by Sensei Aaron Bowen
The first opponent, and the last, that the Budoka must overcome is himself.
It was less than a year after my face had fully knitted back into the mask— a tangle of scar tissue and damaged nerves— which I now wear that I had to take my first steps along the path to the budo; it was less than a year since the teeth of a male Doberman-pinscher had taught me about blood and pain and a fear that was bone-deep.
It had happened on the last weekend before we were to return to school for the second semester. We had just eaten at Burger King, a recent import to the country of Chile, where I spent my childhood. Afterward, we’d come back to the home of the Lutes, a family that had been our friends since we’d moved from Texas in 1987. With us were the Martins, a couple who lived in Viña Del Mar, a popular tourist destination on the southern Pacific and a two-hour drive from the Chilean capital of Santiago, where we lived. Also with us were the Richardsons, Texas natives with whom our family had been friends since about two years after I was born; they had two daughters, the oldest only a year younger than I. My little brother, Brian, was not yet one and my sister, Melinda, was seven. I was eleven years old.
Several years earlier, the dog had bitten Briana Lutes, youngest daughter of the family, on the crown of her head. Many people have expressed shock and outrage at the knowledge that the dog had not been put down after that first attack, but they are ignorant of the Lutes’ situation. They had been the victims of domestic terrorism, you see. Phone calls had been made to them, and all manner of graphic threats had been hissed over the telephone line, some of which had been heard by Briana herself. The dark voice on the other end had not minded detailing, to a little girl, what he had planned for her parents. A brick was thrown through their front window; they left the country for a while. The dog was not a pet; it was a guard, a dragon installed just outside the walls of their home to bay and roar and belch fire so that the dark shadow over their lives might reconsider and turn back.
It should be understood, also, that Chile is a nation rife with petty crime. Every house is surrounded by a fence, typically made of iron and capped with spikes. Brick walls are often lined with broken bottles that have been set into a layer of concrete along the top. In the four years that my family lived in La Reina, a relatively wealthy district of Santiago, our house was burglarized three times, the last of these interrupted as we came in the front gate. We ended up moving to a cul-de-sac in La Florida, a suburb, and the danger of a break-in nearly evaporated. The Lutes lived in a rougher part of town and ministered in areas best avoided after dark. The danger to the family was not imagined. The dog was a bulwark against the dark; its name was Arotol.
The girls had gone outside to play, and I followed. I found, as I grew older, that being the only boy made things a little lonely, but I was comfortable entertaining myself. I was walking around the yard with my hands in my pockets, being bored, when I heard the noise of footsteps behind me. I turned, and noticed the dog. Arotol was beefy in the shoulders, certainly not a pure-bred Dobie. His ears were relaxed, his hackles were down. The dog and I regarded each other. The attack happened so quickly, I didn’t really have time to react. Granted, my reflexes were not as sharp, then, as they are now, but my memory tells me that it wouldn’t have mattered. He didn’t grab me, you see. He didn’t shake me like a rag doll. He just . . . lunged. In the space of what could have been no more than a single second, the dog reared up on his hind legs and snapped his jaws on my face three times in rapid succession. That was it; it was almost artfully done. He didn’t even put his paws on my chest for support as he did it. If there is such a thing as jutsu (combat technique) in the world of dogs, this one knew his well.
The damage was significant. My top lip looked untouched from the outside, but had been badly shredded from underneath, by Arotol’s bottom row of fangs. One of my eyelids was slit along the orbital ridge, my right cheek had been laid open, my bottom lip was split and torn. I had multiple puncture wounds where individual teeth had punched through and then been withdrawn quickly, without raking. The doctors who came to survey the damage, lifting the paper-towel that had been laid over the carnage, shook their heads and went on their way. In the end, it was a plastic surgeon who put my face back together at the Clinica Aleman of Santiago; he was the only one qualified to do the reconstruction.
My spirits were high after the bite. I healed. I had a few nightmares. On Easter Morning of the following year, I was offered the instruction in Karate, and my journey began. My first steps along the path brought me in direct conflict with myself and the fear that had been sewn into me some months earlier.
I had to walk to get my Karate, you see.
Dave Lowry has written much on the subject of walking to the “place of the way,” the dojo, where we learn the way of combat, the Budo. The approach, he tells us, is an opportunity to focus and mentally prepare for the shugyo, or martial training, that is to follow our entrance, and our respectful obeisance to one another. Then, on the return trip, we allow taxed muscles to stretch with the easy exercise, and we meditate on the lessons we’ve encountered that day. Most of us who train in the budo, be it Karate, Judo, Jiu-Jutsu, Aikido, Kenjutsu or another the myriad arts whose roots are profoundly Japanese, do so in the evenings, as most budoka have to work or attend school during the daytime. The walk, Mr. Lowry asserts, whether he knows it or not, allows the student to be, as T. S. Elliot put it, “soothed by evening’s fingers.” All things being equal, this is a sentiment with which I agree.
But for me, at the age of twelve, it was not so simple.
My instruction in Karate took place at the home of my first sensei, Andrew Tuttle. The father of one of my classmates, Adrian, he was a satellite of familiarity to me, one that existed on the fringe of my consciousness. I don’t think I had ever actually seen the man before meeting him on the small basketball court behind his house, where I would take training in the Shuri-Ryu style of Karate for nearly a year. To get there, I had to walk, though not all the way.
