January 29, 2015

The Polite Absurdity

A dear friend's wife was mugged recently here in Chicago right on the street in the afternoon outside her building by two thugs who pointed a gun at her. They took her phone, wallet, and purse and left her terrified and sobbing. 

The scariest realization: when she left her loving husband and two-year old that morning, he did not expect to hear from her for several hours - she could have been bleeding to death on a dirty sidewalk and never been the wiser. 

The question arose, could anything have been done differently to alter the outcome?

The likely answer is, no. In that moment of truth, when a gun is pointed at your heart, you comply in the hope the gun will not go off. The context of the brazen incident - daytime on a busy street - may have shielded her or even provided some sense of security, but this can never be relied on - had they gunned her down, we'd be appalled by the senselessness, but surprised? Not here in Chicago where the violence is a never-ending game in overtime with players, refs, and attendees emotionally spent and numb to atrocity. 

But the overall answer is, yes, and here's why. It was only later she commented to her husband that when she first noticed the two young black males approaching her on the sidewalk, she knew something wasn't right. 

Now you can take that for what it's worth. You can jolt upright and yell she "profiled" them, that here's just another white woman making snap judgments and preconceived notions - bigoted and racist even - upon two young men, who most probably in any other situation would never mean her any harm. That may, in fact, be the case. It's just that in this particular case it was not. 

When she saw these two men an internal voice of warning spoke up. And according to her, she was, in fact, about to listen to it and cross the street - she had the time and space to jaywalk across traffic. She was well aware of the moment in which she could act. And then she decided not to.

One can only speculate as to why she did not - there could be a hundred reasons. But if I think plainly on the matter and reflect upon my own and others' similar experiences, the answer is simple. She is a well-educated, liberal woman (who is positively lovely) and another voice was present with her that day, a louder one, more critical of the reason that first spoke up. This new voice told her to ignore that first pang of common sense, perhaps ascribing it the motives of soft bigotry that far too often in our America today labels the thoughts, words, and deeds of others, with whom we disagree. 

Being the nice, polite woman she is, she would never dream of hurting the feelings of strangers just trying to make their way in the world. And perhaps on some level, reflecting our national conversation on race at present, she did not want to appear in the least bigoted and/or racist for crossing a street to avoid an encounter (I have since confirmed this with her husband, it was exactly what she was thinking). And so she gave them the benefit of doubt. And it was this "noble" feeling that took precedence over a gut instinct trying desperately to warn her she should act now to protect herself. These young men had made her a victim. But I hate to ask, have we already victimized ourselves by capitulating to an unreasonable standpoint we have no need to acknowledge

We have reached the point of farce when compassion and empathy causes regular folks to tacitly risk their own and others' safety so as not to potentially hurt the feelings of others. This polite absurdity is the practical effect of the kind of impotent drive to "do something" and force solutions upon situations out of everyone's control, like trying to paint a house burning itself to the ground. 

It's a sad state when our social and political arguments all too often end with folks being called "racist" because of differing ideas and solutions to age old problems (is America really that racist? How did Obama get elected twice?). It makes folks not want to have that conversation and then nothing gets done. The issues of racism in America today exist both in reality and in the perception of it - what is and what people believe is - making it awfully difficult to get to the truth of the matter. 

How we think we ought to be treated varies by culture and creed and it is this perception that causes all kinds of trouble, which is why we should judge behavior by universals, not particulars. The issues surrounding race will certainly not be solved by simple folks like us risking our safety just to satisfy a fashionable notion that the actions we might take to make us feel safer (like crossing a street) might hurt someone's else's feelings. Fuck their feelings. Not sorry. If you make me feel weird, I'm leaving.

