Note: This is an excerpt from a larger work-in-progress.
The sound of training fills the halls of the dojo
and my heart slows in response
to the sound of water dripping from the rooftop
into a bucket by the wall
Drop by drop
One by one
My mind becomes a void
I sought clarity.
That’s what first brought me to Ray. All my life a cacophony has raged in my brain: a barrage of words and images—phobias, doubts, obsessions; the sort of internal Tourettes to which psychologists append labels like “OCD” and “bipolar,” but which Buddhists have described for centuries as simply “monkey mind.”
There was physical stagnation as well: My dual careers of writer and software installer kept me locked in front of a computer for up to twelve hours a day. I felt my back bowing and lethargy setting in as years of my life drained away in the soft glow of a monitor. My soul demanded radical action: a refocusing on all fronts. But there was no way, at first, that I could simply add zazen (Zen meditation) to the end of workdays that were already long and sedentary. I craved an active, moving meditation, and martial arts fit that bill.
My wife Harper, a dance choreographer, could not have been any more surprised if I had announced I was going to put on clown makeup and join the circus. But her image of me as a man forever seated, hunched forward with brow furrowed, confined exclusively to an inner world, was, in itself, the reason for the change. All along I had watched Harper and her colleagues soar across the stage, at home in their bodies and in tune with the elements—leaping and spinning and, in so doing, finding their bliss. I needed to trade a bit of the inner for the outer, and stabilize my life.
I wish I could say it was deliberate, informed decision-making that led me to one of the most accomplished martial arts masters in the Phoenix area, but in reality blind chance called the shots. The ACS (Arizona Ch’uan Fa Society) School of Karate simply happened to be the nearest dojo to our Tempe apartment. I stumbled across the ACS website, sent a query email, and the following evening picked up the phone to hear a booming, testosterone-drenched voice on the other end: “Robert Lurie! Ray Fisher, ACS Karate.” The formidable rumble invited me to the dojo to have a look around.
What exactly did I expect to find there? Probably an austere, dimly lit chamber filled with quiet, serious students—rising from prolonged zazen to engage in their aerial ballet of violence, silent all the while save for the soft swish of their gis (uniforms) as difficult move after difficult move was flawlessly executed. Perhaps there would be an altar topped with candles, and the mysterious Master Fisher standing in the dark shadows, arms folded, an inscrutable half-smile playing its way across his otherwise passive features.
What I found instead was a brightly lit room filled with loud, boisterous students; a boombox in the corner blaring AC/DC, and Master Fisher himself—tall and solid as a side of beef—barking out commands like a drill sergeant. I was momentarily taken aback. It all seemed so…American.
Thinking back on my snobbery now, I can only chuckle. For as I would come to discover, Master Fisher and his school could not have been more steeped in reverence for Eastern philosophy, techniques, and, yes, spirituality. So much so, there was no need to put on airs–for to shroud his dojo in candle-lit darkness like a set-piece from Kung Fu would be an insult both to Fisher’s Eastern influences and his Western roots. To paraphrase the Dalai Lama, Buddhist principles are most effective when integrated into a person’s established culture. If heavy slabs of classic rock ‘n’ roll could motivate the students to push harder in their practice of a centuries-old martial art, then Master Fisher would be the first one cueing up Aerosmith on the CD player.
After the class, Ray gave me a guided tour of the premises. In addition to the large group room, there was a small gym equipped with a boxing ring and punching bags, one small changing room which the men and women took turns using, and a bathroom. Perhaps “austere” had been the correct expectation after all.
Ray led me back to the front office and motioned me to a chair. He took a seat facing me. “So, Mr. Lurie,” he said, his voice loud, direct, confident, “What makes you want to take up the study of Kenpo Karate?”
“Well,” I said, “I’m looking for a kind of exercise that is more interactive than what I’ve been doing. In the past I’ve gone to a gym and just lifted weights by myself. I guess I also want to learn how to defend myself. And…” I hesitated a moment, not yet certain of the value he placed on the metaphysical. “There is the spiritual aspect as well.” Now he really did give an inscrutable half-smile. Then, without a word, he thrust out his hand. I shook it and got the sense that, no matter how fumblingly, I had managed to answer the question correctly.
My training began in fits and starts as I struggled to integrate my new practice into my already busy schedule. I had to make some difficult decisions, like shifting my guitar playing (another passion) lower on my priorities list to make time for karate. My rationale was that the enhanced clarity that karate would presumably bring could only benefit my other creative pursuits in the long run. It was important that I allocate the time and attention necessary to enable this new art to take root and flourish.
