  It is direct and aggressive precisely due to its brutal emphasis on survival and the necessary survival mind-set, ensuring that intercepting intents/strikes is accurate and ruthlessly executed to various vital points with a variety of weapons and/or empty handed techniques.  Fluid movement with focused intent is emphasized, stressing the natural yet merciless counter-reactions to strikes/counter strikes of multiple opponents (I’d like to think this ‘overkill’ mind-set was a carry-over of the “melee combat/fighting” during the olden days of raiding, Parang-sabil forays, etc.).  As mentioned, it may have similarities to Melayu or even Indonesian ‘Silat’ due to shared beliefs or whatever, yet it remains very much distinct from these, due to its personal nature and non-adherence to lineage, with absolute stress on “owning one’s movements”, thus- making this art as personalized as one can/is able to, in order to adapt to a variety of violent encounter/s and/or environment/s.  And- while ‘Silat’ is being attributed by our Melayu/Indon brothers as a means to attaining ‘spiritual connection’ transcending the physical, in an internal and/or deeper context, BUNGA LIMA sees this similar type of ‘connection’ as the sphere that envelopes every movement.

Templates are technically freestyle forms with or without a blade, akin to Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), seriously visualizing multiple antagonists/opponents and moving with that focus, as if “fighting”- making these simultaneous acts of meditation & flowing movement, ensuring seamlessness & non-hesitation: quite the opposite of the very controversial (and totally misunderstood) ‘juramentado’ mentality.

On the ‘softer side’, combative forms are also practiced via the graceful Pangalay langkah (dance), with flowing moves mimicking various combative strikes but with a critical purpose: that of being absorbed, prayerful, the acceptance of universality yet cognizant of total respect to the “basih” (blade) weapons as ‘souls (nyawa) from within’ (achieving ‘oneness/solidarity of intent/purpose’), owning potential kills, understanding the need for mercy over wrath, and- accepting death as a “normal” outcome.  There are admittedly internal (kadim) and/or spiritual connotations to these, but- that’s another story, as this ‘dance’ is just not about showing movements, skill, techniques, etc., but- as “expressions” of one’s belief/faith, as experienced through dreams/visions, at times even beyond one’s comprehension.

So- what to me is NM’s Bunga Lima? A “way of life” so to speak (very cliché, I know…); a path to understanding one’s “self”, psyche, and the trueness of being a ‘modern warrior’ in today’s chaotic environs, along with the continuous development to one’s character.  It is the means of ‘bridging the gap’, to reliving the ancient ilmu kamaasan of the Tausugs, and applying these to the present.


Justin Villanueva (with insights from Mr. Halman Abubakar)