A Mind Like Water
An interview with Vernon Kitabu Turner by Simeon Alev
"Yeah, I know Vernon," said the voice on the other end of the line. I was talking with Detective Willie Mills of the Portsmouth, Virginia, police department's Crime Prevention Unit, a martial artist and former student of the renowned jujitsu master C. O. Neal. Until I'd managed to get Detective Mills on the phone, I'd been batting zero. Now I was excited. Mills had witnessed, over twenty-four years ago, the legendary public spectacle in which a fresh-faced young poet named Vernon Kitabu Turner had accepted challenges from top martial artists throughout the metropolitan region known as Hampton Roads—and defeated each of them in a matter of seconds. And even more amazing and mystifying than the haste with which Turner had dispatched his dangerous opponents was the way he was alleged to have done it: With one finger! I apologized to Detective Mills for sounding skeptical. I'd already spent a beautiful day visiting with the extraordinarily gentle Turner in downtown Norfolk the week before, and trying to verify his outrageous claims after the fact was making me feel vaguely guilty. "You don't have to apologize to me," said Mills. "I'm a policeman. I check everything out. I'd be checking him out if I were you." I admitted I was having a difficult time visualizing Turner's one finger technique. "Have you ever seen someone get stabbed? It's hard to see what's going on—kind of like two people dancing," Mills explained. "The knife does all the work. It don't look like much—but it's very detrimental." "Oh," I said, still finding it hard to imagine Turner wreaking such invisible havoc on his opponents, particularly since he himself had told me that his victims feel no pain, sustain no injuries and never inspire anything but love in his heart. "Well," said the Detective, "Vernon does have an unusual skill. Unusual—but not unheard of. It's called 'a mind like water,' and if you're just learning about all this for the first time, then you're about to embark on a fascinating journey." As I reflected on the day I'd spent with Vernon Turner, I realized that it had indeed been only a beginning, and that for some mysterious reason, Turner—not only his incredible feats but the man himself—remained in some ways as much of an enigma after our meeting as he had been before I'd flown to Virginia, half expecting to be greeted at the airport by a larger-than-life hybrid of Kung Fu's Kwai Chang Caine and Superman. If everything I'd read about him was true, I'd mused that day on the plane, then Vernon Turner was indeed the closest thing to an authentic superhero I was ever likely to meet. . . . Vernon Kitabu Turner was born in Portsmouth in 1948, and as he drove me to my hotel from Norfolk Airport this past September, his descriptions of the neighborhoods and landmarks passing by outside my window recalled the trials and indignities of his boyhood in a segregated South—"during a time," he reminded me later, "when black people had no enforceable rights and our lives were cheap." It was under these circumstances that he had vowed, at the age of nine, "to become the protector of the weak," giving himself to the art of self-defense "with no less devotion than the samurai of Japan." This was a big decision for a bookish weakling who, because of his long, unaccountable silences and a peculiar sense of detachment from his own body, had always been considered "weird" by his family and friends. Turner was first introduced to the late Master Neal, who maintained a dojo [martial arts school] in his neighborhood, when he was twelve years old and something of a prodigy. Neal recognized the boy's potential, but Turner chose not to study with him, maintaining instead a close but informal relationship with the well-known teacher while practicing on his own and devising workouts from the ancient Japanese martial arts manuals he'd discovered at the public library. (It was in one such text that he first learned of Bushido, the way of inner cultivation.) Then, at the age of seventeen, after having spent nearly two years in the hospital with tuberculosis, Turner left Virginia for New York City where, armed only with the phone number of a friend of his mother's, he began a new life in the gang-ridden Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Within weeks of his arrival, he told me, he'd already begun to fulfill his childhood promise, earning a reputation in the streets of an unfamiliar city for his bold willingness to stand up to "practitioners of violence and other forms of stupidity." During his time in New York, Turner completed high school and college and worked as a writer and editor, contributing his literary and theatrical skills to the burgeoning Black Arts movement. He also had several unusual and seemingly coincidental encounters with itinerant spiritual teachers from the Near and Far East, the most powerful of which was his fateful meeting with the Zen master Nomura Roshi in 1967. In his book Soul Sword, Turner writes: "Family problems triggered emotional conflict that gave me no peace. Then one day after praying for guidance or relief, I was led by the spirit within me to travel twenty-five miles to Greenwich Village. I met a man, dressed in a kimono, sitting with folded hands on a bench in Washington Square Park. The air around him was charged with peace. I was in bliss in his presence." Turner had been meditating, by his own estimation, since he was three years old and had always felt isolated from others and unsure of his place in the world because of his inward-directed and deeply spiritual nature. In the presence of Nomura Roshi, who had just arrived from Japan the day before, Turner received instant confirmation of his own experience and promptly accepted him as his teacher. "After being initiated into the way of zazen [meditation] by the Master," he writes, "I continued to practice martial arts and do shikantaza [formless meditation] as if there were no relationship between the two. Imagine how surprised I was when one day as I sat in meditation there was a melting away of barriers, a blaze of light, and I immediately understood the secret of self-defense from the inside out. There was no mystery. When I arose from my seat, I felt as if everything was clear to me." With virtually no formal training in the martial arts, the youthful Vernon Turner had apparently—in "a blaze of light"—become a master. I already knew the story's ending. Turner