January 3, 2018

Under the Blade 2018

Shinnen Omedeto Gozaimasu!

2017 was a year of hard work and introspection for me personally. At the same time, the dojo and I trained diligently, gained some new students and friends, enjoyed our 18th annual Gasshuku, and had a rousing “forget the year” Bonenkai!

2018 is shaping up to be one of my most significant years ever. And there are two big reasons why. The first is the anniversary of my dojo—in 1998, I returned from Japan and founded the Bujinkan Shingitai-Ichi Dojo. What an auspicious time in that we just celebrated Hatsumi sensei’s 50th year anniversary of the founding of the Bujinkan Dojo Japan in 2017! It feels good to be in good company.

When I came home after training in Japan for nearly three years, I had no students and no prospects of acquiring any. But I had a name; a phrase that Hatsumi sensei himself had talked about earlier that year.

Shingitai-Ichi (心技体一致) is an embodiment of the moral-physical philosophy that is the martial way. More so, it’s a road map for training it. SHIN or “heart” refers to the moral essence of what makes martial arts relevant in this day and age—any day and age for that matter. GI, “technique,” refers to the refinement of strategic martial principles in constant flux. TAI, “body,” refers to reconciling our ethical bearing with martial tactics to keep one’s training and ability viable, or capable of preserving life. And I CHI, “harmonize,” refers to sustaining the anti-intuitive, almost paradoxical nature of martial arts with the equanimity one needs for life and times.

It has been a fantastic twenty years! I've met such incredible people (some of whom have been with me nearly the whole time!). I even met my wife because of training! So, I can say in earnest, I'm really looking forward to the next twenty! The second act is always the most intriguing!

The other reason I’m looking forward to 2018 is my first published work! The Protector Ethic: Morality, Virtue, and Ethics in the Martial Way releases on May 1, through YMAA Publication Center, and is available now for pre-order at Amazon.com!


The Protector Ethic

Pre-Order on Amazon.com
The Protector Ethic covers the moral-physical foundations of recognizing and embracing the “protector ethic”—the reason martial arts exist at all.

As a student and teacher of martial arts going on forty years, with a master’s degree in ethics from Loyola University Chicago, and holding a master instructor license for this ancient Japanese martial tradition, it is my contention that our personal ethics are more strongly rooted and thereby actionable when we habit our virtues through the physicality of martial training. This is perennially important because the fear of human conflict can lead to ethical nihilism.

People will tolerate dehumanizing cruelty, and as a general rule will give in and give up rather than defend themselves or others from attack, because the fear of conflict is a phobia.

Human nature will often contort itself just to avoid contact with its darker half—even ignore suffering and then lie about it afterward. This reality leads to ethical befuddlement as the seductive forces of moral relativism and ambivalence toward time-honored cultural values transforms that fear into phony virtues, like political correctness and voluntary victimhood.

But this kind of confused self-importance can cause us to shrink from the malevolence of this world, and in doing so we can actually appease evil by no longer prioritizing and protecting our universal values. Instead, we become willing to demean them through ignorance and dishonesty, which only coaches us toward the nihilistic ideals to hold contempt for the good and distrust for truth itself.

To combat this, I submit we must unlock the universal moral values intrinsic to our humanity, like the “protector ethic,” to stand up and defend ourselves and others who might not or cannot defend themselves.

It is developed by intuiting the principles of martial endeavor: honor, integrity, vigilance, and rectitude—nothing less than the immutable cardinal virtues backstopped by physical skills. Understanding the reciprocity of natural justice, temperance in our reasoning, and prudence in our judgment, provides, above all, the courage to act. This process begins when we ask ourselves a simple question: Why train? 

Why Train? 

