Martial Arts Essays

Coach vs. Sensei

(Copyright c. 2000 Paul Turse. All rights reserved.)

(Edited and updated August 17, 2008.) 

        The general public has heard the word sensei so frequently on martial arts TV programs that they have accepted the word to simply mean teacher, or instructor.  In fact, the words have become synonymous, since it is common to say jujitsu instructor, judo teacher, or karate sensei in the same breath.  When martial arts activities are practiced and performed as sports, the sensei can be referred to as a coach.  Unfortunately, today, based upon the unsportsman-like actions of some of our physical education leaders, the word coach is beginning to conjure up negative images of self-centered, self-aggrandizing, and over-paid tyrants who use their positions to keep control over their athlete conscripts.  Just as tyrants abuse their subjects and slaves, so these coaches—many of them “has beens,” some “never weres,” and of course most of them “can’t nows”—attempt to show their courage by abusing and sometimes manhandling young people who, they know, can’t and won’t talk or fight back, not because they lack the strength or courage, but because the coaches own their scholarships and their careers.  How many of these coaches would have the guts and the ability to go one on one with their students in the sport?  And how many of these coaches would have the courage to engage in a physical confrontation, mano a mano, in the ring or on the mats?  Obviously, there are not too many. 

        Developing students who respond out of fear in an athletic situation is dangerous, especially in the martial arts.  What happens when a practitioner is facing an opponent in a life and death encounter and there is no coach around to scream and yell at him or her?  The student may not be able to make a life-saving response.  We should want athletes and martial artists to be able to reach down deep inside in moments of crisis and find that courage somewhere within themselves and not respond because they hear their master’s voice.  Just as the planets rotate and the oceans flow, our students must play and fight their best at all times because that is what they are supposed to do.  We want them to listen to us not out of fear but because of mutual respect.  And because we have taught them to make a total commitment to their sport and art.  

        This attitude of total commitment is not confined solely to athletics.  We need to develop students and young people who give their utmost in any endeavor.  This attitude is exemplified by the well-known story of Basho, the great haiku poet.  When the bard became ill on a journey, and death appeared imminent, his disciples gathered around the master, waiting for what is known as a jisei, or deathbed poem.  These artistic endeavors were expected of the warrior, who, along with his weapons, always carried pen and ink, so that at the time of death on the battlefield, he could show his detachment and disdain for the final moment.  If the average samurai could write a haiku, then image what the final poem of a master would be like?  But as Basho became weaker and as his eyes dimmed, there was no poem forthcoming.  As the night wore on, the retinue became restless, since it seemed that there might not be a last poem.  Finally, one young pupil, who could contain himself no longer, questioned the master about the possibility of a jisei.  Basho responded by saying that since he had written all of his poems as if they were to be his last, he had nothing special to say at this time. 

        Facing death is the prime requisite for living life to its fullest, in terms of Zen.  With the right training, there will be no need for any special exhortation in the final moments of a game in order to motivate student athletes.  Indeed, sports are indeed what they are—they are sports.  They are not life and death encounters for which the samurai prepared.  Basho inspired all by his example, not by humiliation tactics.  Basho was not a coach; he was a sensei. 

        The word sensei is made up of two Chinese/Japanese ideographs:  Sen meaning “before” and sei meaning “life.”  Hence: “before life.”  To be a sensei, one must have lived before—in other words, have put all mental, physical, and spiritual powers into one’s sport, art, or activity.  Such a philosophy can extend to one’s parents.  It is the mission of the sensei to impart all of his or her knowledge to the students, holding nothing back.  This training is not limited to physical training but encompasses spiritual training for life.  If the players are successful in life, then the sensei has succeeded.  What is accomplished by a coach who trains a team of winners on the field, but later in life become a bunch of whiners and losers?  Unfortunately, coaches in high school and college are judged by the short-term performance of their players, and not their long-term success, say, some twenty years later.  One need only attend one class reunion to see where all the young athletes have gone. 

        Sensei who do not teach their students to beat them do a disservice.  They should not hold back knowledge.  When sensei consistently beat their students but never show them how to counter the techniques, stagnation occurs.  Not only will the knowledge die, but also the sensei will not have to reach down deep inside and create something new when his students have been taught to counter his moves.  When the teacher responds to the students’ technique and learns something new, he becomes the student and the students become the teacher.  When the new technique created by the teacher frustrates the students, the teacher teaches the students how to cope with the new move, and the circle of knowledge continues.  That is the way of mushin maru.  *  We are all responsible for the training of our youth.  The question is what shall we be--coaches or sensei? 

        Now, to apologize to those fine coaches who are sensei in spirit, it must be asserted that certainly there are more good coaches than there are negative ones, but the unprofessional ones are not simply isolated examples.  They abound in all sports activities.  It is especially alarming when these coaches have filtered down as far as little league and peewee sports.  Somehow we have so over-evaluated sports and glorified coaches in our society that we have placed them inside their own hermetically sealed bubbles, not to be contaminated by our normal social values.  Thus, coaches are not bound by the rules that control the behavior of other teachers in our educational system. 

        How often have I heard that an English class is different from a locker room or a gym, and that coaches have the license to behave differently?  And that an English teacher wouldn’t understand.  Well, Gomer, surprise, surprise, surprise.  I understand too well what it means to be able to glorify one’s ego at the expense of impressionable youth.  I am not only a senesi but also a retired English teacher.  For nearly twenty-five years, I taught both martial arts and English in a prep school for one of our nation’s most prestigious service academies.  The mission of the prep school is to train the best candidates to enter a service academy and to eventually become officers and perhaps to lead troops into combat.  In the extreme pressure of combat training, training which simulates the conditions of war, even drill sergeants are not allowed to manhandle recruits being trained for life and death combat.  The U.S. Army does not condone the manhandling of our young recruits.  But in the world of sports, coaches can get away with such actions.  Get real!  A football field or basketball court is not the field of battle, and a coach is not a commander of troops in wartime.  What is worse?  The institutions and parents that condone the behavior of these coaches and attempt to justify it.  It is time that parents, school officials, and coaches stood up, spoke out, and let these negative coaches know that their disgraceful behavior will not be tolerated.  Zero-tolerance should be the benchmark in all amateur sports.  And every now and then, there is a sports authority figure who will take a stand, as the following anecdote will show. 

