The Legendary Green Beret Who Lives Like a Modern Samurai

Tu Lam, the man behind Ronin Tactics, on waking up and preparing to die

May 3, 2023 7:51 am
A shot of Tu Lam's intricate back tattoos.
The term "rōnin" refers to a samurai who had no lord or master.
Courtesy of Tu Lam

Tu Lam experienced war at an early age. Born during the Vietnam War, he was just a year old when his family was dragged from their home by North Vietnamese soldiers.

His mother managed to escape with him to the United States, where he was raised outside of Fort Bragg, with a stepfather and uncle who were members of the elite US Army special operations force, the Green Berets. Over time, his destiny felt clear: enlist and protect those who felt helpless, as he once had. But that path truly came into focus when a young Lam was introduced to the ancient samurai moral code of bushidō.

Lam had a natural interest in learning the “Way of the Warrior,” which was developed in feudal Japan. Thus began a lifelong commitment to self-improvement and discipline that ran through his 23 years in the US Army, starting with the 82nd Airborne Division and ending with the Green Berets.

Following his military service, Lam created Ronin Tactics, embracing the term for a samurai warrior with no master. Through this company, he distributes gear, instruction and training videos to a worldwide audience. The tutorials became so popular that Activision recently tapped Lam to have his own character in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 called Ronin. 

Here, Lam shares some of his advice for living like a modern samurai in this age. His advice appears as told to InsideHook contributor Charles Thorp, and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rise before the sun

“It is said that the samurai would wake up, wash their bodies and then set an intention between the moments between darkness and light. So that is what I do. I wake up at four in the morning. People ask me if it’s because I have trouble sleeping, and it’s exactly the opposite. I wake up at four in the morning because it takes discipline to wake up that early. In order to become better than you already are at anything, you must first be uncomfortable. So starting your day with a demonstration of pushing through that discomfort is a powerful tool.”

Set an intention

“Every day my fundamental intention is to become a better human being. I write this in my mind, during that time before the sun rises. This is a meditation in a lot of ways. I am sitting with my thoughts before the world has a chance to influence them, which makes them solid like a rock. There is a lot of power in setting an intention for your day and being proactive in how you attack a day. I have seen and experienced so many people who start their day by being reactive, where they’re are already on their back foot.

On one side, you have someone woken up by the alarm clock, feeling anxious that they are running behind, then perhaps getting upset in traffic by another person, and wanting to fight a stranger because of some gesture they made. On the other side, you have someone who woke up before the day began, made an intention that they weren’t going to let outside forces upset them, and then drove with efficiency and calm. Which one of these people is going to have a better day?”

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Sharpen your sword

“The samurais ruled the land in the way of two swords. They trained day and night. Those two swords could be considered your body and your mind, and the strength of both of them is important. I start my day with three hours of physical training, with a lot of cardiovascular work. Depending on my goals my evening training can look differently. These days I am doing a lot of strength training. 

You need to reinforce a strong mind with a strong body. If you have a weak-ass body you are going to have a weak-ass mind, and then you will have a weak-ass life. I find that too often people in the Western world are focused solely on going to the gym to get jacked. But none of them are training their mind. You train your mind by sitting with your thoughts and exercising control over them. 

I have learned through experience that the body will quit on you before the mind does. That’s why you need a strong mind. One of the practices that I think helps with this strength is cold plunging. This is because it taps into our instinctual fight or flight response. Having the ability to train yourself to react in strength rather than running away, and having the chance to do that often is profoundly powerful. After a few minutes in there, I find that the fog from my mind lifts. My mind becomes clear like the water.”

Pursue mushin

Mushin is a state of no mind where your body is moving free from thoughts. People like to compare mushin to muscle memory, and in a way that is accurate, but more deeply, it’s that separation between mind and body. This is important because when those crucial moments happen, whether it’s a martial arts battle or a gunfight, you’re able to transcend past fear. Your mind is able to operate freely without overreaction to the potential harm of the body, and just as clearly as having a conversation in your kitchen, you are able to process what is happening. 

This comes from practice in many different scenarios, and I pursue it in my training with weapons. My guns have laser training bullets, which help me practice manipulations and firing them with accuracy. I studied Filipino Kali when I was in the Philippines, which is fighting with dual sticks. I wanted to continue to wield two swords, so I had a respected sword maker in Japan make me two custom blades that I call Heaven and Earth. They are able the same size as Kali sticks. I practice those often.”

Prepare to die

“In the teachings of bushidō, which is the way of the warrior and the ancient code of the samurai, one of the elements is to be ready to accept death. Being ready to die for something higher than yourself. I found something higher than myself when I joined the military and eventually made it into the special forces. That mindset helped me make it into these elite teams, because I was ready to lay more on the line than the others around me. During those screening processes and boot camp they are going to take you to your breaking point, then fix you up just enough to get you back on the field, and then try to break you again.

Ranger School had a high attrition rate. I remember one particular exercise where we were dropped into Fort Benning in Georgia in the middle of summer and we did a 18-mile long force march where we were running with a 65-pound rucksack. I was given a machine gun that had no sling, so I had to cradle it in my arms, which made it difficult to reach my water canteen. I was naive at that point in my career, and I was wearing brand-new boots on that march. By the time we were coming to the end, I had no skin on the back of my feet at all.

It was about a thousand meters out from our target when I started to get heat exhaustion. I was blacking out, and starting to pass out. We were supposed to maintain an arm’s length from the soldier in front of us. I heard a voice that wanted me to quit. I think I was at a point of insanity. I punched myself in the face, because my body was shutting down and I had to prevent that from happening by any means necessary. I thought I was going to die, and I could very well have. I made it.” 

A modern samurai protects those who need it

“The samurai were originally enlisted to protect the local people from attack, and served their lord, called a daimyo. They protected people from bandits and thieves. They did that with the way of two swords. That’s what I did when I enlisted in the Army and joined the special forces. I was there to serve my country and protect our homeland. But even more than that, I felt in service to God when we were able to save people from enslavement or worse at the hands of evil people. 

One mission that encapsulated that experience for me was in 1998 when we helicoptered into Laos. There were hundreds of landmines that had been dropped by the US on the jungle floor during the time of war, and children had been playing in the minefields. We were there to find and remove the mines. My family had escaped the Vietnam War when I was just a kid, so I had a special compassion for these kids. I had grown up in a grass hut, and I had struggled with getting enough food. I was glad that we were there, and that during that deployment we were able to build a school as well as reroute a water supply to help them have better access.

I was able to go on a number of missions like that as a Green Beret. It is important to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves, and that is the way of a samurai.”

Stand by a code

“I didn’t understand what the bushidō code truly was when I first was introduced to it as a young child. How could you grasp a concept so vast? The book Hagakure describes early thoughts on samurai and bushidō, which I had as guidance. I remember when I first shipped out with the special forces, carrying out missions to help people. I felt like that was the way of the warrior.  A samurai fights for something beyond themselves. Being a samurai means living your life with a code. Living with honor and purpose, while seeking perfection.”

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