Excerpts from The Protector Ethic:

“People come to the martial way for all kinds of reasons, some of them good, most of them not good enough. Others have watched too many action movies. A select few seek the supernatural, working hard to sound just like the gongfu master’s master whenever they open their mouths, which is often, far too often. Deceit is at its worst when we believe our own lies, so avoid those who talk like Yoda and move like Jabba. 
It took years for my own temperament to change, but that’s not just my story; it’s the life cycle of any serious martial artist. To break the mold of the form and enter the fray of the formless, where the real training takes place, you have to give up looking for answers. Only then can you do what must be done: ask better questions. You have to. Skills like exceptional punching and kicking only improves further once you understand and articulate an ethos for it. So you start with the question most avoid asking because they have a less-than-inspiring answer or, worse, none at all: Why? 
Why am I doing this?
Why should I learn any of this stuff?
Why train? 
Logic and reasoning can lead that inquiry. Other times a simple story convinces in a way argument cannot. Isn’t clarity the point? In fact, clear thinking on big questions begets bigger ones, like resolving right from wrong, deciding action from obligation, and facing up to the musts, oughts, and shoulds. If we’re going to use our bodies as weapons, and weapons as weapons, we’d better train our minds to discern wisdom from knowledge so we can act in the right way at the right time. Do this and avoid the worst possible fate, the one where we’re too late to make any difference.” 

Why train? is the single most important question that we can ask ourselves whether we are new and naïve to training or an old, grizzled veteran because it speaks to the connected tissue of the martial way itself and all of the myriad good reasons that intertwine our lives that we can identify and even some we cannot.

“Imagine training the chest-compression and breathing techniques of CPR but divorced from their purpose of saving lives. Without their purpose, why learn them? What’s the point of the skill if we’re training ourselves to be incapable of recognizing when it ought to be applied? In fact, without that “ought,” that sense of obligation, what makes it at all necessary? 
Some years ago I traveled to the West Coast for training at a weekend event. During one of the segments, I was called to the front to physically defend a fellow who was to be attacked. Now, I was a highly adept martial artist who’d been training since I was a kid, and I’d even lived in Japan for several years, getting my butt kicked by the very best teachers of my art. I was little concerned about defending anybody from anybody because I knew something the attacker did not: I was about to attack the hell out of him. 
The moment my protectee was threatened, I leaped into action with more than twenty years of expertise to thwart the assault. I remember feeling pretty satisfied as I loomed over the aggressor, now facedown in the dirt and dust, and twisted him into an airtight submission. I was proud of myself—I’d been called out before a crowd of my peers, so my aim was to impress, and I was pretty sure I had. I remember that moment as well as I remember the next: turning to confirm the safety of my protectee, only I couldn’t find him. He’d been silently nabbed by an unknown second attacker. Cue the laugh track for this fool. 
A teacher, mentor, and friend, Jack Hoban, arranged the fiasco. He had nothing against me; he was simply taking advantage of the chance to teach a larger lesson. And I have never forgotten that lesson. It laid bare the one thing no professional ever wants to admit he possesses: a weakness he wasn’t even aware he had. My confidence to serve up skill lacked the one thing truly necessary for right action: clarity of what I ought to do. My job, my role, in that moment was not about attacking an attacker. It was about defending someone, about safeguarding his life. It was about being a protector
After all my years of training and experience, you might think I should have already known this, that it would be second nature, a given. It was not. And it is not for many other professionals. In that crucial moment, I was convinced I was doing the right thing, but I was wrong. I was confused. And I failed. Instead of being a protector, I behaved like a thug. 
No one trains martial arts to get worse at martial arts. No one trains to gain less understanding and ability. Everyone trains to get better, gain comprehension, and enlighten themselves. Even weirdos dressed as Power Rangers who flood the net with claims of secret training from Master Cucamonga believe this through the fog of their own self-importance. In fact, it is this unanimous motivation to gain proficiency that’s translated into the variety of reasons folks train in martial arts. But real proficiency is contingent on a central truth: it must protect and defend a clear sense of obligation. It must know its ought.”

My hope is that I shed some light upon the trail of martial training that can sometimes become as unclear as the martial way itself. If you’d like some waypoints in figuring out your own sense of obligation, your own “ought,” pre-order a copy of The Protector Ethic.