This isn't a license to "profile" and it doesn't mean you shouldn't treat people with the very same kind of respect you would want paid toward your children. But I get tired of hearing pablum like, "no judgments." This is nonsense, as in, "not sensible" - humans are judgers and have been since the dawn of time. If we hadn't been we could not have survived the myriad decisions that come with surviving. Everything we do on some level is a judgment call: turkey or ham for lunch? Maybe the meter maid won't catch me? Here, lemme stick my hand in there! Call that a drunk flip - watch and learnBut a potentially dangerous moment? No judgments! Ya know, if you're going to ween yourself off a habit, make it kicking puppies or tipping old people over to watch them flail for their Medline "footy" canes, not a genetic survival instinct.  

First off, if you at all feel threatened - maybe you're the super-sensitive, Linus-type who carries a blankey, or you're Eminem OCD, or you're some battle-hardened Marine scout sniper - it doesn't matter, make a change: walk away, cross the street, get off, get on, whatever. Don't ignore what common sense may be desperately trying to say. 

And secondly, don't feel bad about it - it's good training to maintain a high level of awareness and act upon it when it tells you to. Know what's not good training? Willful ignorance (like any racist of the content of character). 

There was a time just recently when Loyola University, a good Jesuit Catholic liberal school, was sending out campus security "crime alerts" describing the various incidents on or near campus providing a heads-up to the student body. But the alerts were conspicuously omitting one important aspect of description - the race of the suspects involved in said incidents. Every alert read blandly alike, "Be on the lookout for a twenty-something, six-foot male, with a red cap." With alerts like these, who needs alerts? 

I even asked a roomful of Jesuits I was taking class with at the time, which was more offensive, that the alerts were willfully ignorant of relevant facts-of-the-matter allowing the reader to come to their own conclusions regarding the race of the suspects, or that the powers that be were intellectually dishonest purposely obfuscating the facts, which could inadvertently place others in jeopardy, just to uphold some foggy sense of "social justice?" The good gentlemen, normally verbose, had no answer. Loyola has since thankfully abandoned the practice.       

It's always a poor idea to obscure the truth with varnish (like political correctness does), even to defend some apparent moral high ground, because the high ground is only useful if it is actually the high ground and not merely ground we declare to be "high."

I am hopeful the polite absurdity reached its apex last November with the story of Oliver Friedfeld, the young Georgetown University student who wrote the piece, "I Was Mugged, and I Understand Why," when he was actually mugged on campus at gunpoint

This sweet young man, who not only didn't blame his attackers, ascribed to them non-violent motives (a contradiction - being mugged at gunpoint is motive by violence), and advised us all to "get comfortable" with muggings and break-ins because, you know, income inequality and stuff:  
Who am I to stand from my perch of privilege, surrounded by million-dollar homes and paying for a $60,000 education, to condemn these young men as "thugs?" It's precisely this kind of "otherization" that fuels the problem.
Who is he? An equal human being, that's who. Even from his "perch of privilege." His life is not worth less just because he has more. I suspect young Oliver does not see the irony of his statement, that his muggers also "otherized" him to the point they were (potentially) willing to shoot him had he not complied with their wishes - an actual offense than merely acknowledging "thuggery" makes one a "thug." 

And I don't blame young Oliver for not condemning his assailants, moral relativism is a virus and its symptom is ethical befuddlement - it makes us dumb. If he truly believes his life is not worthy of the kind of respect that demands it not be placed under threat of murder, then he is all of the terms in Word's Thesaurus for "appallingly" - like frighteningly, horrifyingly, terrifyingly, shockingly - confused: 
We must temper our abundant compassion and empathy with the common sense to protect ourselves and others, even when we are trying to protect our enemy. Remember, our common sense speaks to us as a voice of collected experiences, context, environment, and variable, informing us we ought not disrespect ourselves.  
Nobody has the right to take advantage of you or anyone you love - your life is just as valuable to you as your attacker's lives are to them. By that reasoning, we should also not take advantage of ourselves by taking our own safety for granted in the hope we won't offend the feelings of others. 
You ought not think of yourself unethically, due to post traumatic stress, believing there is no blame to assign for a crime upon you, and by that logic, no crime committed. To think this is a lie, for it shakes and weakens the very foundational values of the natural rights and social justice you no doubt place great faith in. What else justifies and authenticates such lofty notions if the value of life is so meaningless as to be arbitrarily harmed over the money in our pockets or the digital trinkets of our modern lives by those twisted enough to threaten violence for them, or by the intelligent folks like yourself, so adrift in moral relativity they are unwilling to stand up for even the dignity of their own life by condemning those violent actions as immoral and unethical.   
Respect for one's own self-dignity is to know respect for the dignity of others. To know a crime was committed, to assign blame, to name the "thug" as anyone who engages in "thuggery" is to pay homage and keep sacred this value of life and not allow arbitrary, relative concerns, like desire, greed, or even poverty's desperation (or our compassion and empathy for that matter) to supersede in importance this universal connection of our common humanity. 
To believe otherwise is to lie to oneself and disorient from truth.
It is to be mugged and not understand why.

