In the late 1970s, when I first moved into Highland Park, I knew three individuals who I thought “knew everything”; mentors who I could go to with questions, concerns and problems. Two of them have since passed away.
The third is Barton Boehm (pronounced “Beam”). I met Boehm through my association with WTI, White Tower Inc., a Los Angeles-based nonprofit community service organization incorporated in 1971 for the express purposes of “saving the planet and saving our soul.” Boehm was introduced to me as a friend of the organization’s founder, and as a martial arts master.
After the Korean War, Boehm found a master living in Japan. He moved into the master’s home and became his full-time student for five years. As I came to know more about Boehm and his remarkable story, I eventually became his student, taking classes in his home dojo. There, during my private evening classes, I learned about holds, and getting out of holds, and falling, and punching, and all the ways to quickly avoid a fight, or, more accurately, to never start one in the first place.
“You don’t want to fight,” Boehm would tell me in his welcoming voice. “People get hurt when you fight. You want to end a fight as quickly as it begins. You want to dispatch your opponent as rapidly as possible, and get out of there.” Needless to say, Boehm was not a fan of the martial arts movies where fights go on for 30 minutes, with actors flying from rooftop to rooftop, breaking bricks, and continuing the battle in every possible position.
When we discussed the then popular “Kung Fu” TV series with David Carradine, the story of a half-Chinese, half-white shaolin monk roaming the American West on foot, Boehm pointed out how “Caine,” Carridine’s character, often had opportunities to avoid a fight, but didn’t do so. And when he did fight, it often went on way beyond the time and effort necessary to end the conflict.
We had many discussions after our nightly practice sessions. I particularly enjoyed the stories Boehm shared about his training with his master, Peter Kiyoshi Suzuki. I taped many of those conversations because they were so full of insight. Plus, they were highly entertaining: Some were funny, some deeply profound, and all had a highly pragmatic nature.
I taped all my conversations with Boehm, with the goal of working with him to one day produce a book of his experiences and insights. I knew it would be a book like no other, because Boehm’s five years of daily training, actually living with the Master, was unlike any I’d ever heard. But we never finished the project. Then I got divorced, moved, and re-married. Years went by. My second wife and I sponsored stick-fighting classes with Boehm in our backyard where he shared the psychology of the Samurai, and ways to stop the fight before it gets started. More years went by. My second wife died. That was 10 years ago, and Boehm lived too far away for regular lessons.
Imagine my great happiness at receiving a package in the mail with Boehm’s book. He did it! The book is an incredible introduction to his master’s system, Seiken. The book’s full title is “Lessons From a 21st Century Samurai: Seiken Way, Completing the Circle, A True Story.”
During my off and on training with Boehm, I got glimpses of how he met his master, Peter Kiyoshi Suzuki, after the Korean War, and how Boehm then lived with the master for about five years, sleeping barely more than four hours a night, seven days a week, and losing 50 pounds after his first two years. It was a story of a man desiring “power,” but, as Boehm told me, “I didn’t know what that meant at the time.”
The stories Boehm told me were filled with how Suzuki trained Boehm to repeat endlessly until a new technique was mastered, and to always “feel” what you were doing, and focus on the goal, so you didn’t get lost in “roteness.” Boehm’s stories were also filled with a stream of fascinating people who he met through his master, who, remarkably, was blind.
“The Seiken Way” fills in a lot of the gaps in Boehm’s training that I had never heard, such as the early days of meeting Suzuki, and how Suzuki’s wife and two children responded to having a hakujin, or white man, living with them in their small barracks-like home in a low-income part of the town.
“The Seiken Way” points out that the full system taught by Suzuki is not just training the body, but also training the mind and the spirit. Boehm’s book explores all the major aspects of his training, and how a blind man developed and mastered several entire systems. This book focuses only on Seiken, meaning “kind hand,” the system taught to Boehm. The full name of the system is Wado Goshin SeiKen Jitsu, or the wide, deep, kind hand system.
If you’re looking for a how-to book on martial arts systems, this is not that book. In fact, no one learns martial arts from a book. They must learn directly with a teacher. But this book shows how the dedication of one man led him on the path of his own self-awareness, where he realized that he could and would even kill for his master. Eventually, Boehm saw that his relationship with Suzuki was unhealthy, and he came back to his home in the United States. He realized that he’d become a master in his own right, and his book is one of his ways to pass along that hard-earned knowledge that he gained through his unique and painful experiences.
Boehm is now 71 and retired from an engineering career, but he continues to teach the few students who’ve stayed with him.
His book is highly recommended to anyone seeking insight into the world of Japanese martial arts. I regard the book as both a standard and a classic. Interestingly, in a disclaimer in the beginning of the book, Boehm states that the writing is biographical based on real events “but is a work of fiction” because the actual conversations and details of the interactions were necessarily re-created from memory or imagination in order to re-tell the story. This admission does not diminish the quality or the significance of this work.
“Lessons From a 21st Century Samurai: SEIKEN WAY, Completing the Circle, A True Story,” by Barton Boehm and Don Howell, is available as a paperback from Amazon.com, or as a Kindle download.
Christopher Nyerges, who writes the Outdoors column for the Pasadena Weekly, is a teacher and author who can be reached at ChristopherNyerges.com.