Theme for 2018

The training theme of the Shingitai-Ichi Dojo will not only follow the themes laid out for us by Hatsumi sensei in 2018, but will also dive deeply into the “confront & subdue” context of taking the fight to those that would provide threat.

I’m calling this theme, “Undo the enemy” since it deals with taking a fight to an enemy preemptively, and placing ourselves in harm’s way to “undo” threats and overcome them accordingly.

Learning to do so is going to involve hard training, self-risk, and with that risk, the building of courage. And here is where I’ll end with another excerpt from The Protector Ethic that seems to say exactly what I mean here:

“I have a saying: good people who want to be better people get trained. One of the best ways to become someone who can do more for oneself and others is to train to be more martially able, because there is no better metric for one’s improvement than the ability to mitigate both inward and outward conflict. 
This is why every individual ought to endure martial training for some period, if only to reveal the profound ability its skills and philosophy have to empower our sense of self-worth. The protector ethic, to stand up and defend ourselves and others who might not or cannot defend themselves, is a habit-formed behavior. Carrying out this ethic is the heart of any martial art. 
Knowing we should do this, and knowing how to accomplish it, is the difference between accruing mere skill for reenactment and cultivating life-protecting habits. Should we learn the movements of CPR but devoid of their purpose? A sharper understanding of what is valuable affords acute mindfulness of what is moral—what we know we ought to protect. It provides recognition of and clarity regarding our obligations, and training becomes the direct action of our ethic. 
But when we, as this time’s undaunted defenders, neoteric teachers, and persevering guardians of this path, supplant this truth, we get confused: rather than training techniques to protect and defend life, we train a life to protect and defend techniques. 
If we are to do right by those in conflict, including ourselves, we must know that which unlocks the universal. We must apprentice in honor, integrity, vigilance, and rectitude as the keys to steadfast warriorship. This is nothing less than recognizing the reciprocity of natural justice, instilling temperance in our reasoning, and exhibiting prudence in our judgment, so we can, above all, have the courage to act. These cardinal virtues, at least as old as the Greek Stoics, make for the best map to the protector ethic because if we define ethics as moral values in action, then martial ethics are moral protector values in action.  
To pass on real knowledge and deliver it as wisdom, to teach the tactical and perceive the ethical, to be exposed to our naturally binding obligations and by them hold fidelity to their truth so that the next generation might protect and defend themselves and their families—I’d argue that’s nothing short of God’s work. 
If we are to fulfill this role, we must hold firm to this certainty: the martial way only lives once we treat it as something that can die.”

Have an inspired 2018!

~James 

February 13, 2017

Under the Blade 2017

Shinnen Omedeto Gozaimasu!

Happy New Year! 

Is it too late to say this? Perhaps. I’ve been hard at work on the new book, so I haven’t had much time. But the draft is in to the editor now, so I can take a break from writing that to write this. 

2016 was a great year for the dojo! We got new students, new digs, had great events, including our 17th annual Gasshuku with a record turnout!  And we went back to Japan with a crew in tow! Hell of a time. The best part of the trip was our four new Godans! Great stuff. 

2017 is shaping up nicely. The biggest news is the impending book. It looks like by the end of this year, you’ll be able to walk into your local bookstore and pick up a copy. I don’t have all the details yet—I can’t even release the title—as there’s still a lot of work to be done. Wish me luck. 

Theme for 2017

Last year’s training theme had to do with basics from the outside inward. This included all the principles of positioning, leverage, and initiative and how we could look at them through the lens of fundamental movements. This year, the theme remains, only we’ll be seeking the basics from the inside out. This will still include study of the principles, but from the standpoint of alignment, posture, and kamae. 

In our theme for internal basics, I’d also like to make room for some internal ethics. I’d like to offer a starting place for our ethical concerns that run tandem with our physical training – you can’t have one without the other and think yourself successful at either. 

My thoughts here for a basic ethic in 2017 is be honorable.  

