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Mushrooms, the Hwarang & the Martial Arts

by Paul Stamets

Mushrooms, the Hwarang and the martial arts

Paul Stamets demonstrating a spinning heel kick
Paul Stamets demonstrating a spinning heel kick (a signature kick of the art of Hwarang Do) with friend George, Chiapas, Mexico, 1999. Photo by Dusty Wu Yao.

Martial arts, particularly those Asian in origin, sprung from cultures which held medicinal plants in high esteem. Mushrooms proved to be a rich source of sustenance, providing medicine, dyes and potent poisons. Popes and kings have been assassinated with toxic mushrooms and according to legend, Buddha died from eating a mushroom. Wood conk mushrooms (Inonotus obliquus and Fomes fomentarius) were some of the few natural remedies for combating viral and bacterial diseases such as tuberculosis as well as an agent for a variety of cancers. In several native societies, mind-altering mushrooms have traditionally been used by warrior priests for heightening awareness, for vision quests and for foretelling the future. A few primatologists have even speculated that magic mushrooms may have been the stimulus for the divergence of proto-hominids from our ape-like ancestors into the lineage that led to Homo erectus, and then Homo sapiens. As extraordinary as some of these claims may seem, the body of undeniable evidence underscores the pivotal role mushrooms have played in the progression of human history. Recent discoveries further validate what our ancestors have long understood: mushrooms hold within them the very power of life and death.

Consistent with the Western tradition of the Doctrine of Signatures, Asian cultures give great significance to the natural form. The shape of the medicinal plant symbolized its medicinal potency or spiritual power. Ginseng is one example—the forms most valued are those resembling the shape of human body. To many native cultures, the cap and stem of mushrooms symbolized fertility, the union of male and female organs, the interface between the underworld and heaven, and the harmony of the forces of nature.

Of all the organisms in the natural environment, mushrooms stood out as having the greatest potential for use by elite warriors. Those who were familiar with their properties included them as powerful tools to their survival arsenal. Although much of the traditional knowledge has been lost, many of the claims made over the centuries are now being validated by Western medicine. Mushrooms are now being systematically explored by pharmaceutical companies in the desperate search for new medicines, especially antibiotics.

Scanning electron micrograph of mushroom mycelium
Scanning electron micrograph of mushroom mycelium, magnified approximately 500 times (Photo by Paul Stamets)

The Earth's Internet: Mushroom Mycelium

Most mushrooms form, grow and disappear in a few days. Their sudden appearance is brief in contrast to the resident form, the mushroom mycelium. The mycelium is the cobwebby stuff (actually composed of fine interwoven microscopic strands) that is seen when a mushroom is picked in the woods. The mycelium can live for years, even centuries, and in one case we know of, for more than a millennium. When the right weather conditions prevail, mushrooms suddenly emerge from this mycelial net. The entire Earth's land-mass, with few exceptions, is connected by colonies of overlapping mycelial mats, all within the first four inches of top soil. A cubic inch of soil can have up to one mile of mycelium threaded through it. This mycelial network is the global ecological interface, an inherent but natural Internet, which senses and is crucial to the health of the Earth's life support systems. I believe mycelium is an innate form of intelligence for what the mycelium does, and its ability to adapt, and the products it provides for repairing ecosystems, suggests far more than a disinterested organism of casual importance. Mycelium existed in the primordial sea when life first began. We share a closer ancestry with fungi far more so than with bacteria. Our distant, yet common origin may be why fungally derived antibiotics can be used to fight infections without harming human hosts.

My own research initially centered on growing mycelium to produce gourmet and medicinal mushrooms. The process of mycelial growth has given some surprising additional benefits. We are well on the road to proving their usefulness in breaking down petroleum-based toxic wastes, filtration of gray-water contamination of water sheds, immune-stimulation and as anti-carcinogens, and initiating habitat recovery. No other organisms on this planet have a greater potential for healing endangered environments within a relatively short time. These interface organisms are the springboard for renewal of vast regions devastated by catastrophes. Once the mycelium permeates the environment, moisture retention is enhanced, nutrients are released, insects are attracted, birds come, seeds are distributed, reforestation is initiated, and the ecosystem begins to recover. Fungi are the keystone species which make these processes flourish.

