By Phil T. Mistlberger, Samurai Brotherhood Founder
The tapestry of cause and effect is always fascinating to observe and trace. My journey into the worlds of self-knowledge, self-discipline, and transformation began 47 years ago. It was then, in 1972, as a young boy, that I was introduced to martial arts by no other than my father. At that time, he himself was a 40-year-old man working as a plant foreman for a meat-packing company in Montreal. One night—as it happened, on February 22, 1972, my 13th birthday—he retired to the basement of our suburban house to smoke his Rothman’s cigarettes and watch TV. In those days, we only had access to a few channels on our small, boxy set. One of those channels (ABC) that evening happened to be showing, as its ‘movie of the week’, the pilot episode of Kung Fu, the iconic show starring David Carradine as Kwai Chang (‘Grasshopper’) Caine. This show went on to achieve cult-status, running from 1972 to 1975.
A few days after he watched the movie my father told me about it. I still recall him describing the culminating fight scene between two Shaolin combat-trained monks—one a renegade and fugitive, the other a hired assassin. The renegade/fugitive (Caine) won, which set the stage for 63 more episodes over the next three years.
However, to say that I was ‘captivated’ by my father’s description of the movie would be an overstatement. Anything my father said I tended to push back against in one fashion or another, as that stage of my young life was all about finding my identity. My father was a very strong personality and to blindly follow his inclinations would have seemed too akin to invisibility. I did not want to be invisible, let alone be in somebody’s shadow.
Nevertheless, something about what he was describing intrigued me. At that time, the wildly successful Hong Kong martial artist Bruce Lee was just becoming known in the West, and one or two of his films had been released. I saw these and in October of ’72 began watching Kung Fu as the regular episodes started playing at that time. For the next three years I never missed a single episode of the 63 that were filmed. The show was far ahead of its time, featuring Asian good-guys, Caucasian bad guys, and plenty of profound wisdom interspersed with the occasional fight scene. And these fight scenes were much more realistic. (Modern martial arts movies—really beginning with the Matrix films of the late 1990s—feature fight scenes that, while spectacularly entertaining, are really more akin to tightly choreographed dances. Nobody really fights like that).
In January of 1974, I enrolled in a shito-ryu karate school, in Brossard, a suburb of Montreal. My teacher was my teacher, a 30-something French Canadian man with a 5th or 6th degree black belt. He was an exceptionally intense individual, a skilled fighter, although his knowledge of philosophy and his psychological development seemed somewhat limited. He had an obvious temper and a generally surly disposition. He was, however, superbly conditioned and a fierce taskmaster. He regularly bellowed at his students and didn’t suffer fools or weaklings. I trained fiercely under him for about a year, and soon rose through the ranks to become one of his best students. This training was aborted when, just prior to my blue belt test, he uncorked his notorious temper on me over some stupid misunderstanding, and I withdrew from the school shortly after. Several years later I returned to practice via another karate school. In the intermittent time, I studied and practiced wing chun Kung fu in Chinatown in Montreal in the mid-1970s.
My original karate teacher, Alexander, had a large framed photo of an elderly karate teacher affixed to one of the walls of his dojo. I asked him once who the elderly teacher was. ‘That’s Gichin Funakoshi’, he replied, a hint of reverence in his tone. ‘He was a samurai, and the greatest karate teacher ever’. It turns out that my teacher had studied under a teacher who himself had studied in Japan under Funakoshi. Therefore, I was technically in the study-lineage of a samurai—one of his many ‘great-grandsons in spirit’.
Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957), was born into a samurai family; his father had been a member of the declining samurai class. Funakoshi founded the shoto-kan school and is considered the father of modern Japanese karate. Anyone who studied karate, at least via any of the legitimate schools deriving from Okinawa, has some indirect link with Funakoshi.
The samurai were the established warriors of Japan for hundreds of years up until the 17th century, at which point they became the highest-ranking social class.
The samurai were the established warriors of Japan for hundreds of years up until the 17th century, at which point they became the highest-ranking social class. Prior to the 17th century Japan was beset by frequent civil wars, and accordingly samurai (as well as ninja) were very active as fighters. After the 17th century the country entered a relatively peaceful phase, at which point samurai as a fighting class, and ninja as a viable covert agency, declined. Many samurai became artists or teachers, and by the end of the 19th century, the class was more or less dissolved. The modern-day descendants of samurai can often be found in academia, and some of them became well-known martial arts teachers, such as Funakoshi.
When I named our men’s group the ‘Samurai Brotherhood’ many years ago, it was always with the intention of integrating martial arts into the life of our community in some fashion. However, other callings diverted much of my attention, in addition to which, it was obvious that the main driving feature of modern men’s groups was not to train in combat techniques or learn Zen philosophy, but rather to sit in circle with each other and begin the long journey of psychological healing and development—necessary owing to the heavy family dysfunction so prevalent in modern times.
We often say that our brotherhood squads are ‘not therapy groups’, but let’s face it, many squad meetings amount to nothing less than interpersonal therapy. That’s not a bad thing, obviously, and is called forth by the participants themselves. However, we men need to find ways to harness our energy and to exercise healthy discipline in a fashion that ideally includes our physical bodies. We need to act, as well as feel.
Gichin Funakoshi himself lived to 88 years of age, and to his dying day claimed that karate was responsible for much of his health and the fact that he’d never been to a hospital or been seriously ill until into his late 80s. This would not be provable of course, but if nothing else the words of an accomplished elder and master of his craft should be respected and taken seriously as much as his person can be admired as a worthy male role-model. My own father—the man who in an unplanned fashion introduced me to martial arts almost half a century ago—is still alive and healthy at 87. He never practiced any martial arts, but after retiring in his mid-60s developed into an accomplished artist. He didn’t need the ‘martial’, because in many ways he was always very much in his body. My brother and I recently were visiting him, and we asked him his secret to healthy longevity. He replied with three terse words: ‘Keep moving, guys’. Funakoshi had said something similar, when he claimed that the reason karate had kept him so healthy was that it was so good for the circulation of blood.
Keep moving. Could there be a wiser tonic to apply to our current times with its technology that so often keeps us sedentary?
Our brotherhood, as of mid-2019 approaching 250 men divided into 20 squads, is now ready to sustain an inner circle of men committed to specialized martial arts training. The group, previously named ‘Ninja Division’, has been renamed ‘Ninja Section’ and is being rebooted with a much more active schedule, in addition to a comprehensive training manual. Several brotherhood men who have combat training in a number of different disciplines, including myself, will be contributing to our curriculum. This curriculum will be based not just on physical conditioning and martial arts training, but also on Zen and Taoist philosophy as well as meditation and other esoteric practices, consistent with the ninja of lore.
Of course, the historical ninja did more than just these practices. They were also called ‘shinobi’ (‘stealth’), and their purpose as undercover spies, assassins, and mercenaries was grim and secretive. Our version of ‘ninja’ is unique to us, based on the values of self-mastery, not mastery over others. We live in a relatively advanced nation during a time of relative freedom and peace, and so our purpose as men is different from the purpose of a warrior, open or stealth, of a culture of hundreds of years ago during a time of frequent civil warfare. A martial arts section for a large modern men’s group is appropriate in many ways, providing a healthy balance to go along with regular squad meetings and our technologically advanced but largely sedentary times.