Essay prepared for masters of the Spiritual Martial Arts Association and
Kwang Jang Nim Chuck Blackburn 8th Dan
October 31, 2009
Table of Contents
2. Pyong Ahn; Peace and Balance
3. High School Wrestling
4. A Wandering Soul
5. American Sport Karate
6. The U.S. Military
7. First Class at A.S.U.
8. Last of the . . . hobo’s?
9. Rasta Karate
10. The Broken Bokken
11. Backwoods Warrior
12. Reunification with Grandmaster Blackburn at Warren Wilson College
13. Appalachian Ninja
14. Golden Blade I, II, III
15. Breaking the Form; the role of traditional hyung
16. Zen and the art of the Rifle
17. Kill in Complete Concentration and with Justice
18. The MMA phenomenon
19. Theology, Mystery, and Spiritism
20. Land of the Sky Martial Arts and Wilderness Skills School
Introduction The neatest thing about being a martial artist is the journey that we embark on and continue throughout our life. The journey is physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and affects all aspects of our being. I have written this story to give my instructors a picture of where I have been, where I am, and how they have inspired me to continue along the path – Kwang Jang Nim in particular. I hope you enjoy the essay and find some recognizable chapters in your life as well as some new things that you can appreciate. Tang Soo!
Pyong Ahn; Peace and Balance
When I was a kid my parents were an archetypal division of spirituality and philosophy. Mom was more new-agey and into emotional fulfillment and self-realization, Dad was more into traditional church and respect for a mysterious and mystical, but very existent God. They settled on a ‘Church’ named Unity Center of Christianity in Arden, NC, when I was around 10 years old. It was here that a certain martial arts school was known to do demonstrations from time to time.
Now for an average attendee the question begged to be asked, “What do meditation and spiritual contemplation have to do with violent action?” The students would line up in between the rows of church goers kicking pads, shouting “Ai Yaa!”, and doing various moves which all seemed to imply death to some invisible attacker. Chuck Blackburn, the school’s master instructor would then discourse on how violence starts in the mind, and that practicing self-defense does not mean we are violent people. In fact, he elaborated on how martial arts training can lead to a grounded state of well being that does much to prevent violence while preparing us for conflict with violent people. “Cool”, I thought.
Let me back up a bit and describe my state of being at this time. To understand what drives people into martial arts schools is important, and for me, it was as typical and shallow as could be expected of a 14 year old in public school. To say I was a skinny kid would be an understatement. I was the skinniest kid. School was something akin to torture for me, and had been for a long time. Some guy made fun of my legs on the ball field. Another picked on me in band. I was jumped by 8-10 fellows in the middle school parking lot because I was white, and had a mom that taught there, and got a little beaten up. I did successfully fend off a fist fighter at 8th grade graduation practice by hitting him as hard as I could after he pushed, slapped, then punched me in the face. He was knocked out which little did I know then, would become a story that followed me throughout high school preventing untold encounters with hardened idiots – “Don’t mess with Bolejack he’ll knock you out.” I, of course, attributed it to luck and just let the story play itself out. I wasn’t blessed with a large frame, or even a medium one, and I was a bit timid when it came to athletic affairs. This alone sets the stage for the next 8 years of my martial endeavors, because while I was physically small I was determined and very strong willed, and wanted to push myself and discover what limits, if any, there were for me.
So one day I found myself on a brick floored entrance to a sweat filled Dojang echoing with shouts and grunts. Master Blackburn and Mrs. Blackburn welcomed me in, gave me a uniform, and I began training in the art of Tang Soo Do. Korean ‘Karate’ as it is sometimes called, Tang Soo Do answered my need for internal and external strength training. I remember clear as day being held off the ground onto a car window in high school asking myself, “Where is all of this martial arts stuff I have been doing now?” and then going to class and staring in anger at the wall as we completed sets of 200 center punches. I had a fire, an anger, which was transformed into total immersion into martial arts. Looking back I don’t believe that was a bad thing at all, it’s just important that we have a vehicle to both transform emotions and also step beyond them over time.
There is a certain nostalgia for this time period. It haunted me in my years away from Master B, I would dream of things, and wonder if I could ever make it back to the Dojang where I started. We would congregate up at his cabin in the woods, shoot BB guns, talk about being prepared for the unknown, work out, and of course watch Star Wars. The Wu Wei weekends were really neat. I remember working on his secondary cabin and the tarp shelter up there. Years later I invested some time on the swimming pool as well. It was a special place for me at least in memory. I looked up to the senior belts with awe, and held pads for then Mr. Ginn, probably a second Dan at the time, but I’m not sure. I always had one question during these first few years, “If I could do that, could I take care of so-and-so?” It was all about not getting picked on. My high school was a little tough. I got messed for being white, and messed with for hanging out with black friends. I got messed with for being too preppy, and messed with for having long hair. I lost friends because I thought Yoga was cool, and messed with because I was interested in fighting arts. Tang Soo Do was an outlet for my frustrations and helped me learn just enough confidence to not fight over every perceived offence. I tested up to advanced orange belt at Pyong Ahn Dojang with Master Blackburn and shortly after decided, that for a time, my path was elsewhere. I never slowed my training, and always sought teachers, but some things pushed me out the door that took a few years to process and resolve.
High School Wrestling
During the first two years of high school I was overwhelmed with an urgent sense of the need to get tougher. I was fond of the idea of combative arts but felt as though, with such a smallish frame, I was destined to be the creative musician or perhaps a literary, philosophical member of society with no hope for a true test of metel against my peers. To find out if this was the case I undertook many endeavors with the idea that just taking the challenge itself would do much to strengthen my mind and body in hopeful ways. Plato once wrote that strengthening the body did much to blossom the mind, which in turn affected spirit. Neglecting one part did the whole an injustice. I joined my high school wrestling team and loved every minute of it. This was the beginning of a change for me. I discovered that different body types had both weaknesses and strengths. Sometimes a slender frame when used quickly and harshly applied could be quite difficult to contain and control, and that bony arms were painful against larger, softer appendages. I learned that if I could not win, I could at least surprise much stronger folks and sometimes could even use that surprise. If I used the surprise well enough I might just be able to win by putting someone in an irreversible position before they knew what was happening, or could use endurance to hang on long enough that their strength equalized with mine. This was the beginning of my understanding of strategy. Eventually I weighed the danger of damage with the potential for musical success and chose the latter. Each year I placed 1st in the state of NC in percussion/drumming and achieved great awards traveling and playing in the region. When my friend broke his arm in a match I realized I had received what I needed from wrestling and continued to pursue it in informal ways throughout my adult life. It is what kept me open to the skill and art of sport MMA, which I will address later in this essay.