Paul Stamets in a
Paul Stamets in a "relaxed ready" stance, Costa Rica, 2002. Photo by Dusty Wu Yao.
Note eye contact focused on point of impact
Note eye contact focused on point of impact.

The Hwarang and the Mudang

Mushrooms can also empower martial artists. In ancient Korea, the Hwarang (the "Flowering Knights") were a warrior elite, trained in the warring arts as well as philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and herbology. After the unification of the Korean peninsula, during the period known as the Yi Dynasty (1392-1910), the warring arts of the Hwarang retreated into Buddhist sanctuaries where they were preserved. Prominent within many Buddhist temples are representations of medicinal mushrooms, particularly Ganoderma lucidum, also known as Ling Chi, the Mushroom of Immortality, and the Tree of Life Mushroom.

A carved wooden Ganoderma lucidum
A carved wooden Ganoderma lucidum, several hundred years old, residing in a Buddhist Lama temple near Beijing, China (Photograph courtesy of Jeff Chilton)

Hermit warrior-priests become legendary, living in solitude, often in mountainous regions where many of these mushrooms flourished. When the Japanese invaded the Korean peninsula in the 16th century, two warrior priests San Dae Sa and Sam Yung Dang, organized a Buddhist-based Hwarang army which successfully repelled the Japanese invaders. The Hwarang again disbanded and was preserved only through traditions established within the Buddhist temples.

A natural alliance was forged between the Korean Mudang, shamans who were more often women than men, with the Buddhist Hwarang. The Mudang also chose to live a life of solitude in harmony with the natural world. When invading armies would attack Korean villages, the summary execution of officials, and especially the medicine women, upon whom the villagers so depended, was a pre-requisite for the forcible enslavement of the local population. The Buddhist Hwarang warrior could protect the Mudang, and the knowledge of the use of medicinal plants amassed over the centuries, essential for the culture's survival, could be preserved. We know very little about the dynamics of these relationships - there are only vague hints buried in historical texts.

Forest Fungi: Potent Allies to the Martial Artist

I am listing a few of the more prominent mushroom species which can greatly help the martial artist on their path to perfection. Most of these species are further discussed in Growing Gourmet & Medicinal Mushrooms. (1993, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley). Another book I recommend is Christopher Hobbs' Medicinal Mushrooms (1995, Botanica Press, Santa Cruz). For the visionary mushrooms, I recommend my latest book, Psilocybin Mushrooms of the World: An Identification Guide (1996, Ten Speed Press). Probably the best general guide to identifying the widest range of mushrooms is David Arora's Mushrooms Demystified (1986, Ten Speed Press.)

For the purposes described here, I am describing just 5 of the more important mushroom species, selected for the properties most valuable to the martial artist community. Some of the more prominent species are wood conks or polypores. Wood conks are also called shelf mushrooms because of their appearance. Their underbellies have thousands of pores rather than the gills you see on the underside of store-bought button mushrooms. Yet another group of mushrooms have teeth. These mushrooms are widely distributed throughout the world. Most field guides have pictures of them. (Now, here is the forever repeating WARNING: Never eat a mushroom unless it has been positively identified.) Since hunting mushrooms can be hit-or-miss, I enjoy cultivating them which gives me a constant supply. In either case, armed with some basic mycological knowledge, the martial artist will come to know mushrooms as powerful allies. For many, mushrooms also seem to satisfy a hunger of the spirit. They embody and reflect the beauty of nature, time, and for some a window into the dimensions of immortality.

