On Being A Samurai

I lived for many years in Germany. One particular day stands out in my memory, My car had some sort of a mechanical problem and needed to get a tow to the local dealer for repairs. While I was waiting I struck up a conversation with the fellow at the front desk. He was very thrilled as we chatted. You see, my family is from the South and has lived in Virginia since the 1780's and yes they fought for the Confederacy during the War Between the States (that's the Civil War, to you damn Yankees). In any case he belonged to some re-enactment group that fancied itself to be one of the Virginia regiments and he avidly talked to me, buoyed by this common bond. Of course, his attempts to pronounce things with a Southern accent overlaying his German accent was odd and his insistence on being somehow Southern – replete with little rebel flags festooning his desk and such – came off as hapless. He had no idea, really, the complex set of social and political issues he'd hopped into. For instance if he had been an American I would have simply assumed him to be in the Ku Klux Klan, judging from his paraphernalia but it was also clear he was a good solid Burger (specific German phrase for a citizen that shows reliability if a notable lack of originality, someone you want for a neighbor). What he wanted was a romanticized notion of being in some great, crucial point in history, grimly fighting the good fight (doesn't matter which side now, does it?) and affably acting it out on weekends with his like-minded buddies. His group had meticulously researched the costume and had lovingly recreated the clothes (itchy, I think), mess kits and other such items. I'm sure they must have been an impressive sight in full regalia.

This is to drive home a point about cross-cultural role playing. In a case where you meet someone from a different culture trying to be part of yours it is pretty clear that they will have it largely wrong no matter how sincere they are. We might be indulgent of the Chinese tourist who has himself decked out in a cowboy outfit, but he comes across at the least as misguided and at worst comical. In the martial arts community many not merely turn a blind eye towards this sort of behavior, but actively encourage it. A lot of schools even have this as a central marketing gimmick ("train with us and become one with the ancient warriors!"). One should be aware of the origins of things, so using martial arts uniforms is ok, since it is so widespread (not to mention that they are extra strong which provides added safety at times). This adds a nice touch of color as does a bit of the native language. Being very well versed in the history of a system is important, but I think this because I am an avid amateur historian. Really in any human endeavor the answer to the question "why" will always boil down to history. It is irresponsible to our charges to avoid mention of it, warts and all. Normally martial arts are simultaneously ahistorical, meaning no real mention is made of history while they are proudly mired in the past. The vast majority of martial arts systems are actually less than 50 years old. It just doesn't sound nice to say that Master X, after getting out of the army and having done some judo and karate in the public schools when he was a kid decided to start up his own school in the back of his father's noodle shop. Nope, some ancient secret martial art whose origins are lost in the shifting Kaleidoscope of the Ages is more like it. In the Orient older is better so there is a real incentive for a little fudging. Putting an American spin on it who wants to study at Billy Bob's Fightin' School and BBQ Emporium? We'd all rather be warrior mages now wouldn't we? Yes, of course we would.

In the case of the German re-enactor, his was a largely harmless hobby. He knew that he was not in an army and that this was something he did on weekends. While very enthusiastic he could keep it in perspective. Not so with many martial artists who come to think of themselves as "warriors". (Friendly hard-won tip: Watch that word if it is used in a martial arts system since it usually means someone is pulling a fast one either on you or themselves. People who have pulled a fast one on themselves are the hardest to deal with since they truly are sincere.) There are people in the military and possibly law enforcement who might actually get away with calling themselves warriors in the sense that they have engaged in and are experienced in warfare, which is most assuredly not the case of most martial artists who use the term – for these I use double quotes. "Warriors" have stepped over the line and are simply being kooky. If they were re-enacting being monks or squires, such as in one of the historical societies, while I often find these people insufferable, I would not really take them to task for it. In the case of martial artists though, they are usually inculcating their students with half-baked fantasies which are coupled with practical advice on killing or maiming. No good can come of this. Often times glorifying a bloody past with little or no understanding of it, I have heard them speak with moving nostalgia for cruel military dictatorships or advocate atrocity as some sort of normative behavior available only to them and their select few students.

One other facet of this is racism too. There are two ends of it that I have observed. On the one hand, many students are willing to hop onto an ancient culture and exhibit a marked lack of critical thought when doing so. I've said it before and I will say it again, if you are dealing with foreigners, you must apply your own standards of behavior consistently to yourself. If you would refuse, for example, to swallow hook line and sinker the agenda of some over-the-top fundamentalist Christian group, why would you fall for an over-the-top fundamentalist Buddhist sect? Nobody has a monopoly on absolutist thinking or self-serving interpretations of divine texts, do they? All this relates only to your actions not to the actions of people native to their own culture. As you must follow the dictates of your conscience, you must allow them to follow the dictates of theirs. The modern age leaves people thirsty for authentic experiences and for deep spirituality. As social animals we want to be part of something bigger than us. This is normal and good. A large part of depth must come from serious introspection and not bandwagonning with some group where poor communication means that you are largely left to confabulating as much as you need to keep you in your comfort zone. The most pathetic examples I've seen and some of the scariest are those where the chief sources are books or articles. The one that comes to mind was a borderline cult (run by an American, I might emphasize) based around some seriously selectively read Buddhist and Taoist texts. The students were not in a position at all to separate the chaff from the grain. This is the most prevalent mode of racism I've seen in the martial arts community, not a blistering hatred of orientals but a mindless and even cheerful acceptance. Since the feelings are generally positive the perpetrators cannot fathom that it is equally as pernicious.