January 22, 2015

Be Zero. Not Zero-Sum.

Conflict itself is arguably a zero-sum event - gain is achieved through harm - but that doesn't mean our training has to be.

A zero-sum is any situation in which a gain for one side is a corresponding loss for another. The term is most often used to describe economies. In fact, some like to believe America's economy is a "zero-sum game" in which the rich get richer by stealing from the poor (except for this. Oh, and this too.).

So is training a zero-sum endeavor? If we train ourselves in one area are we necessarily stealing skill and ability away in another? For if today we train in sword, we are not training in, say, shuriken, or rope, or tuck and rolling out of cars pulling a sweet drift, which ostensibly denies time to gain skill in that specific ability.

This pretty much sums up all Russians to me.
If true, then it seems reasonable to infer all martial skills acquired must by definition be "perishable" - if unused, it diminishes (otherwise, we would simply train such skills until mastery and move on to the next). And if that's the case, golly, which skills ought we train and how often ought we train them? One could compose a literal unending list of skills that even over the course of the whole of one's life could never be accomplished. I mean, how can I possibly make enough time for my backflipping hatchet throws a midst my inverted bowshooting, Kinji-Te, and testicle toughening?! Seriously, I have to quit my job. That Kinji-Te is, like, 50 moves alone.

And if we're unsure which martial skills to train and how often to train them, how do we know said skills will hold up under conflict and actually contribute to our's and others' protection and defense? It seems to me this kind of thinking would make one anxiously uncertain of their training, paranoid they were wasting time in one area when they could be spending it in any one of a plethora of others. But which others?! My god, man! Which?! Others?!

Step 1: Buy leggings. Step 2: Buy hand pedestal.
Step 3: Shoot bow with feet.
In this case, one could never know for sure because of a simple truth: it's nuts. This is technique-based training on crazy pills, leading inevitably to fundamental issues of comprehension and confidence. Worse it can lead to a reliance on information as the end goal, purposing one's training to seek ever more minutiae, regardless of how it is understood and applied, which can lead to "end in itself" training. It certainly makes the above thinking more palatable - the amount you know providing the warm fuzzy for lack of actual overlapping, stable ability. (Here's a good example of a "perishable" skill.)

So wrong? Or so, sooo right? (Cue sexy sax)
And if accrued information is how we judge ourselves, surely we'll apply that same perspective to others, judging "high ability" by how rich one's collection is on any particular subject - viable tactical ability by activating core principles under conditions be damned. This can then unfortunately lead to false comprehension and its confidence (don't call it "Internet," when we all know it's called "Inter-narcissist").

The facts are this: we all know when we don't ride a bike often we tend to get a little rusty when we hop back on. But provided we have learned to ride at all, we can quickly regain ourselves and get to where we're going. In this sense, refined control of the bike may be a bit dodgy, but the balance and equilibrium to be able to ride the bike at all is not. In other words, the underlying, fundamental principles of bike riding are not perishable (if they were we'd have to relearn them like a child). Neither is overlapping, stable activation of the principles of the martial way and its Taijutsu, provided we have trained them that way. And there's the rub.

