On Walking the Path With Enson Inoue

"At least one time in your life, train with the will to die."

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

On May 30, 1997, in Augusta, Georgia, Enson Inoue defeated two-time NCAA National Champion Royce Alger at UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) 13. After Enson's UFC performance, a Japanese journalist called him "Yamato-damashii" (大和魂) — the "samurai spirit."

Meanwhile in Beaverton, Oregon, I was in my last year of high school, about to move away for college. I was putting my childhood behind me, and somehow that also meant stopping martial arts. It seemed normal and natural, many people train some form of martial arts in their childhood and then stop. I didn't realize martial art was the barometer I used to measure all other conflicts against. Without an anchor to shore, I slowly began to drift.

In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald

There are expectations of college life, and though formative aspects of the shared adolescent experience, I found myself on the outside, yearning for something else. I would walk out of house parties to sit on the lawn by myself and gaze at the stars. I wasn't alone physically but there is another type of loneliness that comes to those who search for deeper meaning. Not only did I think about what I was doing at any particular party, but what I was doing here, period. Why did I exist? What matters? I struggled with the concept of existing to exist, just existing for pleasure, to become a rat on a hedonic treadmill.

16th-century poet and Roman Catholic mystic Saint John of the Cross called this the "Dark Night of the Soul." It reflects the hardships the soul meets in detachment from the world and the difficulties we must face to grow in spiritual maturity. And it kind of feels like hopelessness. Then there were personal struggles, relationship struggles, and finding that a lot of people I knew were vapid, cruel, and selfish. While others were grappling with identity and personality tests, I was lost in a spiritual vacuum.

What I lacked was a coherent philosophy to help guide me through all the uncertainties. I couldn't balance "typical" expectations with this unexplainable want to find significance and meaning. Others seemed to enjoy meaningless living, but I couldn't. But that's not unique to me, that's a human quality, I just experienced it sooner than others. Others experience it later, in their mid-life, or later than that, on their death bed.

Just as a candle cannot burn without fire, men cannot live without a spiritual life.
— Buddha

In ancient times, the Greeks sent their children to philosophers to learn coherent life philosophy; in the East they sent their children to martial artists. Now, though the need for coherence is greater than ever, philosophy no longer holds the same societal value.

Manhood, Spiritual Growth, and Meaning

College was the time to go from boyhood to manhood, when I was supposed to have it figured out, but instead I felt cast away — broken. Then the MMA (mixed martial arts) documentary Rites of Passage was released. In it, Enson Inoue explains a Japanese proverb. It only lasts two minutes but that was enough to change my life.

[*Author's Note - To clarify the translation, the references to "man" refers to mankind, humanity, and to the quality of being a sentient human being — rather than the gender.]

To live as a man. To die as a man. To become a man. … Why was “die” in the middle? Wouldn’t die be last? The last thing you do is die, afterwards it’s over. You live as a man. All the hard times you have in life is a test. The last test you have is dying, to become a man. What happens is you can live as a man, be brave as a man, you can fight as a man, you can raise your family as a man, fight for your beliefs as a man, but the way you die is going to determine how well you practiced that. If I die as a coward, everything I practiced didn’t come to use and I didn’t become a man.

So I relate this to fighting. ... You think you’re going to get your arm broke or you think you’re going to get knocked out if you exchange punches. A lot of fighters run away from that and don’t actually exchange but it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, it’s whether you keep your heart, to fight till the end.
— Enson Inoue, Rites of Passage

Shakubuku (折伏)

"Shakubuku" is a term that originates from one of the early Buddhist texts. It is the breaking of preliminary thoughts; old thoughts must be subdued to keep advancing. The Buddhist monk Nichiren refers to it as a method of "opening the eyes." American physicist Thomas Kuhn called it a "paradigm shift." However, the film Grosse Pointe Blank eloquently refers to it as "a swift, spiritual kick to the head that alters your reality forever." And that's how it felt when I heard Enson speak. It changed my outlook on martial arts, not as a series of techniques but as a series of lessons. I rededicated myself: reading, studying, and training. Enson is known to say, "At least one time in your life, train with the will to die." I thought that was a cool way to train hard, but after speaking with him, I know what he really means: You must face death to understand anything else. Put yourself in a place where you can open your eyes.

