By Brent R.Oliver
There’s a lot of drippy, misplaced love in Western Buddhism, but not much toughness.
I’m delighted to say that Jeff Eisenberg’s first book, Fighting Buddha, is the much-needed dose of tough love I’d hoped it would be.
Mr. Eisenberg has been practicing martial arts for over 45 years and is focused on finding what works in real-life situations. Over nearly five decades of training, he realized that far too many martial arts emphasize tradition and philosophy over applicable fighting skills, making them pretty damn artistic, but not at all martial. He’s taken issue with this, considering the original aim of all combat systems, is, well…combat.
Similarly, Western Buddhism is too often the philosophical equivalent of easy listening music. It seems designed to be inoffensive and subdued, pushed to the background and only vaguely heard. Especially here in America, we seem to let Buddhism somehow reinforce what we already think rather than allow it to challenge us, transform us.
Both martial arts and Buddhism can be grossly misrepresented, cloyingly sweet, and nearly useless. Their teachers can be egomaniacal, opinionated bastards out of touch with reality and looking for hero-worship. None of this helps serious students learn how to legitimately defend themselves or wake up in the real world.
Jeff Eisenberg is sick of that. He’s written a book that I and many others love, but one he knew would get him into trouble. And it has. It’s been blasted from Buddhist and martial arts teachers alike because it stepped outside the bounds of polite spiritual society and called attention to the flaws we’ve all been overlooking. People inside the system who are profiting from it don’t like their leaky boat to be rocked. But the message is clear and it’s one we need to hear: there’s absolutely no sense training in something just because it’s a venerated, age-old tradition if it’s results aren’t tested in daily life. It’s dangerous to assume that just because something has been around for hundreds or thousands of years, it’s useful and effective. It’s just as dangerous to simply take a teacher’s word for it and never question their authenticity or motives.
Mr. Eisenberg has had bad experiences. He’s been led astray by teachers, seen disgusting martial-arts snake oil sold as legitimate self-defense, and watched Buddhist leaders acting badly, practicing the opposite of what they preach. He doesn’t call anyone out by name, but he writes extensively of the misdeeds and charlatanism he’s witnessed over the years.
He does this so no one else has to go through it.
Fighting Buddha isn’t written as vengeance, or as a mean-spirited diatribe—just the opposite. Mr. Eisenberg loves the martial arts and he loves Buddhism. He wants to see them both thrive here and he wants more people to practice them and adore them as he does. He just doesn’t want anyone to fall for the bullshit that’s out there and spend years training in something that makes perfect sense in the dojo or meditation hall, but totally falls apart under stress.
There’s plenty of good out there. Fighting Buddha is a helpful guide to avoiding the pointless bad and sniffing out the healthy good. Martial arts and Buddhism have changed Mr. Eisenberg’s life for the better (something he’s not shy about pointing out). Students need to be careful, though, because life is a big bad place and you don’t want to get backed into a corner only to realize your skills are terminally deficient.
I loved this book. It’s simply written by someone who isn’t trying to impress you with their literary chops, merely using their extensive experience to guide and assist. Martial arts teachers may scream that their systems aren’t for fighting, but discipline and philosophy and honor. Spiritual teachers may sternly admonish that one can’t train for violence and still be a good Buddhist.
I feel they’re wrong, however, and Jeff Eisenberg isn’t afraid to call them on it.
Editor: Dana Gornall
In addition to being a columnist at The Tattooed Buddha, Brent’s writing has also appeared in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, and Morpheus. He lives in Lexington, KY with his wife, two cats, and a crippling addiction to horror. Swing by his website brentpurpleoliver.com for more information.