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The Tragedy of the “Wave Person”

There is an American interpretation of a Japanese concept that is totally backwards.

Some martial artists love to brag that they are “ronin”, a lone masterless samurai. They even name their (usually small) training halls “Ronin Dojo”.

Maybe this comes from a misguided sense of the American pioneer spirit, going it alone to forge a new destiny? But even those original pioneers needed each other. They needed a community, needed helpful backup, to contend with the savage onslaught of killer bandits, righteous Indians, snakes, wolves (always in a pack), tornados, and flash floods. One single wagon creaking across the vast prairie and through the mountains all by itself would have been suicide.

Likewise the samurai of old Japan. What was most desired was warrior protector employment with the most powerful group possible. One would accept ronin status only at the very bottom of the barrel. Being a ronin was a tragic fate, usually reserved for left-over samurai from a defeated and disbanded army, and usually a not so specially skilled samurai. It was a bitter and tragic fate.

In modern times, Japanese youth who do not qualify for the university, and therefore have to take an involuntary year of hanging around before applying again the next year, refer to their status as being a “ronin”. It is a sad term, filled with regret and a little bit of irony. Nobody wants to be a ronin.

Bragging of being a “lone wolf” can come from a deep fear that we are not worthy of others showing up for us or caring about us. Others see us as just not worth our involvement. Maybe something important for American martial artists to explore – if they dare? The ronin label in America becomes a twisted badge of honor, a proclamation of “I don’t need any help” or “I want to do it my way” or “Nobody knows as much as me”, spoken life a defiant 5-year old.

But it could also mask a deep fear of not being worthy of help, unworthy of advice from more skilled people, or not deserving of a community. Being a ronin is, in its original meaning of being a “person (as short-lived and ephemeral) as a wave”, a truly pitiable condition. You are no more than an ocean wave to be seen and immediately forgotten? No Japanese wants to be exiled from community, wandering lonely and rejected through life. Is it truly any different for Americans?

The martial arts of old Japan have been branded by Miyamoto Musashi as the dokko no do, the “solitary way”. You set out alone and either make it or fail. But is this the best attitude for martial artists today? What will you have learned by the time that it is all over, and are you willing to accept ultimate defeat as a possibility? And what if your final lesson was “I should have opened up to the camaraderie of my fellow followers of that path”?

I think that there is incalculable power in having a strong community that has your back, that will stand with you, and sometimes allows you to aid them. The bigger and more caring the community, the more advantage you gain. How sad and lonely is that single practitioner, too good for advice, beyond learning from others’ shared lessons, and at core, so brittlely terrified that maybe, just maybe, they are not worthy of others’ care and shared joy.

Branding yourself a ronin is not a badge of honor. It is to admit to the final disgrace of simply being of no value to all others.

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