"Now you kind of know my movement, my character … we're on the same thread."
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." It is what he is still known as today.
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 arts was the barometer I used to measure all other conflicts against. Without that anchor to shore, I slowly began to drift.
There are expectations of college life, and though formative aspects of the shared adolescent experience, I found myself on the outside of that world. I would often sneak out of a house party to sit on the lawn and gaze up at the stars. "What was I doing at this party? What did it matter? Why does anything matter?" I struggled with the concept of existing to exist, just existing for pleasure.
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; what it feels like is 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, I was lost in a spiritual vacuum.
What I didn't have was a coherent philosophy to help guide me through all of these struggles. I couldn't balance "typical" expectations with this unexplainable want to find significance and have everything I did be meaningful.
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 much has changed, the need for coherence is more than ever, yet philosophy no longer holds the same societal value.
They say Japan is the spiritual home of martial arts. One of the last remaining pockets where martial artists are still revered and philosophy is reflected even in children's animation. It is also the adopted home of Enson Inoue, a modern spiritual guide.
Manhood, Spiritual Growth, and Meaning
In some Eastern traditions, drinking with elders is a common social practice. In these situations, it is customary to allow the elders to speak as you listened intently. It is not a lecture or a debate, it is not to convince you of anything or change how you think. It is the tradition of passing down of knowledge. Since there is no expectation of what should happen with this knowledge, the "pupil" can listen respectfully. The acknowledgment of the lesson completes the job.
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 holds court in a bar and speaks to the camera as an "elder," explaining a Japanese proverb. It only lasts two minutes but those two minutes changed 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.]
"Shakubuku" is a term that originates from one of the main 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." However, the film Grosse Pointe Blank eloquently refers to it as "A swift, spiritual kick to the head that alters your reality forever." Shakubuku is a rite of passage. That's how it felt for me when Enson described the stages of man.
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. I, however, knew this one-way conversation would eventually have to evolve, there was more I wanted to learn. But Enson scared me, sort of like an intense uncle who didn't have patience for nonsense. Enson is known to say, "At least one time in your life, train with the will to die."
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 this 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 in mixed martial arts; for his willingness to fight bigger/ younger opponents, and to never quit despite the obstacles. 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, the conversation drew out.
[**Author's Note - For the rest of this article, all of the quotes from Enson will be from our conversation. I will be adding my own asides to highlight and explore certain concepts, and make helpful connections. It will not be a straight interview but my own philosophical dissection of Enson and how he's influenced me over the years. "Dialogues" is in reference to Dialogues of Plato, where characters discuss moral and philosophical problems.]
Dialogues With Enson
This is something not many of us would understand, why voluntarily make your life harder and do something if you aren't sure you will be successful? This same mentality is what makes startups so unconventional. This "new" idea is built on a timeless spirit:
The proper martial arts spirit is not any different from the spirit of a tinkerer. It is built on curiosity, a want to understand and test boundaries; you're tinkering on yourself. As Henry Ford was curious about the capacity of a car, a martial artist is curious about the capacity of the self — and eventually the capacity to move beyond the self.
Kaizen: continuously changing for the better. 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. On this journey, Enson continues:
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 them for the better. For Enson, it started with one word:
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:
"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 connection, this is enlightenment. It is not about the actual end of life.
Enson spoke about dying a coward, this is the fear of missing out. Not accumulating enough stuff, it is built on insecurities; this is what makes you a coward. Then there is another kind of death, a spiritual death, the spirit becomes replaced by ego and faintheartedness.
Enson points out:
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 it. When we avoid contemplation, we are willfully giving away our sentience.
The Impact of the Tsunami and Enson's Vow
As the warrior retires, his real life begins, the life of a steward:
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. The rules were, 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.
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.
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, not things from our bucket list. Our thoughts will be on the impact that we left, how much we gave. Did I help the world or was I too busy trying to be better than the world? Every day, in each of our lives, we come across a lady in bare feet.
There's more to life, Enson explains:
My Response to Enson
This is how I responded to Enson on why I write. I think it best captures my raw emotions and frustrations, better than anything I could plan to write now:
Enson on Spiritual Growth vs. Material Growth:
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 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.
Enson is probably still a bit of that scary uncle, but he is also authentic, warm, and most of all humble. 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.
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 from 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."
Fighting without a code of living is no different from 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. If we open our eyes, we will find that there are still teachers out there: it could be our parents, our grandparents, a neighbor, a school teacher, or a complete stranger across the world like Enson Inoue.
Useful Companions to This Article:
- Live as a Man. Die as a Man. Become a Man. (The Way of the Modern Day Samurai) - Enson Inoue
- Follow Enson on Facebook where he posts about his life and volunteer work
- The Hero with a Thousand Faces - Joseph Campbell
- Enson Inoue on the Joe Rogan podcast
- Enson Inoue on Vice
- Five Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo - Plato
- Meditations - Marcus Aurelius
- The Book of Five Rings - Miyamoto Musashi
- The Power of Nice - Linda Kaplan Thaler
- Enson's Destiny Bracelets