A Wandering Soul I have to take a step away from the physical and address some larger questions I grappled with during this time. I believe martial art causes one to confront the greater and lesser elements, which lie dormant and hidden within us, elements which ask; “What are ethics?” “What is right and wrong?” “What is justice?” “What happens when we die?” “What happens if I kill, or injure?” During high school I found myself in a no man’s land, which has never changed, wherein complexity of thought defies barriers and boundaries and rebels against classification and label. What does that mean? It means I have a soft heart for the environment, and believe nature’s protection is our highest order, while also distrusting governmental power and central control of an economy. Oops! No easy platforms there. It means that I have a profound belief, or knowledge, of a Holy Creator and a vast spiritual realm that can be revealed within scripture, but I detest violent and narrow-minded judgment against cultures and people that results in the very things we are counseled to avoid. It means I am a pacifist, that I hate violence, that it makes me ill physically, and yet there are times and circumstance where there is nothing more noble than to stand one’s ground and die for a cause they believe to be true and good against the overwhelming odds of evil. “What is evil?”
During high school I found myself thrown far away from the traditional church, more akin to native philosophy (Cherokee in particular), and saw orthodoxy in many forms as the confusion of man. Even traditional, formalized martial arts fell prey to my own anti-judgment judgment, as I frowned on Katas, Hyung, hierarchy, and mindless masses. I found solace only in nature and so limited my scope to what I could observe and study in nature. Tom Brown Jr.’s work was a springboard into deep ecological awareness and a graduation of my life in Boy Scouts into ‘dirt-time’ college. I was active in environmental causes in the early nineties, creating mass petitions at school against representative Taylor’s salvage timber bills and I engaged in public speaking and writing. When I felt at odds with everyone and everything, like I had no strong support from anyone, my martial arts training helped anchor, and center, and calm my busied thoughts. I delved into Bruce Lee during this time. His philosophy affected me greatly, I paraphrase from memory;
When we forget about victory or defeat, only then does freedom discover the mind of man.
We often observe that natural talent produces greatness, but we may also find that intense desire produces not only greatness but its own natural talent as well.
Into the void the tiger can find no room to sink its claws, we become like a moon in the stream.
I will spare you more of what anyone reading this has already likely encountered, but those few quotes on the top of my head point to what I loved most about Mr. Lee.
To tie this in to church, evil, and my chapter on a wandering soul, let it suffice to be said that I was searching. What I now refer to as the pendulum effect was in full swing, so to say, as I swung away from much of my upbringing determined to find what it was to be a moon in the stream. Also, save the Earth. Also decry fundamentalist doctrine. Also…also…also. I studied sacred geometry with Drunvalo Melchizadek, received a third degree in Reiki healing, and received the Seal of the Tao from traveling folks from Taiwan. I was searching. And while my path continued on, and changed, and I changed a LOT from this period in my life, it was a formative time of searching and wondering with a heart aimed at great mysteries. The only constant was a heavy bag, front kicks, hooks kicks, jabs, and the kimah chaseh.
American Sport Karate
There was one thing I was still afraid of. Master Blackburn didn’t focus on free fighting much and the American Sport Karate School became, in my mind, the antithesis of Pyong Ahn methodology. In fact, Master B would picket the local toughman contest, a legal brawl fest in Asheville, while one local Karate Dojo held a half time event! Could you get any more polarized? Well, free fighting was intimidating to me. I was worried about being hit in the face. 4 years into my training I wanted to confront that issue, so where did I go? You got it. I walked right into the American Karate School and said, “Hi, I would like to join your class.” Here is what I learned from that experience.
One can learn a lot by watching senior belts. In general technique was sloppy and poorly controlled, there were no weapons per se, and forms were of so-so importance. We would work hard for about 20 minutes, maybe 30, techniques and general training, and then would fight for the remainder of class. Standard equipment was 12 oz gloves, mouthpiece, cup, and other pads including headgear. I was very frustrated to find out how hard it was to get through a wall of pads. Body weight played a greater factor than speed and precision because you could hammer through this wall of padding and there was not much exposed in the way of body targets. Timing was important, and fight rhythm was something I enjoyed contemplating. I got hit in the face – it wasn’t that bad. In fact I said that out loud in class and the Sensei reminded me, “Just remember getting hit in the face isn’t the point, it’s hitting the other guy”. Oh yeah. I found that my Cobra Kahn image from Karate Kid 1 wasn’t quite accurate as these boys just had a good time fighting it out, and were friendly enough. I will never forget getting involved with a tournament and him asking what rank I was. I told him I had trained for a few years and was advanced orange with Master Chuck Blackburn. He thought for a minute and said, “You know, just put on this white belt I don’t have anyone good in that rank to fight, we’ll clean up at the tournament.” Ha! I began learning about tournament Karate. It got even better when he told us all, “Look, if you hit someone too hard and get disqualified I’ve got a trophy for you back here at the dojo, don’t worry about it.” Ha! Wow. Now I see more differences in our schools.
My final lessons with this school were more technical in nature. One of my good friends had a black belt, a new one, from that dojo. He was strong and in good shape, maybe 17 or 18 years old. I noticed he felt uncomfortable when I would switch sides free fighting. I also noticed he could not round house kick well with his right foot. He said, “You don’t ever want to switch sides, fight with your strong side”, or something like that. I couldn’t help but disagree and asked about having potential injuries on the strong side, the need for self defense, adaptability, and so on. He explained, “If you have an injury you shouldn’t be fighting”. It dawned on me, the differences between sport style fighting and combative arts, traditional training, the old ways. As a test I asked him to take his gear off and free fight with no pads. He couldn’t believe it, I explained we would use control but I had a theory. My theory was that without the pads to block I could use speed and precision to equalize for his size and aggression. I nailed him. Peet chagi, yup chagi, straight jabs, double lo-hi round house, back kick. It was a different game. I decided American Sport Karate wasn’t for me, but I was no longer afraid of a bleeding nose, or swollen lip. I appreciate those lessons and stay in touch, on occasion, with Sensei to this day - even occasionally sitting in to judge his tournaments!
The U.S. Military
Speaking of great conundrums, there I sat in Honors English III. My radical brethren all around scoffing at the U.S. Army recruiter who administered an Occupational Specialty test. Profane graffiti marred their forms and my lesbian project assistant rolled her eyes flipping occasional birds from underneath her desk. When the questionnaire came around, “Would you like to talk to a recruiter or receive more information on armed forces service?” I secretly, quietly, checked the YES box. No one had any idea. I was filled with excitement, a rush coursed through my veins. I was not quite 18 years old, but what better way to see if I could hang than join the freakin’ Army? Besides, one of the great complexities I struggled with was a powerful sense of patriotism and love of America despite the sins of our past and present. I was captivated by the feeling of serving my country. And the best part?
“Well, Spencer, MOS 12 Bravo sounds like it’s right up your alley.”
“What is that exactly?”
“Combat Engineering – you get to blow s**t up.”
“It’s all me, let’s go for it.”