A Fateful Opportunity

I was writing an article about what it means to be a martial artist. I had more contributions than I could use, but hearing Enson's thoughts was what I considered the crown jewel for the piece. I sent him a message and thought nothing of it; I didn't expect a response.

Enson is a living legend and one of the most respected fighters in mixed martial arts. You put the devil on the other side of the ring and Enson would still come out to fight; he never quits. Being a celebrity in Japan, I assumed he would be busy with media engagements, seminars, training his fighters, but most of all his humanitarian efforts for the people of Fukushima (2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami). Within a few hours, I received a response — Enson was game. I didn't want to take up too much of his time, a few sentences over email would suffice. Without hesitation he sent me his personal phone number in Japan. We spoke after his morning run, then the conversation drew out.

Dialogues With Enson

Martial arts was not a sport. For me it was a way of life, a way of defining yourself... Building, growing as a man in each and every fight that you have, whether it be in the ring or not. The ring just helps intensify this experience, it can makes this so much more real.

Even today, you see [Jose] Aldo, saying stuff like, ‘I’ve studied all his tapes, I know what he’s going to do, I’m gonna come out winning.’ You see [Conor] McGregor saying, ‘yeah I’m gonna kick his ass, he can’t hurt me, he’s not strong enough.’ And I sit there looking at them, thinking wow... I don’t think I’ve ever taken a fight like that. I don’t think I’ve ever taken a fight saying, hey I’m gonna fight this guy and I know I’m gonna beat him. Every single fight that I took was a fight that I didn’t think I could win.

This is something not many of us would understand, why voluntarily make your life harder? Why do something if you aren't sure you'll be successful? Yet this is the timeless spirit that creates progress.

I can’t say I was a better person than all of these fighters because back in our day we didn’t have the fame, spotlight, and the money. So if I grew up in that game maybe I’d be attracted to that type of style... But in our day it had no money. There’s no crowd, there was no fame, there was nothing. We fought for honor, we fought for our pride. I fought for building my manhood and building myself as a person.

When you fight to become a better man, that adversity is where you grow. Adversity is where you hit a wall you’ve never hit before and feel like giving up. And the moment, the second that you feel like giving up ... you’re building your character and your spirit...

I wasn’t out there trying to get this win so I can get this sponsor, so I can get this next opponent, so I can get this win pay. For me it was about testing myself. Putting myself into a situation where I would want to quit and see where I go from there. Learn about myself as a man.

The proper martial arts spirit is no different than that of a scientist's. It is built on curiosity, a want to understand and test boundaries; you're examining your self, and eventually the capacity to move beyond the self — to move beyond our current understanding.

Enson Inoue routinely fought fighters 50lbs heavier, who were in the prime of their fighting careers. Fighters such as "The Smashing Machine" Mark Kerr

Enson Inoue routinely fought fighters 50lbs heavier, who were in the prime of their fighting careers. Fighters such as "The Smashing Machine" Mark Kerr

Kaizen (改善)

Kaizen: the continuous journey of improvement. You can be born as a man, then live as a fighter, but if you remain curious, you will keep seeking knowledge — the path to becoming a better man. Enson continues:

I think I was just a normal person, a normal fighter when I first started. What really opened my eyes was when they introduced me to the word ‘Yamato-damashii.’ I thought this is a cool word ... but when I looked more in-depth ... it wasn’t just a word that signified a guy that’s tough or a guy that has the ‘samurai spirit.’ It encompasses all the aspects of integrity, compassion, honor, and loyalty.

So, although I was given that name and people were saying I was ‘Yamato-damashii,’ when I really learned about the word, I felt I wasn’t even half the person enough to carry that word. And in the fans eyes, Enson equals ‘Yamato-damashii,’ but to me my whole career after that … was about getting as close as I can to that ideal, to develop myself and live that life, which I think I never can attain, but getting as close to obtaining that lifestyle before I die.

