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A Mind Like Water

An interview with Vernon Kitabu Turner
by Simeon Alev



"Yeah, I know Turner," 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 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-five 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 equally amazing and impressive as the haste with which Turner had dispatched his dangerous opponents was the technique he used to defeat them: using only 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, "he 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 Kitabu 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 Kitabu Turner was likely to be the closest thing to a real superhero that I would ever meet. . . .

Vernon Kitabu Turner was born in Portsmouth in 1948, and as he drove me to my hotel from Norfolk Airport, 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 the warrior.) 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 shikan-taza [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 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 recalled the superhero images that Turner's prose had inspired in my mind, and I couldn't help but wonder how closely the 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. 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 our dialogue together unfolded over the next few hours, I would encounter many dimensions of both mastery and enlightenment in a remarkable man who walks with equal ease through the worlds of both the martial artist and the Zen roshi.


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