My liberal mother was crying about her only son being cannon fodder for the Pentagon, my Dad was tearing up with pride - I was just nervous and excited. I left home for the first time on a bus to Charlotte, NC, en route to Ft. Leonard Wood, MO.
Now this may seem like a distraction in the overall essay but I consider ‘martial’ to be a big word. Military related and battle training whether corporeal or spiritual is inextricably tied together throughout my life. This experience was perhaps the most powerful physical element on my path as a warrior and it must be included in my martial arts essay.
Something that all styles take students through is the barrier of what they expect of themselves, and what they think they can do. This mental block is perhaps the greatest limiting factor on our own achievement and ability to accomplish goals in business, school, or athletic endeavors. Basic training for 12-Bravo soldiers is not on par with standard basic for drivers, communications, or even infantry. 12 B’s stand alone, train alone, advance alone, and then get segmented out into their battalions. I went so far beyond my own limits that I entered a phase of robotic exhaustion. I realized the human body can go, and go, and go, and that certain physical factors must be in place for continued performance. For short duration nothing is needed, for longer duration calories, injuries, foot care, and morale must be attended to - the equation was almost cold and scientific. To my ego’s pleasure I was one of 5 guys who passed the first PT test in my platoon of 60 men. The big muscle guys that made me feel like an ant in the Indoctrination Phase - shots and hair cuts - struggled to get over logs and crawl through mud. I was also humbled. Some things were hard to learn, I was nothing but a number, and I was absolutely convinced that the drill seargents wouldn’t care if lived, died, or was maimed as a result of their poor decisions, irrationality, or general insanity.
For days, at the beginning, we would run and yell everywhere. We were not allowed to look up. We were not allowed to taste food. We were covered in salt from sweat. We were forced to drink huge amounts of water without spilling a drop, all while being screamed at through megaphones. The DSs explained that we were leftovers from a scheduling error and they were supposed to be on vacation, so we ruined their summer. What a summer it was. When all of the other soldiers were resting at the store, drinking soda, talking on the public phone, or playing a video game, we low crawled across the parking lot and were allowed to buy, specifically; Soap, 3x5 inch, white. One guy bought a T-Shirt, stuffed it into his drawers and got away with it. Until 3 am the next morning when we were thrown out naked, all of the barracks material was tossed out the windows; beds, clothing, until they found the shirt. I never saw that guy again. We had 15 minutes to stow our gear and be back asleep.
A deep realization in martial arts happened during our combatives phase of training. The instructor hollered that in battle small motor control goes awry, large muscle groups and muscle memory save the day and that those still function when adrenaline and fear have taken control of our nervous system. So what did we learn? Front stance, horse stance, back stance (sort of). We did stomp kicks, low side kicks, back kicks, basic throws, ridge hand, elbows, forearms – just like one steps but even more profound – just like BASIC FORMS. Surely Uncle Sam wouldn’t invest training time doing some out of date obsolete stuff from ancient dead guys? And wait, Bruce Lee said… This was just the beginning of my re-introduction and respect for traditional Hyung. Just the beginning, but a turning point.
Finding muscular exhaustion is difficult for beginners because the path there is painful. We found it regularly. One particular instance was the bayonet assault course wherein one would jump and crawl and needle through barbed wire and water and mud, all the while screaming “Kill! Kill! Kill!” Military desensitization at its best.
My mental state was challenged as well. During this time my poetic side did not die, I composed songs while marching in time. I pondered mass behavior, the foreign policy tool of a powerful military, and how things could happen in the moment of combat that would not be considered in civilian life. My parents separated during basic, my girlfriend said she was breaking up with me in a letter, and a drill seargent thought I said, “Shut the f*** up” to him during a certain exercise, which I didn’t, but I was about to get destroyed and written up. I spent some nights on the toilet meditating, finding peace, and breathing deeply. One day on a range we were firing live rounds running down this muddy field. I hit a wall. I wanted to lay and cry. Stupid it seems, but it was real for me at the time. I looked over to my right and a huge red hawk landed on a light pole and stared down at me. Red Hawks have often come to me in wilderness in unusual and conspicuous ways at important times, so my spirits lifted. I flew with him high overhead, and thought of my mountain home. I learned to let my spirit travel when my mind was incapable of lifting my body because Mind itself had become ensnared in illusion and misery.
First Class at A.S.U.
It was somewhat disheartening to arrive on a college campus, buzzed Mohawk and all, and realize that all of that training and experience did not magically turn me into some kind of intimidating killer. In fact, I was as skinny as usual, albeit harder, and felt diminutive next to the college boys of Justice Hall Dormitory. It didn’t help that this was the ‘jock’ dorm where the Appalachian State Football Team, as well as basketball, rugby, wrestling, all spent their nights. I found that as I grappled with questions that every young martial artist asks I came up with the same answer, “Keep training”.
It is amazing how much misery one can inflict on one’s self by constant comparison and judgment. I didn’t have a lot of spiritual exposure to provide grounding and balance so I just trained harder than ever. I met a Moo Duk Kwan stylist who had an Eedan, we did forms and free fought for fun. I devised something that exists in my own school to this day called the Dragon Award. The dragon award is simply a ridiculous number of techniques and exercises, which are completed within a six-month period. I wore my orange belt from Pyong Ahn and eventually gained enough confidence to take my workouts down to the lounge area underneath the lobby of the dorm.
One day a hulking beast of a fellow walked by and said, “What is this, Kung Fu?” I was sure he would attempt to kill me and I’d be forced to dismember him with Army Finishing Moves, but no, he asked if he could work out with me. This was my first class. I made clear that I was nothing in martial arts but loved training - the passion was contagious. Before long I had these big fellows hanging out, showing me pictures of their high school football exploits and wrestling tournament wins in local papers. We did kicks, blocks, one steps, and basic forms, and had a real respect for one another. I even took the class outside on occasion and we trained in the yard for various spectators. If not for me I figured no one would mess with the class much because the combined weight of 5 students likely equaled my old VW. This was my introduction to the effectiveness and importance of leadership.
I ended up taking two special courses at ASU on leadership that shaped this blossoming understanding.
I failed that first year of college pretty bad, not in all classes, but in general attitude. I found that I harbored hostility toward people I perceived to be slovenly citizens that had no appreciation of what freedom costs. I was frustrated that so many peers just wasted away with drugs and alcohol, and sex was wild and everywhere. I had this burning aggression from the Army that wouldn’t go away. I buried myself in training and music and had little interest in school. So I quit.