Play is doing something very seriously that is of no use. Martial arts are often in this category (and we dearly hope you never have to use them so they can stay there) despite the often ominous noises people make. Because of their heady mix some lose sight of this simple fact and after a while come to define themselves in terms of something largely of their own creation. It is at this point that pathological behaviors manifest themselves. Either at the practical level that the years of serious training have left them ill prepared for a street encounter, or an unwillingness to admit that their self-appointed status as a "warrior" is foolish. By then this has become a foundation for their personality and anchors it, shoring up their defenses against the fears and insecurities that gave rise to their need to study in the first place. True, the vast majority of people do not get to this state and just want a fun hobby that has some sex appeal. But some of the best martial artists are driven in this way and you should be aware of it since it is seductive and consequently easy to get sucked into their world. Being open, honest and playfully irreverent towards yourself is the best antidote in all cases.

Another side of racism comes from that small number of orientals who simply refuse to admit that we have a valid culture. We do although the American experience has largely been aimed at business, political and social issues rather than, say, art or music. We'll acquire those over the next millennium or so, so there is no need to fret. In any case, some oriental instructors really do treat their American students as second-rate and the students often play right into this. When students kow-tow to a master all this does is send a powerful message to him that he is right – if he simply assumes we are inferior and we fall all over ourselves to be lousy Japanese, Koreans, etc. aren't we agreeing? I lived as a stranger in a strange land for many years. I have learned how to get along as equals with others in such situations and I see little of such behavior in martial arts.

Some of my colleagues like to run their dojo as being a Japanese cultural oasis. I have been criticized for not doing this. Well, I'm not Japanese and there is no way I'm going to get well enough versed in the language customs or arts such as calligraphy or flower arranging to even want to try. There is, for Americans, something else at work here. To be an American it is just enough to move here and say you are, since it is understood that all that entails is a voluntary acceptance of laws and our political institutions. This is what has historically made the US such an attractive destination for the downtrodden. Great master So-and-So can move here and be an American the next day. There is no way I'll ever be Japanese even if I live there the rest of my life and study exhaustively because of the strong cultural and racial overtones of that statement. I think this difference in usage is lost on some capacity on many Americans. When I teach, I often have students from other countries such as Korea, China, the Phillipines and many other places which were invaded by Japan and seriously brutalized. They were raised on stories from their grandparents about the occupation and harbor no illusions about where Japan's feudal past took it. They are more than willing to accept that Japanese martial arts, being well-exercised, merit study. They are not willing in any capacity to be Japanicized as their relatives often barely survived the experience.

So what's this all mean? Just that one should keep training in perspective. It must be a part of your life – maybe a big part of your life – rather than your whole life. Most of you will never be in a position to have some sort of pathology emerge because of your training, but as I have said, there are no standards for martial arts training or teaching in the world and you are all free to declare yourselves headmaster of your own system as so many have. Just be aware that this type of thinking does persist even in some of the best schools. Indeed, some of the most ardent and best martial artists I've met think this way and this is what fuels them to train hard. I have trained with them and absorbed their martial arts, but not the rest of it. It might be nice to be a good martial artist, but is it worth being around someone who seriously screws up the rest of your life for years? You too must be able to keep straight what you want out of training. It is too easy to get pulled into something that is advertised as traditional or even transcendent which is neither and takes you places you'd really rather avoid. The upshot is that there are no "samurai" or "warriors" in the sense intended. Nor should there be.

That said, there is still a topic to address: Which people want to be samurai? I see that there are two main types, both of which are predicated on feelings of superiority. The first is the person that is licentiously attracted to the sheer violence of the arts. The supposed power that knowing how to kill with your bare hands is intoxicating. Many such people end up just getting in fights all the time or if they are lucky can channel it into something a bit more acceptable like a tournament career. The second type also has this draw to violence, but tries to live by some code of conduct (based on bushido but often just taking the parts that appeal from it). The fact that they are usually not in a position to use their skills in any capacity in their daily lives is confounded with some sort of self-control so that they might feel ennobled for doing nothing but basking in the glow. I will refer to these two types as Conans, after the cartoon character warrior whose basic approach to everything is to kill it or Monks The Conans are pretty much an open and shut book. The want to dominate through sheer power and might does make right for them. I'll chat about the Monks.

