Martial arts can be—and to some extent, should be—an intense experience, provoking strong emotions, fierce loyalty, and dedication to ideals that transcend just the era of your practice. This atmosphere of strict discipline and devotion, especially coupled with the well-defined hierarchy of traditional Budo, can be a potential trap for lost individuals to come looking for one thing (i.e. martial arts) and end up buying into another (i.e. a cult).
One of the reasons people pursue martial arts to begin with is for the sake of their health, but people often forget that health is more than just physical. Pursued with the right mindset, martial arts can benefit emotional, psychological, social, and spiritual health—just think of all the parents who bring their children into the Dojo in hopes of increasing their “confidence” or “discipline.” Likewise, when power structures are manipulated consciously or unconsciously in a cultish way, martial arts can be just as detrimental to all those facets of personal development.
So what are the telltale indicators that when you signed up on the dotted line, you got more than you bargained for?
The Instructor (Sensei/Sifu/Kru/Sabom/Professor) is Deified:
It is acknowledged in the fine print of martial arts history books that the stories about the masters of old are embellished to elevate their legacy. Therefore, stories of leaping huge walls in a single bound, crushing bamboo stalks with bare hands, wrestling a bull to the ground by its horns, and—my favourite—actual levitation are meant to be taken with a grain of salt.
What about your own instructor? Are there rumours of unbelievable (literally impossible to believe) physical feats that no one has actually seen? Are there whispers of secret techniques that “one day,” when you’re advanced enough, Sensei will share with you?
Your instructor is supposed to be technically superior, or at least able to guide your own skill development in the right direction; that’s why you learn from him or her. However, your instructor should also be allowed to exhibit the limitations inherent in the human condition.
There is Actual Magic:
No-touch knockouts, techniques that rely on Ki, and techniques where multiple assailants fall like dominos are signs you’re studying fantasy, not martial arts. If the mechanism that makes something work is not defined by physics, then it is not a legitimate method.
This is not a new idea; Matsumura Sokon articulated it long ago like this: “To all those whose progress remains hampered by ego-related distractions let humility, the spiritual cornerstone upon which the fighting traditions rest, serve to remind you to place virtue ahead of vice, values ahead of vanity and principles ahead of personalities.”
This is why pressure-testing skills within the Dojo is so important. A highly skilled practitioner should be able to make techniques work most of the time against pretty much any novice, with the caveat that large differences in strength and stature will affect the application of techniques. This is why most competitive formats have both skill divisions and weight classes.
If the methods taught only work against particular hand-picked students (I’m tempted to say “followers”), then it doesn’t work. Instructors of no-touch knockouts or techniques where Ki is used to freeze or thrown an opponent have had no documented success executing these against random people. However, on their own brainwashed students, the placebo effect is so strong it works virtually every time. Losing touch with reality is a definite sign of a cult.
Weird Social Behaviour:
To the casual observer, a lot of the rituals and etiquette of the Dojo look bizarre—the excessive amounts of bowing, the highly ritualized entrance and exit to class, the strict ranking hierarchies, the titles used to address instructors, seniors, or peers, and the white pajamas. All of these are derived from traditional Japanese cultural practices, and maintaining these practices is simply a way of paying homage to the origins of the art.
In the context of Budo, these practices are consistent. I have noticed, however, that in certain clubs, these rituals are extended far beyond the Dojo and impact all aspects of social etiquette in other contexts.
One such example was a group dinner for a seminar. We were all enjoying a nice meal and the opportunity to socialize in a more casual environment. When the night was wrapping up, the instructor of a group who was well represented decided it was time to leave. The entire club lined up behind him and, one-by-one, executed a weird bow/secret handshake (left hand under right elbow—who shakes hands that way!?!) with the seminar instructor. In any context other than martial arts, that behaviour would be inexplicable. It’s not how you say goodnight at a restaurant in North America. However, we often use tradition as an excuse for wildly inappropriate social conduct.
I think that outside the physical confines of the Dojo itself, following Japanese social conventions only makes sense if you are in Japan. Otherwise, it’s probably a good idea to follow the normal conventions of the country you’re living in. Bowing when you run into your Senpai at the mall is just awkward.
A lot of people use the Dojo as a form of escapism from the breakneck pace and stress of modern life, a reprieve from their own mundane realities and an opportunity to delve into a seemingly exotic and mystical subculture. However, extending the etiquette of this microcosm of Japanese culture to other facets of society—and expecting others to adapt to it—is extremely cultish.
I recently posited this belief (and likely offended at least one person—whoops) about the use of the term “Sensei” as well. Now, if the person is your instructor and your primary relationship with them is through Budo, then it makes sense to use the term—just as if you see your university professor on the subway, you’re probably going to refer to them as “professor,” or if you see your physician at the park, you’ll probably call them “doctor.” We use professional terms for people we know from a professional environment because we don’t have a personal relationship with them. While you’re in the Dojo, no matter what, you should follow the conventions of the context and use “Sensei” when addressing your instructor.
