Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Edge: Life Lessons from a Martial Arts Master (excerpt)

From 2009 to 2012 I collaborated with Ray Fisher on a project titled The Edge: Life Lessons from a Martial Arts Master. We are currently seeking funding to cover publication costs for the finished book. For more information, please click here.

From The Edge:

Song for My Teacher – Jon Takeji – Spring of 1984

Like a solitary bird in flight
Flying across a cloudless sky
He touched me with his grace
And the fluidness of his motion

Stroking the wind with his wings
…Soaring ever and ever higher
Then lightly floating down
Like a feather drifting to the ground

He was truly a master of Aikido
The way of harmonious power
Living his life so that others may learn
Flowing from the center of himself
He was as one with the universe
…And he was my friend

He told me of my center
And how to be as one with the world
He showed me how to let go,
As well as how to accept

And with a single touch of his hand,
With a gentle shove,
Sensei truly changed my life

And I will never forget him
Or his way
-Ray Fisher

Photo by Alma Alvarado

The concept of loyalty seems positively archaic in this age of everyone-out-for-themselves. It could be argued that Aleister Crowley’s dictum “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” has been adopted by the masses. In some ways, this is not necessarily a bad thing: the idea of individual freedom is implicit in our national motto of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It’s the type of freedom that would allow, say, a Midwestern white kid to pursue interests in Buddhism and karate. Emerson and Thoreau extolled this freedom, as did Jefferson a few generations earlier, taking his cue from Rousseau, and so on. There is a long and storied pedigree here.

But something may have been lost on the road to self-liberation: the idea of something greater and more compelling than our own needs. We may be unable to shift the values of our society, but on a personal level we have the opportunity to cultivate loyalty toward others. This can seem quixotic; in most instances, our employers neither demand nor reward loyalty (a stark contrast from just a generation ago), and neither do our friends. Is it any wonder that the very idea seems so foreign?

Be that as it may, this very old-fashioned virtue is something Master Fisher values deeply. And as I came to understand from our conversation on the topic, it is an integral component of the martial arts.

“Loyalty to me is a sense of faithfulness or obligation,” Ray said. “Not an obligation in a bad way. To put it into context, I have loyalty to my teachers. Periodically, other groups or other martial arts organizations approach me. Some of them have almost blatantly said, ‘Come into our fold and we’ll promote you one or two belt levels higher than where you are now, because you are under-ranked for your skills and knowledge.’ That to me would be incredibly disloyal to my teachers. That would be dishonorable. So there are many contexts to the word 'loyalty.'

"People have loyalty to their families. If we think in terms of a husband and wife, a close boyfriend and girlfriend, or a fiancee situation, you have loyalty. You have an obligation to not have too much of a wandering eye or you may act upon those thoughts. That’s a kind of loyalty that I think in today’s society is being lost. A hundred years ago, or more, there was such a different sense of loyalty to family because there wasn’t instant communication with cell phones, Facebook, Twitter, and the many other current means of chatting people up. A lot of people grew up in a town and stayed in that town, or they left and then came back to that town to settle down. They had roots, a sense of family. In many households, you could often find three or four generations living there. The parents took care of the grandparents; there might even have been a great-grandparent living with them. I know this might sound like a rant but I’m not ashamed of it. When travel modes changed, instead of being a matter of how far I could ride my horse that day, it became a  question of how far I could drive in the car that day. And then it became how far I could go in an airplane. And so, for the people who have financial means, it’s not uncommon to go away on trips on a regular basis. You can be in California one day, then the next day in Miami, New York City, or Europe. For many people, there’s not that deep sense of being bound to your hometown anymore.

“Don’t get me wrong; I think technology is great. The advances in transportation, the Internet, cell phones…all of those are extraordinary tools. But they’ve also become a Pandora’s Box. There are things that have emerged from them that bring just as much evil as good. Going back to the idea of a relationship; if you grew up in a small town and lived there all your life, there were certainly spouses who cheated on each other. I’m not naive. But there was less of it. There wasn’t the idea of, you know what? I’m unhappy so I guess I’ll expose myself to dozens or hundreds of other people over the Internet and start fishing around. Today, we live in a disposable society, and it seems like marriage has become just as disposable as anything else.”

Ray’s comments on home and permanence reminded me of something I had recently come across in a book called The Sign and The Seal by Graham Hancock. It is the account of a journalist (Hancock) who becomes convinced he knows the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. His travels take him to Ethiopia where he discovers the Falashas—descendants of a group of Israelites who, Hancock surmises, must have left their homeland in very ancient times. They still practice animal sacrifices and have no knowledge of the later books of the Torah or the Talmud. As Hancock observes, there is an unbroken line of tradition with these people going back thousands of years; they can describe things that happened to their people 1500 years ago. In recounting this to Ray, I said that there was something appealing to that cohesiveness, that loyalty to clan and creed.