Subjective Subjects

It is an immeasurably polarized time. I wish I could say it’s all due to a nasty Star Wars vs Star Trek debate America had with itself after it got drunk and stayed up too late, but folks paying attention know that isn’t true. It’s far more consequential than that.

Growing up, I can’t remember when our politics and values were so divided. The reason for the division is simple: subjectivity is overwhelming universal values. That’s it. If you don’t know what “subjectivity” is, don’t fret, actually you do, I’m just being fancy. 

It’s basically this: folks are placing their politics above their ethics

Politics are completely subjective, like a lunch you order on a Thursday. Who you voted for, if you voted at all, is your business and not up for debate. Do citizens have a duty to vote? Nope. None at all. And that’s a good thing in a country that ranks your liberty alongside your pursuit of happiness. That’s the beauty of subjectivity – caring only as much as you want to care. 

But ethics are not subjective, they’re objective - no one gets by without them. Literally everything you say and do, how you say and do it, and who it all affects is manifest in everyone’s life. How you treat yourself and others is a direct result of you as MVP of your ethical game. And if you’re alive, you’re playing that game with the rest of us, whether you like it or not.   

America’s Congressional votes over the last 50 years is a telling reminder that this subjective vs objective game is nothing new, it’s been played for years. The Washington Post published visual diagrams of the votes from 1949 through today and they’re stunning. Flipping through them quickly gives the appearance of mitosis cell division, when one whole becomes two distinct halves of red and blue.

Part of the problem is we all used to believe in the big stuff that bound us and squabbled over the details. We believed that despite its faults, America was fundamentally good, and its founding values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of your own happiness, held the potential for prosperity no matter who you were. 

But those beliefs are now too often challenged when so many make their mark by directly undermining that cultural narrative, whether that’s through extreme examples of collectivism or individualism. And unfortunately, this subjectivity is rearing itself all over the damn place like a friend who needed a place to crash for a few days and now its four months later.

Our media, social and otherwise, is now delivered to us as crafted outrage, like any potter shapes clay. Our righteousness is stoked from being told that justice is upside down in the world. But the world is now so interconnected we’re actually over-connected, as everyone is in everyone else’s business, which seems to beg our opinion about what everyone else is doing.

Unfashionable actions taken by regular folks are now caught on video to explode around the world and ruin lives. A lesson learned can no longer be a personal experience – it’s the end of you. Now that online clicks have been monetized, the world becomes a stage for documenting and inciting indignation and folks can literally strike it rich off the golden veins of others’ misery.

Contrarian protest is now a goddamn sacrament, even when its aims are aimless or contradictory, like those squelching free speech to protect free speech. To listen to some of these folks explain themselves comes off like kids explaining stuff in their patented un-punctuated, rambling incoherence. I can barely gather from them that if you’re not protesting then you don’t #care, and if you don’t #care then you #don’tmatter. Or something.

There is a palpable sense that our private lives are under siege, especially when what we intimately believe is smugly proclaimed to be unpopular and old-fashioned by nihilists, who have proudly proclaimed to have given up unpopular and old-fashioned beliefs like good and bad, and right and wrong. 

Perhaps the only thing to be done is abandon social media entirely, leaving loudmouths loudmouthing to empty seats. Surely this will become more popular as outrage tires us physically, drains us psychically, and leaves us spiritually hollow. 

Ethics Before Politics

On Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, just days after two armed, militant, and murderous Islamists were killed by Sheriffs when they stormed a “Draw the Prophet Mohammed” contest in Texas, the comedian said one of the few things that I have ever agreed with him on: 

It is not okay to shoot other people because you are offended by what they draw. Even if they drew it to offend you. No shooting of them. Never okay … You cannot shoot people because you don’t share their opinions. You cannot shoot people even if they offend you … Not even if those people specifically set out to provoke you. Responding to cartoons, or words, or ideas with violence is wrong … The violence just perpetuates the fear.

I especially liked his opener, “I can’t believe we have to reiterate this.” Indeed. I can’t believe it either. But here we are.