The Polypores

Polypore mushrooms are usually hard and are attached to trees. Amazingly, all polypores—as far as we know—are edible. That is, if you could chew them. They are typically tough and even wood-like. However, they can be boiled and made into a rich soup. The 5300 yr. old Ice Man who was discovered in the fall of 1991 on the border of Austria and Italy, packed three polypore species with him, inferring that he considered them essential to his trek over the Alps. When dried, they are excellent as punk for the starting fires and for keeping embers alive over long distances. The smoke from burning polypores is exceptional at driving away biting insects. Although some shamans in Amazonian Ecuador smoke polypores for religious experiences, we have no idea what the causal compounds may be. Polypores as a group are comparatively benign compared to their gilled cousins, many of whom are poisonous.

Polypores are also resplendent with antibacterial compounds and are good for making into a poultice should you get cut and/or get an infection. These same antibiotics make mushrooms resistant to rot. Recent research has shown that powdered Ganoderma mushrooms can help correct a variety of skin disorders. In a similar application, a chemist has recently discovered that the brown staining mushrooms are particularly good at curing rashes from poison oak and poison ivy.

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Ganoderma lucidum
Reishi or Ling Chi
"Mushroom of Immortality"

Range: Distributed throughout the southern United States, Japan, Korea and vast region of China. Ganodermas seem ubiquitous, thriving wherever trees grow. They often have a shiny, lacquered surface which is especially shiny when wet.

Medicinal Properties: Anti-arthritic, increases absorption of oxygen, increases stamina, anti-tumor, and recent research in Seoul by Dr. Byong Kak Kim (college of Pharmacy, Seoul National University) shows that extracts of this mushroom prevents the death of lymphocytes from HIV and inhibits the replication of this virus. Triterpenoids—steroid-like compounds—have also been detected in extracts of this mushroom. Ganoderma lucidum has also shown promise in fighting Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS).

Method of Preparation: Dried, powdered and used in tea form, usually 2-5 grams per serving, two to three times per day. (Do not drink more than two cups 4 hours or sooner prior to desired sleep time as they seem to have a stimulating effect.)

Comments: Himalayan guides use this mushroom to combat altitude sickness. Sages believed the mind and body were fortified with regular ingestions of this mushroom, bestowing the name "Mushroom of Immortality". For nearly two thousand years, Ganoderma lucidum has been the object of adulation, and is reflected in hundreds of paintings. Buddhists had a particular affection for Ling Chi, embellishing their temples with various forms of this highly variable fungus.

I cultivate many varieties of Ganoderma lucidum. Their beauty and forms are timeless, striking a deep chord in many who are awestruck by the fruitings in my growing rooms. They can be grown indoors or outdoors, and generally prefer warm, sub-tropical climates. They are primarily hardwood saprophytes. Some species grow on conifers. AlthoughGanoderma lucidum is the most well known, many other relatives have medicinal properties, but they are less studied.

As a martial artist, I find that this mushroom increases endurance, especially respiration, and relieves pain in the joints. Many people suffering from arthritis have been emphatic in their belief this mushroom helps. A study at the Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, Texas found that Ganoderma lucidum extracts favorably compared to the commonly prescribed drugs for alleviating arthritis. But the added advantage with this mushroom was that there were no side effects, while the associated side effects from prescription drugs is a well known problem.

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Grifola frondosa
Maitake
"Dancing Mushroom"
Hen of the Woods

Range: Grifola frondosa grows in the temperate mountainous regions of Japan, in northeastern North America through the Midwest. Preferring exclusively hardwoods, especially oaks and elms, this mushroom appears in the late summer through early fall. Favorite places to collect this mushroom include colonial graveyards where stately oaks reside.

Medicinal Properties: Anti-viral, anti-tumor, anti-diabetic and also the subject of research against HIV, this mushroom is a delicious, soft-fleshed polypore with excellent nutritional properties. Of all the polypores currently being studied,Grifola frondosa is attracting considerable attention from the pharmaceutical industry, especially in Korea and Japan. Several causal compounds appear to be at play.