        While I was judging a judo match between two six-year-olds, an exuberant father was standing and screaming at his white-belt son to stop being a wimp and start fighting.  Suddenly, the referee, a hulking yodan (fourth degree black belt), called “matte (stop),” and the young participants returned to their respective starting spots and kneeled down.  The referee slowly walked to the edge of the mat and, pointing a finger at the father, and in a stern and intimidating voice growled, “You will keep your mouth shut while I am refereeing.”  I could swear I saw a yellow puddle starting to form at the father’s feet, but I probably imagined it.  The father sat down meekly and observed the remainder of the match in silence.   

        Call me "radical," but I believe that positive reinforcement will be far more successful than the negative reinforcement that appears to have become the norm.  I can recall my first shiai (contest)), which took place in Japan.  Twenty-three years of age and packing 185 pounds on a squat 5-foot, 6-inch frame, I must have appeared quite the colossus to the Japanese schoolboys I was to compete against.  After bowing to my opponent, I took the traditional one step forward, eagerly anticipating the starting call of hajime from the referee.  As my opponent moved forward, I noticed that his ankle was heavily and tightly wrapped with inner tubing.  My concentration lapsed for moment as I reached for his gi.  I noticed his foot come off the mat and get planted squarely and firmly in the pit of my stomach.  In the Zen monastery of my imagination, the master had noticed my suki (break in concentration) and raised his bamboo stick to give me a sharp blow, but it was too late as I sailed through the air—the result of a perfectly executed tomoenage (circle throw).  Tomoe are the commas that make up the harmonious blending of the yin/yang symbol.  At that moment, he was the yin, and I was the yang.  The master’s bamboo pole was replaced by a resounding clap on the tatami as my body slammed against the firm surface.  “Ippon!”  The match was over, and I had suffered a humiliating defeat. 

        As I walked off the mat, I flashed back to the football stadium at Port Chester, N.Y., when after blowing a tackle at middle linebacker, the criticizing voice of my high school coach was so resounding and reverberating that my parents, who had arrived late, heard him in the parking lot.  

        As I approached my sensei, I was prepared for the worst.  He looked up, his always-pensive face displayed its usual calm, his brow raised, his head nodded, and his lips curled downward.  “Nice, ukemi,” he said as if stating a fact.  Instead of feeling humiliated, I felt good about myself because actually that was the first time that I ever made a clean break fall.  “Nice ukemi this time, next time who knows?”  I thought to myself.  I learned then that there is always something positive, even in the most negative of times.  Instead of dwelling on defeat, sensei and coaches must build on these positive elements.   

        When I left Japan after one year of training, a promotion party was held in my honor.  To my surprise, all of my friends had chipped in to give me my shodan (first degree black belt) promotion.  After a few speeches—all in Japanese and most of which I could only barely grasp—my sensei spoke.  I could not always understand his words, but I could always understand what he meant.  He said that, although I was not quite ready for black belt, he wanted to promote me, since I might not be returning shortly to Japan, but most of all he had confidence that I would grow into the responsibility.  Gimu was the word he used.  Obligation!  I would be obligated to earn the confidence and trust that he had put in me that night in l964.  I hope that I have lived up to his expectations.  It is perhaps through this website that I can impart some of the spiritual training that Yanagizawa Sensei instilled in me.  Arigato gozaimashta, Sensei.



 In Zen Buddhism, students were trained through the use of koan, seemingly insoluble puzzles.  In order to understand these contradictory statements, the student was urged to ponder the enigmas, not though ordinary intellectual endeavors but by way of “extra-sensory” perception, whereby the answer should come like a lightning flash.  Perception is not attained by way of stereotypical thinking or conventional wisdom; rather true understanding is gained by being able to see beneath the surface of things. The following koan are presented for you to attempt to solve.  Possible answers can be found at the conclusion so that you can check your responses against the ones provided.  Don’t worry, there are no “official” answers, so go ahead and just have fun. 

Meditation Exercises

                                                (Copyright c. 2000 Paul Turse.  All rights reserved.)

        1.   It takes strength to effect the technique that takes no strength.

        2.   The deadliest of techniques is the gentlest

        3.   The strength of a technique is its weakness; the weakness of a technique is its strength.

        4.   Non-combatants Buddha and Christ meet in combat.

        5.    To reach the peak of victory, one must climb the mountain of defeat.

        6.    The shortest route is often the longest route.

        7.    The search within begins without.

        8.    The shortest distance between two points is often a circle.

        9.    The true path is the opposite path.

       10.  To truly cross a river, one must go outside the tunnel.

       11.  To gain control, one must lose control.

       12.  If success does not come through the door, lock it.

       13.  To see clearly, you must close your eyes.

       14.  To go above the rim, even the tallest must stand on someone’s shoulders.

       15.  The deepest end of the pool is often the lowest end.

       16.  In order to escape, one must first be trapped.

       17.  The longest time is often the shortest time.

       18.  To achieve stability, one must become unbalanced.   

        Possible answers and discussion of the meditation exercises:   

        1.  It takes strength to effect the technique that takes no strength.   

        Of course, one must realize that strength is relative.  All martial arts techniques take some degree of strength, especially in regard to maintaining control.  When effecting choking techniques in judo, for example, it should take relatively little strength to compress the carotid artery and shut off the blood supply to the brain of an opponent.  However, it takes a degree of arm and leg strength to keep a large opponent controlled in a position in order to be able to apply the choke.  Secondly, it might take mental strength to endure the continual training needed to be able to perform “effortless” martial arts.  Finally, it may take spiritual strength to refrain from using too much power and to settle for the gentler technique that will not injure an opponent.  

2.  The deadliest of techniques is the gentlest.  

        Obviously, all techniques, regardless of how lethal they may appear to be, are subject to limitations.  A pistol without bullets is not as effective as a bo staff.  The most powerful karate strike is useless against body armor.  Lethal techniques are dependent upon their ability to inflict pain and destruction upon an opponent.  When the technique fails to produce pain or its intended effect, defeat for the user is inevitable.  But gentle techniques do not depend upon pain or destruction for their effectiveness; they depend for the most part upon control.  When an opponent is under your control, it is possible to effect any technique at will, making the gentlest the deadliest.

