Doubt is a common theme in the martial arts.
Most of us started our training in order to address personal 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, later distractions, but ultimately most people want to feel – even a little – like they are doing something that will be effective if ever they have to defend themselves.
For some, this means pressure testing. Facing those doubts, and their fears, time and again so that ultimately they come to know that what they are doing is real. It’s effective. It’s pressure tested. Proven. A select few go all-in, and put themselves on the line in order to prove it: military, law enforcement, work as a 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 the belief system their practice espouses. In some martial arts communities there are forums with years-long threads (one has been going for literally 20 years!) where practitioners debate the “effectiveness” of their fighting faith compared to others, amongst each other and with outside detractors, never really coming to any meaningful conclusion. Since most have no personal experience with real violence to draw upon, they rely on artificial experience and the anecdotal evidence readily available in our hyper-connected world. Some even post video, blissfully unaware that what they think of as viable proof is third rate skill at best.
Finding faith in such things, rather than seeking proof, even in something as pragmatic as a fighting discipline, one may start to venture into territory where the faith grows, expands, blends into and comes to encompass other people and 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 to 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 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, the Rajneeshis, or 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 so common in 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 cults as well, and I don’t think that’s it.
However “buying” is the right word. The Seibukan comes off as a blatant monetization of martial arts ranking – what Martin calls a “belt machine” – blended with promises of personal empowerment: more multi-level martial marketing scheme than a cult. Certainly there is the positive thinking, the jargony language, the pep talks and pomp and circumstance that is more pop-psychology self-help vibe than a fighting art.
This is not in itself unusual. Where 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 – and menkyo kaiden – in seven years? This attitude would be anachronistic. The histories of the classical Japanese arts, in which Seibukan has a foothold, and modern traditional arts such as Judo show that this kind of rapid ranking was the norm 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 any kind of mastery.
Similarly, traditionalists might balk at the monetization of the system as somehow not in keeping with the spirit or “true way” of the martial arts, that it’s 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 – when no longer used or needed for real fighting they became for more popular), 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 more licenses in different schools – all while avoiding the competitive martial arts that were growing popular among commoners. Even in early modern times, when some of the great names in martial arts today were made, famous teachers charged for seminars, even per technique, and kept records of who had attended what and paid what to make sure it 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 still more pay-for-play.
Martin comes face to face with another kind of doubt in his journey, this one served up by a friend and training partner who had started 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 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 having spent many years of practice in cooperative drills and preparing for performances 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 the 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 becomes obvious throughout the book, and which certainly is found in many cult-ish situations just as it is in martial arts groups existing in hermetically sealed environments like the Seibukan, is the lack of personal responsibility. Martin describes his own slow awakening to such accountability until he is, finally, able to confront his teacher about dark things going on within the organization. But it is a slow process, and along the way various opportunities are missed, or that he 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) – its a part of human social culture. For all the talk of spiritual development, empowerment, personal growth and strength, and self-mastery how many of these people can’t seem to have a simple conversation with another person, or a fellow practitioner, much less a “master” or “guru,” to address a conflict, call them out on wrong doing, or clear the air. So many opportunities to adult are are just allowed to pass by.
Is this 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, as such things are not comfortable things to do, tending to place us outside the in-group, something that Martin describes very well while capturing the subtlety of how it occurred with 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.
True Believers is a cautionary tale indeed for anyone involved in a “cult,” whether of a spiritual guru dispensing secrets, some martial arts group fantasy, or a cult of personality surrounding this or that Navy SEAL or Supercop combatives “badass.”