Doubt is a common theme in the martial arts.
Most of us started martial arts in order to address our doubts as to whether we could defend ourselves if it really came down to it, when it really mattered. Sure lots of other things came along with the practice of martial arts, maybe later to distract us, but ultimately most people want to feel like they are doing something that will be effective for them if ever they have to defend themselves. Even a little.
For some, this means pressure testing. Facing their fears, and their doubts, time and again so that ultimately they come to know that what they are doing is real. It’s effective. Its pressure tested and proven. A select few of these go all-in and actually put themselves on the line in order to prove it: military, law enforcement, doorman, even professional fighting.
For others….well, not so much. Instead, their doubt is addressed with faith.
Faith in the art, faith in the teacher, faith in a belief system their practice espouses. In some martial arts there are entire forums and years-long threads (one has been going literally 20 years!) where practitioners debate the effectiveness of their fighting faith amongst each other and with outside detractors, never really coming to any meaningful conclusion. Most have no personal experience with violence to draw from, but rely on artificial experience and anecdotal evidence which is readily available in our hyper-connected world. Some even post video, blissfully unaware that what they are offering as viable proof is third rate skill at best.
When you find faith in such things, rather than looking for proof, even something as pragmatic as a martial discipline, you may start to venture into territory where that faith grows, expands, blends into and comes to encompass other things. And then you might end up in something akin to a cult.
The author of True Believers, Louis Martin, discusses his time in the Seibukan martial arts organization of Julio Toribio, and his gradual awakening and coming to doubt what was going on around him, ultimately recognizing himself to be in a cult of sorts, especially after hearing a couple of bartenders talking about the group that way during a formal event the school held.
I think the term “cult” is a bit strong, if only because it calls to mind something outside of “normal” experience. – like the NXIVM sex cult, or something like Heaven’s Gate or some of the sordid stuff about some Tibetan Buddhism being outed now. The experience related in True Believers is, frankly, more insidious because it isn’t some group of weird cultists (a charge they could readily deny), or a “sex cult,” but instead its normal, everyday people buying into a shared experience of something they perceive as “martial” of their own free will. This is common in so many martial arts that if we are going to call Seibukan a cult, we could just as well call martial arts like Aikido and some classical arts cultish as well, and I don’t think that’s it.
However “buying” is the right word. The Seibukan comes off as more a blatant monetization of martial arts rank – what Martin calls a “belt machine” – blended with promises of personal empowerment, more like a multi-level marketing scheme than a cult. Certainly there is the positive thinking, the jargony language, the pep talks and pomp and circumstance that seem more a pop-psychology self-help guru vibe than a fighting art.
While some traditionalists may be put off by the meteoric rise in ranking that occurred within Seibukan – A black belt in six or nine months? Seventh dan – or menkyo kaiden – in seven years? This attitude would be anachronistic. The histories of the Classical Japanese arts, in which Seibukan has a toehold, and modern traditional arts such as Judo show that this kind of rapid ranking was the standard rather than an exception, until recent times. The “ten years to black belt” idea is a modern one, as is the idea that a black belt at all signifies mastery.
Similarly, traditionalists could balk at the monetization of the system as somehow not in keeping with the spirit or “true way” of the martial arts, that its not the way “the samurai” did it. Once again, this isn’t true. In centuries past, when actual combatives became less practical for most people, martial arts schools proliferated (funny that…), different schools sold their wares and some boasted students numbering in the thousands. Masters were paid and gave licenses based on what they were paid, and samurai themselves could increase their salaries by achieving licenses in different schools – all while avoiding the competition martial arts that were growing among commoner as well. Even in early modern times, when some of the great names in martial arts today were made, teachers charged for seminars and even per technique, and kept records of who had attended what and paid what to make sure it was all squared up.
So no, it’s not that the Seibukan made money off tradition, its more like that making money and selling a belief system seems to have become the primary goal of the school. Always adding more, each new belt with a fee, and new gear one had to buy, and new responsibilities requiring more pay-for-play.
Martin comes face to face with another kind of doubt, as well this one served up by a friend and training partner who had gone on to practice Brazilian Jiujitsu (BJJ). During some cross training, Martin is thoroughly dominated by his friend, who was by his own account fairly new at BJJ. In desperation he describes trying some pressure points and foul tactics and realizes that he is no position to even be able to make use of such things because he is utterly controlled by his training partner. This causes a crisis of confidence, familiar to some of us who have been in the same position, regarding his having spent many years of practice in cooperative drills and preparing for performances of martial art, versus practicing pressure tested fighting ability. He struggles with this for some time before finally cutting the cord, noting that even many of his wrist locks that were the bread-and-butter of his Seibukan training were completely ineffectual against skilled grapplers he wrestled, while the grapplers themselves could and did perform the same wrist locks to good effect on uncooperative opponents.
One element that is becomes obvious throughout the book, and which certainly is found in many cult-ish situations just as it is in martial arts organizations and groups existing in hermetically sealed environments like the Seibukan is the lack of personal responsibility. Martin describes his own slow awakening to accountability until he is, finally, able to confront his teacher about things going on within the organization. But this is a slow process and along the way various opportunities are missed, or he simply chooses not to take.
We see this over and over again in actual cults and religions, as well as within martial arts dojo (even some good ones) and just plain old human groups and organizations. For all the talk of spiritual or personal development, empowerment, personal growth and strength, or self mastery how many people can’t seem to have a simple conversation with another person, or a fellow practitioner, much less a “master” or “guru,” to address an issue, call them out, or clear the air. So many opportunities to adult are are just allowed to pass by.
This is what we are looking for? These are people to look up to? Who claim such awareness and empowerment, even enlightenment? And they can’t manage basic conflict communications with their fellows, or even their friends? Can’t accept valid criticism, and therefore can’t criticize others because of the perceived vulnerability it creates?
It is perhaps understandable in that this is not a comfortable thing to do, and tends to place us on the outside of the in-group, something that Martin describes very well, capturing the subtlety of how that occurred to him. Martin can be forgiven for this because he was a young man, and this book is really the story of how he came to a place where he could do those very things.
A cautionary tale indeed for anyone involved in a “cult,” whether of some spiritual guru dispensing secrets, some martial arts group engaging in fantasy, or a cult of personality surrounding this or that Navy SEAL or Supercop combatives “badass.”