Ray nodded vigorously. “That’s loyalty to tradition and history. Honoring their ancestors. Contrast that with how things are now. If people aren’t happy with something, they choose to discard it quickly. I told you in earlier conversations about my first teacher’s statement: ‘If you practice what I taught you, every day for the next ten years, you might feel something.’ To me that was something that would not come easy. It was something that had heart. In the martial arts, there are a lot of people who come in with a preconceived notion that they’re going to be a black belt in six to twelve months and they’re going to be the next Bruce Lee. When the reality hits them of how much dedication and how much practice it really takes, they become discouraged and they quit. As a teacher, I sometimes find this disheartening. I’ve had students train with me for six months, maybe a year; they’ve just barely scraped the tip of the iceberg and then they judge the system and decide it’s not worthy of their time. I call them ‘karate butterflies’: they float from one flower to the next. They open up and smell a flower and they try it, and then pretty soon they fly off to the next flower because it looks prettier and it smells different. Granted, that’s how nature cross-pollinates. But there are also butterflies that are incredibly loyal to certain species of plants. They are the cause of those flowers being propagated throughout the countryside and potentially the whole country. So loyalty to me means a kind of faithfulness that can be interpreted from a religious point of view, or from the point of view of sexual or platonic relationships. I have a particular friend that is so loyal to me that if I called him up right now and said, ‘I have a problem. Come packing,’ he would be at the house within an hour loaded down with ammunition and guns. I’m not trying to sound like a Green Beret. But I feel the same way about him. If he called me at three in the morning and said, ‘I need your help. Come,’ I would.

“There’s a brotherhood or camaraderie that takes place among warriors, especially people who have seen true combat. They have kinship and loyalty to their brothers-in-arms that transcends their relationship with their blood brothers or family or coworkers. That goes back eons and eons, whether we’re talking Greeks, or Romans, or fighters in the Civil War. Loyalty among warriors. Not soldiers, warriors.

“The Japanese have a word: giri. It means obligation, duty, or what might be termed as ‘right reason.’ In a martial context, when a teacher takes on a student, the student has giri to the teacher. Unfortunately in America, too many people are overly materialistic and they see this relationship as just a financial obligation, as in: ‘I paid my dues, what else do you expect of me?’ I had a teacher who refused to accept payment. So I had a special giri to him and his family. When it was his daughter’s birthday, I brought her a present. When it was Christmas, I brought presents to my teacher, his daughter, and his grandson. I would take my teacher out for meals. My way of showing my loyalty was making him feel honored and treating him as family (as he was doing to me) rather than bringing him a check every month. If he needed his yard work done, it didn’t matter that I was a college graduate or a third degree black belt at that time in my life. I went over and worked in his yard. That was my giri.

 “Another term that ties into that is on. On relates to an obligation to repay, or a burden of debt. Historically, if you went to the Shaolin temple and got accepted as a disciple, you didn’t go in and pay them; you worked in the gardens, you swept the temple, you did the monks’ laundry, you cooked in the kitchen, you cleaned the dishes. You did things because you had a moral obligation, a higher sense of duty; you assumed a debt to the monks. As recently as 50, 60 years ago--and I’m sure it is still this way in parts of the Orient--A sensei would only teach his clan or village. One of the many functions and benefits a sensei was expected to have was an ability to protect and create an environment for the students to learn and thrive within. The disciples had an obligation to uphold these teachings and demonstrate how superior they were to those of the other villages. They didn’t care about money, they cared about heart. The disciples carried the on of their teachers; they carried their teachers' burdens.

“A warrior has a higher sense of honor, a higher sense of purpose than a soldier has. There are soldiers of fortune. There are mercenaries in this world. A true warrior is different.

“The best example of this is a classic story, which happens to be true, called 'The 47 Ronin.' This tale dates from feudal Japan. One of the daimyos, or lords, hated a rival lord (Think of these men as princes or dukes, to use a European analogy). He tricked him in court. He insulted him so badly that the other daimyo drew his sword–which was a capital offense in the imperial court–and cut, but did not kill, the insulting lord. The offender was expected to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) in atonement, and he did. By default, all of his senior samurai were expected to commit suicide as well; after all, they had a giri to their daimyo. Well, they found out what had actually gone on: the treachery to their lord and the trickery involved. Yes, it was true that their daimyo lost his cool and committed a capital offense. But rather than commit seppuku, the 47 samurai became ronin: masterless samurai. They chose to disband. They pretended to be drunks. Some of them gave up their samurai ways totally and became merchants, or street peddlers. Some left their wives and took up with prostitutes. The 47 ronin were looked down upon by everyone (particularly other samurai) as being an absolute disgrace to everything their master had stood for.

“As it turned out, it was all a ruse to lull the offending daimyo into a false sense of security. The 47 ronin had chosen to become drunks, to let everybody underestimate them and hold them in disdain. They were no longer a threat and no longer in the front of anyone’s mind, having committed social (rather than honorable) suicide. One year to the date after their master’s death, they reconvened and attacked the insulting daimyo in his castle. They killed everyone. They killed him, all of his children, all the women, and all of his samurai. They had fulfilled their giri. They had carried their sense of on for a full year–groveling and acting like peasants, knowing that they were waiting their time, letting their vengeance seethe under control. The shogun was so impressed by this act of discipline and fidelity that instead of having the 47 ronin executed as common criminals, he allowed them to commit seppuku in honor of their master. Their sense of loyalty had transcended everything else in their lives.

“The story is such a perfect example of what we’re talking about. When the 47 ronin attacked and killed the daimyo, they beheaded him, washed his head, and took it to their master’s grave. Then they turned themselves in. They said, ‘This is our giri. When we were told to commit seppuku one year ago, we accepted that. But we could not accept the fact that the man who caused the death of our master through treachery was still alive.’

Photo by Alma Alvarado

“There’s a phrase in the martial arts that says, ‘The warrior cannot rest under the same heaven with the one who has dishonored his master.’ Today, this all sounds very extreme, very barbaric. Certainly we should be repelled by the fact that the ronin targeted the daimyo's family. Still, in our age of dissociation, of superficial attachments, this story nevertheless stirs something deep in the heart, something forgotten or long ago discarded. The fealty of these ronin for their departed master is, to me, a supreme example of loyalty.”