(#10 in a continuing series – 84 days in the teaching life of a sensei)

It is 11:25 a.m. on a sunny, Tuesday, January 12th 1999. Dharman, the name I have affectionately given the young university student who wishes to become a career martial artist, is a dark-haired, handsome, twenty-four year old. He pledged his loyalty to me as his martial mentor and is meeting me for lunch at the Morristown Health Food Shoppe. He decided two years earlier to make martial arts his career. No small decision.

In European fashion, I eat my main meal somewhere between 12 noon and 1:30 everyday during the week. I eat at this time of the day when the stomach’s gastric fluids are at their most concentrated strength. I also eat consistently. The body loves consistency. It purrs with consistency. A martial student thrives on consistency as well.

In the rear of the organic health foods market is a new age deli counter. An upbeat, thirty-year old hockey fan, Tommie, manages it. The deli offers me a dozen choices of hot, fresh prepared foods. I order my usual, ‘Blue Plate Special,’ three vegetarian selections. I’m not a vegan. But I consume little meat outside of some fish and chicken. Occasionaly, when I feel like protein, Tommie slips me a half chicken at no extra charge. The meal costs $6.49. It’s affordable, fresh, organic, tasty, and nourishing. It is served in a positive way, by loving people, in a clean, well-lit, environment. It possesses all the qualities of a good martial arts class or, better yet, a great martial arts lesson.

Dharman lives just around the corner from the Health Food Shoppe at the recently built Chancery Square Apartment complex in Morristown, NJ. Morristown is a small suburban city of 60,000 inhabitants. Dharman rooms with a former University friend, John. We either meet there or drive together from my house fifteen minutes away. I live in Convent Station, a small suburb resting on the southern edge of Morristown proper.

Dharman and I have been eating lunch together every weekday for nearly two years. Since we made our first serious contact regarding the marital arts over lunch, this venue remains our nexus, our nucleus, for discussion and debate. We nourish our minds with lively discussion as we nourish our bodies.

I spent thousands of dollars for naturopathic, nutritional health counseling beginning in 1989 with a fabulous and insightful healer, named Pat. Pat enabled me to make important, vital changes in my dietary habits. I am not one to squander good knowledge or a good lesson if it makes a difference. Some of my best lessons outside of martial arts rival and compliment my best lessons within the martial circle. I don’t live for the martial arts. I live with and because of my art. 

Ten years of Pat’s naturopathic TLC streamlined my internal process. I dumped ten pounds of toxic waste the first year. Today, I stand bone dry at six foot three and 75 cents. I weigh 152 pounds. Junk food has about as much charge to me as a lump of cold tofu has to a hungry tail gating football fan during the playoffs. I shed an old way that no longer served me for a higher, more conscientious path. Like ascending the belt ranking scale in karate, when we learn a better, more efficient way to move through life, we often don’t slide backward.

I sip a fresh, sixteen-ounce, organic green juice during the car ride back to my house. Convent Station is a good retreat for a martial recluse like myself. I avoid martial politics.

Dharman and I open our white paper box dinners on the wood rimmed, white-tiled kitchen table. I eat orange, monk robe-colored kombucha squash, a generous ladleful of short grain brown rice, cooked in coconut milk, and a helping of steamed green kale, spiced with sesame oil and gomasio. I look forward to my afternoon meal. I make it a point to have a simple pleasure to look forward to everyday.

At the table Dharman and I recollect our first lunch meeting.

Dharman pieced it together. “I think we met in 1997. I remember I compared you to the people that my father knew. His acquaintances were confident men from decades of monetary and materialistic gains. But there was something different about you.  You seemed far more comfortable with yourself and what you were doing then anybody I had met of your age at that time. In contrast, they seemed to be confident that they were making and continuing to make money. But they always seemed uptight and business-like to me. I got the impression that they couldn’t separate their personal engagements from their business personas. As I talked to you, I remember feeling ‘ this guy’s pretty on top of things.’ There was something I saw in you that I hadn’t seen elsewhere in your age group.

   “Did you attribute that to my martial arts training?” I queried.

   “I dont know. I didn’t know you well enough to make that distinction. I was engaged by your genuine quality. I told you in the Chatham Club locker room, at orange belt, towards the end of my senior year at Drew, that I was going to spend the next three years with you. You laughed, as you so often do when I make declarations like that. Maybe, I was a blue belt. I think that was the same time when we had our first discussion outside, on your deck, during lunch because I wanted to talk further to you about it. 

   “How was lunch that day?”

   “Oh! Lunch was excellent, really good.”

   “You had a whole new plate in front of you, didn’t you?” I said. “If I recall, you told me you wanted to become a professional martial artists which got me laughing again.”

   “No, no, no, I told you that I wanted to study with you for the next three years, and you just laughed, because you said so many people have told you they wanted to do this and that but, “things happen,” you said, “ You’ll get a job, you’ll move, you’ll fall in love, you’ll get married. That summer I told you I wanted to do karate the rest of my life. ‘96-97 is when it all happened. I graduated in ‘96. I felt I had to connect with you after college. I needed to come and see you. I felt a bond with you.”

    “You were helping your friend Tom then, weren’t you?”

Tom Smith was a fellow Drew student who had gone on, after graduating college, to open a dojo in Connecticut. He and Darren had befriended one another during freshman year.

Tom was taking karate in my University class when Dharman met him but he wouldn’t initially tell Dharman who he was studying with on campus. Some people like to keep their martial training private. Eventually, Dharman found out and sought me out.  That was three years earlier.

       “I remember one of my friends asked me if I was being well paid for my services as an assistant karate teacher. I told him that I get paid well enough.”

Dharman is intuitively sly. He gave a spiritual response to a material question. The materialist thought he was getting the answer about the dollar value of Dharman’s services. Point of fact, Dharman was making very little money. Perhaps, to avoid embarrassment or justification, he was wise to answer the question the way he did. Avoiding a specific dollar figure instead he said, “payment for effort comes in many varieties or forms. It can not always be reduced to cash.”

Dharman’s response underlies the dual nature of our conversations with one another. Some people talk from two worlds, not one.

Dharman explained that the knowledge he was gaining about himself in conversations with his sensei was more payment than any dollar amount could compensate him. Try to relate that value to a banker.

After eating we steeped some green tea and took our cups downstairs into the dojo. I have a private dojo in my split Colonial. I assumed my ‘sensei speaks’ seat in the corner of the room on my arched-back wooden stool. After a half hour of casual repartee we circled closer to our core martial speak.  “It’s important, as a sensei, to invite a student’s heart into conversation. The truth and value of a moment resonates so much louder.”

Dharman got up from the black swivel desk chair and moved closer. He slid one of the seiza benches near the red brick fireplace onto the carpet. He took his new station upon the gray carpet four feet from where I sat. Dharman flung his stoney reality my way. I grabbed his thoughts and skipped them back across his field of consciousness with my own life spin on them. Sometimes an idea would stir ripples in his mind. I could hear the kerplunk in the well water of his soul. Deep currents stirred in this young man. He would make a fitting deshi.