Samurai with nagamaki.
This year, Hatsumi sensei has apparently chosen sword and nagamaki, a rather obscure weapon, as themes for training. Two such distinct weapons will make a great pairing as the nagamaki is a pole-arm-ish (depending on the design) tool and the other a more personal weapon.

The weapon systems within martial arts are a broad category. Some share aspects, others do not. A staff, rokushakubo, shares design and technical features of use with many other weapon tools - it is hard, straight, and made of wood. But some weapon aspects are obviously distinct by design - blades share a metallurgic technology that staff weapons do not. Thus they are often considered separate and idiosyncratic in terms of the results of their use - blades cut, staves crush. Obviously different.

But they are not different when it comes to their use with the principles of the martial way's Taijutsu. For it is there the tool of use, regardless of its design, is commanded by the very same strategies and tactics, even when their idiosyncratic fundamental techniques are different. The takeaway: we ought to be able to use a nagamaki (or whatever) successfully (viably under conditions) even if we have never trained with it or laid hands upon it - ours or others' lives may depend on it. To me that's (at least) one meaning to being a "martial artist." I have written about this in the past, most notably, Ode to a Warhammer, one of my most popular posts.

This kind of compartmentalized thinking in which one weapon's or unarmed tactic's use is not like another is ubiquitous in martial communities and makes perfect intuitive sense - if we've never handled the weapon or done the tactic, if no one has shown us the means of its use, don't train with it (we'll get bad habits), and certainly don't teach it to others.

But the view is short sighted. I get the fact this is a popular way of thinking especially since so much of martial arts is compartmentally presented to begin with. Commercial schools operate by it: segregating the training not because it has been the tradition of antiquity, but so as to dole it out to paying students drip by drip, otherwise they might have trouble staying in business. Unfortunately, it is the model we have come to understand and accept.

However, if we were expected to abide by the kind of specificity in technical detail between the likes of sword, bo, and the rest, why has Hatsumi sensei and the Shihan "taught" all these years the way they have, akin to treading water in the deep end rather than perpetual reenactment and imitation of kata one sees in classical kobudo training? (Of which preservation of the kobudo art itself is one of, if not their highest value.) And lets face it, without our self-reliance we could not enjoy the inspirational leaders among us that individual interpretation and expression fosters in a diverse organization that essentially allows one to be as good (or as bad) as one wishes. If everyone is meant to train the exact same way it'll be because information collectors have set the rules, and left no room for personal voices for they're deemed "out of line."

Look, one can never really know the principles of working Taijutsu if they only ever believe they are accomplished through the unending rules of idealized "form" that - by the way - is exposed so obviously under the actual conditions of its use. For even if the supposed technique is performed exactly precisely as one has mastered in the dojo, it's a square peg in a round hole if one has not first provided the safe opportunity for its use and taken advantage of that tactical moment to the degree the technique itself - the final piece of the puzzle - cannot be countered or stopped, under current conditions. Hey look, I did the technique right! Is that a knife in my throat?

The answer here is painful: mastering martial technique and form unto itself is a fiction, existing only within and amenable to our intuitive mindset. The answer is anti-intuitive: To apply techniques in a manner that cannot be countered or denied under the conditions of use is to master their form. Function is the form. (Kinda like this guy.) There is no form except that of its viable functionality under conditions, for how could "ideal form" be "ideal" if it cannot be actively employed under the stresses and variable of conflict itself?

(And just in case someone thinks the definition of "ideal form" is to be able to use such under the conditions, then why not freely train the conditions of use in the dojo with weapons and tools one has never been taught in order to train it? The resistant conditions, such as partners/opponents, will quickly lay down the parameters of said use at each individual's level of ability provided everyone is training honestly.)

We can't have it both ways: either martial technique's form is a distinct and separate aspect unto itself, memorizable and useful in its exactitude and replicable for all involved, or it is a malleable expression, proportional to its user, and rather indistinct until it aligns to provide results under contextual conditions. But there is no case when martial form's alignment is a thing unto itself, since by sheer definition of the word, "alignment" is only possible when it references the context of another - as in "aligned to (this thing)" - which is the target of its use, and how well, where, and when it accomplishes its function by martial principles and internal structural resiliency under the context and conditions of use. Even human movement is not in reference to itself (the body), but to the topography, environment, and most important the context of use - in walking to work one's form/alignment differs from climbing a mountain.