had spent the next several months seeking out martial arts masters willing to put his realization to the test—and meeting every challenge. Then, when he returned to Virginia, his old friend Master Neal arranged a trial by combat through the Board of United Dojo Organizations (BUDO), "a council sanctioned by the highest-ranking sensei [teachers] and masters in Hampton Roads." Turner was pitted against "seasoned black belts, at one point against six black belts at the same time." At the end of his ordeal, the council met. "Thanks to the graciousness of the masters and the direction of my Inner Master, I made the leap from no formal rank to black belt and fourth degree in Wa-Jitsu (The Way of Accord) and Aikijutsu, and was awarded the Ronin (masterless warrior) Award by the council." Soon after this, Turner had the most decisive encounter of his life. He met his beloved Indian guru, Sant Keshavadas, who recognized him as a spiritual teacher in his own right and blessed his mission to "heal the African American soul." As we continued to make our way downtown, I found myself becoming more and more eager to begin our interview. My "traveler's mind" had settled down, coming to rest on the challenging questions that had brought me here. What was the "secret" that the soft-spoken man sitting next to me had understood? Was it enlightenment? And if so, what was its relationship to a mastery of self so consummate that within days of his revelation he had been willing to submit it to such a grueling series of ultimate tests? As I recalled the superhero images that Turner's prose had inspired in my mind, I also couldn't help but wonder how closely the impeccable, divinely inspired warrior who had written his way into my imagination would prove to resemble the flesh-and-blood human being with whom I was about to spend the afternoon. For while I had little doubt that Turner's epic journey was as authentic as it was amazing, I could never entirely forget that I was in the presence of a talented poet who, blessed with the heart of Odysseus and the tongue of Homer, might have been tempted by the muse at every turn to take part in the creation of his own legend. The essence of Turner's attainment, as he himself describes it, is the realization of "no-self," the experiential understanding that he is "but an instrument, grass blown by the wind: the grass is taking the bows but the wind is doing all the work." He is adamant in his unwillingness to accept credit for his accomplishments—much as he clearly enjoys talking about them—and relentless in his insistence that his actions are solely manifestations of "the Spirit, the Lord God, Ultimate Truth." And in fact, in the course of our short journey together, I'd already developed the distinct impression that there are two Vernon Kitabu Turners: one, a bemused and humble observer of human nature, and the other—fleetingly revealed by the sidelong glances I occasionally cast in his direction—a genuinely powerful and far more mysterious presence that seems to transcend the confines of any isolated human personality. Even when we were face to face, I was to witness this extraordinary alternation countless times, eventually with a frequency that made it all but impossible to doubt Turner's assessment of his own experience. For all of his vaunted ability, the force that animated this unusual man appeared to be that of being itself or, as he preferred to call it, "Not I." And for all of his many triumphs, the essence of his victory appeared to be surrender to a power far greater than his own. "The Unborn," he writes, "the mind like water, is real only to those who can experience it as a living reality. To attempt to grasp it as an intellectual concept is to murder it. . . . When I stand on the mat rooted in the grace of this awesome experience and see my opponents fly through the air and fall at my feet without conscious effort on my part, when I feel my body rise and fall like the cosmic breath, I am humbled by life. I realize that somehow, mysteriously, I am a partaker of something greater than I can comprehend." Turner is well aware, he told me, that the depth of his absorption in the forces that guide the universe will probably never be more than a bizarre and purely hypothetical notion to Westerners who view self-mastery as the apotheosis of autonomy and control. "But this is because," he says, "they fail to listen. If we allow it to be, there is an indomitable spirit present within all of us or noone would have it." And he is also aware that those who are impressed by his feats in the ring would probably find his susceptibility to spontaneous meditation more difficult to appreciate. "I'll give you a recent example," he told me as, ensconced in my hotel room, we were about to begin our interview. "I was sitting in Dunkin' Donuts holding a cup of coffee, and when I looked up, there was a policeman standing in front of me. So I said, 'Yes, Officer? May I help you?' "'Is everything okay?' he asked. "'Well, yes,' I said. 'What's wrong with drinking a cup of coffee?' "'Nothing is wrong with drinking a cup of coffee,' he told me. 'It's just that you've been looking at that cup for the past eight hours.' "I thought to myself, 'Oh, my God. Eight hours have gone by. I'm in a public place. People are working here. They've been watching me, but I haven't been aware of them at all.' And then I said to myself, 'Vernon, you'd better be careful, because you're not in Asia, where they understand these things. You're in the U.S. of A.—where they definitely don't.'"
WIE: What, in your view, is the relationship between enlightenment and self-mastery?
Vernon Turner: Well, enlightenment is first of all coming to understand that there is no self in the conventional sense. People tend to think of the self as, "Well, I'm the guy who went to this high school and had these parents, and I'm the guy who's got an accounting degree, and I worked my way through it all and achieved these things." Now that's purely an illusory self that we're talking about. Enlightenment is coming to understand or experience that there is no objective self—there is a being, but there's no objective self—and it's in the process of letting go of that notion that one experiences what one truly is in the universal sense. That's when enlightenment comes—when you realize that you are not in control. And because of that, you are very much in control.
WIE: And how would you distinguish that from self-mastery?