However, when you are a close personal friend, or a family member, it’s weird to use the term “Sensei” in other contexts. We have a long-standing tradition of going out for wings and beer after our Friday night classes. At a table full of friends, it seems inappropriate to throw around “Sensei,” “Senpai,” “Kohai,” “Mr./Mrs.,” or whatever the appropriate “in the Dojo” term would be.
I’ve celebrated birthdays, New Years, weddings (including marrying my lovely wife, whom I first met in the Dojo), and various other occasions with people who my first connection with was martial arts. During these events, we’re not in an instructor/student relationship—we’re friends. In those social contexts, if someone insists on following Dojo etiquette, then it’s a warning sign that they may be asking you to drink the Kool-aide at some point in the future.
Discipline is inherent in martial arts, if for no other reason than you have to train your ass off consistently for a long time to stop sucking (or to suck less). Discipline is all about limitations, but these limitations have a purpose. Unlimited freedom is not a good thing—it gives us the ability to perpetually make decisions that we know are bad.
In the Dojo, the instructor often has to restrict their students, but it should be done for the purpose of growth and development. The teacher’s experience should provide perspective on what training habits should and should not be indulged—a perspective that the student may not have yet. However, when the restrictions placed on someone are way beyond the scope of altruism, the only explanation is that the instructor is trying to control the individual in question.
One mind-blowing example of this was when a friend of mine opened his own Dojo under an umbrella organization, but was told he couldn’t use any form of digital media for promotion. What 21st Century small business doesn’t have a presence on the Internet? Restricted to only print media, trying to establish a new martial arts school is extremely challenging, bordering on impossible.
This policy can’t be about business, so it must be about keeping school owners under the thumb of the organization.
No Outside Social Ties
For those of us who spend a lot of our free time and energy engaged in martial arts, it is natural that bonds will develop to those in our proximity. The experience lends itself to loyalty and trust. As a result, friendships naturally evolve over time.
However, when these bonds develop to the exclusion of social ties outside of martial arts, it is cause for concern. If your entire social life is premised around friends from the Dojo, what happens if there’s a falling out?
In previous posts, I’ve written about the shortcomings of martial artists. Unfortunately, estrangement from organizations and individuals is commonplace, like within any family. Although it’s never happened to me, a number of my martial arts colleagues have parted ways with teachers, students, and clubs on very bad terms. If these people were your entire social world in addition to your martial arts community, that puts you in a very precarious position.
It is healthy to foster relationships in different social circles. For those closest to you, the spheres will probably overlap with one another, but if one sphere is subtly (or in some cases, not so much) trying to push away the “outsiders” who “don’t belong with us,” then I would be very suspicious that you are being indoctrinated into a cult rather than a martial arts community.
Especially now, when most martial arts schools are at a halt, it is important to reflect on your current club and determine whether it is enabling or impeding your individual growth. Whenever there is power, there will be some who, whether consciously or unconsciously, seek to abuse it. (Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”) The rigid hierarchy, exoticism, and romantic myths in the public perception of martial arts make them particularly susceptible to cult-like behaviours and attitudes.
Practiced correctly, martial arts serve to empower and fulfill; practiced incorrectly, they sadly serve to control, oppress, and indoctrinate. Unfortunately, it is only in the inevitable falling out that the true nature of these relationships becomes clear. Victims of this kind of abuse are often too embarrassed, ashamed, or traumatized to discuss how they were taken advantage of, which can lead to long-term issues with self-esteem and trust. Many former members of cults disguised as martial arts clubs end up quitting their training entirely because of the association with their past experiences.
To avoid this, it is important to scrutinize the power dynamics at play in your martial arts atmosphere. Does the hierarchy serve a functional purpose? Is authority in place to lead others, or to hold others down as a pedestal for someone to stand on? Are people (regardless of rank or skill) respected as individuals, not only martial artists? The answers to these questions tell you what kind of club you have joined, what kind of leader is at its helm, and whether it is a good idea to slowly back out of the room.
 In this blog post, as in others, I use the term “martial arts” because it is the term generally used in mainstream culture. Some traditions, such as Karate, are technically not martial arts, as they were never practiced by the military. The term “fighting arts” is more accurate, though not as common in colloquial usage.
 Nagamine, Shoshin. Tales of Okinawa’s Great Masters. Trans. Patrick McCarthy. Tuttle Publishing, 2000. Pg. xvi.
Funakoshi, Gichin. “Speaking About Karatedo.” Tanpenshu. Trans. Patrick McCarthy. International Ryukyu Karate Research Society, 2006. Pg. 63-64.
 Nagamine, 2000. Pg. 2, 4.
Bishop, Mark. Okinawan Karate: Teachers, Styles, and Secret Techniques. Tuttle Publishing, 1999. Pg. 45.
 Funakoshi, Gichin. Karatedo: My Way of Life. Kodansha International, 1975. Pg. 10.
Funakoshi, 2006. Pg. 64.
 Clayton, Bruce. Shotokan’s Secret. Ohara Publications, 2004.
 Bishop, 1999. Pg. 45.
 McCarthy, Patrick. “Beyond Physical Training.” International Ryukyu Karate Research Society Blog. <http://irkrs.blogspot.com/2013/12/beyond-physical-training.html> 1994.