I went back a year later and tried again. Martial arts continued. I wanted to start a class again but didn’t feel right wearing the orange belt. My MDK friend had taught me forms and kicks to Cho Dan, but I had nowhere to test. I fasted and took a vision quest to the high mountains and prayed over what next step to take in martial arts. The teachers I found were poor, and students around were a step down it seemed. The mountain where I went is a sacred place to me and has been for over 20 years now. It was a ceremonial area for the Cherokee for centuries, and the place where I buried my pony tail before leaving for Basic Training. I had hoped that if they took everything from me, or corrupted my soul, that I could go back to this mountain and through prayer find that gentle spirit and peaceful person who loved life and the Earth. I decided on the vision quest to call what I practiced Tang Soo Chung Jik Do; the way of honesty through Tang Soo Do training. It meant that if I was honest with you then the pretense of belts was not necessary, and that the most important honesty was with myself because anyone could buy any color of belt they wanted and be anything they made up. I wore a midnight blue belt in honor of Tang Soo Do Moo Duk Kwan Cho Dan rank.
Back at ASU for the second time, I had a focused plan. I worked harder at school and developed a curriculum for the martial arts class. We were a bit over the top and climbed the rock library, ran around campus barefoot, did pushups in the gravel, and so on. It was healing for me and that burning aggression started to dissipate. I started to love others again. Many good friends to this day were part of this class. We had guest teachers, belt tests, demonstrations, took campouts, and worked hard. I had been training for around 7 years at this point. It was 1998.
Now you may remember me mentioning Tom Brown Jr. in the first chapter. The parallel to all martial arts practice for me was tracking and woods awareness. They fit hand in hand in my mind because in battle being aware would be critical, hiding is great for a peaceful person (or one hopelessly outgunned), and surviving off of the land is fundamental in my doctrine of self defense. Our class did a lot of stalking, tracking, and running around the woods. We had fun infiltrating frat parties up at the pond behind ASU, pulling off various pranks and so on. Luckily we never ended up having to use any hands on escape techniques! I loved following a trail, watching the beauty of the forest, and running around in camo. It was what I grew up doing only now the stakes were a little higher. A grown man caught sneaking around a park has some explaining to do. So it was with great excitement that I read my first title by Stephen K. Hayes, Mystic Arts of the Ninja.
While the title is a bit hoaky, and the idea of ninjas a bit 80’s, the book really took me by surprise. I was trying to wrap my mind around the ultimate goal of martial arts training, the ideal environment for self defense techniques, realizing that this would differ from student to student depending on where they lived. This eventually led to my theory called Doctrine, Strategy, Tactics or DST, as a method of maximizing training toward specific operational goals in any discipline. My Doctrine, as it formed early on, was geared toward wilderness awareness, martial arts for self-defense and physical agility in the outdoors. Mr. Hayes had crafted a book that dealt with historical warriors who specifically adapted their training to the outdoors dealing with such topics as navigation, night time travel, meteorology, philosophy, stealth and stalking, edible and medicinal plants, tracking, and shugendo. Shugendo was a old Japanese practice of subjecting oneself to rigors in the wild for spiritual purification and strengthening. Literally translated it means, “ascetic mountain power cultivation”. This was much in keeping with the idea of Vision Quest and it seemed like the Cherokee had a lot in common with these old school fighting farmers of the Iga and Koga region. Some of the language terms are even similar.
After reading that Hayes had been a Korean stylist for years and transitioned into Ninjutsu with the help of Masaaki Hatsumi, Soke of the nine schools, I decided to write Hayes and request permission to train with him. With an email invitation from his senior instructors I left that summer for Dayton, Ohio, to live with grandparents and return to the stomping ground of my early youth (grades 2-5). While Mrs. Hayes, an accomplished budoka and master of the naginata, was friendly enough, I was disappointed to discover unbridled commercialism at the dojo. Contracts, steep fees, and a closed dojo culture were unwelcoming to me this first visit. That same day, in Dayton, Ohio, I passed another school named the Brown Institute of Martial Arts. I checked it out. Guru Jeff Brown shook my hand, told me to train for a week before deciding, said there were no contracts, and then turned on some Phillipino drum tunes and proceeded to further alter my understanding of ‘martial art’. There I stayed for the summer.
While he was ranked in Thai Boxing, Kempo, and some other things, I studied Pencak Silat Mande Muda with him. We primarily worked on circular entrapments and with weapons including sticks and knife. While I only remember half a dozen techniques that survive in my body memory to this day because of their effectiveness, Guru Brown became part of my body feeling. His intensity was inspiring and changed my general philosophy. I was starting to grasp just how many martial artists were out there, good ones, true warriors, and how hopeless a course it would be to fight better or even equal to them, and this hurt my hopes at martial greatness. It did, however, force me to examine the martial arts from a more spiritual perspective, which became more important over the coming years.
So my introduction to Ninjutsu was a bit anticlimactic, but the textbook remained in my library. When I returned to the mountains it traveled with me, and I read it often. I had a feeling my time with this mysterious art was not finished but this just wasn’t the time. I liked the idea of ‘enlightenment’ through martial training, being close to nature and depending on mother Earth for physical survival. I liked the idea of outmanned farmers using creativity to survive against all odds, and that Hatsumi wrote with heart and humor revealing a child like nature and quirky spirit. I liked the idea of “use anything that works”. I absorbed what I could and continued on the martial path.
Last of the . . . hobo’s?
Anyone who has trained with Kwang Jang Nim Blackburn is aware of his knowledge of survival and preparedness. If you can imagine being a middle schooler inspired by J. Craig’s My Side of the Moutain, Tom Brown Jr., and life of Boy Scouts, and convinced that the world as we know was facing imminent collapse and then taking that obsession into adult life – that was me in late 1998. I was facing a structured life of graduation, a teaching career, and who knows what, and had not really pushed myself into unknown territory. The Army was unknown in a sense, but structured all the same. School was structured – life had become a box. Something clawed at me, it tugged, and pulled at my spirit. I wanted to really apply those tracking skills, I wanted to see if I could live in the wilderness. I wanted time to train. I was frustrated by the culture around me. Then I met Eustace Conway.
Only because it was the ‘free’ choice among school functions, I visited Turtle Island Nature Preserve with other future teachers from ASU. Eustace directed the program. This man had lived in the wilderness for 30 years. He rode a horse across America setting a world speed record. He canoed the Mississippi and rode a bike across New Zealand. He walked the Appalachian Trail in underwear! He could sneeze and a deer would fall out of the woods! Ok, not really, but he lived hunting, farming, animals, alternative power, mechanics, building without modern devices, woods first aid, and so on. I was blown away. I immediately approached him and asked to work on the farm while the other students were learning how to make a fire or something. He said ok - I built my first erosion dam on a creek bank under a hand built covered bridge, by myself. Then we skinned logs, limbed a few trees, and shoveled horse poop. The other students complained about not having hair dryers and coffee, but I was hooked. “If he can do it, I can do it”, but how. I had a full scholarship, which was in jeopardy already. My parents were so happy I went back to school. I had an apartment leased and winter was approaching.
