Thursday, March 2, 2017


by Phillip Starr

You only live twice;
once when you are born,
and once when you look death in the face.”
-Old Japanese Saying

In 1980, a television mini-series that told the fascinating but fictional story of several Dutch seamen and their English captain who had been shipwrecked on the coast of Japan in the 17th century. The Englishman was favored by one of the most powerful leaders in the small island nation and he insisted that the foreigner be taught how to speak Japanese as quickly as possible. This was a daunting task and the daimyo (territorial baron) decided that the responsibility for this task would fall to the local villagers with whom the Englishman had daily contact. If the Englishman was unable to speak Japanese within six months, every living soul in the village would be put to the sword.

The captain argued that this was terribly unfair; he could not possibly learn the language in such a short time and his failure to do so would result in the deaths of many innocent people. Even so, the daimyo's order stood. The foreigner considered the situation and then quickly scooped up a tanto (dagger) and threatened to take his own life if the order wasn't rescinded. He held the knife to his belly while the daimyo reminded him that suicide was against the foreigner's religious convictions. But the Englishman was determined and swore that he would kill himself unless the daimyo canceled the order. The daimyo flatly refused.

The tension was almost palpable as the foreign captain realized that the daimyo had called his bluff. The scene was played very well and I could easily imagine what was going through the captain's mind as he considered his options. A samurai who served the daimyo was seated next to the captain and his body tensed slightly as he sought to feel what was in the foreigner's mind.

Then the Englishman's countenance seemed to relax and his eyes looked far into the distance. He had accepted his fate and smilingly accepted death's coming embrace. As he moved the plunge the dagger into his belly, the waiting samurai lunged forward and wrestled the weapon away from him. The captain realized that he was not, in fact, going to die. He had looked death squarely in the face. The young lady who accompanied the foreigner everywhere and acted as his interpreter touched his shoulder and told him that he had entered into a new life; he had been “born again” because his former life had, for all intents and purposes, ended when he had looked into the eyes of death. He had stepped into a new life.

The concept of losing one's fear of death is, I believe, central to the practice of any martial art. Death is, after all, at the hub of all human fears. It is perhaps the most basic fear that we carry in our hearts and although it is useful in so far as ensuring that we don't act foolishly and do something terribly stupid, it is a stumbling block for those who tread the martial path.

When we face an opponent, whether it is a practice partner or a genuine assailant in a real life and death struggle, we must be ready, willing, and able to fully commit ourselves to the task at hand, which is the resolution of the conflict. This may require that we destroy the enemy. If we are concerned about our own survival; if we cling to the hope that we will survive and escape the clutches of death, we will be unable to fully commit ourselves. We will “hold back” one way or another – physically, mentally, and/or spiritually – and this flaw presents a skilled opponent with an opening that he can exploit. Only when we toss away our attachment to life can we be truly free to live fully and totally commit ourselves to any given task.

But how is this to be done? How can we free ourselves from this base fear? Different groups have approached this quandary in several different ways. Many of them suggest forms of meditation and introspection. Others say that the way lies in religious beliefs. But my own personal opinion is that the key lies in relentless, spirited training. It isn't something that can necessarily be achieved quickly but with concentrated effort, it is attainable. In the practice of individual basic techniques and kata it is essential to imagine that you are facing a real enemy who intends to do you grave bodily harm or take your life. When you engage in forms of two-person practice such as three-step or one-step fighting, your partner must have the intention of striking you with full power. You must respond in kind, without regard for your own survival. You must fully commit yourself to the destruction of your foe. However, both of you must remember that this is only practice and it is essential that you maintain absolute control over your techniques to avoid injuring each other. Of course, beginning students do not yet have the necessary skills to practice in this way and they should never attempt to do so. Rather, they should gradually build up to kind of gutsy practice over time. And of course, this kind of training should always be monitored by a qualified instructor.

It is my opinion that the real spirit of the martial ways cannot be fully realized without this type of bold practice. Yes, I see you over there on the sidelines shaking your head. You say that this kind of training is just too dangerous? Well, it's well to bear in mind that we practice a form of martial art. It's not an aerobics class, shuffleboard, or scrapbooking. Go back and read the old Japanese saying at the beginning of this short essay...

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