3.  The strength of a technique is its weakness; the weakness of a technique is its strength.  

        Once again, strength is relative.  And not all techniques are viable in all situations.  The strength of a two-arm shoulder throw (morote-seoinage) is the fact that the thrower uses both hands to effect the technique.  If the attacker is right-handed, then the right hand pulls the opponent forward and works to drive the opponent toward the ground.  But in the one-arm shoulder throw (ippon-seoinage), the right-handed thrower must relinquish the right-hand grip and re-establish contact by clamping under the opponent’s right armpit.  Thus, the right hand does not have the exact same pulling power.  However, if an opponent prevents the thrower from getting a secure grip with the right hand, then the two-arm shoulder throw may be useless.  But since the one-arm shoulder throw is not dependent upon a grip with the right hand, the thrower can attack as soon as a left-hand grip is achieved.  Finally, in tragic drama, the flaw or weakness of the hero is also a great strength.  In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, it is the pride of the hero that forces him to pursue the truth that will eventually bring about his downfall.  Thus his pride, which is his strength, becomes his weakness. 

4.  Non-combatants, Buddha and Christ, meet in combat. 

        Buddha meditates and Christ turns the other cheek; therefore, there is no combat. 

5.  To reach the peak of victory, one must climb the mountain of defeat.  

        Another way to state this is, “The road to success is paved with failure.”  Obviously, few individuals have attained success without suffering through long periods of failure and defeat.  The one who achieves victory or success is the one who is able to persevere and learn, and grow from these failures and defeats. 

6.  The shortest route is often the longest route. 

        The question here is this:  Are we talking about distance or time?  Obviously, it is shorter to drive directly, say, through Washington, DC, but it will be quicker to take the longer Beltway.  In reaching goals, we often look to the quickest way to reach success.  Many times these “shortcuts” eliminate crucial steps needed in our development—steps essential for attainment.  Since, by taking the shortest route, we may have failed to achieve certain skills, we may bog down; thus, it could take longer to reach our goal—if, indeed, we ever reach it. 

7.  The search within begins without. 

        Another way to state this is, “No one is an island.”  We all need other people to some degree. Before one can analyze oneself, or look within, it is necessary to have a frame of reference, an example, or a role model.  For most of us, in order to achieve a sense of unity and inner peace, we must align ourselves with a greater force outside ourselves, whether that force is natural or spiritual. 

8.  The shortest distance between two points is often a circle. 

        A straight line may be, in many cases, the shortest distance, but if there happens to be a mountain in the way, the straight line might take longer or may be impossible to follow.  In seeking a goal, the shortest path to success may be the one that takes the longest, the one that prepares the individual for success.  Sometimes, that path can bring the individual back to the starting point in order to gain a new perspective on how to reach success. 

9. The true path is the opposite path.

        In applying a judo or jujitsu technique, it is often more efficacious for the martial artist to force an opponent in the opposite direction of the technique intended.  More than likely, the opponent will resist and push back in the desired direction.  Thus, the martial artist will have the opponent’s momentum flowing in the same direction as the technique.  Too many times, we attempt to go straight toward our objectives and thus get bogged down.  In attempting to extricate a car from mud or snow, it is often necessary to go in reverse first before moving forward.  Many times in life, in order to understand our true path, we must study and understand what lies in the opposite path.  In order to gain perspective on our customs and values, we may need to study the values of foreign cultures.   

10.  To truly cross a river, one must go outside the tunnel. 

        When we cross a river through a tunnel, we often take the technology and the engineering feat for granted, because it is so easy for us.  We forget about those early pioneers who had to forge their own paths across that very same river by building canoes or rowboats.  Some early pioneers may have even been forced to swim across.  When we go through a tunnel, we forget the hard work and sacrifices that others made to make life easy for us.  Obviously, if the river in question is symbolic of one’s goals, the tunnel can represent the most apparent and easiest path toward accomplishment.  It also represents a tunnel vision, a limited vision, or a narrow-minded approach toward problem solving.  According to Robert Frost, the difference in one’s success is determined by taking the “path less traveled by.”  

11.  To gain control, one must lose control.  

        Control is something that many individuals seek to maintain, whether when driving a car on an icy road or when navigating through a stormy relationship.  But in many cases, control is perhaps an illusion.  If we think about it, there are not too many phenomena in nature over which we really have total control.  In fact, very often we think we are in control but may not be.  Also, control may be simply a matter of degree.  By relinquishing control, we can begin to understand what control really is.  In judo ground work and in wrestling, many martial artists do not work for immediate control, but allow their opponents an ample degree of freedom so that they will commit themselves; then the martial artist capitalizes on that action and closes the space and restricts the motion of the opponents.  Many parents may have found that only by relinquishing control over their teenagers can they ever hope to give them some degree of constructive guidance.  

12.  If success does not come walking through the door, lock it. 

        Success is not so easily attained.  It usually does not come walking through the door.  True success requires challenge.  Very often, we must face and encounter many locked doors in our lifetimes.  But to succeed, we must not give up.  In addition, we must consider the grim reality that success will never come through the door.  Thus by locking it, we demonstrate our courage to live our lives totally content with what we already have.  If the door is locked, we may be forced to explore all the opportunities that already exist within the “room” that contains us.  We have the power to make the room a castle or a prison.  Finally, success may already be within and perhaps we need to lock the door to keep opportunity from walking out. 

13.  To see clearly, you must close your eyes. 

        Sight is determined by how the eye records phenomena.  If one is color blind, then that individual may perceive even the brightest colors as a shade of gray.  Some cultures may be “blinded” by their linguistic systems that do not always distinguish between shades of colors.  In Japanese, for example, the word aoi can mean any shade of blue or related hue.  What we see may not be what we perceive.  Two individuals see a martial artist back down from a fight.  One calls the martial artist cowardly; the other calls the martial artist self-controlled.  One believes the martial artist was afraid of getting hurt; the other believes the martial artist did not want to hurt another and perhaps face arrest and maybe a civil suit.  And, of course, we may not be talking about vision, but about insight.  Very often, our eyes deceive us, and we are conditioned to see things the way we have been taught to see them.  In order to see clearly and objectively, we must close our eyes to the forces that have predetermined our vision and have blinded us to the truth.  To see clearly, we need to look within.  Even to see something physically, we need to blink or rub our eyes in order to bring things into sharper focus.  Finally, once we have closed our eyes, we may be able to open them with a fresh perspective on things. 