As it turned out my martial arts class had a belt test, which I conducted in the high mountains west of Asheville, that same sacred place where I buried the ponytail. I took about 5 or 6 students out for a 4 day trip where we studied wilderness skills, tracking, worked out together, and built shelters. Green belt training included many sorts of outdoor activities from invisible shelters, cold weather study, knots, and night movement. During one late night around a fire I heard breathing in a bush 15 yards from our fire. I called out, “If you’re friendly come on in and join us, otherwise go away.” I put my hand on a hunting knife, and everyone else looked around nervously. Out walked a fellow in jeans wearing an old bandana and carrying a duffel bag. He sat down at the fire. There was something about this fellow. Tall with darkened skin, he said his name was Roy. He had a handmade buckskin pouch, which came around the fire for me to see. I placed a nice crystal I had found in the pouch, and sent it back. He passed the pouch back around after taking the crystal and said, “Keep it, it’s for you.” He said he was heading down into the Dark Valley, one of my most intimate places in wilderness. I had never seen a human there - I didn’t know anyone else even knew about it. He talked about the old warrior spirits, strange things, that his Cherokee tribesmen still danced the ghost dance there, and that it was a sacred place for him as well. I told him about an old railroad I once found down there, he said there was a cast iron stove down the tracks. He asked me about this certain waterfall, I told him where I caught a fish just below it. We became best friends.
Now this story is important because one after another these seeming flashes of fate, synchronicity, were more than my skeptical mind could take. It seemed like something was happening. Here were the teachers I had been searching for. As we left that camping spot and walked back to the parking lot a day later I cried. Everywhere I looked I saw trash, disrespect for the Earth, human feces, paper, foil, and rude people. I cried because I saw what we were doing to our home, and how beautiful our home is, and I realized I would rather die there than live one more day in my own civilization.
After a belt test we would always watch a movie. Last of the Mohicans was the title of choice this time. When the film ended I had a big smile on my face. Green Belt Christy Blankenship asked, “What’s gotten into you?” I had decided the next course of action. Maybe the passion portrayed in that story reminded me of what was dying inside me. Perhaps I realized we only have one chance to really live. Whatever it was I was gone. I gave away my things that week. My ARR status at the 321st Engineer Battalion had converted to Individual Ready Reserve. I sublet my apartment. I gathered a trunk of warm clothes and a backpack and headed to the woods. I don’t know that I have ever felt quite like I did that breezy fall day. It was October 19th, 1998.
I showed up at Eustace’s Preserve and offered to work for him, he accepted. And so I became a master at Pine and Oak shingle making. I learned to ride horses, cook over fire – I mean really cook over fire, every day. I bathed in the creeks, discovered native ceremony and lore, tracked, harvested, shot, and most of all learned how to endure winter cold in the Appalachian Mountains with no stove or even a building. While living with Eustace I met Nathan Roarke who directed education programs at the time. He was a black belt in Karate and a beast of a man. He showed me how to shoot instinctive style traditional archery and Cherokee Tomahawk throwing, something which I have developed into a system of sorts and teach today. We compared spoken dialects of the old ‘Tsalagi’ tongue. I have watched him raise a fine family of two girls with his wife Holly up a little cove named Buckskin Hollow.
Nathan would run a series of targets through the woods so an archery session was like playing golf. Each “hole” required different skill sets, shooting positions, angles, obstacles, and lighting problems. Thomas Garabino, a student of Dan Inosanto and the Jiu Jutsu Academy in Pheonix Arizona, would wrestle with us in the evenings. I really learned what ‘seeing stars’ was all about with these folks. We’d train in the cow pasture at night, but when a good choke was applied it looked like daytime for a second! One time I slammed Nathan down and had him in a bad position, maybe even choking him out. This was surely nothing more than my surprise strategy. He looks like Braveheart and built his family’s cabins by hand in the middle of nowhere. He’s a tough fellow. He now stands to inherit the senior instructor position at the Blue Ridge Kung Fu School in Boone where he has been training for maybe a decade, starting after we met. Nathan was part Cherokee as well and continues passing traditional knowledge of his tribe through his own wilderness education center.
This all sounds quite adventurous and romantic so it should be mentioned that my practical side did have serious problems to grapple with. My girlfriend, a beautiful young woman who followed me from high school to ASU, was challenged by my insistence on a lack of bathing, wild hair, huge beard, and willingness to live outside society. My Mom thought I had gone insane and tried to get me counseling sessions. I remember hitching a ride toward my shelter one night when my old car had broken down. The streets were cold and empty, my stomach ached, I was alone. In the woods I was alone, and I wondered what my problem was. What was I doing, what was I sacrificing, would I ever have the chance to go to school again, or date such a wonderful lady, or have any money, or even a car, or food to eat? I thought, “So this is a how a hobo gets his start.” These are all things that a wanderer struggles, or at least deals with. They were important on my martial arts journey because it made me look inward, then upward, for fulfillment. The denial of physical comfort, whether “ascetic power cultivation” or just plain misery, pushed me to see beauty in otherwise spartan circumstance and appreciate the small and free things in life.
After a time with Eustace I realized that the first step was a success. I could live in the woods in winter – that daunting time of stillness, freezing temperatures, wild winds, and little to eat.
My family had contacts with folks in Jamaica when I was a kid. We went quite a few times when I was younger camping out and staying with locals in and behind the small beach town of Negril. One particular person of interest remained friends with my Mom over the years. She was a retired nurse, a wise and holistic woman who ran an inn in Richmond, Virginia. She also kept reins on a small house in the hills behind Negril after the wild decades of the 70’s and 80’s passed by. I spoke with her over Christmas that Winter, honoring the growing question in my mind, “If I can survive Appalachia in the Winter I bet the Caribbean would be a breeze.” She needed help fixing up the cabin on the island. I wanted to get out of the cold, and see more of the world. In addition there was something in that Rastafarian culture that beckoned. I loved Reggae, my Dad called Bob Marley a black prophet, and blue water sounded great after months of frozen mud and ice.
So I moved to Richmond, VA, with the promise of room and partial board at the Inn in exchange for work, and hoped to save enough money to get to the island. This is included in my martial arts essay because it was probably the most intensive training and personal growth period I have had. I slept on a hardwood floor and had to be up early as my room was an eccentric clothing and gifts shop. Mary was a driven woman of high character and expectation. She shopped for fresh food daily and taught me about the urban wilderness, which was new to me. I trained each morning and often rode a bike to the city park where I would read martial and philosophical authors and work out on my own. Mary turned me onto Chogyam Trungpa and Sacred Path of the Warrior. She forced me off of sugar, and made me drink lots of water. Her meals were Ital, a multi use Rasta term for natural in the highest (I-est) sense. She covered her building with paintings of thanks and praise and did something each night that was unusual for me at the time, we prayed.
