by Sensei Aaron K. Bowen
According to Mr. Tuttle, the four elementary rules of self defense are:
1. Don’t go looking for trouble.
2. Stay out of dangerous areas.
3. Don’t be afraid to yell for help.
4. If you must perform a technique, do so smoothly and speedily, lest an enemy escalate the level of violence.
Humility is a virtue that has largely evanesced out of the practice of the Budo, but this is not so surprising. It is a trait that must be first put on like a piece of clothing and which will cover the natural urges of the individual, but—in time—grows into his or her very bones. The understanding that comes with the de-prioritization of self cannot be measured by any practical means, and must be lived to be penetrated.
The very seeds of my own understanding, regarding the practice of Karate, and the Budo at large, were watered with instruction that made plain this underlying truth. The first justifications for the idea of humility were all practicality and consequence: Don’t practice in public because there will always be someone better who is looking for an excuse to prove it; avoid dangerous places, even though you know how to defend yourself; when attacked, be willing to look for help from other people. It was a rivulet of wisdom that fed every instruction regarding the philosophy of practical defense. Like the ideal masters of the large and the small screens, my sensei might well have told me, “Being attacked is not an opportunity to stroke your ego. If you behave as though you were the protagonist of the universe’s story, it is likely to be your end.”
Humility was present in three of the four rules of self-defense, which I was required to memorize in order to earn my first kyu—the eponymous yellow-belt. I was also warned of the consequences, should I engage in a schoolyard fight; the first people to be called would be my parents, but the second call would be to my instructor. The implicit threat seems contradictory. “I’ll teach you Karate, but don’t you dare use it!” If the context, though, is examined with more than a cursory glance, this instruction alone is worth several lessons.
Similarly, a student of any branch of the Budo understands that he or she (we’ll assume she, for the purposes of brevity) will be taught at least the rudiments of striking. Punching and kicking: these are elemental to any martial curriculum, even if they are de-emphasized.
Every Aikido-ka or Judo-ka must have punches to avoid or to redirect; she must have a tori if she is to be uke, and so, in the spirit of reciprocity, she learns to strike, if only to play the aggressor in an exercise or drill. Yet, often overlooked by the forward-looking student is the inevitability of taking a hit. After all, no defense is impenetrable, and it follows that suffering, imparted by foot or fist, must come in the course of time. We are taught that, in order to best ameliorate the effects of such a blow, we must be willing to receive the impact, rather resistant to it. Then, any rage or disappointment must be allowed to flow out of the mind, despite a person’s natural instinct to drink in these focus-destructing emotions; they are a poison that fouls good technique and nullifies the investment of training. Physical suffering, inflicted by others, must be welcomed in order to be neutralized. Mental anguish in response to corporal pain, however, must be rejected, despite the fact that it originates within the self. Humility—the tolerance of others and the rejection of self—is the path to a successful defense, it would seem.
I was a freshman in high-school the first time I ever faced an opponent without the confines and protections of the dojo.
Walking alone, I was adrift on an ocean of bodies and backpacks. The vast spaces of the school were thickly populated to the point of creating anonymity, and I moved among my fellow students, fundamentally disinterested. Nearby, apparently conscious of me—a circumstance which was not reciprocated—a boy watched my progress through the crowd. We’ll call him Jessie.
My impression of Jessie was not one of personality (so far as I can tell, he had none), but of size. He was big. Maybe not for some, but I wore my century-and-a-half’s worth of poundage warily, viscerally cognizant of the tactical disadvantage in which I was dressed, part and parcel to a narrow frame. It was the bigness of him that had stuck in my mind.
So, when Jessie’s bicep—a knot of muscle under a spongy layer of fat—caught the nape of my neck, and the momentum of his bulk bent me forward at the waist into a side-arm-headlock, it was instinct born of training that dictated my response. The moment the aftershock had bled out of my senses, I calmly reached for the nerve pocket that crouched between Jessie’s collarbone and his throat. Gingerly, I applied pressure. (It should be noted that I wouldn’t dream of teaching a student this technique at this point in my life, as it relies on pain compliance, a principle to which I no longer subscribe.)
The response was subtle, but immediate. The arm encircling my neck, and masking my face in a band of unfriendly flesh that stank faintly of puberty, relaxed slightly; the fist against my cheek unclenched.