VT: Well, the difference may be more in terms of language than reality because enlightenment is the opening up of the eye of perception to the ultimate reality of existence itself. But on the finite scale the application would be self-mastery. In the enlightenment aspect of it there's no one there: There is no you to operate as opposed to this person or that person; your experience is complete, it's whole, it contains the cosmos. But when this enlightenment expresses itself in form, as in walking down the street, speaking and carrying oneself, then its light shines through the eyes of a single entity, and that is when it is known as "self-mastery."
WIE: Do you think that perhaps the distinction may also go deeper than that? The reason I ask is because conventionally, self-mastery is associated with the achievement of a powerful and overwhelmingly positive sense of self, and certainly a very clear notion of oneself—an identity—while enlightenment, even when it is manifested in the world of time and space, is traditionally understood much as you have described it: as the dissolution, or the transcendence, of any separate sense of self, be it positive or negative.
VT: When an enlightened person is still, that's enlightenment, but the moment they move, it becomes, as I said, self-mastery, because the moment you move, you have to act in the world of particulars—you have to walk, talk, work, do all these things. Now people who observe your ability to function in this world are going to see you in this heightened state of reality; they're going to see the way you carry yourself and they're going to attribute extraordinary things to you. The point is, though, that in enlightenment you wouldn't necessarily attribute these things to yourself, and that's the main difference. But also, the enlightenment experience doesn't apply to anything in particular, whereas self-mastery can be divided into certain fields. So you could have mastery in many different fields, and yet, even with that mastery, not be enlightened in the true sense.
WIE: Someone like Anthony Robbins might be an interesting example in this context because what he teaches—theoretically anyway—would seem to transcend the parameters of any particular field. We're talking in this case about an individual who presents himself as, and who to all appearances seems to be, the master of himself. And it would seem to be the case that whatever he's got, whatever realization he's had, covers very systematically every aspect of his life and, as far as he's concerned, of life in general. That's more the kind of mastery that I'm interested in trying to distinguish from enlightenment. Would you say that someone like Anthony Robbins is enlightened? Or is there an attainment that lies beyond the kind of self-mastery that he has achieved?
VT: No, I would not say that's enlightenment. I would say that Robbins has an uncanny ability to master through emulation, to model that which already exists. It's like two people who play a musical instrument: One has studied at Juilliard, but the other one has the gift; he can just pick up the instrument and start playing. Of course the other one can play too—he just picks up a sheet of music and starts playing. Well, most people would say that the guy who got his degree from Juilliard is a superior player because he's got his degree. But in reality the person who gets his inspiration directly from the source is the superior one because he doesn't get it in a secondary way. We human beings have the ability to pick things up from each other—we do that in the first grade, we do it from our mother when we learn how to talk, and Dr. Shinichi Suzuki used the same method when teaching children how to play violin. So Anthony Robbins has learned what triggers that response, a like response, and has been able to pass that secret on to a lot of people. But enlightenment is not about being able to perform tricks like that, you know? It's beyond that because it's all pervasive, and it's beyond any particular ability because it encompasses all abilities. From my point of view, everybody is playing the music, everybody is building the houses, everybody is putting together computers and all these things. They're all "me" in the first place—I have all those abilities—even though they're not all "Vernon Kitabu Turner." It's just that since I have many bodies, I don't have to do all those things in this body because one body over here is working on this part and another body over there is working on that part, and I'm reaping the fruits of it because I'm sitting here in a hotel that I did not personally build. But man built it. And because man built it, yes, I did build it, because I'm man!—I mean, who else could I be? So in that sense, enlightenment is the wholeness of what we are; it's understanding and appreciating the essence of what man is. There's a scripture that asks the question, "What is man that thou art mindful of him?" In other words, "What is man in his essential nature?" And the particular expression of that would be, "What are you doing with this same ability and power?" Well, I can feel that essence coming through you in your work and appreciate and know it for what it really is—a part of ourselves—and I can appreciate the same thing in another person as something else. And when I express that essence, for me it is being able to flow with everything, knowing that there is nothing else but this, letting it flow through this body, act through this body, be this body wholly without having to look to the left, look to the right, ask permission from anybody because it's all me, and I'm giving my whole self to it.
WIE: So practically speaking, the difference between the kind of mastery that I've used Robbins to exemplify and the condition of an enlightened individual would be—
VT: That the enlightened being encompasses all beings in one, while mastery is focused only on the individual being. So if you're a master flycaster, you know that I'm not getting any fish on my end because I can't even get the fly to go on the water right. You have mastered that body. But if I'm going to do that myself, I'm going to have to apply myself as you have, learn the techniques that are necessary to gain mastery over that particular field—or whatever field.
WIE: No matter how total or comprehensive that field might be.
VT: Right, because even then we're still talking about mastering that field and then applying it to a particular goal or a particular life. Enlightenment is not a form of mastery in that sense, because in order for there to be a form of mastery, there has to be someone who's standing above it, and if you're already everything, then how could you stand above it, you see? If you're already everything, then why would you need mastery?
WIE: The martial arts, though, would also seem to represent a particular form of mastery, and yet you've described them as a path to enlightenment. What is it that makes the martial arts a path to transcendence, or the experience of "no-self," rather than simply another powerful means of developing one's strength, one's skill, one's mastery or sense of personal accomplishment?