The book Annals of the Sword Taia by Takuan Soho was a regular meditation for me, but most of all, above all other writings, one hit hard and deep. The Penguin books edition of Dhammapada, a collection of Buddhist scripture, translated by Juan Mascaro, was something unique. I list the detail on that work because I have read other versions and none, for me, are so finely attuned to the high orders of the heavens in a simple, unrefined, honest way. Meaning “Path of Truth”, the Dhammapada made reference to one’s lonely existence as a monk, and praised chastity. It reinforced the idea that our mind has a powerful effect on our experience, not by changing reality itself as is commonly found in new age theory, but by altering our perception and response to reality. It was an absolute study of pacifism, and challenged my martial exercise. It resounded in my soul on a level I cannot explain and made me question the need to harm or kill for any reason, even self-protection. Mary added a level of complexity to this by explaining that our food was simply a form of energy, and that what we ate affected us on many levels of awareness. If we ate food that had been handled and prepared by violent souls, or material that had been killed with a traumatic and forceful event, then some of that experience would find its way into our own cells and mind. So I quit eating meat. I did this not for any political or emotional pro-animal reasons as much as simply wanting to find where this path was leading to.
This was the most disciplined period of my life. Early rising, hard training, good diet, clean thoughts, meditation, and an unattached existence. I began to see attachment to the physical world a futile experience. Committing acts of violence to preserve what ultimately could not be preserved seemed silly, and sad, and the martial arts transformed into a path to reach deeper awareness and compassion. If the martial arts can lead to an enlightened state, this was as close as I have ever been. As I skated late at night past the alleys of downtown Richmond, I was free of fear, because something inside me had only love to share with others and did not see a need to preserve me with violent action. I think I even ran into some angels once, but that’s another story, and probably too far out for this paper! I did at times have a sense of wanting to share this journey with someone, a girl, but the loneliness itself was healing. Trungpa writes about the tender heart – that the warrior shows strength not by hardening his heart to feeling, but by keeping it tender. As in ripped open, sensitive to the touch, almost painful, raw to the world, that this was what kept the warrior on the sacred path. I felt that pain, that tender heart. Sometimes I still do, but not as often.
So I hope you are recognizing the importance of including this in a martial arts paper. A flower identified during its sprouting only is so incomplete, or during bloom, and this story is my path in the martial arts. I hope those reading this will see the flower in a greater entirety, which will explain where in the life cycle I am now, and perhaps reflect something in the history of your path as well.
Mary did one other thing that was new to me. She read the Bible daily. She had scriptural quotes around her quirky house of hanging plants, instruments, library, and artistic décor. She did not fit what I thought of as a Christian, and that challenged me. I had been raised in a traditional church and then went to Unity, which is a different ballgame, and then began to reject orthodoxy – much as I did in martial arts. I once had a vision of an army raid killing my native family that made me weep in the forest, and filled me with rage. I saw religious doctrine as a tool for controlling masses and blamed my own society for much of the world’s evil. But now, my rage had cooled. My tender heart listened when she explained her concept of “God”, and the fruit of her spirit was visible to me. I wasn’t exactly ‘converted’, and I don’t think that was on her mind anyway – she was a truly spiritual woman in a large sense of the term who loved Jesus, and was thankful to Jah, her word for God.
After enough painting jobs, and house repairs, and an introduction into the urban underground ambient music scene, I had the cash to go South.
I was a straight up wandering hippie at this point. I mean, a dumpster mining spirit filled staff carrying bearded weirdo. The details of life in Jamaica are for another writing endeavor but I will share a few pertinent elements. For one, the bushfolk of the Jungle took me in like a brother. If all of the above sounds like a roller coaster of dynamic change, Jamaica was a rocket ship. The true Rastamen were highly attuned to their natural world. They rose early and tended crops, fished and worked on crafts that honored the Earth. They were strong and fit, and of solemn temperament when going about daily affairs. They lived amidst poverty, in need at times of shoes, or food, with little formal education, and an exuberant thankful attitude that was affective and contagious. I felt a little like Daniel in the Lion’s Den; partner Aaron and I were the only outsiders, the only white folk for miles, and lived at the far edge of a massive ghetto on the edge of the forest. We cooked over fire daily, gathered rain water with bamboo troughs, and worked alongside the bushmen who taught us survival in that part of the world. As I trained each day kids would sometimes watch so, needless to say, I held a Tang Soo Do class. This was a Rasta Karate class; we would share natural meals, and stretch, and teach each other things. The Rastaman recites memorized biblical passages if he cannot read, and reads to his brethren if he can. He drums and feels the impact of each note as it carries his heart thoughts to great distances through time and space to the all hearing ears of almighty Jah. He sits around the fire and reasons late into the night, and sees the body as the temporary vessel of a living and eternal spirit endowed by a Holy Creator. He is a man of love and peace, and shares that through his vibrancy and positive presence, words, and outlook on life. He shuns lust and physical extravagance, and grows his body in a natural way with hair long and beard free from the vanity of a razor. He is clean, and bathes often, and uses the herbs and plants around him as gifts of a loving Jah for enhanced health, living, and insight into things.
Most of all, the Rasta believe that faith was a power. This was most intriguing to me because the native scouts had this idea too. If we walk into the wilderness with a spiritual connection to the creator and with creation then our needs will be met as are the needs of animals and the trees and the very Earth. Rastamen would travel through the bush, living as part of the Earth in simple harmony, but even in the city, or in other places, faith would provide for needs in a way that the pragmatic mind could not imagine. I was starting to feel this as a result of jumping, on some kind of faith, from the college course and into this wandering life. It seemed that clearly when I believed the creative spirit surrounded and moved through me and those around me then I would meet just who I needed to when I needed to. I would seem to be in the right places at the right time. And much more humbling than some Jedi sense, or some ninja awareness that could do a lot to build ego and create what Rasta’s would call an idol, this ‘magic’ happened with as little planning or effort, or pre-meditation as one could conceive. It’s like the simpleton who bends over to tie his shoe and gets missed by a stray bullet, and perhaps smiles his way on down the street unaware. I wanted to find what meditative secret, as a martial artist, could put us into this state of consciousness and have continued to discover it is simply having a grateful heart saying “Thank You” as often as possible in word and song.
As for the way of the peaceful warrior, one early morning we had a group of crack heads making noise down the hill from our position. My Cherokee friend Roy had joined me on the island at this point and our total number of four were facing an imminent machete battle. They had a perceived grievance and were throwing rocks and cussing at us. It had happened before but this time the tension was higher, they got closer and closer. I readied my home-made nunchakus and planned an ambush if they came through the door. They entered the yard swinging their weapons and yelling. Roy was in a place of deep peace at this time as we were trying to emulate the Rasta teachings and trained together, and read, and reasoned with our texts ever present. Roy decided to go talk to them, thinking that he could create harmony, and he did, and to this day I wonder exactly what he said as we peered from behind a window sill weapons at the ready. Roy explained they were upset and needed the reassurance of a true peaceful warrior.