To this end, if you’re someone who’s easily offended by what others have to say politically, to the point where you take physical action to stop them from saying it, like protesting to destroy people or property, you are placing politics above ethics – you’re placing your feelings above the lives of others.

It’s a shitty thing to do and indicates that you are a lousy person, who clearly doesn’t get it. My advice is to cut it out before someone, bigger and stronger than you, places their ethic above your politic.

Stop placing politics above ethics. Here’s how: 

1.       Be honest. 
2.       Seek truth. 
3.       Clarify and Resolve
4.       Hold yourself accountable. 
5.       Stop dehumanizing.

Be Honest: Stop ignoring what is obviously the case, and worse, stop lying to others about it. Willful ignorance and worse, intellectual dishonesty, turn you into a fool or a fraud. Don’t be either.

Seek Truth: Once you decide to be honest, it becomes easier to seek truth, which is usually somewhere in the middle. Do you trust your side to be honest with you? You shouldn’t. Their talking points are scripted to keep you glued to them, which generally means keeping you outraged. In our dojo we have a saying, “When in doubt, make it harder.” If you’re a true believer in your agenda, because you think it better, righter, and truer, then you should challenge your agenda to make sure it really is. Listen to the best arguments from the other side. Do not trust your side to give the best of the other, be a big boy and go over there and hear and read it from them. It’s called making up your own damn mind and it’s a great habit. You may just learn something about yourself.

Clarify and Resolve: give your opinion only when and if it helps to clarify and resolve conflict. For some perspective on this, leave social media for a time – a day, a week, a month. You’ll be glad you did and be surprised upon return with the vitriol after cutting it from your diet. Then, if piping up in conversation, online or in real life, helps clarify a perspective or point, great. Pipe away. But if you’re someone who just spits gas on a garbage fire because you like the taste of gas and the smell of burning garbage, because you’re a garbage troll who lives under a bridge in a dump full of garbage with plenty of gas, you should quit training because you’re a shitty person and shitty people don’t deserve to train. 

Hold Yourself Accountable: if you’ve been consistently lied to by some media outlet, you should stop listening to them. If you’ve made things worse by your words, or your actions, you should apologize and then think twice, thrice, or frice, if you plan on doing it again. If you take part in a peaceful protest and it gets un-peaceful and blocks traffic to illegally detain people, or devolves into a riot, you should leave. You should not support financially or morally threats of violence, which is exactly what illegally detaining people implies, or any violence whatever against property or people, even if you think you’re really, really right. You aren’t. Cops have enough to deal with in a peaceful protest, let alone an un-peaceful one. And with you sticking around Instrgramming, you are endangering their lives because they have no idea if you mean them harm or not, so you become just one more element in a host of others elements they have to account for to protect themselves and others. Stop putting your politics above your ethics because this is exactly what you believe others are doing to you. Want to make the world a better place today? Start with yourself. 

Stop Dehumanizing: this is easily first, but I thought I’d end on it. Stop demonizing the other side. Stop calling them evil. Stop calling them sub-human. Stop calling them Nazis, racists, or fascists if they are clearly not those things and here’s a hint: most of the time they are not. They are folks, just like you, who are impassioned about what they believe, even if you think that what they believe is fundamentally flawed (it may be). Our emotions can get the best of us, though the best of us do not let their emotions do that – and you shouldn’t either.

The Ties That Bind Us

Recently, I was counseling a friend, troubled because he felt some of his students were not clear thinking, holding beliefs and propagating values that he felt were antithetical to training itself. I reminded him to not be so sincere. No teacher should endeavor to make certain that every student sees the world like they do. Or that everyone is as comprehensive in their views as we might believe we are. Good people regularly live with contradictions in their beliefs. But this isn’t something we should be overly concerned about and there’s a good reason why: as martial artists we share far more together than we may think we do.

To some extent he was on to something because martial training takes certain things for granted. For instance: life has value and meaning. And that value and meaning is unequivocal - it is the normative source of all the concerns we might have in navigating the world, including decisions regarding morals and ethics. And when that compass needle deviates, even one degree, from that magnetic North, everything gets fucked up and confusing. All people who train and endeavor to train must understand at least on some basic level that life is worth protecting. If they did not think this, why train physically to protect it? 