One thing that I have noted is that the people who tend the strongest towards monkish behavior tend to be rudderless in their own culture (political stripe is irrelevant) and have hopped from one faddish thing in philosophy or religion to another. Intriguingly enough all of them – especially those who are professed Liberals or New Agers – also go straight for the most conservative element in another culture. I have mused on this and will pass along my thoughts for better or worse. The word "samurai" comes from the Japanese word samaru which means "to serve" and lest we forget it, a samurai was a servant. No, they were not nobles but the bodyguards and soldiers who worked for the nobility. (Pause and think about those people in our society. A lot of folks who fancy themselves "warriors" would run from actual military service. They also seriously look down their noses at the socioeconomic classes that are the backbone of the army too.) The concept of someone dedicated to a higher cause and fearlessly defending the weak has great appeal. In our modern era all to often we do not make distinctions of right and wrong because, frankly, it really doesn't matter to a large extent. For most folks behavior is self-regulating. Anarchists, a seemingly extreme example, advocate a complete absence of government and any sort of legal control but in those places where this has come to pass, even for a brief period of time (Somalia, Rwanda) the effect has been anything but salubrious. People such as the Anarchists show strongly that they are solidly middle class Americans, where they pretty much always do the right thing anyway and sort of resent the government as meddling. They are not thinking along the lines that everybody will raise an army and start sacking each other which is precisely what happens.

A lot of the appeal to be a samurai for these people is that there really is a code of ethics that goes with it. We do not tend to teach our own kids much in this way and that's a pity. A lot of recent education has been along multicultural lines. This is good in theory but in practice it tends to homogenize everything and convince people that ethical behavior is more or less bunk. [One quick aside, ethics comes from Greek ethos meaning custom. Morals come from Latin mos (pl. mores) meaning... custom, so even in the Ancient World they knew that these were not absolutes but relative to the society.] Ethics really just categorize what people in a given society think is acceptable behavior and my objection with such education is that it fails to get to be able to tell right from wrong. Just because another society has a different set of ideas on this does not mean that you cannot make sense of such issues. Seriously, consider the case of the Elema people in New Guinea. There the best way to avenge some serious wrong would be to befriend your enemy, gain his trust then as treacherously as possible murder and eat him. Missionaries were in for quite a jolt when they realized that the natives saw Judas as the great hero of the Bible. (No I don't support missionary work, but this is one of the more famous recent examples of a sociological disconnect. Another was the conversion of Japanese to Christianity in the late 1500's in which they saw the Book of Revelation as following usual revenge-driven folktales but now with a cosmic twist. Many new converts simply assumed that prayers would let them call down severe supernatural powers on their enemies.) Certainly we do not eat each other in our society and for us this is just plain wrong and we should be prepared to label it as such. Finding out about other ethical systems and being aware of them is a fine goal. Intuitively people usually can tell right from wrong at least in straightforward cases, but rather than clarifying the situation current education often makes them feel so uneasy about it that they shy away from thinking about it at all.

Getting back on topic we obviously don't want people with no inner moral compass running around with bazookas or assault rifles and there is a reason such armaments are regulated. Contrast this with "warriors". They have learned an old-fashioned labor-intensive way to commit mayhem. The fact that they fantasize about their power – which lets them feel strong – and don't use it – which lets them feel morally superior – is just too happy a confluence for words. I try to make it clear to myself and students that their own ethics are the backbone of their personality. They shouldn't need to run off to another culture to absorb a different set of ethics and one, I might add, that doesn't jibe in some serious ways with the US penal code.

One last comment about vice, virtue, sin and such. Sometimes when I discuss this people assume that I am taking some religious tack. No. The discussion of ethics precedes Christianity by a good 500 years and was initiated by Socrates and his student Plato then codified by Plato's pupil Aristotle (summed us in his Nicomachean Ethics). As such these were the basis of Greek and Roman thinking on morality and law which in turn gave rise to our thinking.  The Bible is notably short on discussing ethics and most of the few references are not from Jesus but from his Roman disciples in various letters (Corinthians, e.g.). However, so strong were these concepts that during the Middle Ages they were absorbed as Church Law hence vices (bad behaviors that the individual is choosing for whatever reason and are injurious to himself or others) morphed into being sins (e.g. murder or violating one of the other Ten Commandments which are properly transgressions against God and therefore against the Church itself). This tidily organized law then and was actually a more humane approach than most law in the Middle Ages. Still the concepts laid down 2,500 years ago are pretty much the same today which makes this vein of thinking one of the longest-lived in Western history. Interestingly most churches now have backed off of talking about vices as being sin. They may thunder in the abstract but actually trying to stick with it in the particulars has slid into the kooky extreme view. If you are a criminal your local clergyman is much more apt to suggest therapy and counciling (along with requisite jail time) rather than an exorcism. We decry anger, gluttony, greed, haughtiness, hedonism, resentment and sloth as much today as Cicero would have. One may take a completely secular approach to ethics and even if you don't think it should apply to you, most of your culture (assuming you were raised in the US) will remain largely unintelligible without a good grounding in it. Indeed it can be argued that a big slice of the genius in the US system of government was to make a completely secular and workable legal adaptation of ethics for a pluralistic democracy.