The Broken Bokken not chronological in chapter sequence
In my early twenties I had been involved in martial arts for about 9 years and missed the nostalgic memories of training at the Dojang with (then) Master Blackburn, and often wondered what Mr. Ginn was up to. Master Ginn had set a standard in my mind that I saw when I trained. Everytime I filmed myself kicking, or was kicking a pad, or free fighting someone, I would envision him as a young EeDan and remember how it felt to hold the pads for him, or fight him with him standing on one leg. I remember wondering if I would ever be able to kick like that, I remember that scary face and intense ‘eye stance’ he would get, and emulated it to the best of my ability. I hoped to one day in the future heal whatever rift had occurred and continue learning from him. It was in this spirit that one day while I was wandering around downtown Asheville I decided to go in the store that had once been the Dojang of my teenage years.
Entering through the doorway was a rush of emotions from the fears of my first night in class, to the hope of continued training, to a solemn look at how much my life had changed and where the quest of a martial artist had already taken me in the quick years of high school and early college. The brick floor entrance was the same, and the layout was similar. While inside I decided to say hello to the store owner and ask if he knew any of the history to the building. As we were conversing my eye caught something leaning in the back corner of the store. There against the far wall was an old broken bokken, taped in the middle with packing tape with a strip or two of electrical tape around it was well. I asked if I could check it out and of course the store keeper said that was fine. Upon further inspection I discovered holes in the top and bottom of the wooden sword and realized it was the old sign hanger for Pyung Ahn Dojang, martial training school of peace and balance. This sword had hung over Lexington Avenue for many years in turn holding up the Yin Yang/Seagull combination that is the logo of the Spiritual Martial Arts Association.
I asked the store owner if I could have it after telling the story. To this day that bokken sits somewhere high on the wall of my home dojo, occasionally making its way to a test where it stands over the students, and me, reminding me of where my martial arts path started, that a sword doesn’t have to mean force and violence – in fact, it is a path of peace, and balance.
The Backwoods Warrior
When I returned to the United States the wandering hippie had transformed into something different. As an outsider to the system that a Rasta refers to as Babylon I probably looked weirder than ever. Wearing sandals, an old blanket, and some olive green shorts, I passed through the gates of the American airport into a sterile world. I didn’t look down on the people I saw, recognizing at this point that pride in self-awareness was as dangerous as drunkenness, or anger, perhaps worse, because it grabs us right when we think we are developing as a spiritual warrior. I did see a cold people, dead spirits living separate from one another and their Earth, and without connection to a living spirit of the Creator in what form that was beginning to manifest for me. Babylon, the visible form of mankind’s fallen nature as evidenced by a society that is ordered by power and greed, and an unsustainable path of misallocated resources and rampant destruction, was my country. Only by living, and growing outside of the system could I see the system from the inside. It was the Matrix, for me – a movie that was in theaters when I arrived back in the states to my great synchronistical horror.
While Mary gave me a temporary home, perhaps to adjust a bit to a world of empty roadsides and high tech communication, I was not finished with this Rastaman journey. With absolute conviction that Jah would provide me with what necessities I would require, I took to the woods in my own southern Appalachian Mountains staying far in the bush for another two years. Roy joined me again for maybe 6 months on a lone mountainside where we trained together and continued to contemplate the mysteries of faith, gardening, women, and fine weapons. I was able to apply skills as a hunter, a tracker, and a craftsman to stay warm, fed, dry, always in rapture at the beauty around. Most of all that subtle miracle, the urge to smell a flower that results in a jackpot of larvae, the stopping to listen to a special stream that means a falling tree does so alone, drove me to not believe but know a God was out there and heard my inept presence crashing through the forest in search of His mysteries.
In simpler words, by staying attuned to what is beautiful and being thankful, it seemed that each day my world was visited by small miracles. If I was trespassing on some government land, noticing something unique to the landscape and following my curiosity saved me a great deal of trouble from the roving vehicle patrol. If I saw a nice view and went to check it out I’d find a stash of edible plants, or bugs, or honey, or nuts. It seemed like simply being human, living what was the Rasta way, wandering by feeling more than thought, amazing gifts would just happen. The bushmen of that distant island often referred to a bible verse that claims, “Do not the birds and animals of the forest have everything provided for them, are you not even more precious than these?” Like the scene in an Indiana Jones movie where Jones steps out over a chasm on faith and finds a hidden plank beneath him, so too nature and spirit somehow merge to give the natural man warmth, food, morale, art, music, company, all that he should desire within creation.
This flow of spirit and circumstance is exactly what I thought Tom Brown Jr. described as the scout mentality. It is how I found the Cherokee Warriors Society Ghost Dance Ceremony when I joined that group, tracking them until dusk over a mountain ridge and up a creek bed by feeling more than sign. It also seemed to be what Takematsu Sensei alluded to and Soke Hatsumi, Masaaki wrote about when discussing the heart of ninjutsu. More than smoke bombs and throwing stars, the historical ninja wanted to merge with this unseen stream of fate and doing so was not a magic technique or deep meditative mantra – it was having love for humankind, nature, and a heart of gratitude.
By living in the woods I had the opportunity to really think on this at length and see it play out as I struggled with loneliness, hunger, cold, and the fears that inevitably arise. By watching the same natural landscape for days and days, in different seasons and weather conditions, I could pick out the subtle changes caused by some foreign disturbance – a poacher, an incoming weather front, or a silent hunting animal like Coyote. During this time I continued with my hyung, trained with nunchaku regularly, and carried my jo staff everywhere. It also occurred to me that the act of being invisible, while first studied because of some ‘cool’ factor, was an exercise in awareness and allowed me to watch and see things that most of us miss. It was a small act to remain in an area undetected for hours, days, or in a few cases weeks, as I learned to sleep under bushes, build smokeless fires, and gather what I needed from the landscape.
When I returned to college to finish my degree in education the greatest lesson thus far arrived to see if I could apply this learning in a real way. My car engine blew up. Then my house burned. I was out of money and the scholarship was used up. Then someone stole my two dogs that I lived in a barn with. I continued going to school, living once again in the woods. The Y2K stash of one year’s food/ammo/candles/clothing really paid off – I didn’t have to buy any of those things to live my primitive existence. I’d bike to the bus, catch it, shower at the gym, and sometimes sleep in my library research room (unknown to library workers). I eventually made it through earning a B.A. in Education, certified Social Studies/History for secondary education and later middle grades as well. It was a wild period and one that gave me time to study martial arts in word and physical training, face some deep fears, and come to know the woods in an intimate way.
