Thursday, June 12, 2008

An Explanation of Lineage

Welcome to the dojo. In this picture, the man on the right is my teacher's teacher's teacher's teacher.

What is lineage? What does it mean? Once, not too long ago, I spoke with a guy who claims a very lofty position with the martial arts, but couldn't provide a comprehensible lineage. In fact, he got all mad when I asked him about it.

Since then, I've talked to martial artists from many, many different traditions, and all have been able to provide their lineages easily.

Which led me to wonder: Did that first guy misunderstand my request? Did I misrepresent it? Personally I just think that guy was a fraud and an idiot. In a chain of emails, he called me "Mr. Linage" [sic], and threatened to come to my dojo and teach me a lesson.

Jeez. But hey, ya get that, from time to time. It's part of being a martial artist and trying to interact with other martial artists. There are a lot of flakes out there.

But in the interest of cooperation, let's look at what lineage means, okay? First of all, everybody has one. Think back to when someone - your kindergarten teacher, your mom, whoever - taught you how to write your name. Okay, now imagine that she, when she was very young, had someone to teach her how to write her name. Right? And so on, and so on. This is lineage. This is a long, unbroken tradition of people teaching others how to do something. Personal transmission of an art, from the master to the student.

Everything you've ever been taught had to first be taught to your teacher, and to his or her teacher before that, etc. If you study the Shinto Muso Ryu (a four-hundred-year-old school of stick fighting, specializing in methods by which to use a four-foot staff to neutralize sword attacks), you're obviously learning from a teacher, who in turn learned from his or her teacher, and so on, all the way back to Gennosuke, who developed the art from bojutsu techniques after losing a fight against Miyamoto Musashi (or so the story goes).

In the martial arts, who all of these people are can be a good indicator of a martial artist's background.

Let's take my tai chi background, for example. It consists of something like five classes. That means that in my whole life I've taken something like five classes in tai chi - so I really don't know anything about it. The teacher's name is Chuck, but that's all I know about him, other than that he's a really, really nice guy and that everyone likes him a lot. Always smiling, always friendly. But since I don't know much about him (since I don't know his lineage), does that mean that he doesn't know anything about tai chi? Of course not. I'm sure he's a great practitioner of the art, and some of the others in the class have been studying from him for years. But it does say something about how little I studied tai chi under Chuck, doesn't it? If I were a master in tai chi, I think I'd be able to tell you more about my teacher than I can now.

Because if I were a master, I would have been studying under one teacher for many, many years. I'd be able to tell you where he was born, his age, everything about him. I'd be able to tell you who his teacher was, where and when he lived, and on back at least a couple of generations.

This is just an examplen but it shows how my lack of knowledge about my own lineage in tai chi speaks volumes about how little I've trained in it. Right? You can see the correlation.

Lineage doesn't make someone a great martial artist, but it can be a useful indicator if you're looking at potential teachers.

And there's really no such thing as a "lack" of lineage. Either you have a perfectly legitimate background, or your martial arts are just made up junk. One or the other. Either someone taught it to you, or they didn't - you weren't just born with it.

Now, here's another pitfall. What do you do if you ask someone who their teacher was, and the name they give you is that of a known martial arts fraud? What would you say if your potential teacher said he'd studied for years under Ashida Kim, or Frank Dux? Would you want to learn from that person?

See? Lineage can be important. Not the be-all and end-all of the martial arts, but it can be something worth asking about. If you don't know who your teacher's teacher was, I recommend looking into it, until you have as much information as possible. Lineage isn't a pedigree, and a good lineage doesn't necessarily make a good martial artist. But serious students should at least know their own background. And I'd be weary of training under anyone who doesn't know or can't provide it.

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