The Cerebral Shinobi


G M Whitehair, Shinobi Magazine, Issue 22, April 2012

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What comes to mind when you hear the word ninja? Visions of ancient assassins? Songs of warriors wrapped in shadow black as pitch? Legends of the ultimate survivor, invisible and invincible? Daydreams of adolescent, pizza-loving reptiles with a toxic twist?

Or aliens, as Mr. Bay would have us believe?

It’s blasphemy I tell you, but forgive me, I digress.

Which of these images did you bring with you when you first stepped tabi-toed into the dojo? Each one possesses at least some level of validity. Okay, maybe not the one about turtles, but regardless of the catalyst that pushed you through the door, surely you discovered as I did that the definition of Ninjutsu is as vast and varied as we who choose to delve beneath its shadowy veil.

As with most enthusiasts and practitioners, many of my preconceived notions were shattered when I began my journey into Ninjutsu. Some of the very first things that I was told were that ninja didn’t really wear those cool, black uniforms or perform whooping cartwheels into combat. That catching arrows with your bare hands and running on water and morphing into animals were all myths – much of it born of the Hollywood persuasion.

Certainly I didn’t believe all of the fairy tales, but I was crushed nevertheless. I daresay heartbroken. The mental image I’d created of the ninja that was so vivid in my mind only a moment before was suddenly blurred.

Even more disappointing was that instant smoke pellets just weren’t as effective (or as existent) as I’d have liked. I felt like all those Batman comics I’d read throughout the years had been deliberately toying with my hopes and dreams, only to leave me wanting when the last page was turned and I tried in vain, spitting and cursing, to build my own gas-powered, magnetic grapple gun in the depths of my secret ninja lair…AKA, my garage.

When I think back on those lessons, I find myself conflicted. It’s not that the ninja I was introduced to were any less intriguing than those that existed in my head. They weren’t exactly what I had imagined, but they were genuine at least. To be honest, there was some measure of comfort in that realization: Ninja turned out to be just ordinary people who had to take extraordinary measures, not only to survive, but to preserve their way of life. These very ordinary people were powerful if nothing else. And they still are to this day.

If everything we think we know about the ninja and their history turned out to be a lie, I believe the ninja’s popularity would endure. To have gripped the imagination of so many people as they have for so many years is no small feat. It’s nothing short of astounding really.

What other niche can claim such a fervent following? Vampires? Zombies? Certainly both can make that claim…though neither of which are real. Ninja, on the other hand, are very real.

We are real.

And I have no qualms about identifying myself as such. I study Ninjutsu. I apply its principles to my life everyday. Therefore, I am ninja. You may debate that if you like, but save your breath, you’ll not convince me otherwise.

I like to think of those of us who study Ninjutsu as investigators and Ninjutsu is our great mystery, a puzzle that no single person or group can claim to possess all of the pieces. Our knowledge and skills and history are scattered amongst us, from dojo to dojo and around the world. Some choose to try and collect as many pieces as possible for power and posterity. Others choose to remain faithful to the knowledge base they alone have access to or to honor traditions long handed down from one grandmaster to the next. And others still have adapted the art to suit their needs by incorporating modern philosophies.

There is no wrong path. There is only the path you’ve chosen.

And therein lies the beauty of our art – Ninjutsu’s personal touch, it’s cerebral nature. It is as much a thinking person’s art as it is a collection of skills for practical use. It is a philosophy unto itself, a way of life, as many of us are fond of observing. “You have to take responsibility for your own training,” Shidoshi once said to me – that most of my studies would take place outside of the dojo, and I believe that. After all, I’m only in the dojo for a couple of hours per week and yet I think about and try to apply Ninjutsu every day. I’m in a constant state of rumination where Ninjutsu is concerned. Endlessly folding and shaping and turning it over in my mind, molding the art on a personal level as I would an origami swan from a sheet of rice paper.

Some would suggest that Ninjutsu is not an art in and of itself, but rather a complex collaboration of many systems that extend beyond the martial principles, and in that, I do agree. However, it could also be said that if something worth doing is worth doing well, then something done well becomes art. It is a natural metamorphosis.

In the six years I’ve trained in Ninjutsu I’ve met quite a few people, and every one of them have their own ideas about what Ninjutsu is and isn’t. The first response to this is usually “Which answer is the right one?” Sadly, far too many ninja get swept up in this debate, though it certainly begs a few questions…

If ninja didn’t wear black, why do so many of us wear black when we train? If the media image of the ninja is so inaccurate, then why are so many teachers of Ninjutsu using that image to sell it?

That’s when it became clear to me…it doesn’t really matter. We are, after all, talking about ninja here, romanticized masters of stealth and recon, disguise and deceit. Who amongst us can honestly claim to know the truth? Especially in a system where oral tradition reigns supreme.

I’ve witnessed so many of these debates, participated in so many arguments, both online and off. Some of them became quite heated, for ego always rears its ugly head. Mud has been slung back and forth like machine-gun shuriken at the Saturday afternoon B-movie matinee.

This way, not that, is the right way. My method, not yours, is the proper method. She is a good teacher but he is not. Our Ninjutsu is the only authentic Ninjutsu.

These arguments are counterproductive. If what we do is truly meant to honor the spirit of the ninja as well as be of any service to us, then we must examine our own reasons for being here without comparing our path to the path of another. Just as the case is with any religious denomination or sect, each of us inevitably worships in our own way. Each of us can only express our faith in the way we find most fulfilling, most comforting. Why should Ninjutsu be any different?

Ninjutsu is the way of perseverance, a system created out of necessity by those who, in their time, had no other viable options. Survival was paramount in the dangerous world they inhabited, and that is exactly what the ninja did, they survived. It is a true testament to the will of those first ninja that we are here now, caretakers of an art a thousand years in the making and fostering it for future generations.

We are the avatars of Ninjutsu, but make no mistake, the ninja of today are not like the ninja of the past. We do not face the same trials. We do not live as they lived. We are worlds apart, separated by oceans of time and saltwater. Our purpose for embracing Ninjutsu as an art or a way of life or even as a hobby must be defined by our own era and our personal experiences within it. Ninjutsu cannot be constrained to a single set of rules created by this dojo or that. Although we best serve our art, each other, and indeed ourselves by sharing knowledge, we can only decide what Ninjutsu means to each of us for ourselves. Absorb the knowledge that is passed down and glean from it what works best for you.

Take the best and leave the rest.

Consider for a moment that perhaps it’s not so important what the ninja were so much as it is important what we are today. As a ninja, how do you define yourself? When you open the door to reveal the mirror beyond, what do you see? Whatever conclusion you arrive at, know that you cannot be wrong if what you see is yourself staring back at you.

If heeding traditions passed down for generations by an unbroken lineage is what appeals to you, so be it. If you’d rather slip into some black pajamas and go play ninja in the woods, then who are any of us to tell you otherwise?

Hell, mind if I join you?

Photos by Wes Kroninger



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