VT: It can be approached from both directions. The average person who studies martial arts today, and even those in ancient periods, did so because they wanted to have physical strength in order to be able to subdue an enemy or protect themselves, or to have a sense of personal power. And there was also the aspect of being aggressive or warlike as a way of earning one's living, and in that case it was a career. But then, on the other hand, you had the spiritual people. People forget that Bodhidharma, the twenty-eighth patriarch of the Buddha, was the one who introduced the foundation of what is known as Shaolin Kung Fu today. On his way to China he became aware of the dangers on the road from robbers who would try to attack him in order to get the very important records that he carried. So he meditated, and it was revealed to him to study the animals, and in time he developed what came to be called the "Eighteen Movements of Lo Han." And these Eighteen Movements evolved into Shaolin Kung Fu and inspired many other martial arts after that. The idea was that a person who is working for the good of humanity does not develop an aggressive nature but a peaceful center, and his purpose is to defend, not to attack—to defend his own body, to defend loved ones, to defend those who are weaker than himself, and never to desire to do harm even to the one who is attacking you, never to allow yourself to become like the evil ones who would destroy you. It's when you've developed that resolve that the spiritual path reveals itself to you and begins to lead you in the right direction. You'll say, "No, I will do no harm to others. I will not be a person who is aggressive and violent. But neither will I sit here and watch someone be destroyed when I know I should reach out and offer a helping hand." That's exactly what happened with me. When the bullies saw me sitting under a tree or reading a book, for some reason they couldn't stand that, and they'd come over and kick the book out of my hand and fight me. I used to get beat up all the time. So one day I initiated this prayer in which I said, "Teach me how to defend myself." I'd read in the Bible that David was a great warrior and there was a scripture, Psalm 144, that said: "Blessed be the Lord, my strength, who teaches my fingers to fight and my hands to make war." So I said, "I'm your son; teach me, too, and I will never abuse it." Then I went out in the backyard and I began to work out and practice, believing that I would be led into the right moves and that I would come to understand. And the result of that was that eventually the bullies couldn't defeat me anymore. Now when you take that spiritual path, the action does not come from you. I remember the first time I became aware that my body could move but that I wasn't moving it because when a person threw a punch, my hand blocked it and threw them, and I didn't even know that move. And then as I began to let go more and more, I found out that the mastery was already there; I just had to get out of the way to let it emerge, to show itself. Pretty soon I was able to use this as a platform to teach others about spirituality as a practical reality. The Japanese call it "mushin"—the art of no-mind. That's when there is no conscious attempt to act, and yet you move anyway, when the action comes from such a deep place that there is no one to take credit for it. The experience of this coexistence—of this protection that is there within you—is very powerful, and it reaffirms many of the ancient works and scriptures that say, "He who is within you is greater than he who is in the world."
WIE: How exactly is it, though, that this spiritual approach to the martial arts becomes a path to transcendence or enlightenment?
VT: Well, when you find out that you are faced with danger—when you're thinking, "What am I gonna do?"—see what happens if you say, "I'm not worried about it. I don't have to do anything. It'll be done." See what happens if you clear your mind and allow yourself to do exactly what is necessary, exactly what is correct. If you can do that, then when it's all over with, you'll discover that you're just there; you're an observer. And you'll discover that you've observed more than you've actually participated—that you have learned to still your mind so that the spirit can act. The spirit does not deliberate, only the mind does, and this is what you'll discover.
WIE: Traditionally I know it's said that from the enlightened perspective, the minute you think you are the doer—the minute you identify yourself as the one performing an action—in that moment you become the very expression of ignorance itself. Yet even after everything you've explained, I find it difficult not to suppose that the mastery of a challenging discipline like a martial art requires a strong sense of oneself as a powerful individual, a clear and focused understanding of what one is doing, and the will and self-confidence to prevail. Looked at in this way, of course, there seems to be an inherent contradiction between enlightenment and the mastery of a martial art. But your experience seems to suggest that this simply isn't true.
VT: It isn't. It just depends on how the person approaches it. Most people approach it on a finite level—as a physical or mental ability. They develop their speed, their agility and their grace through physical exertion, working out, all those things. These are the people who come on like, "I'm the toughest guy in here. I can take all of you guys on." But the person who approaches it from the spiritual is humble, and if they were to come to him and talk that way, he'd say, "You probably could; I can see that. Look at all those muscles. Look at all that. Hey, you're too great for me." But if they were to try to attack him, they wouldn't find anybody there to attack—even though they're physically looking at the person! I've been tested by seventh-degree black belts and other top masters, and I've asked them to explain what they feel when they attack me. They say, "It's like you're not there." They say, "I thought I had you, but then you were gone!" This is because the movement comes from a higher place and it knows what the other person is going to do. I don't know what the other person is going to do—but when they try it, they discover that it's counteracted. A lot of people say, "I want to learn your technique; it's a wonderful technique." But I say, "I don't have any techniques. Yes, you saw what appeared to be a technique. But it's not a technique because I did not apply it. What you need to learn is how to come from that place where all the techniques already exist, and where the proper one will be there when you need it." And I also try to teach people that there's a difference between being a martial artist and being a warrior. A martial artist is exactly what it says—a person who studies the arts of war. But a warrior is the person himself. He doesn't have to have a black belt to be a great warrior; he has the attitude of a warrior, the spirit of a warrior. And he doesn't have to be a great athlete either because he has the heart of a warrior, and the soul of a warrior, so that when the time comes, when he faces danger, he turns to steel and does what he has to do without fear. If you're a martial artist twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, then that's all you project and that's all you are. But if you're a warrior—if you're a father when your child comes up, a husband when your wife comes up, a friend when your buddy comes up—then you adapt yourself to all of those different roles and yet none of those roles are you. That's the kind of mind that when the battle starts, you're ready. Because you're not holding on to anything, you have everything at your disposal. That's how it works.
