Primary Lessons and Lasting Impressions

by Sensei Aaron K. Bowen

My first sensei was Andy Tuttle. He didn’t ask us to call him sensei, and so we just referred to him as Mr. Tuttle. He was a stocky man who wore a gi with sleeves cut to baseball length. Around his waist was fastened a black belt with three gold stripes embroidered across the ends. Also written there was Shuri-Ryu and Karate. Standing there, clad in white keikogi and black obi, he was a giant.

Actually, he was a man of average height. My impression of him was rooted in my perception. He was a BLACK BELT; he KNEW KARATE; he could BEAT PEOPLE UP. I was not afraid of him—never think it. It was reverence I felt. My desire for knowledge of the budo infused him with size. Even now, some of that tincture remains in my memories of him, and he figures largely in my value-schema as applies to the combative arts.

There was no dojo for my first lessons. We were trained on an outdoor concrete basketball court behind Mr. Tuttle’s home. There was no shomen, no weapons eagerly racked and awaiting use, no trophy case, no framed pictures of Bruce Lee underscored by motivational text. As far as I could tell, Karate seemed to be about the teacher and the students; if I was missing out on something, I had no way of knowing it.

Surprisingly, this very unadorned presentation of the training I was to receive fit in with my existing perceptions about the martial arts. Mister Miyagi, after all, didn’t teach in a dojo. He taught on the beach, in his backyard, at a fish market. It was the bad guys, the Cobra Kai, that trained in a dojo, and while I understood that there was no direct link between bad martial artists and good martial artists and the place of practice, it was still an image that stuck. What’s more, in my maturity, I realize that my first impression was fairly accurate; a good teacher benefits from a dedicated dojo, yes, but is not handicapped by the lack of one.

What’s more, if the budo are to be honestly regarded as descendants of the martial skills belonging to the samurai and their progenitors, then the idea of a martial school (meaning building and not style) is impractical. The samurai had to apply their skills in defense of their shogun and their own lives, and the place of that application was often uneven terrain in adverse conditions. The samurai, then, did their martial training in fields and the open areas that were conveniently available. The practice of the way of samurai, for much of their history, was a question of pragmatism when it came to the where of the thing.

How might my journey into the budo have been different, had I believed that good training came with an attached building? Unknown to me at the time, I would spend years without a master and without a dojo, and it was only the first of these two conditions that concerned me. I had no association between shugyo and dojo, so I was at liberty to practice in whatever space afforded itself without feeling cheapened in that regard.

So in that humble space, I took my first few faltering steps, and, like the toddling child, I was awkward. The movements of arm and fist and foot were unfamiliar to me, and I was possessed of an eagerness that was often a hindrance to my progress. Mr. Tuttle reminded me to loosen up, taught me that power does not come from rigidity of limb, and though I drank in his words, I couldn’t seem to translate them into actual practice. There was a fraction between what I understood I ought to be doing, and what I produced. In short, I was karate-ing by feel. Intellectually, I believed Mr. Tuttle; a powerful strike comes from relaxation, not tension, but there was, you see, an idea that already existed in my mind about how power was supposed to feel. It was supposed to feel like you were strong, like every muscle of your arm was taut, like you were a bent bow that was ready for string and arrow. It was also an idea that was completely out of line with what I had been taught was correct. I didn’t disbelieve my sensei; I had total faith that he knew what he was talking about. My failure to emulate his instruction wasn’t because I discredited him, but because I was measuring my movements not by conscious emulation, but by the feeling I was chasing.

There is no faster way to bypass my (now deep) well of patience than for a kohai to contradict an instruction delivered by the sensei, rebutting to him that “it just doesn’t feel right.” Knowing the hierarchy of the budo, I allow the instructor to tend to his house in the manner that he sees fit, but even as he does so, I silently deliver my own railing condemnation. “It doesn’t feel right? What do you think you know about how it’s supposed to feel? It doesn’t feel right because you’ve been doing it badly all this time, and that’s what you’re used to feeling. The real question is whether or not you have faith enough in your instructor to reject your feelings and do the thing as he’s taught it, because if you don’t, then you have no reason to be here in the first place.”

… but really, it’s not the student that is the target of my venom. It is the recognition of my own faults in others, and the bitter brew that has leeched out of old failings. I’ve never been particularly good at forgiving myself for past mistakes, and I see those early lessons with Mr. Tuttle through a glass that is glazed with both nostalgia and regret. It wouldn’t do much good to let that tirade loose against a budding pupil, anyway; not only would I put him off of his training, it’s not possible to impart humility with a few words. You may humiliate, yes, but humiliation is a weapon, not a teaching tool.

Mr. Tuttle never raised his voice to me; he never lashed out. He was not hesitant to point out flaws in technique and execution, but he did so persistently, evenly, and with none of outrage that I feel on his behalf, hindsight being what it is. Under his tutelage, I grew. I learned the snap kicks, and the thrusts. I learned three kata, the Japanese nomenclature for a handful of stances, and I learned that the ki-ai (spirit shout) could startle a striking opponent into granting an opening. I raptly attended whatever instruction he proffered. He made us laugh, betimes, and at others he made us cry, as we all must when in an honest dojo.

One of the more unusual tools he put into my hands was an elementary understanding of the animal styles typically associated with Kung Fu. As Shuri-Ryu is a direct descendant of Okinawan Karate, much of the “Chinese hand” is still visible in the system. Even as at the lowest kyu, I was introduced to the machinations of the simplest animal styles. Most significantly, we were taught not that the person molded himself into the shape of the animal, but that each fighter naturally employed patterns that were associated with a particular animal. I, he told me, would likely never be a crane; I was simply too stiff. (Laughably, I’ve also spent the better part of my life as a martial artist trying to cultivate the crane’s air of calm, relaxed poise as a direct result of that assessment.) I was growing into a tiger, he told me, as I was a fighter who relied heavily on the strength of my bones. He, himself, was a snake; he was the sort of fighter who entered quickly, threw a volley of quick techniques, and then exited.

Mr. Tuttle was a good sensei in that he made it clear that the do, the way, of Karate was a lifelong pursuit.

The knowledge of Shuri-Ryu Karate was a thing that I kept close to me in the years after my family moved back to the United States. Mr. Tuttle hadn’t charged for his instruction, you see. Once back in the US, however, the dojos charged fees that my family could not afford. My father had insisted on a fifteen-year mortgage upon the purchase of our house, rather than the more popular thirty-year job, and while it meant that he would own his house—free and clear—in half the time, it also meant that money was a little tight. Further instruction in Karate was off the table.

Still, those first lessons lingered. I found myself returning, again and again, to the remembered words of my former sensei, as the years went by and life without a sensei became something far more permanent than I had originally thought, convinced that I would unearth some new insight. I wouldn’t find out, until quite a few years later, that within those few months—it couldn’t have been more than nine—I had been infused with enough technique to occupy me for an interval of eighteen years.

In many ways, the martial artist I am now is a product of what I was taught by Mr. Tuttle. My understanding has been refined, enhanced, tempered by experience and by new instruction, but never countermanded. I did not know what I had when he gave me that kernel— none of us ever do—but once it had sprouted and sunk its root, I began to discover what a world of understanding it contained. We are all indebted to whatever person it was that set us upon the way, even if the first sensei was a poor one, and Mr. Tuttle was one of the finest I have met.

It was a good beginning.


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