14.  To go above the rim, even the tallest must stand on someone’s shoulders. 

        If we are talking about basketball, we need not take “standing on someone’s shoulders” literally.  Every great player has needed support from at least one other person:  a coach, a parent, a family member, a friend, and, of course, a divine being.  Certainly, we need not take the word rim literally.  It could be a symbol for success.  Few individuals have achieved success on their own. 

15.  The deepest end of the pool is often the lowest end of the pool. 

        If we are talking about the pool of knowledge, then the quality of the lowest end could be “deeper” than the highest end.  Even in a swimming pool, a short person can derive the same benefit in the 5-foot end as in the 12-foot end.  If a three-foot child cannot swim, then the depth may not be an issue.  The 5-foot end is technically as deep as the l2-foot end.  When it comes to comprehending, if the material to be grasped is “over one’s head,” then the “depth “ cannot be mastered.  For a tall person, there is less buoyancy in the 5-foot end than in the 12-foot end; thus, if depth means the amount of work or energy expended, then the lowest end is the deepest end.  

16.  In order to escape, one must allow oneself to be trapped. 

        In escaping from a judo hold, it is often better to first seek a position from which escape is possible.  This may mean taking a risk and allowing an opponent to get you into a hold, but it will be a hold that you know how to escape from.  This method may be better than fighting from a neutral position and perhaps getting caught in a bad position and in an unfamiliar hold.  In addition, unless you allow yourself to be trapped during practice, you will never develop the skill, strength, and stamina necessary to be an escape artist.  It also seems that in life, those individuals who appreciate freedom the most are those who have been confined for certain periods of time.  Many times great deeds are accomplished only after a person has imposed great hardships upon himself or herself.  It is through such sacrifice and discipline that the artist escapes into the realm of creativity.  

17.  The longest time is often the shortest time.

        Time is both a physical and a psychological entity.  When we are bored or are awaiting an important decision, an hour can seem to last an eternity, whereas when we are actively engaged in our favorite hobby, an hour seems to end before it has begun.  Time is also affected by one’s ability to relax during tension-filled moments.  We may recall the first time we skidded on a slippery road how quickly the moment flew by.  So quickly that we barely had time to think and react.  Later, as we became more experienced drivers, our skid situations seemed to take much longer, and we seemed to have more time to turn our wheel in the proper direction and to accelerate gently rather than to brake.  It is the same when a judoka is thrown for the first time.  There is barely time to remember to tuck in the chin or to slap the mat properly.  

18.  To achieve stability, one must become unbalanced. 

        It may not always be the best to attempt a throwing technique in judo from a balanced position.  To go from a balanced position means to become momentarily unbalanced.  There is also a good chance that if the judoka is balanced, the opponent will also be balanced.  The art of throwing can be enhanced by the ability to capture balance in the moment of action or in the moment of an unbalanced state.  As the thrower moves from the unbalanced position, he or she can pull the opponent off balance and thus achieve the balance created by merging with the opponent. 

        The art of achieving a balanced state during motion and perhaps an unbalanced state was exemplified by both Muhammad Ali and Joe Namath.  Football fans were amazed by the way Namath could throw 60-yard passes, all the while seemingly running backwards.  Namath would suddenly plant his back foot and gain power by shifting his hips and he throw the ball much in the same way that a karate expert throws a right-hand punch with the left leg forward.  This dynamic principle of karate is what Ali understood when he would backpedal, plant his rear foot, and fire his devastating punches.  In life, it may not always be the best to remain in constant balance in regard to the things we do and the choices we make.  Some times being too conservative is not always the answer.  Sometimes we need to “skid” a little in order to regain control of our lives. 

        ****I hope you enjoyed the meditation exercises.  I am sure you were able to come up with your own creative responses. 


 Thanks for meditating . . .


  My Mother, the Sensei

(Copyright c. 2000 Paul Turse.  All rights reserved.) 

        She stood not more than five feet tall, a height which was truncated by her scoliosis and advanced arthritis.  Her gray hair, somewhat thinned out as a result of chemotherapy, still adorned her head like a silver crown.  And despite pushing eighty, whenever she could stand from her wheelchair and walk on her own, she carried herself in a regal manner.  Although she was not a judo teacher, she was a sensei.  The word sensei means “teacher,” but it does not have to indicate a martial arts instructor.  Sensei means “before life.”  Thus, anyone who lives before another and imparts wisdom to that individual is indeed a sensei.   It seems that most students never appreciate or truly understand what a teacher has imparted to them until many years after the lessons and perhaps not until after the teacher has departed this life.  So it was with me.  The two greatest lessons that my mother taught me were, oddly enough, during the last days of her life as she lay bedridden, slowly experiencing the final effects of terminal cancer.  As the cancer began to spread throughout her body, she began to ramble in a somewhat illogical and incoherent pattern.  I had taken off from work to be at her side for six months during her ordeal, so I had plenty of time to try to make some sense out of what she was saying.  Some times, I think she knew what she doing and was putting me on.  Whether she intended it or not, as if in the solution of an esoteric koan, the moment of enlightenment struck.  Satori comes where and when you least expect it. Toward the end of her days, she began telling everyone that she had two sons—twins—but never told anyone.  Since I was an only child, I found this concept of a twin brother amusing. 

        When I asked her what the name of her other son was, she replied, “Paul.” 

        Since my name is “Paul,” I asked why she named us both the same. 

        Easy answer:  “So no one would know that I had twins.” 

        The dichotomy soon became clear.  There was the “good” Paul, and there was the “bad” Paul.  I guess it is not too difficult to guess that I was the bad Paul, the one who made her take medicine and who woke her from a sound sleep in the middle of the night to change her bed pads.  Of course, when I cooked one of her special dishes or got her a hunk of cheese, one of her favorite snacks, I became my alter ego, the “good” Paul. 