WIE: In your book Soul Sword, you describe yourself as having been "a legendary defender of the weak" who "did not hesitate to come to the rescue of victims of gangs or other practitioners of violence."
VT: Yes, I kept that promise I'd made when I prayed to God as a child. When I went up to New York in the sixties, it was completely gang-ridden, and whenever anybody was being beaten up, I never hesitated to get in the midst of the fight and take the person off of them. You see, the thing about the spirit is that the spirit can say things you would never say yourself because you know you couldn't back them up—probably you'd never even think them. So when the local gang made a circle around me in the basement of Livingstone Baptist Church after I'd been in New York for just a couple of weeks, I said, "How would you like me to handle this? Would you like it one-on-one, or do you want the group plan?" Now everybody's standing around thinking, "Boy, he's either got to be very good, or he is crazy." Then this guy called Karate came in, their warlord, of whom people said, "He's a killer; he's been in jail for murder." I'd heard of Karate—his name was written on all the buildings in graffiti—so this was one of those movie moments. They were all saying, "He's the one, Karate! Kill him! Make an example of him!" So Karate looks at me and says, "I'm going to kill you." And I said, "Well, you may do that, but before you do, I'm going to take so many pieces out of you that forever people are going to know you were in a fight with Vernon." I looked at him and he looked at me, and then he just came up and put his arms around me. He made room at the table and said, "Get us some drinks!" He made peace with me. He offered to give me a girl—I said, "No, thank you." He offered to give me an apartment—you know, the gangs control these things. "No," I said, "I have my own, but I really appreciate the honor." So they made me an honorary warlord and they never bothered me again. Instead of them shooting me, instead of them making an example of me, they honored me because in none of the fights that I'd been in with any of those people did I ever gloat or anything. I always helped them up and apologized, and told them that I had no desire to hurt them but that they'd put me in a position that gave me no choice. I always treated them as gentlemen, so they didn't want to kill me. It was a winning experience, you see? Because they respected me, and if anybody was to say, "Well what about this guy who came in from out of town and beat all of you up?" they'd say, "He's our warlord, he's one of us." But I wasn't no gang member; it was a compromise.
WIE: What was the source of your confidence? Has it always been the same, or did it change at some point?
VT: There's a difference between the source of my confidence, period, and my confidence in my ability to defend. They began at different times. I was born into a Christian family and we went to church all the time—I mean, when the door opened we were in! And we also had worship services in our house; before we went to bed we had to have prayer and Bible study and all that—so I came from that kind of a family. Now what I didn't come from was a family who sat in the dark or under trees meditating, and no one could figure that out. But in that meditation, in that stillness, I connected with the source of life within me, and my relationship to that was direct, so in that quietness and stillness I felt secure and whole, and when people began to attack me, I had two feelings: One was that I knew exactly what to do to stop the attack, and the second feeling was—not wanting to hurt anybody. Anyway, every time someone was going to hit me, I would know what was going to come, and I would also know, "I could stop this." But even with all that, I still didn't have the confidence to act. It was only when I began to seek, and to realize, that I actually got tired of getting beaten up, or tired of trying to stop a fight and getting beaten up, because by then I had discovered the means to ask God, "If you teach me, I will protect people." I'd heard about the Kitty Genovese stabbing, in Queens, and that moved me. I was only nine years old then, and I felt hurt that nobody who saw it had tried to help her. That was what triggered me to seek to be strong enough to come to the aid of anyone who was in trouble; I didn't want to pass by a person in trouble, and I would rather die in the struggle of trying to save them than walk away and die all my life knowing I'd never even tried. So as I began to probe into this and to practice, things began to change inside of me, and this was all part of a grand experiment in which I wasn't the one experimenting, I was simply putting together what had been there all along. See, these things were taught—they were in the Bible—and when I went to church I heard them all the time. What I began to understand was that people didn't apply the teachings to themselves. They believed that David could bring down Goliath but they didn't believe that they could. But my feeling was that the same spirit that was with David was also with me, and therefore to doubt that the spirit worked for me was to insult the Creator. In my thinking, it was very simple: If the Creator is in me also, then why am I looking at David?
WIE: You've written that a transformation in your martial arts practice occurred sometime after you met the Zen master Nomura Roshi, a transformation catalyzed by your initiation into the Zen meditation practice known as shikantaza and, in particular, by a powerful satori [awakening] you had while doing that practice. Did the goal of your martial arts practice change in any substantial way after this experience, or was it more or less the same as it had always been?