When I started eating Maitake three times a week, I did not fall sick for three years. I got a lot mileage out of this statement, but, then I got a cold, although mild and short-lasting. Now I am approaching the beginning of my 5th year....that's in stark contrast to getting ill several times a year, my previous pattern. My body hungers for the taste of this mushroom, which I think is a reflection of its inherent beneficial properties. I like combining Maitake, Shiitake and Reishi to triple stimulate the immune system.

Method of Preparation: 5 grams (dry weight; 40 grams wet weight) tea, soups, or dehydrated and stir-fried in olive oil, with onion, garlic, chives, and tamari.

Comments: Maitake is one of my very favorite mushrooms. The transformations it undergoes from gray mounds, labyrinthine folds, petals, and leaflets is a one of Nature's great displays of grace and being. This mushroom is a great candidate for growing on the thousands of hardwood stumps spread across the midwest. We grow Maitake indoors and have developed several good fruiting strains from mushrooms collected in the wild.

Teethed Fungi

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Hericium erinaceus
Yamabushitake
Monkey's Head

Range: Widespread throughout the hardwood forests of the world, including eastern and mid-western North America, and vast regions of central Europe and Asia. This mushroom is also called Bear's Head, and looks like a tuft of snow-white cascading icicles on downed trees or stumps.

Medicinal Properties: Commonly prescribed for stomach ailments and for cancer prevention, this mushroom was once reserved only for the palates of the royal families. Recently a group of Japanese researchers have patented an extraction process which isolates a NGSF (Nerve Growth Stimulant Factor). They found a compound in Hericium erinaceus which causes brain neurons to regrow, a feat of great significance in potentially helping senility, repairing neurological degradation, increasing intelligence and improving reflexes.

Method of Preparation: 8 grams dried or 100 grams fresh. Deliciously edible, imparting a lobster-like flavor, this mushroom is formed of cascading icicle-like teeth. Also, high in protein and vitamins. I typically stir fry these mushrooms, or slice and dry them, adding the slices to a soup base later.

Comments: This mushroom is easy to identify and can sometimes be found in huge quantities. Closely related and equally edible species include Hericium coralloides and Hericium abietis. Most field guides have good photographs of these species. A soft, delicate and often water-soaked mushroom, it's best to cook them fresh. . If drying, slice the mushrooms into dials and dry. Seal in a plastic bag until use. If thoroughly dry, these dials are also flammable.

Gilled Mushrooms

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Lentinula edodes
Shiitake
Xiang Gu

Range: Native to Asia (China, Malaysia and Japan) on hardwoods. The cultivation of Shiitake is central to Japanese and Asian culture. Even today, thousands of villagers and farmers grow Shiitake on hardwood logs.

Medicinal Properties: A derivative of a cell wall sugar, called lentinan, has been licensed by the Japanese National Cancer Institute as an injectable anti-cancer drug. It also has been extensively studied for its cholesterol reducing, and anti-viral properties.

Method of Preparation: 2-4 ounces fresh; 5-11 grams dried, then rehydrated for use. A mushroom commonly available in most major cities, Shiitake are one of the best tasting of all medicinal mushrooms. When well cooked, the mushrooms impart a meaty flavor. Simple method is to stir-fry with olive oil, onions, sliced almonds served over rice or fish. Fresh thinly sliced Shiitake is traditionally served with miso in soups.

Comments: To be Japanese is to grow Shiitake. This mushroom is so central to the Japanese cultural identity that its cultivation is largely funded by their government to keep the industry alive, while wood supplies have diminished to precarious levels and consumption has soared. China, the first to cultivate shiitake, has rapidly become the largest exporter in the world. Shiitake can be grown indoors or outdoors. Outdoor cultivation traditionally uses hardwood logs which are impregnated with spawn. Hardwood logs with dense barks are preferred. One to two years after inoculation, fruitings begin and continue for several years thereafter.