To believe in some ideal martial form, is to think there is some idealized form to driving that somehow does not involve the road, its quality, environment, weather, traffic, and any unforeseen spontaneous, bizarre variables - in other words, under the conditions - that anyone can encounter at any time while doing the technique known as "driving." Whenever we train to drive, we are always driving, and always driving under conditions.

"Paper champion!"
No "safe defensive driver" can drive safely in summertime, but not safely in winter; safely in no traffic, but not safely in traffic. Either we are or are not a "safe defensive driver" no matter the conditions since not violating that particular part is what authenticates and justifies any claim to the title. If we did not exhibit overlapping, stable ability here, Clubber Lang would call us a "paper champion."

Defeating technique-based compartmentalist thought means perceiving things differently. It means training in such a way that no matter what we actually do, we gain overall ability and in all areas. Which means activating core principles time and again under the conditions of use to be able to apply any technique (masterful or shitty, depending on one's level) into the advantage we have created for ourselves.

Improving that ability has to do with setting conditions under our control - shaping the space through context - much like one does as a "defensive driver." Pay attention to the context - are we trying to "escape" or "confront" and/or "subdue" a resistant opponent? These are completely different goals that alter how we might respond even if utilizing the same technique or weapon. Shaping action by context enriches our perception of not only technical layers, but also reveals how we can better apply those finer points to protect and defend self and others, which is what martial arts is all about anyway.

Building up and accruing information only to compartmentalize its use has never been the goal. Instead, we are removing our own unnecessary-ness and refining our overall, broad movement for secure and stable application under conditions of variable change no matter what's in our hands.

Teachers, mentors, and peers are absolutes - essential to training for we cannot improve without them. But if we believe there is no improvement whatsoever without their ever-strict grip to instruct and permit us to be able, not only have we placed parameters upon how we know truth, we inadvertently accede responsibility for our training, needlessly burdening them. We ought not give up self-reliance here - our training is ours, do not revoke the right to deepen and excel at it. This may be culturally insensitive, but the best way to honor our teachers and training is to provide others with the very best opportunity to improve themselves.

This is a resurgence of old school thought (Bushi no michi), the kind of broad-minded, self-reliant warriorship able to understand a plethora of tactics and strategies all aimed at undoing the enemy to protect and defend life, yet emanating from a single core or root perception, like a Rosetta Stone of martial comprehension. 

Idealization only occurs when conditions of martial training are artificially controlled to bear no consequences for misuse. But without consequences, there can be little success. Success in training is a moment we can inhabit when we reduce our failure inducing faults - think "less wrong," not "more right." Artists need to grow and only we can give ourselves permission to do so. Since failure is integral to track success, if we don't fail, and fail a lot, we cannot learn to fail less. Less faults under conditions, means less failure under conditions, and less failure means a greater chance for success.
Bugei is the same way.  If one reaches to a higher rank, he need only eliminate his faults.  It may sound easy, but eliminating faults is very difficult to accomplish, because we tend to think we are faultless.  Faults can be translated into something different in Budo.   They can be suki (unguarded points), or carelessness, presumption, arrogance, etc. - they all become our fault.  No fault, zero condition is the best.  I am ZERO.  I joke that the Soke (GrandMaster) has no Dan.  Zero, no fault - that is the target of Bufu Ikkan (living through the martial winds). 
- Masaaki Hatsumi, adapted from Tetsuzan
Soke recommends we move toward zero - zero faults - not zero-sum.

January 10, 2015

Under the Blade 2015

Shinnen Omedeto Gozaimasu! Happy New Year!

And what a year 2014 was! A quieter one for me in many respects - not so much travel, more introspection and study, but tons of training.