VT: The goal of my practice didn't change because I had never wanted to be a bully in the first place, and I had the ability to fight before I had that experience in shikantaza. What happened, though, is that it deepened. My early meditation had given me my own abode, but I still needed something else, and when I met Nomura Roshi, I suddenly became aware of something outside of me, something that was beyond what I was experiencing, and I saw that I needed to take a leap. I had built up walls around myself that needed to be broken down, so for two years I practiced letting go, or dropping—dropping body and mind. I remember that when I was sitting, I began to become afraid at different times because I sensed I was dying. I was very afraid. I said, "Oh, my God, I'm going to die, something is happening to me, I'm going to die." But I was advised to go ahead and die, so I decided to do just that. I said, "Well, the next time this occurs, with the life I'm living now, I'm just going to let go. I don't know what I'm doing here; what's it all about anyway? If I die, then okay." So an initiation came through Nomura Roshi that brought me into a new level. Before, I'd been more conscious of the things that were happening. Now all of a sudden it became one with me, and there was no "art" to be known as a separate experience. I became the art, wherever I went and whatever I did.
WIE: After your realization, did you continue to practice forms?
VT: Yes, but when enlightenment hits, forms disappear; it becomes formless. Even though what you're doing is a form, you don't cling to it, and that's the difference. There are constant and endless variations on the same theme as you come to master the principle—that's the way of the spirit. You may have a principle there because the body can only move but so many different ways; but once you've mastered that principle, it's just water flowing through, and you're not interpreting it, you're following it.
WIE: Before you had this experience in shikantaza, did you already think of yourself as an individual who had "mastered himself"?
VT: I never thought of myself in those terms. In fact, it was only when I met the Roshi that, being in his presence, I saw myself. And I mean that literally. For the first time I experienced myself because his being was like my being, and therefore it was like two-way communication without a word being spoken. And in that way I became defined, in a sense, because when I was a loner, there was no one like me, and I had no way of knowing who I was. But when I saw Nomura Roshi sitting there in the park, I could feel our relationship, and all my questions being answered with no questions being asked. Then I understood that I was functioning on a plane that was different from the everyday plane that my friends and associates were functioning on—and that was my salvation because now my purpose was becoming clear. Before that, there was nobody to even give me the hint of who I was or what I was doing. All those years that I had been meditating, I had been sitting in shikantaza, without ever knowing that such a word even existed.
WIE: One could say, then, that in that meeting, you actually acquired a notion of self.
VT: Yes, but in a very different sense. "Self" with a capital "S."
WIE: In light of the discovery you've been describing, I'd like to try to distinguish in a very specific way between the two attainments we've been speaking about. It would seem that an individual who has achieved an unusual degree of self-mastery—perhaps we could again use the example of Anthony Robbins—tends to demonstrate certain qualities: charisma, confidence, positivity, creativity and a kind of dynamic freedom. He doesn't seem to be limited in the way that many people are. But all of these qualities seem to arise from the discovery—to use Robbins's words—of one's "personal power": the individual has developed a very deep conviction that could be articulated as "I Can." Enlightened individuals often seem to express similar qualities, but their source, you seem to be saying, lies in a different place—in the discovery of being itself, in "I Am."
VT: Or "Not I."
WIE: Yes, that's true. "Not I."
VT: Well, then, too, you're talking about a difference in purpose. Those who function in the capacity of a spiritual teacher, of course, would be coming from "Not I" because they are speaking from the fundamental source. But where Anthony Robbins is speaking from is the point of reception—"I've got this. I'm using it." And that's what he demonstrates. If there were music but nobody who believed they could actually play it, we wouldn't have any music, because even though music could theoretically exist, there'd be nobody with enough confidence to pick up an instrument. So on this end when a person wants to do something or achieve something and they don't have any confidence, they run to Anthony Robbins and he tells them, "You can achieve anything. If you believe in it, you can do it. Who's your example? Who would you like to be like?" He's showing them how to focus in order to get past their doubt and express something. Now that's different from dealing with humanity in its wholeness, from trying to heal the soul of humanity. Because if you're honestly concerned with humanity in its fundamental nature, then it's not you as an individual who has the authority to speak on that; you have to become the vessel through which that is transmitted. And that's why there is this concept of "Not I," or "neti neti" ["not this, not this"], or "I'm just an instrument." Because it really is that way: You don't know these things, but the wisdom comes through you. Similarly, when Sant Keshavadas held me in his arms, my bond wasn't with him but through him. It was like God the Father holding me in His arms, using the body of Sant Keshavadas in order for me to be embraced by the same spirit I'd been listening to ever since I was a baby. And now I do the same thing. When I open my arms for someone, I don't open my arms so that they can be grabbed by Kitabu; I open my arms so that God can hold them with my body—so that they can feel Him, not me. In this way, Sant Keshavadas became the link that I needed for the rest of the journey, the link that connects you to the Higher—so that no matter what's going on down here, no matter how hard the struggle gets on the bodily level, it doesn't matter. You're linked, and you have a job to do, and you understand that whatever it is that needs to be done can only be done by a human being who is willing to be God's instrument in this world. You're what the Buddha called "middle ground," precisely that point between earth and heaven where you are both and neither. And that's how you can help people: you can identify with their pain and suffering because you have pain and suffering, and yet . . . you really don't at all. There's a sense of having always been, of experiencing this so-called "now" from a point in eternity, and experiencing the fact that if we human beings are made in the likeness of the Creator—and we are—then we are really reflections of that eternity. We may allow ourselves to become cluttered with the impermanent, but when we clean off the mirror and let it turn toward the eternal, then we realize that although we walk around in these physical shells, we're not bound to them.
WIE: In your view, is it possible for these two fundamentally different orientations toward life, "I Can" and "I Am," to coexist within a single individual?
