Recently I had an interaction with someone who referred to their school as a genuine samurai school. They insisted their school was authentic and dated back to the warring periods of Japan, but refused to even tell me the name of it. Some other students of schools that spoke to me of their experiences sparked this essay. It led me to think about this cult idea in Martial arts.
There are warning signs that you're in a cult. Most cults are religious in their tones with lots of tight control, but not the right kind of control. I want to take this idea about cult behavior and put it in the framework in martial arts. Below I list some issues that are cause for concern in martial arts schools and systems.
Are they claiming special things?
Is the group or teacher saying that no other group has this idea? Are they claiming only they know the essence of martial arts? Or that they know more than other groups?
Is there a claim that you should never question what you are taught? Is the 'Do as your told' mentality prominent? For example, utterly blind trust?
Of course, we need to trust our teacher, however, we shouldn't put them up on an unreachable pedestal.
Are you actively discouraged from asking questions?
Are they putting down other groups only to build themselves up? That group has such and such faults and we are doing something better and you will learn more here than any other group.
Putting down other dojo and schools to the extent that they build up their own school.
Overly critical speech from the head teacher? Is he pointing out your failures more than anything else?
Are they hiding criticism of themselves or their student base and school?
Do they paint former students as enemies or speak of them as adversaries?
If someone leaves the school for the smallest infraction are they talked about in an overly negative and derogatory way?
Are they constantly on the defensive of every aspect of their teachings?
Is there anything tangible along with their goals?
Goals can include a belt and rank system. The status of colored belts, while beneficial can also serve as something more sinister and problematic.
Are they conducting themselves in a humble or arrogant manner? Do they appear arrogant? Saying things like, "people who really do koryu do it this way." "This is how its done in Japan, you wouldn't know!" "My teacher did it harsh like this so I am doing it the same exact way. Get over it!"
Is your teacher or group guilt tripping you into maintaining a certain belief or standard that the teacher himself does not?
We need to be careful of these points. Not everyone is perfect, but how many of the above points can you pin to your school or teacher?
I might have walked away from some groups that I could have stayed with, but in the end, we have to be the judge of what we can take and not take.
Bad treatment or racism and discrimination, lies and deceit, drama, those are all valid reasons for not liking someone or not wanting to be in a certain group.
There are a lot of red flags that go up when someone that teaches koryu or martial arts and won't tell you the name of their school, teacher, or lineage. If the teacher claims to be making trips there to train ask for the dates and locations.
If you have been practicing an art from Japan that has a lineage and you have never been there for training, and your school is secret, and you can't show any techniques then something is wrong. There is no school in Japan that functions this way. No one is operating with that much secrecy. Be skeptical of anyone that tells you otherwise. A private attitude is different than a secretive manner.
If you're someone in a school like that then you are probably in a dangerous situation.
Someone who devotes 30 years of their life to a system that is so secretive that there is no information anywhere, no demos, no open discussions of their history or lineage, even their systems name! That is completely unacceptable.
If you spent 30 plus years of your life training in that environment then something is wrong.
Any sane and rational person could get involved in that type of school as a young person but grow up and look around and see its not the norm. Questions should begin popping up at some point.
You have to draw the line between fantasy and reality.
Please evaluate your situation if you're in that environment.
I was in an environment where the dojo was being run shadily, and I saw unethical treatment. Put into a situation where I had also to keep the lies of my teacher, I became part of the lies through my involvement in the school, and I had to make a decision. Stay, be part of the deceit and get some teachings because its something I want to learn? I chose to walk away and not be part of it. Others stayed. In my view, lots of people do this kind of whoring behavior where they trade good sound morals and ethics to acquire ranks and techniques.
It is damaging to your psyche and moral fiber. In the end, it is entirely unwholesome as it poisons not only your life but other lives as well.
For myself, it is not worth it.
Some other issues to be aware of is when you view their biographies on their websites. Is there a claim of rank or are the head of an organization they created? Is their position in an otherwise bogus organization? That is another red flag.
For example, if someone claims to be 7th Dan (7th-degree black belt) in Fushukan* and within their biography, you see they started the Fushukan at an earlier time that means they gave themselves their rank. Such behavior is not normal in any good martial arts system. It is best to question your teacher about his lineage directly. It is not rude nor impolite to ask about their training. If there is a lot of hemming and hawing or concealment or vague answers, then something is wrong.
If you only have a black belt in something and wish to teach, then teach it on your own merits and skill, and not lies. The individuals lying in this manner usually have a lot of bad character traits that you will be exposed to and even inherit in your training with them.
Another issue is the use of titles like soke or, shodai soke, dai soke. When you see these titles and terms, it should be a cause for a pause before joining. It is best to judge the teacher on his skill and character, and that of his students as well. Titles are misleading. Be very wary of anyone touting themselves as a soke. It is not a badge of honor or anything really special. It simply means someone (might have) inherited a school is the masthead of the organization. It does not mean they are even a martial arts teacher.
Not all titles are bogus, but when you see rank that is over fifth degree its best to look into it and see where that rank came from. Usually, the charlatans enjoy using rank that seems high or titles as mentioned before. You need to give your teacher a lot of yourself as you train. It is dangerous to trust a predator with your supple intellect and exploitable wallet.
Which is better, someone with moderate skill and honest teachings without lies, or someone with low skill teachings with a heavily embellished biography and other problems with veracity?
I make the argument that someone who is a caring, compassionate teacher that has skills to pass on is a real teacher. The man or woman leading a group of people masquerading as a martial artist is extremely dangerous.
This is an issue in Japan as much as it is in other countries. Make no mistake that it is only a western problem.
Just like the Buddha taught to the Kalamas that if doubt arises, that is because there is a reason to have such doubt.
Lot's of people want to set themselves up as the leader of a group and to experience the adulation of students. This is not what a teacher should be doing. Thank you for taking the time to read my ideas. If you have any questions please send me a message.
*Fushukan is an arbitrary example of a non-traditional Japanese school name. Some such names used are budo this or that and ninja this or that. For instance, Budo-ryu or Ninja Warriors Ryu is not a traditional Japanese martial arts school name.