        One day when things were a bit boring, in somewhat of a perverse manner, I began to say nasty things about my “twin.” 

        “Sure,” I complained in mock despair, “you always liked that good Paul better that you liked me.” 

        “Oh, no.  That’s not so,” she responded. 

        “You like that ‘sissy’ better that you like me,” I moaned.

        “Don’t you say bad things about your brother; that’s not nice.  He is not a sissy,” she would argue.  “I like you both the same.” 

        “Yeah,” I continued, “then how come you left him the big house in Westchester and all your money, and you left me with this dump, referring to our modest senior citizen unit?”

        “Oh no, I left you some money,” she said proudly. 

       “Oh yeah?” I asked.  “How much?” 

        “You're gonna be surprised,” she teased. 

        “How much?” I demanded in mock concern. 

        She reflected for a moment. “Let me see . . . three million dollars,” she said emphatically. 

        Of course, I rushed off the bank as soon as I could.  Not really.  I had kept her books for nearly forty years, and I am sure that I would not have missed that slight accounting oversight.  I knew that there was no inheritance.  But as I laughed, I suddenly began to wonder why we always think of an inheritance as something material—an estate or money.  Isn’t there such a thing as a spiritual inheritance?  I knew then, if I had inherited even half of my mother’s courage and compassion, that I was the richest man in the world.  And you can’t take that kind of wealth to the bank.  That was my first lesson. 

        The second moment of enlightenment came on the night my mother died.  Although she did not know that she had terminal cancer, she began to sense that her time was near a few days before the inevitable.  She told me one night that two men were going to come for her in the night.  She was not afraid of them, but she did not want them to hurt her. 

        “Promise me,” she said as if she were a little girl, “you won’t let them hurt me.”

        I smugly told her not to worry because I knew judo and, if they came to the door, I would kick their butts.  The ironic arrogance of my boast was soon brought to light when, approximately two hours after she had died, I heard an eerie and ominous knock at the door.  When I faced the two undertakers who had come for her, a grim reality swept over me:  I could not protect her.  Despite nearly forty years of training and holding a sixth degree black belt, I was powerless in the face of death.  None of the secret training techniques I had learned in the Orient prepared me for this moment.  It was then that I came to the conclusion that there had to be more to training than just the physical and that the only way to combat death is through spiritual strength.  She did not need me to fight for her, for she was now protected by God’s might. 

        As strong as we think we are, we still need others and a spiritual force outside ourselves.  The irony is that everyone, including me, thought that my mother needed me.  But now that she is gone, I realize how much I needed her and how much I had learned from her.  Yes, my mother was a sensei. 


        It is in my mother's memory that I have created and dedicated this Web site.  For it was through her death that I have finally begun to come to terms with the spirituality of the martial arts. Here is a poem that I would like to share with you.  Although it was written for my mother, the butterfly could be a universal symbol of mankind’s flight through life on the way toward spiritual transformation.  Unlike Dylan Thomas, who urges his father to “rage against the light,” I exhort the butterfly to “fly toward the light.” 


From the despair of life’s dark cocoon,

Into heaven’s light you shall fly soon.

Your upward flight with wings asunder

Gives the world a moment of wonder.

Fly, fly into that eternal night;

You need not fear the men who come in the night,

For you are now protected by God’s might.

No stable rose petal upon which to land.

No strong wind to lend a hand.

Although I was not there to allay your final fear,

You must know that I was always near.

But no longer will you fly alone.

Soon you will find your flowery home.

Fly, fly into that eternal light;

You need not fear the men who come in the night,

For you are now protected by God’s might.

The strength of your fragile wing

Will soon cause the angels to sing.

Always teaching right from wrong,

In your honor I sing this song.

Never once did your heart harden.

You will be blessed in heaven’s rose garden.

Although the eagles of this world much higher soar,

It is the butterfly’s flight of which the angels roar.

Always flying above the norm,

God’s image will be your final form.

Fly, fly toward that eternal light.

You need not fear the men who come in the night,

For you are now protected by God’s might. 

        (Dedicated to Adeline C. Turse (d. August 12, 1999)


               Spirit of the Tiger:  Sensei Mom                           

 (Copyright c.2001 Paul Turse.  All rights reserved.)  

        Do you think your mom is cool?  Does she wear shades?  Well, moms are not cool because they may wear sunglasses.  Moms are cool because they are moms and because they have the spirit of the tiger within them.  Have you ever watched the Discovery Channel or the Animal Planet?  If so, you may have seen a show where the world of the tiger was explored.  You must have noticed that it is the tigress, or the female tiger, that looks out for the cubs and teaches them all that they need to know in order to survive in the jungle.  And sometimes when a cub does not pay attention or wanders off to a dangerous location, she may have to go after it and take the cub by the scruff of the neck and carry it back to the safety of the den.  Now the cub does not cry or have a hissy fit because it has been punished and has been “grounded” for a while.  All cubs take their licks like real tigers.  And when they are threatened by a larger predator, they are not too proud to call mom for help, and they have no problems with letting her fight their battles for them.  That is why they eventually survive to one day become strong enough to fight their own battles. 

        Now it would seem to me that if tiger cubs are that intelligent, then young humans should be at least smart enough to understand and appreciate the guidance that their moms have to offer.  All the insurmountable problems you may be facing now are nothing new to your mom.  Believe it or not, your mom has been there and back dozens of times in her lifetime.  She has been out in the human jungle and has survived and has been successful.  In fact, you are living proof of her accomplishments.  Your mom is just as much a teacher as the tigress.  When she roars, you need to listen. In fact, your mom is a sensei.  “What!” you say.  “But my mom doesn’t know judo or karate,” you protest.  Well, the word sensei does not necessarily mean a martial arts teacher.  The word comes from two “characters,” or symbols that form the Japanese language:  sen (before) and sei (life); thus, the word means “before life.”  In other words, anyone who has lived longer than someone else and who passes on all the knowledge (and not just martial arts) that he or she has acquired to a younger person is a sensei.   

