“An old man stooped by age and hard work was gathering sticks in the forest. As he hobbled painfully along, he began to feel sorry for himself. With a hopeless gesture he throw his bundle of sticks upon the ground and groaned, “Life is too hard, I cannot bear it any longer, If only death would come and take me.” Even as those words were out of his mouth, death in the form of a skeleton in a black robe stood before him. “I heard you call me sir.” he said, “what can I do for you?” “please sir” replied the old man, ‘could you please help me put this bundle of sticks back on my shoulder again'”
“It is better to avoid than to block,
It is better to block than to strike,
It is better to strike than to hurt,
It is better to hurt than to maim,
It is better to maim than to kill,
It is better to kill than to be killed,
All life is precious and none can be replaced”
Uncle Larry was a black belt in Karate. Not just any black belt, an 8th dan which made him one of the highest ranked grandmasters in the country. I was told once that if he ever got into a fight with someone he would be liable, even if the other person started it. The police would consider his hands a weapon. But even with that, he was one of the most kind and gentle people.
I always thought that was the coolest thing because he never looked it. He dressed really nerdy, wearing striped shirts, colourful socks and old looking grandpa pants with a thick pair of glasses that made his eyes seem really huge. But underneath he had a six pack and was a badass.
He worked with my dad for as long I’ve known, at a small architecture firm. My dad would come home and talk about Larry being the best draftsmen there and one of his closest friends. Someone who was reliable and always got the job done regardless of how much there was. If there was a huge project, he’d just get it done. Always.
Part time he also ran a small dojo to teach karate. It was a specific type, we all knew it as Shizenkan or Shotokan karate from Okinawa. It was a peaceful, non violent karate. Lessons would involve almost as much training in fighting as meditating. Learning to punch while also learning to breathe and think.
On our uniforms was an insignia which loosely translated means the empty hand way. The dojo taught karate as an artform and a means of living. By perfecting the motions, you were in a sense perfecting your character. I always liked it because it also teaches to avoid conflict and confrontation as much as possible and to only use violence as a last resort.
It tried to give you the tools to defend yourself but told you to avoid using them unnecessarily. Many of the black belts I’d asked said they’d been in plenty of altercations but never once had thrown a punch. They’d settled it with words. I thought that was so beautiful.
I always liked the ideas behind it, but I hated going to karate training. My parents would force me. I’d try to makeup elaborate excuses not to go. Pulled muscles. Fake illnesses. A wide array of things made up just to try and miss it. Mostly because I was lazy. It rarely worked.
I remember once he was explaining how you can tell the greatest karate masters by their relationship with the most junior of students. That is one of the most powerful relationships because it is how the next generation of disciples is created. He told of other grandmasters, that they would spend most of their time teaching the youngest students.
Sometime in the few years I was training, there was a 2 week karate camp. It was an intensive trip where we would all camp out in the woods and practice karate all the time. We also spent a lot of time meditating and trying to achieve inner peace. We were sleeping in bags in a shed in the middle of nowhere, waking up at 6am each morning and training till 9pm at night. 15 hours a day.
I gave up after a week. I called my dad to come pick me up.
I spoke to Uncle Larry before leaving and he talked about how it’s not worth doing something you don’t enjoy. That life is filled with things that are unpleasant. Discipline isn’t doing something you don’t like. It’s persisting in something you do. I quit karate a few weeks later. Because life is short. I didn’t see him very often over the next few years.
On a trip home back to Timor he contracted a lung disease from local bacteria. The disease was eating out his lungs from the inside until one day they’d just collapse. After coming home, it became terminal. He only had 15 months left to live. When I found out, I just couldn’t stop crying.
Life takes even the best of us. My sister and I always looked up to him. Second to my grandfather, he was probably the most dedicated and disciplined man I knew. Inside the dojo we knew him as Sensei. The most hardcore person you’ll ever see. Outside he was just Uncle Larry. The nicest person you’ll ever meet.