Tu Lam’s first steps were in conflict. The retired Green Beret, co-host of History Channel’s Forged in Fire: Knife or Death and founder of Ronin Tactics was born of war, in 1974 South Vietnam, before the Fall of Saigon. It was this tumultuous beginning that led Tu down the path of bushido, the way of the warrior.
A Tumultuous Start For the Founder of Ronin Tactics
When he was only a year old, Tu Lam and his family were dragged from their home by the North Vietnamese. At that time, they were intent on imposing their communist ideology on the region. His uncles, serving in the South Vietnamese Navy, were pulled into the streets and shot like animals. With his family separated and his remaining uncles imprisoned in “re-education camps,” Tu’s mother fled the country on a small fishing boat, with nothing but hope, and with Tu and his brother in tow.
They eventually found their way onto an overcrowded wooden boat. Destination: the United States. Unfortunately, many refugees died during their escape from Vietnam. But through many hardships and struggles Tu and his family made it to the shores of freedom.
Tu grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina, just outside Fort Bragg (home of U.S. Army special operations). Both his stepfather and his American uncle were Green Berets, and the path before him seemed obvious.
Indoctrinated into a strict military upbringing from age eight, Tu joined the U.S. Army at 18 with his sights fixed on joining the ranks of the Green Berets. Tu had a passion for making a difference around the world, fighting for the defenseless abroad. During his 23-year career in the U.S. Army, Tu has served within some of the most elite units the U.S. has produced and has fought in many wars and conflicts, helping to free the oppressed and enslaved.
Says Tu, “I look at the ancient teachings of the samurai as a blueprint to enlightenment, through the way of the sword (war). It was through my personal experience and understanding of war that I’ve found the true meaning of life and death. ‘Live a life worth living, die a death worth dying for.’”
Words To Live By
During some of his darkest times after the war, Tu turned his studies to the words of a historical 16th century Japanese ronin, Miyamoto Musashi (1584–1645).
The following words from Miyamoto Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings are engrained in Tu’s soul: “There is nothing outside of yourself that can ever enable you to get better, stronger, richer, quicker or smarter. Everything is within. Everything exists. Seek nothing outside of yourself.”
Those words set Tu on his path of enlightenment, rededicating himself to the deeper teachings of the martial arts (spirituality). Following the natural evolution of a warrior and the teachings of budo, he grew on the path of bushido. From warrior to scholar, Tu continued the natural progression to teacher. Through the process of “The Way,” he continues on his journey as a ronin (masterless warrior).
As a ronin, Tu’s dedication is to help others find strength through total devotion to a set of moral principles. He helps them seek stillness of the mind and understanding of the deeper meaning of the way of the sword.
A Spiritual Journey
It was in October 2018 that Tu, his wife Ruthie and some of their closest friends traveled to Kumamoto, Japan to visit the cave in which Miyamoto Musashi wrote The Book of Five Rings in 1645. This was a spiritual trip for Tu, paying respect to the past culture of the samurai. It was an opportunity for him to paying homage to the path that allowed him to selflessly help others.
Meeting with their Japanese friend and famous Japanese journalist Hiro, they made their way to the hotel in the capital city of Tokyo, where the warrior culture is still prevalent to this day. Taking advantage of the strong Japanese black coffee, Tu and his party were able to fight through the jet lag. With the newfound energy, they took in one of the major metropolitan areas of the world.
While in Tokyo, they visited many temples, but the one that impacted Tu the most was the Sengakuji Temple. This is the final resting place of the 47 ronin. Tu’s connection with the Sengakuji Temple and the 47 ronin goes back to his early years of Green Beret training. Part of the reading requirements during their study of unconventional warfare was 47 Ronin. After a year of utilizing low-vis reconnaissance, covert communications and detailed course of action (COA) planning based on limited intelligence, the 47 ronin executed one of the most successful assaults in the history of warfare. The fundamentals of their assault are still being employed by special operations forces around the world, to this day.
With deep respect for their commitment to the bushido code (honor until death), Tu found it a great honor to be able to visit the graves of the 47 ronin and burn incense in homage to their memory.
