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A Mind Like Water

An interview with Vernon Kitabu Turner
by Simeon Alev


Vernon Kitabu

"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.'"


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