Jack giving Craig Gray what for.
We had our annual visit from Jack Hoban and presented once again at the ILEETA (International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association) conference – always a pleasure to work with LE and their superb trainers!

My work with Resolution Group International made some terrific strides as well with new videos and books. Check them out!

The Ethical Protector

We had another successful Gasshuku and we wrapped up the year with a memorable Bonenkai!

My biggest accomplishment was the release of my first book, A Sword to Cut Stone. The book's four chapters are Shin, Gi, Tai, and I chi (心技体一致), which when phrased together is the embodiment of the moral-physical philosophy that is the martial way. More so, it’s a road map for training it. 
"James' book, I believe, will ultimately be viewed
as one of the most unique and helpful books
on martial philosophy ever written."
~ Jack E. Hoban, from his Foreword

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, including a martial view of natural law philosophy. The second chapter, GI, “technique,” refers to strategic martial principles in constant flux - initiative, positioning, and leverage. 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. At 370 pages, it is not a small work, but also includes material that’ll ultimately never make the final cut for traditional publication.

After checking out a copy, I was privileged to have Jack Hoban offer to write its Foreword. Jack has been busy, not only is he author of the book, “The Ethical Warrior,” and new offering, "The Ethical Protector," he's also president of Resolution Group International, and a Subject Matter Expert for the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program at Camp Quantico, Virginia.

If you’d like your own copy of Sword for your bookshelf, inquire at: james@sgtidojo.org.

Anyway, that’s where we’ve been. Let’s talk about where we’re going.

All Your Base Are Belong to Us

In 2014 we examined the kihon, the “basics,” and discovered that the “basics” are not basic - not even close. At least not some specific set of techniques. In fact, I’ve come to believe there are no such basic techniques – they’re all equivalent. Knowledge is power only to the extent we know how to apply it under the conditions we’re in. 

Oh sure, there are ubiquitous, common, techniques that most everyone who trains knows and refers to as basic. Some may even be used more often or overlap in connection with others. “Walking,” you may say, is a basic technique, since Taijutsu is based on it and unless you know how to walk “correctly,” you can’t use Taijutsu properly. Great, please inform our friends training in wheelchairs or otherwise challenged. Maybe they’ll be relieved to know they will never be able to do “real” martial arts.

No, the stuff I’m getting at is intrinsic – built in. “Basic” is derived from the word “base,” foundation. So in looking at “basics” we inevitably look at the foundation of what and why we’re doing what we’re doing. Bringing us to one of the most important questions anyone who trains or wishes to train can ask themselves:

Is training a means to an end or an end in itself? 
Without actually asking, NYU professor Robert Florczak addresses the question in his short, “Why is modern art so bad?” In it he asks, “How did the thousand-year ascent of artistic perfection and excellence die out? It didn’t. It was pushed out.” 

“Pushed out” by what Florczak states as notions like, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” - the mantra of the modern artist. This relativistic expression epitomizes the ultimate state of aesthetic equivocation, actually draining meaning: there can be no beauty, there can be no ugliness - how could they exist when only personal opinion and its preference is their definitional value? 

Stop and think for a moment just how much this single notion has impacted the world - its ambivalence has permeated everything, from morals, how we view the actions of culture (ours and foreign), and our social, political, and religious institutions. Ambivalence is too often mistaken for thoughtfulness, making it fashionable to resist judgments, come to no conclusions (looking at you "political correctness"). It's an easy-going way, so long as people's lives are not on the line. All too often they are.

Just imagine if the relativistic account included everything else: if you are an expert or considered such in a respective field, you are no longer. For how could any “expert opinion” exist, when all opinions matter exactly the same?

But the etymologies of both “beauty” and “ugly” serve to dispel their modern relativistic notions, as they actually relate to the enhancement or detraction to life and its value, not mere personal preference. (“Beauty” derived from the Greek horaios meaning “hour” and applied to timeliness and ripeness, such as fruit – perhaps to indicate optimal taste and nutritional value. The notion also applied to women in their prime - child-bearing years. Even more telling, “ugly” as “morally offensive.”) Thus a better expression, and a more precise one, would be, “Attractiveness is in the eye of the beholder” – beauty, notwithstanding.