With a hand that knew its business, I grasped my attacker’s right arm at the wrist and stepped out of his grasp. Simultaneously, my left hand released that nexus of lively nerves and shifted to the joint of Jessie’s shoulder. My right hand rolled forward, apply torque to the twin bones of the forearm, the beginnings of the leverage I required; my right foot swept back and out in a tight arc, as my left hand applied a knife’s edge of pressure against the shoulder. Jessie was coaxed off of his balance, and spiraled to the floor of the student-center, not with thunderous impact, but gently. Once I had put his chest to the cool, cut stone, I released him and retreated. Passive, but alert, I watched to see how he would react, and how the remainder of this encounter would play out. Also, I was so full of a strange mix of adrenaline and excited triumph that I could barely see straight.
The whole incident, from the inciting tackle to its terminus at the feet of what was now only a few straggling peers, had transpired in no more than two or three seconds.
Jessie picked himself up off of the floor, knocked the dust from the maroon leather of his letterman’s jacket, and regarded me.
Jay, a local noise, raced out of the Coke hallway, where he, alone, apparently observed the innocuous violence, and sprinted toward us. At the staccato of tennis shoes that echoed in the nearly evacuated thoroughfare, Jessie turned. Jay was elated. “Man, he took you down!” The emphasis on the last syllable launched a gobbet of spittle, which landed, harmless, at the center of the triangle of which he was now the third point.
Jessie looked at me. Then back to Jay . . . and then back to me. Finally, he pried his teeth apart, and stuffed his hands in to his pockets. “Whatever,” he said, and stalked off. He did not thrust himself into my life ever after, either as obstacle or ally.
Far more vaguely, I remember Jay inquiring after my training. Probably, he asked, “Do you know karate?” It was a time when every martial discipline seemed to fall under the umbrella of “karate,” at least for the common man. I was evasive in my response; I didn’t want word to get around that I thought I was a tough guy, or a slayer of giants. When, the next day, I saw Jay gesturing at me from across the common, talking excitedly to a fellow I knew only two things about—that his name was Thurman, and that he was built like a human bulldog—I was dismayed.
Here was trouble, looking as though it were going to stand in my path, just as my bygone sensei had told me it would. I had overcome Jessie mostly by virtue of surprise. If Thurman came looking for me, on the other hand, he would be primed with expectation; Jay had seen to that. I had no idea whether or not I was prepared for such a confrontation; I had no frame of reference or analogous experience on which to draw, no method by which to calculate my chances.
I went my way, worries weighing my thoughts, and wasn’t even late to class.
Thurman found me after the last bell of the day, in the desert of lockers at the rear of the school. He walked with the swagger of someone who is convinced, heart and soul, of his world, and his place in it. “You know Karate?” There was no implicit threat in his voice; instead, he sounded mildly amused, as though my own confidence in my training was the subject of a private joke between us.
“Well, you know, I studied a little. It’s not like I’m great or anything.”
In hindsight, I’m not sure he actually registered what I said. He probably expected a more self-possessed response. “Yeah, I know Karate. What do you care?” I’ve wondered if he didn’t hear the response he’d assumed rather than the one I actually gave. Either way, when his own reply came, it didn’t seem to fit what I’d said.
“Then I bow to you,” he said, a smile playing its way across his features. He put the palms of his hands together in front of his chest, and bent at the waist in a kind of phony, chop-socky imitation of something that he’d surely seen at the movies, or on television. I didn’t have the faintest idea of how to respond, and so, in the quiet that came between his bow and his attack, I stood there mutely, stupidly, and allowed this person to make a sport of me and my sense of self.
Then, when I saw that he meant to test me, and that this was a setup for the movement he would make—it was the imperative of a moment’s finest denomination—I was free to chose my reaction rather than to simply act on instinct, as I had done with my attacker of the previous day. I elected, gritted my teeth, waited.
The attack came with little warning, and even though I was expecting it, he very nearly took me by surprise. Thurman’s hands flashed out as he came aright, and grasped me at the shoulders as his foot snaked out and swept beneath both of mine in a simple, but effective, reap. I went down, and would have gone hard, if he’d let me, but to my surprise, he did not. His grasp on my shoulders was to dual purpose. He meant to have me on the ground, but meant for me to go without impact. In short, his goal was to be the architect of my defeat, but not to give me injury. He snickered, after he’d given me a moment to acknowledge his success and my own failure in posturing a defense, and tugged me back to my feet.
Thurman slapped me on the shoulder, congenially a