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Martial Heart

Last Saturday, I woke up to the very call nobody should ever wake up to. You may have heard by now, but if you haven’t, we have lost one of our own – Mark Hodel passed away last Friday from a heart attack. He was 57. He is survived by his sisters Anne and Page and his son Andrew.

Mark was one of the first, a pioneer of the Bujinkan in America. As one of its “Founding Fathers,” Mark was the 5th American to take the Godan test, co-sponsored the first American Tai Kai, and completed some 40-plus years of martial arts training. A lifelong student, he also mentored those who asked (and some who didn’t) and watched over plenty of folks along the way, opening not just his home for training, but also his heart.

I first met Mark in 1999 and enjoyed a strong friendship with him ever since. He arrived with Jack Hoban, hosting the first Buyu seminar in the Midwest, or perhaps it was one of the first. There were like, eight of us there or something - it was very small. Mark introduced himself to me with a smile and a firm handshake, “Welcome,” he said. He was friendly, accommodating, and kind. He remained that way all of the years I knew him.

Mark recommended I teach at the second Buyu Camp I attended some years ago – a step into a larger world I might not have taken on my own. But that was Mark for you – he pushed me, mentoring with the confidence he would freely give away, recognizing and handing our own potential back to us saying, ‘keep going,’ (you’re almost there).

Training is a very personal thing. There is and probably will always be much debate as to its efficacy and essentialness – is it just a hobby sharing time with model shipbuilding and tennis? Or is it something more, something deeper, spiritual even? How we choose to answer that is incumbent on our perspective, the perceptivity of our training experience, and what it means to us in the big picture. I don’t go to church, I no longer practice my Catholic faith, I still respect it and believe in a higher power, in my own personal way. But for me, I train. Training answers for me the great moral questions, it directs my thoughts and actions and shapes my character; I believe in its law, a naturalness to understanding justice and what is right and wrong in the world around me.

Mark did too. He knew the importance of it, the weight and burden of it, so never questioned why, he just accepted, until such time he could understand things more fully, embracing the change, his evolution in thought. He was smart that way, patient, fervently loyal to training’s long-term goal, while prioritizing his life among his loved ones and friends. I will miss my friend Mark as will the thousands of other people around the world whose lives he touched.

Attached are 10 questions I sent Mark in 2002. He sent his answers back to me right away, as I recall, and I am so thankful he did. It is an amazing read - in his voice – and displays the quiet brilliance of Mark’s understanding of Budo. Some can train martial arts the whole of their lives and never realize the subtle shades Mark knew intrinsically, the nuances that provide that last piece of the puzzle, giving us clarity to navigate in a sometimes brutal world. Mark knew these truths simply, like he knew his name, like he knew the sun would rise tomorrow. His words, just like he did in life, shine a light on the path so the rest of us can find our way.

The life we lead is also the imprint we leave behind, the track others can see and sense and follow. The imprint Mark left was as a minder of the path, a guardian on it, standing sometimes on its sidelines just to make sure others were not getting lost, or confused, or standing still. And in those cases, he would reach out, offering us a necessary hand, righting our balance, until such time we needed to be righted again. And he would be there, again. This was Mark’s Taijutsu - his life’s last and greatest lesson - that inspired us and led us by example.

If you knew Mark, please keep him and his family in your thoughts. If you didn’t, please say a prayer for him, and one as well for yourself, that you might know someone someday, an expert in martial heart like Mark Hodel.