        Your martial arts sensei may only be able to help you to become good at judo or karate, but your mom will be able to teach you how to achieve success as a person in life.  And if you are a guy, don’t be ashamed to develop a close relationship with your mom.  Some of the greatest and strongest men in the world have and had close ties with their moms.  There is nothing sissy about that.  In fact, the fifth football player to be drafted into the NFL two years ago, LaDainian Tomlinson from Texas Christian University, has a tattoo of his inspiration, his mom, whose face he proudly displays on his shoulder for all to see.  I also know, from my own personal experience, that my mom was my best buddy, and I am not afraid to proudly admit it. 

        Some of you are no doubt impressed when you see some of your super-star sports figures play in a game when they are injured or hurt.  But don’t forget many of them are so filled with painkillers that they may not feel any pain.  Besides, they are playing in front of millions of fans and making as many dollars in the process.  You may not know the pain that your mom may be experiencing as she goes through her daily chores, not with a field goal in mind, but with your well-being as her prime objective.  Moreover, she does all of this for you, her one and only fan, very often unrecognized and un-rewarded.  While she may not be famous, it takes more courage to be just a plain ole mom, one without sunglasses.  Besides, if she were wearing sunglasses, you would not be able to see the love and pride shining in her eyes when she looks at you.  One day when you are successful and you look back upon your life, you may come to realize that the correct choices you have made and the courage you have found within to cope in the human jungle may not have come from your martial arts teacher but really from Sensei Mom.


Bull Hockey

 (Copyright c. 2000 Paul Turse.  All rights reserved.) 

         Judge:  Young man, you have been brought before this court because you attacked another man with a club.  You are being charged with felonious assault.  How do you plead?

         Young Man:  Not guilty, your honor!  

        Judge:  What do you have to say in your defense?  

        Young Man:  Well you see, Judge, I was only doing my job.  You see, I am an enforcer.  And the guy I hit was from the other gang.  He hit a member of my gang last week, so I had to obey the code of the street, and retaliate.  Since it happened in the street with another gang member, it should be OK.  It’s all part of gang life.  

        Judge:  I am sorry, young man.  Your gang is not a law unto itself.  You and others like you do not live in a vacuum, where the laws of society do not apply.  The code of the street and its anti-social behavior patterns do not afford you sanctuary from the norm of society.  I have no choice but to find you guilty.  

        Not surprised by ruling of the judge?  Then it should not come as a shock that a few weeks ago, a Canadian court ruled that a hockey player who struck another player in the side of the head with his stick was guilty of assault, even though he was only doing his job as an enforcer.  But it might come as a surprise that some individuals (including legal experts) believed that a hockey player should not be held accountable for such action, since fighting and retaliating are part of the game.   Bull hockey!  That is street gang mentality. 

        From my limited observation and perspective, I have not seen anything in hockey that could be classified as fighting as far as martial arts are concerned.  I have witnessed only showboating and cheap shots, designed to hide behind the sport in terms of taking responsibility for such actions.  Not too much danger to start a fight when you know it is going to be broken up quickly, or to cheap shot an opponent when you will not be held liable.    But the fans come to see the fighting, some advocates say.  If fans want to see real fighting, they should attend those events that feature the best in the field and exhibit the real thing.  Hockey players make a mockery of fighting.  Most martial artists would agree that if they were ever attacked by a hockey player, it would make their day.  In fact, most martial artists would pit their bo or three sectional staff skills against any hockey player’s stick techniques.   

        How can fans idolize anyone who does not have the courage to fight a duel the way it should be done?  I mean, after the game, mano a mano.  Isolated from all.  When the time came for Miyamoto Musashi and Sasaki Kojiro to settle the score—to fight to the death—to see who was Japan’s greatest swordsman, it was done on the deserted island of Funashima, with only a handful of witnesses and officials to record the event.**    

        Those hot shots (and I am not referring to their accuracy) hockey players, who perform their mock fights in front of thousands of fans in the arena and on TV, win or lose, get to go home with multimillion dollar contracts looming on the horizon, and with mobs of adulating fans and groupies to escort them.  But Musashi, with nothing but his wooden staff, lived to walk away alone, drifting off into obscurity on the tides of fortune that had brought him to the island.  Sasaki, on the other hand, (his head split open) remained on the beach, his lifeless form nearly indistinguishable from the surrounding dunes, and his dreams of superstardom as impermanent as the sifting sands blown by the winds across the island.   

        Hockey players who have lost the art and sport of what could be one of the greatest athletic events performed and practiced today are not warriors.  They are a disgrace to their profession and ruin it for those great sportsman who live to become one with the ice, their sticks, and their opponents, as they visualize the goal moments before they make the score.    

        We, in the martial arts, know full well that, if we injure an opponent in a contest, we can be held liable.  Even when we referee, we can be held liable.  Yes, and even when we work as timekeepers, insanely enough, we can be named in multimillion-dollar lawsuits.  Why should hockey players be allowed to play by a different set of rules?  Any sport that teaches failure to take responsibility for one’s actions and follows the code of the street betrays not only the code of bushido but also the very essence of what sports are supposed to be teaching our youth of today. **  

        The information regarding the duel between Musashi and Kojiro was taken from Eiji Yoshikawa, Musashi, trans. Charles S. Terry (Tokyo:  Kodansha International Ltd., 1981), pp. 969-700.  The description of the characters, however, is my own. 

        Look for “Samurai vs. Ronin” in this section for further commentary about athlete role models.   


 Samurai vs. Ronin

 (Copyright c. 2000 Paul Turse All rights reserved.) 

        To the average martial arts practitioner and to the general public, the word samurai simply means “warrior.”  But to students of the Japanese language, the word samurai, as the ideograph suggests, actually means, “to serve.”  The samurai was a warrior whose prime purpose in life was to serve a master, without consideration of his own desires and needs.  This obligation, known as giri, was often in conflict with ninjo (human feeling), thus forming the classic dilemma for the hero of the Kabuki.  Torn between two value systems:  duty to the social code and duty to a higher order, the hero was doomed no matter what the choice.  Going against the code of the samurai meant not only being ostracized but also condemned to a death by self-immolation, a bloody ritual known as hara kiri or seppuku.  Obeying the code often meant sacrificing the life or honor of a loved one.  When a samurai denied the code and renounced the warrior way, or if his master was killed, he became a ronin, known as a “masterless” samurai or a “wave man.”  He became a warrior who flowed as freely and as mindlessly as the waves of the ocean with no set order or direction.  A wave man could be as innocuous as a gentle wave at low tide, splashing aimlessly on the beach, or he could be as devastating as a tidal wave by attaching himself to a higher code or order emanating from his conscience and by acting with firmness of moral purpose. 

