A master of several Japanese martial arts, Steven Seagal is a popular action movie hero whose films combine spiritual concepts and social/environmental consciousness with high-voltage violence. Born in Lansing, MI, on April 10, 1951, Seagal traveled to Japan at the age of 17. There, he taught English, studied Zen, and perfected his martial arts, earning black belts in Aikido, karate, judo, and kendo. Afterwards, he became the first Westerner to open a martial arts school in Japan.
During this time, Seagal occasionally choreographed fight scenes in movies and coached such stars as Sean Connery and Toshiro Mifune. He also became interested in Eastern religion: in a November 1997 interview for the Shambala Sun, he stated that his relationship with Tibetan Buddhism resulted from his study of acupuncture. According to Seagal, several ailing Tibetan lamas, suffering from malnutrition, exhaustion, and the effects of Chinese torture, were sent to him for treatment, which led him to become a director of secret security operations and setting up special safe houses. Regarding other incidents from his past, Seagal has remained secretive, though he was allegedly a bounty hunter and occasionally has hinted about involvement with the CIA. Further speculation has surrounded the work he did on behalf of Tibetan freedom fighters, and it was not until 1997 that he mentioned the large amounts of money he claimed to have donated to various religious organizations.