Mythology teaches us about the hero's journey, not the physical but the transformative. Heroic effort, a series of trials, entering the belly of the beast, and coming out with newfound knowledge. It begins with a commoner, an "everyman," who ventures into self-discovery, becoming a better person, then finally changing the world around him for the better. For Enson, it started with one word:

The transformation was about learning ‘Yamato-damashii,’ the compassion and the helping of others. It’s not just about being that tough guy, not tapping in the ring. It’s also about doing what you believe is right no matter what the consequences are. If I have a friend who is being attacked by a yakuza group and I feel that he’s right, I must stand beside him. If my fate will be death if I stand by him, I’ll stand by him.

Once you've tested how much you can endure, test your capacity to help others. The true meaning of "samurai" does not mean warrior or fighter; though that is how people mean it today. "Samurai" means to serve profoundly. To be a samurai with no one to serve was a shame worthy of death. We ignore the lesson of humility and have twisted the meaning to suit our purpose — feeding our ego. Samurai spirit is not about making yourself better than others, it is about humbling yourself to others.

The journey has several stages; if you only continue on the path of the self, you will never make the final transformation — of becoming a human being. Self-discovery is a necessary step, but to never go beyond that risks losing your touch with humanity all together — questioning why you were ever on this journey, what the point of it all was, lost in a spiritual void, endlessly filling the vacuum with things that do not matter.

Warrior to Humanitarian

On Enson becoming involved with the Fukushima relief efforts:

With the tsunami thing, I was in Japan. I went up to check on some friends up in Kōriyama which was only affected by the earthquake, and I got a call from someone who didn’t have the ability to get up north, asking me if I could check on their friend up there. If there was something that I could do, by all means I would do it. So I drove up there.

The reason why it’s four years and counting and I’m on my 35th mission up north, and I am going to continue until the day I die isn’t because I’m an awesome humanitarian. I don’t even call myself a ‘humanitarian.’ I just think I’m doing what I believe is right and doing what I can.

"Death" is merely a metaphor for the death of the self; that you are willing to put other things above yourself: a cause, a people, an ideal. The samurai spirit is one of humility. The ideal of Buddhism is the eventual destruction of the "self" to bring about connection, this is enlightenment. Enson spoke about dying a coward, this is the fear of missing out — not accumulating enough stuff. It is built on insecurities. Then there is another kind of death, a spiritual death, where the spirit is replaced by ego and a faint heart.

Enson points out:

When we’re brought up as kids, we’re told the biggest joy in life is the joy of receiving. That’s why our ‘day,’ our birthday, they give us presents. It’s about us. It’s what everybody believes and you’re groomed to believe that, but when you grow up as an adult and you experience things in life, you realize you’ve been tricked. True happiness of life is the happiness of giving. Think about it, everyone experiences this in life but haven’t really dwelled on it.

If your wife gave you something that you really wanted, stoked right? But if you knew something that she really needed and she couldn’t afford it and you went out and surprised her on her birthday and got it for her and you saw the glow on her face, the happiness in her smile — and the days after, you see her using it because she’s so happy to have it. The joy that you get from getting what you want from her doesn’t even compare to the joy, the tingle in your heart that you have when you see her smiling from the joy of her receiving that gift.

I thought that joy was only for people that you cared about. But when I went up north, the first mission that I went on ... I brought this old lady slippers and I to this day, burns in my head, she looks at me and she said, ‘thank you, I lost everything.’ And I looked at her feet and she was in bare feet. She hugged the slippers to her chest and walked away.

I had a yakuza guy buy me a Hummer, the joy I felt giving that lady slippers was ten times greater than me receiving that Hummer. I’m hooked on that [laughs]. I’m doing these missions more for myself man [laughs again]. I’m still in the process of figuring what this is all about. But that’s my life. That’s the way my life moves now.

Society constructs our value system, telling us that it is self-interest that leads us to happiness. There are more sales, yet less satisfaction. When we do those things that are self-serving, we temporarily find pleasure, but without any meaning, what lasts is emptiness. Pleasure seeking never exhausts, it in itself is tiring and never satisfying enough because we will always find something else of value worth consuming.

We corrupt spirituality into the spiritual hedonism of self-interest, "How much stuff can I get? How great can I be? I am special." We have grown to love ourselves too much and not love our neighbors enough. We can do those things that are not always pleasurable, but if we find purpose in what we do, it is impossible to be unhappy. When we do those things that help others, we create value, giving away our emptiness.

