I was honored to be asked by Chikako Bryner to speak at her husband Robert’s memorial. Robert was a dear friend and my most valued mentor in martial arts. His passing was a great loss to his family and to his students. Bryner Sensei was a 7th dan in Okinawan karate and a 6th dan in aikido. His martial art career spanned 55 years. We had just attended Sensei’s 70th birthday only a few weeks prior. Bryner Sensei was a small man with limitless knowledge, impeccable technique and an enormous heart. He was extraordinarily generous with me over the years and I owe the essence of my present understanding of martial arts to Bryner Sensei.
Below are my words at Sensei’s memorial.
It’s not often that a long term friendship starts with someone hitting you in the face, but as many of you know, things in the martial art world are a little different.
It was about 25 years ago I was attending the wedding of a mutual friend and fellow aikido instructor at the time, Tony Kaneshiro, where I was first introduced to Robert. Robert pulled me aside and we spent the whole time training on a stretch of lawn alongside the church. What struck me at first was what a small and slightly built man he was. But in a few moments that didn’t matter because he completely dismantled every move I did and in return have me a healthy dose of firm and memorable strikes to my face and body. The strange thing is that he did it so dispassionately, without a hint of malice, that I don’t recall taking the slightest offense. It was such an extraordinary education and a moment of awakening for me.
To know Robert Bryner this is the language you had to speak. It would be really hard to understand who Robert was simply by having a conversation with him. To get the real sense of his being you had to train with him. And I think it’s why when we met, our conversation took the form of this other language, a language which was a natural and more pure expression of who Robert Bryner really was. I think it was his way of saying to me, I want to know you and I want you to know me too and this just can’t happen with words.
Since that time I’ve had the opportunity to spend many hours with Robert, training one-on-one, talking and sharing thoughts about life, family – we both have two young daughters of similar age – and of course, martial arts. It was a relationship based on mutual respect. As I got to know Bob more I found a man of tremendous propriety. Personal character and moral fiber were the marrow of his personal values. He prized diligence and dedication and proper behavior and often had little patience for people who did not. His life was a search for the truth, and if any truth was to be found it had to be manifested in the tangible form of his own experience. For him, his practice had to remain true, not merely out of practical considerations, but because if a seed of delusion existed at any point it would invalidate the legitimacy of the entire pursuit.
When you meet a person whose life is so completely driven by a singular obsession it can be a little disconcerting. You find yourself in a world where the rules of ordinary life don’t always apply. Such a person seems to be carried along by an other worldly force. It is a life driven by a muse.
Robert’s goal was never money or fame. His purpose in life was far more subtle and enigmatic than most people could ever understand.
Robert was at times brutally honest, but he could also be as verbally oblique as he was in his own art. Unless you got this, Bob would most likely leave you scratching your head.
When I came to his 70th birthday party I leaned down to where he was sitting to wish him a happy birthday, he looked up at me and said, “Who are you?” His mental and physical condition were clearly in decline, I knew he’d been going through a lot, and after a brief moment I decided to take the question seriously. I said my name to him and then a smile crept over his face. He got me. At this point he could not physically hold a cup of water to his mouth, and yet he had managed to unbalance my mind. He could execute kuzushi even when he could not move his body an inch. It was a final lesson from a true master.
There are few men in the world who can compare with Robert Bryner. And there are few women in the world who could understand and love him as truly and deeply as Chikako. Robert was blessed to have a wife who combines strength of character and mind without ever compromising the grace and beauty of her own femininity.
Chikako while your own family endures this very difficult time remember that you have an even larger family that loves you and adores you. We can be confident that the same strength and grace which has gotten you through these difficult times will serve you just as well from this day forward.
Syndey and Samantha, remember for all your life how proud we are to have known your father and to call him our teacher and our friend. Your father is never far away. When you see those of us who were your father’s students and friends you will see in each of us a part of him.