The VanDerWesthuizen family had three children, all of whom went to my school. Their youngest son, Brendan was a year younger than me, while their middle child, Lionel, was two years older. Their eldest, Lycia, was in her second or third year of high-school. All three were going to attend Mr. Tuttle’s Karate classes with me, and it was to their house I had to walk. The first few times, I went with Lionel and Brendan, so that they could show me the way; it wasn’t farther than four or five blocks. In Santiago, you are a pedestrian if you have legs (betimes, even if you don’t). Two-car families were unheard of, at the time, and we were no different. Mostly, if you wanted to get somewhere, you were going to find yourself walking at least part-way.
At some point, and I disremember why, the two boys fell out of the picture, as far as the walk to their house goes, though they still were in the class. I mostly remember making the trip with my younger sister, Melinda, although it wasn’t long before she lost interest in Karate altogether—as it turns out, for the rest of her life. From that point forward, I had to make the trip alone. It was on one of those lonely trips that I made a disturbing discovery.
Had I never noticed, before walking alone? I think I hadn’t because… well, company imparts a measure of security. Whatever the case, an auto-mechanic’s garage lay between me and the VanDerWesthuizen’s, and for the first time I noticed that they owned a pair of dogs. One was a German Shepherd; the other was a Rottweiler. They lay on the dirt strip that served the place as a driveway, just inside the front gate. Their heavily muscled jaws rested lazily on their outstretched forepaws as they watched me… and they weren’t chained.
Somewhere in the back of my head, in the place where truth lives, I understood that they were just two dogs, like the hundreds I’d passed before coming to this moment . . . but in another way— one that has something to do with the memory of teeth— they weren’t just dogs anymore. The surface was a shell-thin disguise which hides something terrible beneath; I know because I had seen the mask peeled back, and the thing that hides there is terrible— not a dog, but some OTHER, a snarling, slavering thing made all of gnashing and screaming.
I don’t bolt. I’m smarter than that. Dogs have a chase instinct. You don’t run from them, especially when they are calm, because that instinct can— probably will— kick in and ironically provoke the attack you sought to evade. I get past them as quickly as I can without dressing myself in the flight-instinct I now feel beating against my ribs like a spooked canary.
I pass the garage without incident, and I make it to the house of the nice people who bus me to my lessons along with their own children, but internally, I was a well of turmoil. I was at an impasse. In order to get to the house of my instructor, I had to cross the path of a pair of barely-disguised boggarts; I was afraid. I know what I wish I had done: I wish that I had confronted the fear head-on. I wish that I had faced the monsters and discovered the truth: that the fear was a construct I had built out of trauma.
What did happen was that I tried to weasel my way past the dogs. I don’t remember how I wound up accepting a ride to the VanDerWesthuizen’s from Gary Lutes, the man whose home-guard had put the fear of dog in me. One way or another, I found a measure of security in the Volkswagen minibus that he drove. I also don’t remember whether or not he offered the first ride, but every time after, I asked, and he obliged. While I am certain that I never told him why I wanted to be driven what was, really, a relatively short distance, the nature of the arrangement does not escape me now, hindsight being what it is. I don’t know if guilt played any roll in his generosity, especially since I didn’t tell him why I wanted a ride, but think it might have all the same. I think back, now, to those rides in the Volkswagen minibus, and I’m ashamed. Not only had I failed to recognize the test of the dogs for what it was—psychological damage that, sooner or later, I would have to bridge— I put upon a man who likely felt he owed me something.
I wish I could say that it was my own sensibility that countermanded that arrangement, but it wasn’t. It was my mother. She heard that I was having Gary drive me the mile or so that I had been told to walk, and she put an end to it, and rightly so.
From that point forward, one of three things happened. The first possibility was that I boarded my school bus and simply went back home. My leg hurt, my stomach hurt, I had a headache, I can’t go to Karate today, Mom, so sorry, try again Monday/Wednesday/Friday. The second thing that might occur was that I would make the trip, but find a place where I could cross to the far side of the street, a thing that was more difficult than it sounds. It was easier to slide past the garage when a street separated us. The reality remained the same no matter which side of the street I took: the dogs weren’t going to bother me. The third option, the option that most directly embodies the way-of-the-open-hand, was the one that required me to master my fear— at least long enough to pass by the mechanic’s twin steel doors, painted black and swung wide for inbound clients.
Is it metaphoric that I had to overcome myself in order to receive my training? I suppose so, but it seems too pretentious to talk about it in those terms. It was representative of my journey as a budoka, however. Consider the following: every lesson on the dojo floor demands that the individual, male or female, break through the walls of the self in order to achieve the desired result. These walls can be inherent, like the desire to flee combat rather than face it, or they can be imposed, like the fear of a biting dog which bends reality— that most such animals are perfectly willing live and let live— into a distorted facsimile. The aikidoka (practitioner of Aikido) wishing to learn how to counter the kote-gaeshi wrist lock must first overcome the instinctual desire to submit to the pain that such a manipulation creates, in order to find the flow of kinetic energy, which will tell him where and in what direction to push.
For me, as a twelve-year-old who had been mauled badly by a big dog, I had to overcome my fear. On the days where I persevered and passed through the dragon’s phantom flames, I got my training in the Okinawan way of the empty hand. When I didn’t … well, then I didn’t. It also never got any easier. I passed the test numerous times; I failed the test numerous times. There is never just a single encounter with self. It is an ongoing confrontation in which we are all cowards, all victors, and sometimes both simultaneously.
It is a process that I have come to respect because, as I sought an understanding of an art that was fundamentally foreign to me, I came also into knowledge that was fundamentally intimate. I don’t know what future demons will rise out of the dust in my path, and I can’t fully predict how I will react to them… but I can move forward with the knowledge that they are coming, and ready myself as best as I can to summon the courage and the humility to press forward.