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!