VT: Well, they do all the time. For example, some of the greatest spiritual masters write books, and when they sit down to write those books, they have confidence in their ability to translate their experience into a publishable work that people can read and understand and enjoy. So it's coming through them—as a conduit—but at the same time, if it doesn't become personal, it has no reality base; it's just talk. So when they can say, "I had this experience, I know," then we see that it's actually possible for something that is universal to be experienced by an individual being. And as we listen to these people talk about their transformation, it begins to take place in us. It becomes real. It's no longer something beyond the cosmos that's happening totally unrelated to anybody in particular.
WIE: I understand. But I was speaking more in terms of the individual's fundamental relationship to life. Is my relationship to life based on "my ability to do something"—in other words, "I Can"—or is it based on the recognition that, "prior to anything I do or say, I exist, and that what's being expressed through me is the fact that I exist—I Am"? It's clear from what you've just said that these two relationships to life do, practically speaking, coexist, but much of what you've said also seems to suggest that on a very fundamental level, one may at some point find oneself having to choose between them. This is not to say that action would then be excluded from one's repertoire, but that where one stands—where one locates the essence of one's being—is something that needs to be decided because what one's life is actually going to express depends upon it. Does this kind of decision accord with your own experience?
VT: Yes, in the sense that if you get even a hint of what enlightenment is, you'll give up everything for it. Because everything that isn't enlightenment is vanishing all the time. At this very moment there's hardly ground beneath our feet, and what ground there is, is vanishing as we speak. People think they're awake when they're walking around in the street, but actually they're asleep then, too. Awakening is when you see through it all—the dream when you're asleep and the one when you're "awake." Then you understand that the viewpoint we have of ourselves is based on a misconception—that because we perceive our personal experience as the ultimate reality when in fact it's not, we don't approach life as we should. That's why we need enlightenment to straighten us out. Now of course I'm not saying that you and I don't exist, or that your experience has no reality. It's not the molecules and the atoms that are going to go away, but the delusion in your mind. The molecules and the atoms will remain as hard or as soft, as light or as dark as they always were. But how you see them will be different.
WIE: Let's speak for a moment about surrender, which is traditionally thought to mean the giving up of control, whereas mastery is generally associated with the cultivation of perfect control—even more so, generally speaking, in the martial arts, where winning clearly involves asserting one's own will over the will of one's opponent. What is the role of surrender in a practice that seems to be oriented almost inevitably toward the visible demonstration of mastery and control?
VT: In a state of surrender, you're not attacking, but neither are you defending, because the action does not take place from your consciousness. On our own scale, we may look upon someone who does the Lord's bidding as a murderous person, but on the higher level where it's all played out, we are sometimes instruments, and if you are the Lord's instrument, you are not striking, which means not that you're merely saying you're not striking—you really aren't. You are not moving, but your body moves anyway, and things definitely happen. So when people say, "That was great, that was a wonderful move," you say, "Well, I cannot take credit for that. It wasn't me."
WIE: Could someone be an instrument of evil and be said to be surrendered?
VT: Yes, in the sense that if a person is an instrument of evil, then they've surrendered to evil. And if we're talking about the mastery of a particular art, or a skill that comes totally under the control of that person's ego, I suppose that's possible. But if we're talking about spiritual mastery, that's a misnomer in a way because spiritual mastery makes you an instrument of the Divine, and you could not use it to do what God would not do. Your mastery takes the form of a servant—you reach out to people, you love people, you try to help transform them; you work with them, not against them—and you would never do anything to harm anybody because you can't make a distinction between them and you, not even if they're bad. It's all you because it's all one. If you were to attempt to harm someone, it would pain you as much as it would them because you would feel their pain, and you wouldn't want them to suffer. So it would have to be taken out of your hands, because you'd let yourself get annihilated rather than bring harm to another.
WIE: Is that what is known as the "warrior ethic"?
VT: Yes. In Bushido, the word "bu" means to cease struggling—it means that there is no one to struggle against. Now, not all warriors embrace this ideal at the highest level, but at the highest level it's said that the true master of the sword carries no sword. It isn't needed, because he's the weapon. His weapon is his continence, his stillness. His enlightenment is really something that is not of this plane at all, and for that reason it's not something that people can easily recognize. People can recognize mastery, because mastery manifests on the physical plane, but people generally don't beat a path to an enlightened person's doorstep unless they are spiritually seeking. There are enlightened people in the world today, but most of them don't have a highway coming to their house because most people are looking for things in this world, and when they see somebody who seems to know how to get these things, they're very interested. But an enlightened person is really not that interested in this world, and in a sense the enlightened person draws people away from the world, not into it. You see, as long as you want to be in the world, and of the world, you can't really be enlightened because the demands are different. In mastery, you have to focus body and mind, and in enlightenment, you've got to let go of them. Now the "letting go" we're talking about here is a letting go of all those preconceived concepts and limitations that frame our mind into a channel that repeats itself over and over again and keeps us from experiencing ourselves holistically. When people hear the word "surrender," they sometimes say, "Oh, if I do that, I'll have no mind!" Well, if you have no mind, you have the right mind. And it's not so much that there is no mind as that there is no preconceived concept, no defining mind, nothing there to know what mind is. It still works, though. It's still functioning. It's just that the mind that's functioning is no longer obtruding on its own self. Then if you do something extraordinary, someone may ask, "How'd you do that?" and you'll say, "How'd I do what? What'd I do?" They'll want you to explain, but you'll know that that's a different kind of monster you'd be creating; you'd be using your mind to create "yourself" when in fact you are yourself without having to do anything at all. It's like the mirror reflecting the mirror: you see an infinite number of images, but there's really only one—and it's not in any mirror! That's what we've been doing with our mind. We don't really know the true state of our being because we've been reflecting upon reflections that are reflections of other reflections. When we can remove all those, there'll be nothing but what is real.