        It is not always possible to make a value judgment as to which was the greater, the samurai, who tragically subordinated his own beliefs and fought and died to keep his social order going, or the ronin, who found a cause not necessarily in line with the order of his time.  The essence of Kabuki tragedy is that the values the samurai must choose between are often both positive.  He does not have to choose between good and evil; he must choose between two positive values.  The tragedy is that one value must be destroyed to save the other.  A classic example is Kumagai, the warrior who cannot kill his youthful enemy in combat, and as a result must sacrifice the life of his own son. 

        This tragic dilemma concept is not confined to Japanese drama; it also the essence of certain Shakespearean tragedies.  Macbeth is torn between following the Scottish code of hospitality and the chance to become king.  Brutus, normally thought of as a traitor, must choose between the fate of Rome and his Emperor, Caesar, whose tyrannical policies may seal Rome’s doom.  Brutus chooses patriotism over friendship and, like a samurai, he pays for his “betrayal” by taking his own life. 

        Today, in the modern world, not the classical worlds of Kabuki and Shakespeare, our choice, although not as tragic, is essentially the same.  “To conform or not to conform.”  As martial arts teachers, we must decide if our goal is to train our students to be both samurai and ronin, and to know when they should be samurai and when they should be ronin.  When they should follow the rules or make their own rules.  Follow the social codes or follow the true path.  We are a society of samurai followers, an essential quality for law and order and the smooth flow of the social order.  But, as history has shown, we are also a nation of leaders or ronin.  We would not be a nation today if the ronin of the Revolution had followed the mandates of King George.   

        Like it or not, significant leaders of today’s youth are sports figures.  The appalling number of high- profile athletes who have gotten involved in serious legal problems indicates a serious problem in our society today.  These superstars have a distorted feeling of invincibility causing them to deny the rules set down by our society.  But they are not ronin because they generally have followed another code, that of the hood.  By associating with that element, they accepted that mentality.  The fact that a number of the athletes who are in trouble today apparently got into that problem because of their “buddies” wrongdoing demonstrates that they are still serving a master.  Some sportscasters have attempted to smooth over this homeboy mentality by saying that it is very difficult for these men to break away from their life-long loyal friends.  However, real friends do not compromise the life or rep of another friend. 

        I spent nearly 25 years teaching at one of our U.S. Service Academies, where the Honor Code dictates that a cadet must not tolerate those who lie, cheat, or steal.  It is incumbent upon these young men and women to report any and all violations of honor, even if committed by a close friend.  They must demonstrate moral strength. 

        Part of the problem emanates from our own distorted view of athletic prowess; we tend today to evaluate children as they grow up in terms of physical accomplishments as the mark of the courageous boy or girl.  Take this simple test.   Answer the following question.  “Who is the strongest person you know of? And the answer is . . . Joan of Arc. What was your answer?  Was it a sports figure?  Was it a man?  If so, don’t worry because that is the common response.  It is the way we have been trained.  A Joan of Arc doesn’t count because she was a girl, and she did not possess physical strength.  However, if the strongest person were to be measured in terms of moral strength, then many sports figures would not be in the top 50.   

        I  was watching a group of parents trying to teach their five- and six-year-old children how to dive into a pool at the deep end of a local community pool.  Most of the children were willing, at the urging of the group, to jump in with abandon.  You could see the satisfaction beaming in their young faces as the parents applauded their courageous feat.  But one young boy was apparently afraid to take the plunge, despite the urging of the group and his father’s chagrin.  The father yanked the boy from the pool and walked off in disgrace.  I suppose the boy did not live up to the heroic expectations of the father.  But maybe the boy was a young ronin and was following the dictates of good judgment, and not necessarily fear.  What guarantee do we have that the other children who thoughtlessly jumped into pool will be our Medal of Honor heroes of a future war?  There is no correlation between athletic endeavor and heroism.  The actions of many high school, college, and pro team athletes have demonstrated this fact.  “But sports builds character and leadership,” one might say.  However, the greatest leaders in history never played football, despite Macarthur’s reference to the “friendly fields of strife.” 

        As martial arts instructors, we must work to develop not only the physical strength of our students but also their moral courage.  A mantle topped with trophies from numerous contests means nothing if a young martial arts practitioner cannot win the moral combat. If our superstars, who are multimillionaires, possessing the strength and courage to play a professional sport, such as football, cannot make the choice to walk away from the crowd, how can we expect our cadets, or worse yet our teens and preteens, to have the guts to walk away from their friends in a compromising situation?  

        Indeed, those sportscasters who exonerate the actions of these sports heroes often call them “warriors,” as they punish their bodies mercilessly enduring excruciating pain to make the winning score.  But they are not really warriors in the sense of the samurai or ronin.  These super egos are playing for megabucks in front of adulating fans and “groupies.”  But ronin, such as Miyamoto Musashi and Kojiro Sasaki, fought a life and death struggle on the deserted beach of Funashima.  Except for a small group of witnessing officials, there were no fans, groupies, and no salary cap-breaking contracts on the horizon. 

        Like it or not, as Mrs. Jones says, these super stars are role models.  All adults-- teachers, police officers, and parents-- are role models.  The young emulate their models.  It is the way of the natural world.  In the feline world, the cubs observe the mother and learn to hunt and care for themselves.  The mother watches out for and protects her young that one day will protect their own young the same way that their mother had protected them.  The mother often has to take corrective measures when the cubs go astray.  Even the master must sometime give a meditating Zen protégé who gets distracted and loses concentration (suki) a whack with a bamboo stick.  When a rambunctious cub strays too far from the safety of the lair, it is not uncommon for the mother to cuff the young one and send him sprawling.  Then pick it up by the scruff of the neck and carry it back to safety.   