Still, even when I put my full attention on karate, there were obstacles. My lifelong tendency toward the cerebral at the expense of the physical ensured that every move was awkward at first. My wife—with her dance background—would have had a much easier time of it. We had gotten married right around the time I began my instruction, and I’m sure she still derives much merriment from the memory of me standing in a hotel room during our honeymoon, chopping and kicking at imaginary attackers.
Back at the dojo, Master Fisher began to emerge as a truly gifted teacher. My initial image of him as a one-dimensional blowhard (a perception that stemmed not from reality but from my own insecurities and prejudices) gave way to a true appraisal of the man: multi-faceted, disciplined, deeply spiritual, and steadfastly devoted to his craft. And creative; he took the “art” part of “martial arts” seriously. No mere extrovert, he was given to long moments of introspection. When led away from his area of expertise, he became inquisitive, humble, and even bashful.
At first, I found his teaching to be a disorienting mix of encouragement and confrontation. He certainly didn’t shy away from subjecting students (read myself) to public humiliation when it became clear that we hadn’t been practicing our material. Yet, just as I began to buckle under the shame, his demeanor would soften. Gently and methodically, he’d work with me through my problem areas and would not let me leave the dojo until I’d demonstrated proficiency.
Sometimes the competitive spirit that must have fueled his high school athletic career rose to the surface: a favorite technique was to send the students in his group classes running in circles around the room while he stood on the sidelines making catcalls: “Robert! Are you going to let this little kid pass you?!” Then he’d stop us abruptly and make us do jumping jacks followed by his favorite “triangle” push-ups, or, once, a brutal, back of the wrists style push-up that I immediately nicknamed the “Carpal Tunnel.”
I began to notice that Master Fisher would sometimes take individual students aside and quietly hold forth on whatever subject he felt might further their advancement. With one, he waxed poetic on the virtues of reducing red meat in one’s diet; with another he sagely counseled on the qualities one should look for when choosing a divorce lawyer. It was clear that for many students, Ray was not simply a karate instructor but a life coach as well.
As I began working my way towards my orange belt—the rank following yellow—another persona revealed itself, for Ray had included some of his poems in the preface of the Orange Manual. One, in particular, took my breath away:
The clap of thunder
the flash of lightening
and the act of a fool
all happen within the blink of an eye
and without thought…
Like an arrow shot from a bow
a careless word cannot be recalled
and wounds deeper than the sharpest sword
Hidden within ten thousand walls
that one builds to shield and hide
we bury the pain but never forget…
And the wound can fester,
then infect the soul
until there is no peace within
Like water as it flows, we must remember to let go,
open our hearts and trust ourselves
to follow the way within
to live the way without
and to know the difference
Ray Fisher has much to share—not just with his students, but also with anyone feeling the spark of an interest in the martial arts, or, for that matter, anyone wishing to shake off the heavy blanket of stagnation and lead a more active, purposeful life. And the poetry hints at the soul of the man. I am reminded of other eras, other times, when generals and heads of state routinely wrote poems—and when that style of communication was not the sole parlance of starving MFA grads, but was instead a universally respected way of communicating. Master Fisher has taught me that movement is poetry, work is poetry, even fighting can be poetry. And on top of that, the dude actually writes poetry.
My work continues. I move slowly, painfully on the road to my next belt level. And while my concentration and clarity improves in infinitesimal degrees with each passing month, I’ve long given up on my initial expectation of instant satori. During one of our many philosophical discussions, Ray relayed to me the words of his own teacher, spoken many years ago:
“If you do what I teach you every day of your life for ten years, in ten years you might feel something.”
“That to me was a worthwhile challenge,” Ray said. “Too many people in America are into instant gratification: ‘How fast can I get results? I want it yesterday.’ I was an abnormal, weird kind of kid to begin with. For this man to tell me that it might take ten years before I really began to understand or feel the positive effects of the disciplines he was teaching me, well, that was a challenge that captured my heart.”
Patience is something that’s practically unheard of these days. I worry that, like a vestigial limb, it has almost completely atrophied in modern society. But I confess: my stubborn heart, like Ray’s before mine, has been captured. I’m not a natural. No one would confuse me for being graceful. And I can’t say I’m particularly disciplined. But I’m patient. And, through providence, I have the best teacher a person could ask for.
Robert Dean Lurie is the author of No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and The Church.