Florczak also hints at something intrinsic and foundational as he draws a stark dichotomy between the transcendent and timeless art done for the sake of something greater than itself (a means to an end) and the self-indulgent, pointless art done for its own sake (an end in itself).

For martial arts, when we estrange or detach ourselves from that which gives originating purpose and meaning, we inevitably supplant those ideals with our own relativistic notions, whatever they may be. Like a ship with a broken compass, we risk going off course.

There is an obvious choice here: we are either training techniques to protect and defend life, or we are training a life to protect and defend techniques. We ought to know the difference – it could literally mean life or death.

Don’t Fight Club

It is here I have a story I cannot fully tell. I realize it isn’t very sporting of me to tease, but suffice it to say the event changed the life of a dear friend of mine. I’ve been given permission to speak broadly about it. 

See he got used to placing his own life at risk for his own reasons – reasons most folks would find unnecessarily dangerous - and almost paid the ultimate price for doing so. For the last 18 years he has traveled and tested himself against others seeking to do the same – a kind of underground Samurai fight club. I had told him it was a bad idea and he should quit. He made fun of me - said I sounded like his wife. Turns out his latest opponent – and his last - was a bonafide sociopath.

What saved his life in the end was an impossible series of coincidences culminating in the absent-minded choice of a simple piece of wood – a three-foot oak hanbo - that shielded him from a sword cut of murderous intent. The wood still bears the scars of the attack - one of its two blade gouges split the wood more than a third of the way through. Had my friend not been trained so well, or was so lucky on this day, his own wounds might never had the chance to heal.

He was so troubled by the incident he has since reassessed things, recalibrated. He said, “I’m done,” with the voluntary behavior that placed him there, that almost took him from his wife and children. Good on him. It seems he finally took to heart a truth so obvious it is oftentimes missed entirely.

Touching the Touchstone

An interviewer once asked GK Chesterton which book he would prefer if he were stranded on a desert island. A volume of Shakespeare? The Bible, perhaps? GK shook his head - Thomas’ Guide to Practical Shipbuilding. His meaning? Do not fail to remember the obvious - not the stuff we invent, but the stuff that is revealed. Not the stuff we all agree on (and good luck finding that), but rather the stuff we can’t deny.

Denying the obvious results in confusion, like debate over trivia, instead of focusing on what actually matters – the oughtness of ethical action.

A recent archaeological dig in Haifa, Israel, is believed to have uncovered a relative date for the care and control of fire as an early “technology” - 350,000 years ago. If this is true, certainly hunting and fighting, which are the survival instincts directly responsible for the advent of martial thought and ways, predate that.

Bear in mind, this instinct to survive is not to be confused with the notion “survival of the fittest,” a phrase from evolutionary theory to describe a species “most well adapted to the current environment.” The survival instinct is human nature's first inclination and motivation that recognizes we ought to protect “self” and “others” of our group from harm. This is channeled into an actionable “protector ethic” featuring those early primal instincts, providing the inspiration to refine them into the martial ways proper to direct and protect humankind as we clumsily stumbled through history.

Can anyone deny that martial arts developed and refined as a means of survival against the tremendous odds of human aggression? Can anyone deny that the clarity of this protector ethic is by far the most important lesson of martial expression and for a simple reason - it puts every other lesson in context: Protecting others is to protect oneself; protecting self and others is to protect the value of life.

There is no technique or martial concept, and likewise, no philosophic value, including political or religious, that demands conscientious study and merit if it does not do the one thing required for any designation of significance or viable truth: Protect the value of life. 

It is no mistake that within the annals of martial history, the highest order of mastery has always been the ability to undo an enemy while sparing their life, if at all possible. And within the philosophic realm, the value of life is the true source of normative vitality for all manner of metaphysical oughtness. For what else exists that has the power to make sacred our highest conceptions of earthly human values, including morals, ethics, justice, and rights? What good would any of these notions be if they were twisted to violate and ravage, existing in contradiction to the existence and dignity of human “being?” 

The basic, fundamental, base, foundational, obvious stuff no one ought deny is the universal human value of life that unless consistently studied and adhered to drains any martial endeavor of its priority and worth. Training must navigate us back to these originating inclinations that first discovered and refined the martial way, so we can be assured we are activating the teachings in the manner they were intended to work.

The techniques themselves hold no clue here, they are only the mechanical offspring of the deep-seeded motivation that powered their discovery and refinement. Which means, if we want to improve and mature in our physical ability, mental acuity, and spiritual fortitude, we must continually clarify the touchstone of quality control: survival  - aka: the protector ethic.

Context is Key

Just like metaphysical oughtness, martial prowess is a physical ethic of oughtness that can only be authenticated by its ability to withstand the jarring stresses and interval of conflict in the protection and defense of life - its one and only justifying authority. Every martial technique ever developed was ostensibly created or borrowed from a legacy of placing at risk its receiver while staving off harm and death for its deliverer. 

It is only this context that teaches surviving conflict has always been measured (and can only be measured) by (training that is habitually) "less wrong," not (technically and pedantically) "more right." If we were to place training on a continuum from 0-100 - zero being death - far too many folks wish to start at 100 (more right), when they ought to be trying to move from 0 to 1, dead to not-dead (less wrong). Besides, how could anyone's training ever be "more right" when no one can predict the variable of conflict and its often bizarre and spontaneous conditions of attack? Like the favored contestant on a game show, winning team, or defensive shooter, it matters not how "more right" they are going in, but how "less wrong" their answers, plays, and rounds are under the conditions of the moment. 

As it is today and throughout history, the best trained warriors are not immune from wounding or death. It might take just a simple touch of fate to end any one of us - even Hatsumi sensei has said he could be killed by a mere child. Life and its value is fragile and sacred and we would be wise to "remember the obvious" and calibrate our training to it. Thus the endless debate on technical "most rightest-ness" is only possible by willful ignorance or dishonesty of the crucial nature to balance life against death and our struggle to reconcile our will, acuity, and ethic against its irreconcilable finality.

It is impossible and unreasonable to prepare for every outcome, thus we must endeavor to persevere ever-changing conditions by broad ability with martial principles - not their myopic technique-y features - and viable, extemporaneous tactical creativity that is continually aligned to the protector ethic. As I wrote in an earlier piece (see "To Train a Warrior Art," Part I, Part II, Part III) the key to greater ability and maturity is acceptance of the survival value and its context inducing challenges ranging from simple “escape,” to the most difficult “subdue” of an enemy to spare their life. 

Throughout its bloody history and hallowed experience, to its active legacy today, martial arts have only ever been a “means to an end” – survival and its ethic of protection. 

In 2015, the Bujinkan Shingitai-Ichi Dojo's theme will be to dive ever deeper into the context of the “protector ethic” – shugoshin, 守護心, from shugoshin, “protector deity,” 守護神To do so we'll continue exploring bojutsu through the use of the sutekki, albeit a larger jo-sized model outfitted with rope. Because, hey, rope. 

Apprehending these two halves – our foundational natural ethic and the physicality to enable one to protect it morally - empowers internally for the good of our own self-respecting autonomy and externally for actions taken in defense of dignity for ourselves and for others. 

The protector ethic is nothing short of a willingness to self-risk our own worth to protect and ensure the self-worth of others. In this regard, to train ourselves martially is to train ourselves virtuously to become the brighter, kinder, and just person we all know we ought to be.  

Chesterton was a resolute critic of art and wrote consummately on the subject. He wrote, “A man cannot have the energy to produce good art without having the energy to wish to pass beyond it. A small artist is content with art; a great artist is content with nothing except everything.”

Do not be content as a small artist. Aspire to greatness.

Have a fantastic 2015!