Insect Parasitizing Mushrooms

The Cordyceps mushroom
Photo courtesy of Takeshi Nakazawa

Cordyceps sinensis
Caterpillar Fungus
Dong Chong Xia Cao

Range: Grows throughout China and southeast Asia. Also a favorite diet of the yaks, villagers and farmers collect the infected larvae at dawn, when, at a particular angle of sunlight causes dew drops forming on the heads of the infected larvae to become iridescent. The particular characteristic refractive sparkle from each dew drop allows each larva to be picked from the mosaic of tall grasses. Many Cordyceps species parasitize insects and are widespread throughout the temperate regions of the world, of which Cordyceps capitata is a prominent member.

Medicinal Properties: Used to treat lymphoma, and variety of other cancers. Hot water extracts of this fungus have compounds which relax the bronchial passages, enhancing respiration. At a recent mycological conference, a group of Japanese researchers showed that water extracts of this mushroom dilated the right atrium by 40% under stress. The increase in blood flow would benefit muscles pushed to their maximum, and greatly add to endurance. A clinical study with sexually dysfunctional men found that 64% improved in performance from ingesting a gram per day.

This mushroom has made sports headlines. At the Chinese National Games in 1993, a team of nine Chinese women runners shattered 9 world records, with the 10,000 meter run broken by an unprecedented 42 seconds. Recently a marathon "road-runner" called me to report that he was able to cut 25 minutes off the Boston Marathon in one month using this mushroom in a tea.

Method of Preparation: 2-5 grams of Caterpillar Fungus (10-25 larvae) boiled in water for 1-3 minutes, allow to cool, steep, divide into thirds and drink total every 4-6 hours. (If allowing to sit overnight, refrigerate, then re-boil for 1 minute before use.) One should drink the tea the day of expected strenuous activity, at least 1-2 hours before the event begins. Those using monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors or suffering from heart disease should consult a physician before using this fungus.

Comments: Cordyceps sinensis is parasitic on insect larvae. Its spores infect the larvae, the mycelium invades throughout its body, kills it, and then out-pops a dark club-like mushroom from the back of its head. The flavor is good and despite the appearance of dead larvae with a black club sticking out of it, you can grow quite fond of this bizarre fungus. Caution is advised as the long term effects of this fungus has not been fully studied.

Final Thoughts

I recommend ingesting medicinal mushrooms 3 times a week as a regimen. For endurance training, Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) and Caterpillar Fungus (Cordyceps sinensis) are the best candidates. For competition, I recommend preparing a tea made of these mushrooms and ingesting it one to two hours prior to the event. Presently, none of these mushrooms are listed as disqualifying performance-enhancing drugs, nor are they illegal. We sell many of these mushrooms, both in dried form and in our customized tea. For more information on these products, consult our catalog of Host Defense® mushroom supplements.

For general health, Shiitake (Lentinula edodes) and Maitake (Grifola frondosa) combine well and can be eaten daily. Lion's Mane (Hericium erinaceus) is a delicacy and should be enjoyed at every possible opportunity. These mushrooms are but a few of the approximately one hundred species presently being surveyed for their health-stimulating properties.

These mushrooms are discussed in Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms.

Downward striking hatchet kick

Paul Stamets
Black Belt, 1st degree Taekwon Do
Half-Black, Hwarang Do
Student of Erik Remmen, Bob Duggan,
Taejoon Lee and Dr. Joo Bang Lee
Instructor under Erik Remmen,
Northwest Hwarang Do Association
Olympia, Washington, USA
28th June 1996

Downward striking hatchet kick

Flying side kick
Paul Stamets demonstrating a flying side kick through 3 1-inch pine boards, circa 1979 (as if you couldn't tell from the hair styles!)

If you would like more information on the art of Hwarang Do, please consult the Web sites of

The World Hwarang Do Association

and Master Henry Lee's West Coast Hwarang Do.

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