A Ronin’s Footsteps
On a rainy fall morning, a nervous Tu checked and rechecked all his equipment to capture this chronicle as they began the trip to Kumamoto, Japan, to fulfill the primary purpose of their journey—the cave home of Miyamoto Musashi, Japan’s greatest swordsman. After the short flight from Kyoto, the group met their driver at the airport. From there, they made their way to Reigandō Cave, where Musashi wrote The Book of Five Rings.
Fortunately, the rain subsided as they arrived at the path leading to the cave. Because of the reprieve, Tu could take in the beauty and peace of the place. Walking the path, Tu came to realize why Musashi needed this place to write such an impactful book. This was truly a place of serenity, surrounded by small temples filled with monks going about their daily rituals.
After making their way to the entrance of Reigandō Cave, Tu’s wife and friends left him with a moment to himself. Tu began the ascent up the narrow stairs leading to the cave. He spent this time reflecting on a man who had had such a profound impact on him throughout his life.
It was Musashi’s words that helped Tu through years of war and loss and allowed him to look within and believe in his own inner strength. It was the immense honor for such a man as this that stopped Tu as he entered the cave. The moment compelled him to bow and respect the sacred ground he was about to walk upon.
A Time of Reflection
In the center of the cave is the large rock on which Musashi wrote his life’s work. Looking at the stone, Tu couldn’t help but ponder the years that Musashi lived and meditated with the monks in preparation for writing his great work, before ever putting pen to paper. Musashi needed to be in complete Zen before assembling the words of his life’s teachings.
It is said that 10 days after finishing The Book of Five Rings, in 1645, Musashi passed away and was buried on sacred ground, so that his spirit can wave at future samurai as they pass to serve their daimyo (feudal lord).
Meet the Samurai Sword Master
During their visit to Japan, Tu and his traveling party were able to experience the Japanese culture in ways most outside of Japan never get to experience.
At Hiro’s request, Tu met a Japanese sword master. During this meeting he saw an impressive collection of antique samurai armor and weaponry. In the collection were swords dating back 200 to 600 years, to the time of feudal Japan. Because the majority of historical swords were destroyed by U.S. military forces after World War II, this was an impressive and rare collection. The honor of speaking with this historian and handling these pieces was not lost on Tu.
Next, fans of Tu’s American company, Ronin Tactics, asked if they would like to attend a private viewing of sumo training, in the historical town of Ryogoku, Tokyo’s sumo town. It felt as if they had stepped back into 16th century Japan to witness the honor, tradition, dedication and power of this beautiful and historic art. Finally, in preparation for the final leg of their trip, Tu and his companions boarded a bullet train to Kyoto. While in Kyoto they learned about the traditions of Japan by visiting and paying respect the different Shinto shrines.
Tu Lam summed up his journey in fine fashion, “To me, this trip was not only educational, but it allowed me to spiritually connect with Japan’s past warrior culture. Their dedication and Zen philosophies are nothing short of perfection. Life in every breath—bushido.”
Digging Deeper: Training at Ronin Tactics
Drawing from his experience in the special forces, Tu founded his company, Ronin Tactics, where he and other retired high-level veterans (none with fewer than 10 years of hard combat experience) teach a realistic, no-nonsense approach to training in hand-to-hand combat and aggressive shooting and weapons handling. The courses are available to both ordinary people and law enforcement personnel. Many SWAT teams take advantage of the high-level training.
Along with the instruction provided, Ronin Tactics also provides gear critical to mission success. Their research and development team continues to develop products that meet the unique demands of their customers. From belts and MOLLE pouches to edged weapons (produced by Green Beret veteran-owned Spartan Blades), Ronin Tactics offers something for every aspect of your mission needs. For more information, visit RoninTactics.com.
Editor’s Note: Sister publication Tactical Life published an in-depth Q&A with Tu Lam in the March 2020 issue. That issue is, as well as discounted subscriptions, are available for purchase at OutdoorGroupStore.com.
This article was originally published in the Ballistic Magazine Feb/March 2021 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions at OutdoorGroupStore.com. Or call 1-800-284-5668, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.