        I can recall, back  in high school, when I was moved up from the JV team and got a chance to suit up for the last varsity football game.  We were given special jerseys to wear, and I was quick to select #6, which was the number of the senior whose position I was understudying.  Although I did not get into the game, I earned the right to go the notorious football party, a secret rite of passage for all aspiring superstars.  I was driven to the party, which took place at a deserted cabin in a nearby state forest, by my idol and role model.  At the party, I joined the rowdy crowd but conservatively indulged in a few brews.  While most of the upper classmen were drinking heavily, I did not observe my hero over- indulging.  He spent most of his time watching over me.  Of course, I had to get home early, long before the party had lost any momentum.  You see, I was an honor student, and my father was a teacher in our school.  If I got in any trouble, my career would be down the tubes. 

        Sober and in full control, #6 drove me home--safe and sound--that night.  I am sure I cramped his style that night.  In addition, I am sure he did not want to be a role model, but on that night, he rose to the occasion.  I don’t believe he went on to play college or pro ball, but, to me, he was a superstar in the true sense of the word. 

        It is time for our pro athletes to rise to the occasion.  They must become ronin and break away from the code of the hood and act out of the dictates of good conscience.  By becoming ronin, they will be in the flow of mushin maru,* and they will then become true warriors and true samurai because they will be serving as positive role models for the youth of today. 

        *See the Mushin Maru-ryu essay in this section.


 Drunkard Kung Fu, Coward Kung Fu 

(Copyright c.  2001 Paul Turse All Rights Reserved.)

 (Edited December 28, 2009.) 

        While martial artists are capable of doing some great things, they are not magical or mystical acts.  They are not much different from those great athletic feats performed by any trained and conditioned athlete in any other sport.  Too often, in martial arts films, you see actors do things that are not real.  You see them run up the sides of buildings like Spider-Man or soar through the air like Superman.  You see them kick a 400-pound sumo wrestler six feet in the air and through a brick wall.  In the fifty-two years that I have been involved in combative activities, I have never seen a martial artist fly and have never met one crazy enough to tangle with a sumo wrestler.   Let’s get real for a minute.  If martial artists could leap as they do in the movies, why hasn’t one yet to win, let alone compete, in the long jump or high jump in the Olympics?  Why aren’t they winning gold medals and endorsing Wheaties for big bucks?  Better yet, if they can kick a sumo that far, think what could they do to a football?  So why are they wasting their time in a dojo, barely making rent, when they could be kicking for the National Football League, with a multi-million dollar contract?  Oh, I know what your thinking.  They are all too dedicated, or they don’t want to reveal their secret arts.  Well, sorry, Charlie or Charlene, as the case may be.  Just as Star-Kist takes only the best tuna, I accept only the best answers.  So canned responses just won’t cut it here. 

        The truth is that real martial artists just can’t do what actors do in the movies. One of the recent crazes and one of the craziest notions to be revived in martial arts films is the idea of drunkard kung fu.  Although the actors seem to be able to fight and protect themselves, no athlete or martial artist can compete with any degree of certainty or reliability when and if under the influence of any kind of drug.  If a person has such control and equilibrium to contest against an attacker while drunk, then why can’t an expert driver control a vehicle under the same conditions?  Why do we have such organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) and Students Against Drunk Drivers (SADD)?  It is because driving and drinking do not mix.  Likewise, intoxicants of any kind and martial arts don’t mix either.  You cannot protect or defend yourself if under the influence of any substance.  That is why there should be an organization known as MAADD (Martial Artists Against Drunk Defenses). 

        Oh, I know you have heard stories from some of your buddies about how Harry High School drove home dead drunk and did not remember how he got there, or how Judy Junior High was so buzzed but still did all these fantastic things.  Well, even if these stories are true, there is a good reason.  Moreover, it is not that drugs and alcohol heighten one’s senses.  The reason is that St. Christopher may have worked extra hard that night, because something divine helped them on those occasions.  Those instances where an individual can function adequately in any kind of inebriated state are rare and cannot be repeated with any degree of consistency or accuracy.  What are the chances of winning a state lottery?  Better yet what are the chances of winning one twice in a row?  I won’t answer these questions because I think you see what I am getting at.  

        The idea of drunkard kung fu is not to be drunk.  The object of this style, as in many martial arts systems, is imitation—that is, to imitate the mechanics of someone who is drunk.  There are many systems that rely upon imitation.  The tiger systems in karate or kung fu, for example, imitate not only the inner spirit or ki but also the mechanical essence and actions of the creature.  The martial artist who studies this style attempts to mimic the stances and the crouching action.  Judo practitioners copy the grappling actions of all cats when they retreat to their backs and fight from that position.  The mantis system came, in part, from the blocking motion the insect uses when it is poked at with a small twig.  Now, a human cannot be a mantis or a tiger, physically, but can still imitate their actions; thus, it would follow intelligently that one does not have to get drunk, or be drunk, to copy the spirit of the drunkard kung fu system.   

        Since, in reality, a person who is drunk is in a state of total muscular relaxation and does not know what he or she is going to do at any given moment, it follows that a potential opponent will not know either.  If a fighter can learn to move spontaneously from no set position or with no telegraphing, then the fighter he will have an advantage.  If you want your body to react with complete spontaneity to a situation, then it must be totally relaxed with no tension.  Focusing on a preconceived action will create tension in the muscle set that is preparing to make the motion.  The reason one imitates the drunkard’s action is that these movements will be spontaneous and relaxed. 

        Great martial arts actions and any athletic actions are those that come from the unconscious part of your brain.  That is why you practice as hard as you can, consciously, to learn your techniques so well that they become so much a part of you that they will function as quickly and as effectively as the blink of an eye that protects you from dust particles blowing in the breeze. 

        To believe, even for one moment, that martial arts would depend upon any unnatural enhancement is contrary to the true meaning of the their spirit.  It’s like having the answers before you take the test.  It is like having someone take the test for you.  And if you win, in a martial arts encounter, it will be the drug’s short-term victory, and not yours; and it will be your long-term defeat.  You will be cheating an opponent, your parents, your teachers, the martial arts, and yourself.  If you believe that you can master your art drunk, then you will surely flunk.  When any martial artist must rely on drugs, steroids, or any alcohol to perform, it means that the fighter does not have the courage to want to find out what he or she can do on his or her own merits.  Drunkard kung fu was never meant to be coward kung fu.      

Comcast Customer