Reunification with Grandmaster Blackburn at Warren Wilson College
Loyalty. That’s a strong word. It is rendered almost meaningless in a society where nationalism is frowned on, hard competition is politically incorrect, marriage is temporary, and traditions are becoming more obsolete. In all of the time I was away from Pyong Ahn I always called Master B, Master B. He was my teacher. I also was hopeful that one day I could train with Master Ginn again. In the years of watching and training with other martial artists, visiting schools, and learning about styles, I never encountered anyone who had both the internal balance or curiosity at least, and quest for peace combined with absolute fighting ability that the SMAA school of thought developed. Master Ginn’s technical precision remained unequalled, in my opinion. Master Blackburn’s willingness to use the martial arts as a path to something greater, even healing, without being seduced into mere combat or competition was an attribute hard to find in other schools. Through whatever means, and I don’t remember now, I got in touch and visited their classes and re-established a relationship in Asheville. I buried and left behind those things that had pushed me away to start with and hoped these teachers would give me the same grace. I sat in and eventually joined the Warren Wilson Martial Arts class Master Blackburn taught and was placed at the rank of red belt, 1st gup I believe. He seemed pleased that I had continued training and that I was not simply wanting to get back ‘into it’. I worked at his house, and for his landlords, and helped teach some at the class. When the Tae Kwon Do master, 4th Dan John McGee (TKD Moo Duk Kwan), decided to leave, and Master B moved on, I sort of merged those classes and continued teaching there myself for a period of a few years. This is about the time when I approached Master Blackburn about testing and received a provisional Cho Dan with the promise I would take a test with the association as soon as possible.
Master Blackburn and I have had some bumps in the road, no doubt. I believe this essay need not go there and I am not sure what I would say anyway, other than I hope my aging brings with it a maturity and respect that is evident to my instructor. I will do my best to be on time and honor him and his association with careful teaching, correct technique, good spirit, and humility. I apologize that my actions, real or perceived, led to a harsh break that kept us separate for so long.
Over the past couple of years I have stayed in communication enough to let him know that I remain loyal to him and the association and would like to bring my school into the fold of the SMAA family. He called a few months ago and said, “Spencer, there is a test in December in Orlando.” And so begins the next chapter of our relationship and journey. Probably the most rewarding thing so far on this new turn of events has been joining Master Ginn’s school, working out hard, and continuing with someone I admire and look up to in the martial arts world.
Politics and communication within a martial arts association need to be tended with care. It is my goal to ensure our camaraderie continues to the benefit of one another and all of the students that we will train and inspire from this day forward.
It has been said, “When the student is ready the teacher appears.” After my time in the woods I began to respect the traditions and philosophy of that age old art of the invisible assassins with great intensity. Now please understand I use that description somewhat tongue-in-cheek, there is no greater divergence between reality and perception than that which exists among the ryu of the feudal Japanese farmers known as Shinobi warriors and what we think of as black clad star throwing robots that die in hordes. What I came to believe is that the accepted legitimacy of the modern school was almost irrelevant because the writings spoke to me and pulled together the experiences I had in the woods. Writers old and new from the Ninjutsu lineage were quirky, playful, and deep, with an essence that could not be faked – it just was what it was.
If a ‘ninja’ was to be ‘invisible”, then he or she would have to learn how to blend. If a ninja were to be truly free within the landscape, he or she would need to know plants; medicines, foods, weapons. If a ninja were to move at will, he or she would need to be comfortable in the dark, far from home, be familiar with maps and first aid skills. What blossomed in me was the understanding that a ‘ninja’ was nothing more than a backwoodsman who occasionally was caught in political strife that resulted in the application of what were essentially mountain living skills turned guerilla warfare tactics. T.V. and movies capitalize on the images that stick and sell, but the traditional ‘ninja’ were generally poor, outmanned, outgunned, didn’t like being involved in conflict, and had a strong relationship with the natural world. The were like Japanese Rasta! The fact that they would hide and sneak led to the belief that they lacked honor. For these folks, honor was getting home by any means necessary and protecting the village, the family, and the homeland. The clever use of resources, working at utmost efficiency, training that was part of life, and the ability to absorb anything that was better all seemed like a worthwhile pursuit. As I met and learned from the hillbillies of southern Appalachia, and learned to see my own family in a different light, I thought, “I am surrounded by ninjas!” The coolest part? I didn’t even know. How’s that for blending? Combine all of this with an internal element derived from the Yamabushi, old hermetic monks who with the Shugenja (mountain ascetics), gave birth to the earliest known ninja ryu, and you get what I thought just might be the ultimate system of holistic survival/personal development.
Well, I heard of an instructor in west Asheville who taught ‘authentic’ Japanese ninjutsu. With a little bit of pomp on my behalf, sure that no strip mall Karateka running around in black could hold a candle to the folks I had been living with the last few years, I visited what is now called Kasumi Yama Bujinkan Dojo. Shidoshi, 5th Dan, Sean Kennedy teaches in the lineage of Masaaki Hatsumi and is licensed through the Hombu Dojo in Japan. Anyone who has made it this far in the essay could likely remember a moment in their career when they thought, “Who is this magician of a martial artist?” It wasn’t power, speed, or precision at all. It wasn’t anything I had seen, ever, or felt. It was a subtle and sensitive movement with no ki-ahps or mean faces. It was like holding a ghost, falling into the void. It was soft at times, hard in unexpected places. It was almost funny. It was what I thought Aikido might be like.
Budo Taijutsu, the “Whole body warrior movement”, or the unarmed combat method of Ninjutsu, was a life changer. There were no snap kicks, or katas. Anything that I had learned before was welcome and not frowned upon, and the reishiki or etiquette was unorthodox to say the least. Classes were outside, people wore camo, cargo pants, black gis, or jiu-jutsu/judo jackets. Attendees were from many backgrounds, often black belts adding close quarters techniques to their arsenal, or new weapons. Rank wasn’t emphasized much. Beginners are white belt, 9th kyu to 1st kyu are all green belt, and Shodan is 1st black. There are 15 degress of Dan rankings; 1-5 physical, 6-10 more internal, and 11-15 I don’t even know.
When I watched Paul LaRusso and Sean Kennedy ‘play’, armed or unarmed, the endless flow of techniques and the grace of the dance inspired me. It was like standing on a beach staring out into a vast unexplored ocean after years of walking across land. Hanbo, or 3 foot staff, is the primary weapon. In time students begin applying principles to flexible tools such as rope or a belt, and progress into exotic and historical items such as the spear, or yari, and the naginata. Jumping, rolling, and falling, are important because many of the techniques involve throws. Training outdoors is considered essential for the conditioning nature provides and to ‘feel the heartbeat of the Earth’. A total of 9 separate schools are combined in the modern tradition to form one system. Each year a different school is chosen as a theme and it rotates through the cycle every 9 years. Also, a different weapon is emphasized each year to encourage students to learn new and different things. The 9 ryu, or schools, that are carried on by the Bujinkan today are as follows: