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!


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love a good jest and even at one own expense, humor heals more than it ever hurts. Thoughts to our individual giving trees that give us more than mere wood.
Yet another good read Sensei.
Thank you.