"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.
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.
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.]
"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
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.
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.
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:
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:
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 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:
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:
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.
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. 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:
My Response to Enson
What I told Enson about why I write about martial arts:
Do we praise the fighting dog or should we cultivate human beings?
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.
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 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."
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.
Useful Companions (Improve Your Education and This Site by Buying a Book):
- 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
- The Emperor's Handbook: A New Translation of The Meditations – Marcus Aurelius (Author), David Hicks (Translator), C. Scot Hicks (Translator)
- Ego Is the Enemy – Ryan Holiday
- The Book of Five Rings - Miyamoto Musashi
- The Power of Nice - Linda Kaplan Thaler
- Enson's Destiny Bracelets