Our priorities are mental constructs, we have the ability to shift them if we work at it. Just as we work on getting what we want, we must also work on changing our wants. These things can never be self-evident if we never dwell on them. When we avoid contemplation, we are willfully giving away our freedoms.

The Impact of the Tsunami and Enson's Vow

As the warrior retires, his real life begins, the life of a steward:

When I went to the ground zero museum and I saw the before and after pictures of the nuclear bombs in Hiroshima, and when I went up north ... it almost looked worse than a nuclear bomb because when I saw the pictures of Hiroshima, there was a lot of rubble and structures still standing. Do you understand that the tsunami not only knocked things down but sucked it all out? So, it was more bare than the nuclear bomb. It looked like a nuclear bomb dropped then a big wave came and sucked whatever was there out.

You know the sumo wrestler Konishiki ... I talked to him, he said he made a vow to himself, five years [of mission trips] and that’s it, and his fifth year is coming up and he’s done. I vowed to myself a bigger vow, I vowed that I’d do it until these people stand on their feet again... which I don’t see happening in the next ten years.

The nuclear plant is getting worse. The towns that had been washed up by the tsunami, almost every single town has a big problem with rebuilding ... because the government does not want to put up money if it’s going to have another tidal wave and just wash it away. They want to build a big seawall, but the people of the community don’t want a seawall because it covers the ocean, it covers the beauty of the town.

There’s hundreds of thousands of people in temporary housing right now … it’s all older people. These are people who have already gone through the prime of their lives. They’re not in no shape to go get a job at a gas-stand, these are 70-year-old plus people. I almost feel like, we’re just going to care for these people, care for their souls until they die.

So, I don’t think we can ever get them back on their feet where they can get a new house and start a new life because they’re already at the end of their lives. So, the only thing we can do is actually give them hope and let them know that, whether their going to get back on their feet or not, they’re not forgotten and people think about them. That’s what my mission is, to let them know that they’re not forgotten. Take care and nurture their soul ... until they pass and go to heaven...

On September 11, 2013, Enson Inoue walked over 1,360 miles from Hokkaido to Kyushu to raise awareness for the victims of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. It took 67 days. Enson set some personal rules: he was not allowed to buy any food or water, only what he brought with him or was offered to him. Also, he could not pay for lodging. The purpose was to symbolize the suffering of the earthquake and tsunami victims.

Enson begins his walk...

Enson begins his walk...

Hands that were once made for fighting is now spending hours every day carefully handcrafting bracelets made from stones that hold a spiritual significance to the Japanese people. They offer protection and blessing to the wearer. The proceeds go to the disaster relief efforts.

In the event of my demise, when my heart can beat no more, I hope I die for a principle or a belief that I had lived for.
— Tupac Shakur

Helping the World or Better Than the World?

Beyond being the best in the world, challenge the self, challenge your beliefs. There are other things beyond a chase for self-interest — "my goal, my passion" — such as compassion and empathy for others. When we are young, we want to rack up accomplishments, everything off of our so-called "bucket list." How much we can take, devour, destroy, and consume from this world before we're gone? Yet when we do near the end, what we will regret most are failures of kindness. Our thoughts will be on the impact that we left and how much we gave. Did I help the world or was I too busy trying to be better than the world? Every day, each one of us comes across a lady in bare feet.

There's more to life, Enson explains:

Everyone says, ‘This is my life, that’s all there is, my fight.’ I felt that way too, I thought everything was this fight, this is everything, nothing else mattered. But there is something that matters, because the life after MMA is really what counts.

Training for MMA and fighting the small fights is like being in ... high school, and then being in the UFC is like being in college. But everyone thinks that being in the UFC is the ultimate lifetime goal, but ... after they retire, what they can take, the growth of their character, what they’ve learned through the training and discipline through mixed martial arts, that’ll be when they get their job after college. That’ll be what they’re going to do in life. ... I hope that everyone that fights or any type of sport in the elite level will learn that, take that, take that perseverance, take the integrity they get from the sport and apply it.