The concern here is that there is no shortage of subjectivity because when these relative concerns supersede universal ones we’re left with contradictions that stoke conflict.

Take freedom and equality - two mutually exclusive concepts that protect each other, as our founders discovered. Equality means our lives are of equal value and demand and deserve respect. This universal value means no one has the right to take advantage, harm, or kill us for their own subjective beliefs, like someone who tramples you to get their lunch order in first. Freedom is the liberty to pursue whichever subjective beliefs, like lunch orders or politics, we find valuable, provided they do not violate our equality. These concepts complement each other and make America, America, and not North Korea. They share a nice balance because their purpose is contingent upon such balance.  

But re-define equality from life, to "outcome," a subjective economic concern in which everyone must receive the same results, no matter what they want, who they want it from, or what values they conflict with, we wind up out of balance and lose our freedom. Re-define equality from an objective to a subjective value and it is no longer compatible with freedom. It causes conflict because economically defined equality infringes on liberty - folks cannot side with their values when they conflict with other people’s values. 

If you think a devout Christian should be coerced by force of law to disregard their beliefs to take part in events antithetical to their value system, I hope you’re consistent enough to agree that a devout atheist, or a devout humanist, or a devout Muslim should be coerced by that same law to take part in events that are antithetical to their beliefs. Equality of outcome means uniform results, which means tossing that First Amendment right to free association (or dis-association) because our freedom to value and believe as we see fit is now outlawed.  

Without equality defined objectively, we cannot enjoy our subjective freedom. And when a state sponsored entity compels us through force to do something antithetical to our values—values that are not in violation of our equality—then we are being taken advantage of. And if we are being taken advantage of, we are not being treated as equal human beings. This is where justice is flipped on its head to serve the “just-us” subjectivists.

Honor the Honorable

Actual justice, applied virtuously and impartially, begets the righteousness that aspires toward a moral resolution because it preserves the universal values for all involved, not just the few under conflict. When Republican president Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, legally freeing slaves held in the Confederate states at the height of America’s Civil War, it was a long overdue act of righteous justice precisely because it reaffirmed dignity for their lives—and dignity for life itself—overruling any slave’s institutionalized dehumanizing station, one that had for generations been societally established as moral and just. 

Recognition of worth for the innocents/innocence among us, resolves any question of worth for all of us. In this way authentic justice stands in direct opposition to subjectivity and its claims to morality, which only drains justice of its force.  

The voracious nature of human need for morality, equity, and righteousness, exposed by our miserable misfires at them, doubles down on the importance for martial artists, warriors, and protectors, and anyone who deals with conflict, to know natural justice as a virtue, so as to best understand the essence of the moral-physical philosophies that both guide and bind us. 

All the questions we might have about whether people are equal to each other, whether we should treat each other fairly, how we should understand each other, come down to the warrant of our argument – does it respect life? If so, then we can articulate the right reasons, enact the right policies, invoke the right rights, value the right morals, and act on the right ethics, all because we’re dialed in to true justice. Everything hinges on it. 

The martial way is simply a physical extension of our Natural Law, that sense that life ought to be protected. No matter where you stand politically, or what your beliefs are, if you embrace this “protector ethic,” then you embrace the idea that your life is worth protecting, and if it’s worth protecting, it’s worth defending physically, if necessary. 

So no matter how far you believe a person with the opposite set of beliefs or politics stands from you, if you both agree on the protector ethic, then you are not as far away from them, or they from you, as you might think. 

Celebrate this. Revel in it - universals always dispel the small-minded. We can squabble over the details, but the big stuff that binds us should always come first. Strengthen your ties to others by treating them by what you know is the truth.

When we recognize this, we are better able to feel where honor comes from. Constancy in acting upon this makes one honorable. 

Here’s to a prosperous 2017!

~James