He trained with them, ate with them, and became their friend.
Often, he would watch kung-fu movies with the monks.
In their culture, the hero of the movie was usually the man who would continue fighting even when hope was lost.
You are fighting for a good cause, but you know you are doomed to defeat. You fight anyway.
I was 15 years old when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. Growing up in the racist South, I reflected my white culture and I thought he was a troublemaker. I'm sure I dropped the "N" word many times if his name came up.
MLK was not a troublemaker. He was a hero in the truest sense of the word.
By 1968, he had been beaten, arrested, jailed, and threatened with his life because he had the audacity to protest when black men and women were turned away by restaurants, stores, the voting booth, and generally treated as animals.
When I was a child, black people did not come to "our" public swimming pools. I never saw blacks in "our" restaurants. And they sat in the balcony at the movie theater, not on the main floor with "us."
I remember seeing "Colored Only" water fountains in Georgia.
We treated black Americans as inferior.
They allowed the hateful energy of the whites to be seen in all its ugliness. Instead of fighting it, King and other black protesters did not contend. They absorbed the hateful energy by taking the punches, the kicks, the firebombs, the attack dogs, the hoses, the insults and the injuries -- and they showed white America what was lurking inside its heart.
They turned that hateful energy against their racist attackers.
Hearts and minds began to change across the country.
On the night before he was murdered, Martin Luther King Jr. told an audience that he had been to the mountaintop and saw the other side. "I might not make it there with you," he warned.
He knew what might be coming. And he fought anyway.
The following day, when he walked out of his room at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, the shot rang out and he was dead.
It took a few more years and some college experience before my heart began to change, but it did. I began to realize that a LOT of what we are told as children is simply not true, but we are not old enough to reason, so we model the behavior of our parents, grandparents and friends.
As I stood near the spot where he was gunned down, and stared through the glass at his room, which has been maintained exactly as it was the moment he was killed, I was struck by the heroism of the man.
We can practice martial arts all of our lives; we can compete in full-contact matches and we can consider ourselves pretty heroic.
Very few of us will even come close to the level of heroism displayed by Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who did not practice martial arts.
I occasionally see social media comments by martial artists, including some teachers, that are racist, or xenophobic, or intolerant in a variety of ways with a variety of targets, and I realize that an important part of the arts has escaped them; the connection with others, the philosophical thread that binds us to our fellow human beings.
One instructor I met preached Taoist philosophy and being connected to others, then he would fire up a cigarette and use the term "chinks" instead of "Chinese" when he talked about Chinese people. I still occasionally see intolerant social media messages that he posts, and I realize that you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him think, you can't make him connect with others, and you certainly can't make him a hero.
These misguided martial artists do not realize that the concept of defending the weak against attackers means a lot more than stopping a husband from beating his wife, or stopping a bully from attacking a weaker kid.
A martial arts hero defends the unarmed black man who is being shot by a bad cop; the woman who is subject to harassment at work; the gay young man or transgender woman who is taunted and insulted because they are different.
A martial arts hero connects with others, and defends the weak even when hope is gone.
Hardly any of us reach the level of heroism that was displayed by Martin Luther King, Jr. When hope was gone, he fought on. Fifty years later, he is remembered, but his work is not done.
There is a lot of hatred still out there. There are people who could use your help.
Are you really a hero?