I’ve learned so much from mixed martial arts. It’s created the person that I am. It’s had me find this nirvana that I have now in my life. You notice I still do seminars around the world, I don’t charge much. ... I don’t have this cap like some fighters, I don’t need a guarantee. ... Just pay my way and take care of everything, I’m going out there. Because I appreciate what mixed martial arts and the fans of mixed martial arts have done for the sport. They made me who I am and I’m going to give back.

Just like when I heard about your interview ... anybody who is doing something like you are for martial arts, I’m more than willing to help and do whatever I can do to help. I appreciate what you do and doing these kinds of write-ups and making people aware of a lot of stuff that people don’t realize.

There’s so much more than learning to punch and kick and grapple...

My Response to Enson

What I told Enson about why I write about martial arts:

To people, it looks like stylized violence and it’s kind of like that, too, but that’s all we show them. And I wanted to show that there’s more than that. There are things everyone can benefit from — people who are scared off by all the physicality. ... There were other fighters I interviewed but the stuff they said, I couldn’t use because it was, like, wow, you’re just like a fighting dog, basically, right? The way they see themselves. They want to be intimidating. And I don’t think you need to go through all that training to be a fighting dog. You know, you don’t even have to be a human being.

Do we praise the fighting dog or should we cultivate human beings?

Enson on Spiritual Growth vs. Material Growth:

You know when I hear fighters talk like that ... they just don’t understand it. Even someone as high up as Ronda Rousey. I love what she’s doing. I see her as one of the best female athletes in the world. But there’s some things she says where I think she’s not there yet. ... Stuff like, ‘I will not lose.’ I mean to her it’s still a material thing, winning and losing is still getting your hands raised in the ring and not getting your hands raised.

If you’re doing it as a sport in the shallow sense, yeah that’s true but ... my win and loss isn’t whether my hand is raised, it’s whether I can take what I’ve lost. Whatever I’ve learned in the ring that day, if I can step away and become a better person, that was a win because I’ve gained something from it.

Winning is a mindset more than it is a material possession. As long as you gain something from your experience and grow from it, your mind and your spirit remains undefeated.

As Enson and I were saying our goodbyes, he added:

It’s better we did this over the phone, now you kind of know my movement, my character … we’re on the same thread.

It's about finding people on the same thread, then connecting other threads. You become connected to the world, the world becomes connected to you. Enson describes things as movements. It's a good word, it can mean change (social, spiritual, emotional, musical), it can also mean changing location or position. Rather than having a planned destination, allow life to move you. Then as you move, you can send a meaningful vibration through the web of humanity. Don't just try to chase happiness, spread happiness.

A spiritual guide is the compass for our spiritual journey. He doesn't tell people what to do, he does it, and people follow his lead. He pulls others up, rather than standing at the top, enjoying the view alone. A leader doesn't boss, a leader doesn't save, a leader serves.

Enson starts a movement. Eventually many others followed Enson on his walk.

Enson starts a movement. Eventually many others followed Enson on his walk.

When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive — to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.
— Marcus Aurelius

Today, I am still studying and still training. Life has become my practice and I am curious to what is possible. During my spiritual crisis, my questions brought despair. Now I have more questions, but they bring me hope. What I have learned is that, life is good, even when it's not.


Enson Inoue believes one must live as a man and die as a man to become a man — a metaphor for self-development, sacrifice and service — to ultimately become a human being. Instructors will tell you to treat your training partners with respect, they are not your toys. Teachers will tell you to treat the world with respect, mistreatment of your surroundings and those around you is no different than mistreating yourself. Fighting without a code of honor does not diminish violence and aggression, it only increases it. You hit a bag and your want is to hit it harder; aggression and cruelty never exhausts, it is unlimited. Inflicting damage becomes easier if we can see others as different from ourselves — as separate, as inhuman. Then our attitude towards the world can be of apathy and ambivalence — "That's not me, that doesn't concern me."

It is difficult to know yourself if you do not know others.
— Miyamoto Musashi

Fighting without a code of living is no different than training to be an attack dog. This is why emotions must be channeled and techniques coupled with a coherent philosophy focusing on spirit, discipline, and control. Fighters are a rare breed, curious about themselves, but to become a martial artist, one must be curious of others. To do that, you must open your eyes.

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