WIE: When did you begin accepting challenges?
VT: When my first book of poetry, Kung Fu: The Master, came out in 1975, the martial arts were beginning to become quite popular, but they were always being emphasized as a violent sport. And whenever I would do talk shows, people would ask me, because of the title, "Do you do martial arts?" I'd say, "Yes, I do," and then the host would say, "Could we get a demonstration?" "A demonstration? A poet demonstrating martial arts?"—that was their idea! So I began to do more and more of these demonstrations, but for only one reason: to point out the unlimited freedom and power of the spiritual way, of the Zen way. Then some people started talking in the martial arts world: "Is this a joke, is he a charlatan, is this for real?" So I said, "It's not me that they're attacking, it's the truth, so I'll tell you what: I'll accept any challengers, day or night, twenty-four hours a day." And then I started getting them! I accepted those challenges. I allowed people who were at the master level to challenge me, to bring me into their schools to test me; I accepted challenges on television, I even went to prisons. A local newspaper, the Virginia Pilot, sponsored an event at the public arena—a night of poetry and "defense of the title"—in which I took on every challenger from every martial arts school that chose to attend, and all of them were defeated. I even allowed myself to be blindfolded! But only to demonstrate one thing—what I'd been telling them all along—It isn't me! I'm not that good! But when Zen taps the spirit within, then all things become possible. So what I was trying to show them was the potential that lies within us, not trying to say that I'm that great. Still, you walk down the street and people say, "See him? He's the deadliest guy in Hampton Roads." I say, "No, don't say that. Please don't say I'm dangerous. I'm not dangerous." There are a lot of martial artists who are more terrifying—fancy techniques and all that kind of stuff. That's not what I represent. I go to a school; I see somebody with all the fancy techniques and everything. I praise them. And I say, "Strike me, hit me, kick me." Then I knock 'em down with one finger. They say, "Well, how'd you do that?" I say, "Now you're asking the right question! Tell me, what did you feel when I struck you?" They say, "Nothing." I say, "Well, if you felt nothing, then why did you fall?" "I don't know." "Why didn't you resist?" "I couldn't resist." I say, "Well then, that should answer your question. It wasn't coming from my physical body, otherwise you would have felt a blow." That's what I try to point out to them: "No, it's not from my physical body. Were you just pretending? Were you just trying to make me look good? Did you just fall on purpose?" "No!" I've thrown policemen around in demonstrations, three-hundred-pound policemen, with one finger. This is something that is real. I've often wondered how a person who was a ninety-pound weakling could have become so associated with the martial identity. I've tried to draw it aside and could never do it because no one lets me. And I think this relates back to the karma of my own people. Sant Keshavadas told me, "Your mission is in America, and especially to black Americans who could benefit from learning about the dharma." You see, centuries of enslavement are also centuries of distortion of the mind, and a misperception of self even more profound than that which occurs in other people because of these extraordinary circumstances. The most terrible thing that happened to the African American male was the loss of his sense of manhood. Every man wants to feel like he's strong enough to take care of his family, to defend his honor, to protect his loved ones. If called to go to war, every man wants to be a warrior. Nobody wants to be a wimp. But when it has been bred into you through psychological and legalistic means that you cannot raise your hand, you cannot defend yourself, that you have no right to any kind of power, then although that natural sense of manhood is still there, it becomes suppressed, and it can become self-hatred; you hate yourself for never acting on it, and you're scared because you feel surrounded by a power that you believe to be only in other people. Well, one of my ancestors was Nat Turner, and Nat Turner was a mystic as well as a warrior. His prayers and meditations prepared him for his battle. I had a visitation from him. I saw him standing in flames with chains on, and I said, "What's wrong with you?" He said, "My people have forgotten me." And I said, will not forget you." So before I can be a guru, I must first be a man. Let me express this manhood before other men, so they can see that inner light and respect me for that—then they can take in the rest. But to have a priest who is himself a wimp is not real; it doesn't go deep enough. "Turn the other cheek" means nothing at all if the other guy can slap you around at will. It only means something when you're so strong that you're gonna have to turn it for them to get to it—you just allow them, you see what I'm saying? So what I've come to understand is that this warrior aspect is not something that I personally want; it is something that is necessary in the healing of the African American soul; it's a part of genuine manhood. And you cannot separate manhood from the spiritual part, you see, because we've always had adversaries. There are angels in the scriptures who choose to make war because if they just stood there, the other guys would own the place. They have to say, "No, you're not coming any farther than here because we're gonna stop you." So you have the bad angel and you have the guardian angel, and the guardian angel has to be stronger than the other guy; otherwise he can't guard you. What good is a guardian angel if, when the bad ones show up, they punch him out and get you anyway? You want to be able to hide behind the guardian angel! So that's what we're talking about—being an angel—and implied in that angelic nature is the strength to defend the children of the Divine. Source: