Author’s note: a few months ago I profiled martial artist Ray Fisher on this site. The following segment is another excerpt from our work in progress
The concept of loyalty seems positively archaic in this age of everyone-out-for-themselves. It could be argued that Aleister Crowley’s dictum “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” has indeed come to pass. In some ways, this is not necessarily a bad thing: the idea of individual freedom is implicit in our national motto of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It’s the type of freedom that would allow, say, a Midwestern white kid to pursue interests in Buddhism and karate. Emerson and Thoreau extolled this freedom, as did Jefferson a few generations earlier, taking his cue from Rousseau, and so on. There is a long and storied pedigree here.
But something may have been lost on the road to self-liberation: that idea of something greater and more compelling than our own needs.
Leave it to The Boss (that is, Bruce Springsteen) to make one last desperate strike for loyalty. In one of his best songs, “Highway Patrolman,” he sings about the complicated relationship between the titular patrolman—Joe Roberts—and his ne’er-do-well brother Franky. In a pivotal moment, Roberts is forced to choose between his loyalty to his family and his duty to uphold the law:
The night was like any other, I got a call ‘bout quarter to nine
There was trouble in a roadhouse out on the Michigan line
There was a kid lyin’ on the floor lookin’ bad, bleedin’ hard from his head
There was a girl cryin’ at a table, it was Frank they said
Well I went out and I jumped in my car and I hit the lights
I must of done 110 through Michigan County that night
It was out at the crossroads down round Willow Bank
Seen a Buick with Ohio plates, behind the wheel was Frank
Well I chased him through them county roads till a sign said
Canadian border 5 miles from here
I pulled over the side of the highway and watched his taillights disappear
What a dilemma. On the one hand, Joe’s brother has committed a heinous crime—possibly murder—and must be brought to justice. Joe feels the tug of his responsibility as an officer of the law. He may even feel a sense of loyalty to his fellow officers.
But there is the transcendent virtue: loyalty to family. The song keeps circling round the refrain, “A man turns his back on his family, honey he ain’t no good.”
Most of us will never face the wrenching choice that Joe Roberts faced. But on a smaller level, we have the opportunity to cultivate loyalty in our lives. This can seem quixotic; in most instances, our employers neither demand nor reward loyalty (a stark contrast from just a generation ago), and neither do our friends. Is it any wonder that the very idea seems to foreign, so archaic?
Be that as it may, this very old fashioned virtue is something Master Fisher believes in deeply. As I came to understand from our conversation, it is an integral component in the martial arts as well.
Ray: Loyalty to me is a sense of faithfulness or obligation. Not obligation in a bad way. To put it into context, I have loyalty to my teachers. Periodically, I am approached by other groups or other martial arts organizations. Some of them have almost blatantly said, “Come into our fold and we’ll promote you one or two belt levels higher than where you are now, because you are under-ranked for your skill and knowledge.” That to me would be incredibly disloyal to my teachers. That would be dishonorable. So there’s many contexts to the word loyalty. People have loyalty to their families. If we think in terms of a husband and wife, a close boyfriend and girlfriend, or a fiancée situation, you have loyalty. You have an obligation to not have too much of a wandering eye or you may act upon those thoughts. That’s a kind of loyalty that I think in today’s society is being lost. A hundred years ago, or more, there was such a different sense of loyalty to family because there wasn’t instant communication with cell phones. There was no Facebook or Twitter or any of the other ways to chat people up and have instant gratification. A lot of people grew up in a town and stayed in that town, or they came back to that town to settle down. They had roots, a sense of family. In many households you would have two, three, four generations living there. The children took care of the parents, the parents took care of the grandparents, there might even be a great-grandparent. I know this might sound like a rant but I’m not ashamed of it. With changes in travel modes, instead of being a matter of how far I could ride my horse that day, it became: how far can I drive in the car that day? And then it became: how far can I go in an airplane? And so for the people who have financial means, it’s not uncommon to go away on trips on a regular basis. You can be in California, then in Miami, New York City, Europe. There’s not that sense of being bound to home anymore.
I think technology is great. The advances in transportation, the internet, cell phones…all of those are awesome tools. But they’ve also become a Pandora’s Box. There are things that have come from them that bring just as much evil as good. Going back to the idea of a relationship, if you grew up in a small town and lived there all your life, there were certainly spouses who cheated on each other. I’m not naïve. But there was less of it. There wasn’t the idea of, you know what? I’m unhappy so I guess I’ll expose myself to dozens or hundreds of other people over the internet and start fishing around. Today, it’s a very disposable society.
Robert: I’ve been reading a book called The Sign and The Seal by Graham Hancock. He’s a journalist who becomes convinced he knows the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. His travels take him to Ethiopia where he discovers the Falashas—descendants of a sect of Jews who must have broken away from the rest of Judaism in very ancient times. They still practice animal sacrifices and have no knowledge of the later books of the Torah or the Talmud. There is an unbroken line of tradition with these people going back thousands of years; they can recount things that happened to their people 1500 years ago. They probably know which of their ancestors were involved in each of these stories. Who among us has a connection that far back? There is something appealing to that cohesiveness, that loyalty to clan and creed.
Ray: It’s loyalty to tradition and history. Honoring their ancestors. Contrast that with now. If people aren’t happy with something, they choose to discard it so quickly. There’s not a sense of loyalty to the journey. I told you in earlier conversations about my first teacher’s statement: “If you do what I say every day for the next ten years, you may feel something.” To me, that was something that would not come easy. It was something that had heart. In the martial arts, there are a lot of people who come in with a preconceived notion that they’re going to be a black belt in six to twelve months and they’re going to be the next Bruce Lee. When the reality hits them of how much dedication and how much practice it really takes, how much hard work it is, they become discouraged and they quit. As a teacher it’s disheartening to me. I’ve had students train with me for six months, maybe a year, and they’ve just barely scraped the tip of the iceberg and they judge the system and decide it’s not worthy of them. I call them “karate butterflies”: they float from one flower to the next. They open up and smell that flower and they try it, and then pretty soon they fly off to the next flower because it looks prettier and it smells different. That’s how nature cross-pollinates. But there are also butterflies that are incredibly loyal to certain species of plants. They are the cause of those flowers being propagated throughout the countryside and potentially the whole country. So loyalty to me means a kind of faithfulness that can be interpreted from a religious point of view, or from the point of view of sexual or platonic relationships. I have a particular friend that is so loyal to me, if I called him up right now and said, “I have a problem. Come packing,” he would be at the house within an hour loaded down with ammunition and guns, and if we had to kill somebody tonight he would do it for me. I’m not trying to sound like a Green Beret. But I feel the same way about him. If he called me at three in the morning and said, “I need your help; come,” I would.
There’s a brotherhood or camaraderie that takes place amongst warriors. Especially people who have seen true combat. They have kinship and loyalty to their brothers in arms that transcends their relationship with their blood brothers or family or coworkers. That goes back aeons and aeons, whether we’re talking Greeks, or Romans, or fighters in the Civil War. Loyalty among warriors. Not soldiers, warriors.
The Japanese have a phrase—“giri.” It means obligation or duty, right reason. In a martial context, when a teacher takes on a student, the student has giri to the teacher. Unfortunately in America, too many people are so materialistic, they see that as just being a financial obligation: “I paid my dues, what else do you expect of me?” I had a teacher who refused to accept payment. So I had a giri to him and his family. When it was his daughter’s birthday, I brought her a birthday present. When it was Christmas, I brought presents to him, his daughter, and his grandson. I would take him out for meals. My way of showing my loyalty was not giving him a check every month but making him feel honored. I acted as part of his family. There were times that if he needed his yard work done, it didn’t matter that I was a college graduate or a third degree black belt. I went over and worked in his yard. That was my giri.
Another phrase that ties into that is “on.” On relates to an obligation to repay, or a burden of debt. If we think back historically in the martial arts: If you went to the Shaolin temple and got accepted as a disciple, you didn’t go in and pay them; you worked in the gardens. You swept the temple. You did the monks’ laundry. You cooked in the kitchen. You cleaned the dishes. You did things because you had a moral obligation, a higher sense of duty. As recently as 50, 60 years ago, and I’m sure it is still this way in parts of the Orient, senseis only taught their families. They taught their clan or their village. The disciples had an obligation to uphold these teachings and demonstrate how superior they were to those of the other villages. They didn’t care about money, they cared about heart.
A warrior has a higher sense of honor, a higher sense of purpose than just a soldier. There are soldiers of fortune. There are mercenaries in this world. A warrior is different.
The best example of this is a classic story, which happens to be true, called The 47 Ronin. This tale dates from feudal Japan. One of the daimyos, or lords, hated the other lord. He tricked him in court. He insulted him so badly that the other daimyo drew his sword–which was a capital offense–and cut, but did not kill, the insulting lord. Think of these as princes or lords or dukes, to use a European analogy. The offender was expected to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) in atonement, and he did. By default, all of his senior samurai were expected to commit suicide as well. After all, they had a giri to their daimyo. Well, they found out what had actually gone on–the treachery to their lord, and the trickery. Yes, their daimyo lost his cool and commited a capital offense. But rather than commit seppuku, the 47 samurai became ronin: masterless samurai. They chose to disband. They pretended to be drunks. Some of them gave up their samurai ways totally and became merchants, or street peddlers. Some left their wives and took up with prostitutes. They were looked down upon by everyone–particularly other samurai–as an absolute disgrace to everything their master had stood for.
It was all a ruse to lull the offending daimyo into a false sense of security. They chose to become drunks, to let everybody underestimate them and hold them in disdain. They were no longer a threat and no longer in anybody’s mind–having committed social (rather than honorable) suicide. One year to the date after their master’s death, they reconvened and attacked the insulting daimyo. They killed everyone. They killed him, all of his children, all the women, and all of his samurai. They had fulfilled their giri. They had carried their sense of “on” for a full year–groveling and acting like peasants. Knowing that they were waiting their time, letting their vengeance seethe under control. The shogun was so impressed by this that instead of having them executed as common criminals, he allowed them to commit seppuku in honor of their master. Their sense of loyalty had transcended everything else.
It is such an awesome example of what we’re talking about. When they attacked and killed the daimyo, they beheaded him, washed his head, took it to their master’s grave. Then they turned themselves in. They said, “This is our giri. When we were told to commit seppuku one year ago, we accepted that. But we could not accept the fact that the man who caused the death of our master through treachery was still alive.”
There’s a phrase in martial arts that says, “The warrior can not rest under the same heaven as the one who has dishonored his master.”
Today, this all sounds very extreme, very barbaric. Still, in our age of dissociation, of superficial attachments, it nevertheless stirs something deep in the heart; something forgotten, or discarded. That is loyalty.
Robert Dean Lurie is the author of No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and The Church