Physical Training June 2008
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Authenticity in Koryu

copyright © 2008 Jeff Broderick, all rights reserved

The whole issue of authenticity is one of those things I struggle with a lot, when I'm thinking about koryu.

Here's how a lot of people seem to think about koryu:

The best koryu have been passed down from generation to generation from the time of the samurai. The best warriors distilled their knowledge of practical fighting techniques and the skills necessary to survive a life-and-death struggle, and taught them faithfully to their students, who, through long and hard study, and deep insight into the techniques, mastered the techniques themselves and, in turn, passed them on unchanged to their students. And so on through the ages.

If that view is correct, then koryu represent not only a priceless cultural/anthropological heritage, but also an invaluable insight into effective combat techniques. Unlike modern "budo", these koryu "bujutsu", having been handed down from the time when life-and-death battles were a reality, must reflect true, killing techniques.

The model for transmission, according to koryu purists, would seem to be some kind of "photocopy" model. To use a visual analogy, the founding master creates a "map" of the techniques. Through diligent study, his chosen successor copies the master, creating an identical map, much like a photocopy of the original.

People who think this way believe, not only in the possibility of "true and correct transmission" but also in its likelihood. Consider this: Many currently-practiced koryu are on somewhere between their tenth and twentieth generation, and the current state of the art must reflect "the weakest link", so to speak, in that chain of ten or twenty masters. In other words, if there was even one "bad teacher" in that chain of teachers - someone whose understanding was less than complete, or whose physical mastery was less than perfect - then the subsequent generation would continue to propagate that error, or that weak point.

Koryu purists would argue that only the best students would be chosen to continue the school - those pupils who, through long and hard apprenticeship, would have the very best mix of understanding and physical mastery.

But isn't the reality far more complicated, and less ideal than all that?

First of all, the very idea behind the "photocopier" model seems faulty. Human beings are not photocopiers. We draw by hand. The master creates a "map" of the techniques, and we re-copy his map in our own shaky hand. We introduce errors, distortions, and omissions. As time passes, we re-draw our map many times, and perhaps it gets closer and closer to the master version. Perhaps it eventually gets remarkably close. But then the master dies, and we are forced to go on by ourselves and re-draw our map from memory. It is hard to defend the idea that what we are doing is identical to what our master did.

Furthermore, the above ignores another fact of human nature: pride. Once the master has died, and we are made master, despite our best intentions to preserve the techniques as we were taught, it is almost inevitable that we are going to emphasize personal preference, or otherwise introduce (even very subtle) differences that are going to be amplified over time.

The above also ignores the nature of organizations and human endeavors. Politics enters any organization consisting of three or more people. It is not necessarily true that only the best students are chosen to represent the school. Many times, it is the most charismatic student; or the most polite student. Or the student most skilled at organizing others. Or the best teacher. Or the student who didn't offend the master a few months prior to the master's death.

(More about this topic here in Kim Taylor's Blog.)

More complications: martial arts have a tendency to wax and wane in popularity. In fact, most martial arts went through periods of near-extinction, when they had very few students. When there were only 6 students to choose from, what does it mean to say that the one who was chosen to carry on the tradition was "the best"? The best of a very, very small field, indeed.

Other martial arts survived because they were hereditary. The art was passed from father to son. Do koryu purists really believe that, in every case, the son was the absolute best person to represent the art as taught by his father before him, in terms of understanding and physical mastery?

I think it's pretty clear that "true and correct transmission" is basically a myth. If you still don't believe me, take a look at old films of any martial art you can find. It's almost certain that there are significant differences between the way they are done now, and the way they used to be done. Many times, these films (perhaps of 400-year-old arts) are only 50 years old. We, at least, have the benefit of viewing these films, where previous generations had only drawings or written descriptions. Surely even greater changes were introduced within the first 350 years.

So, if it's safe to say that what we're doing bears only a vague resemblance to what the founders set down, what is the meaning of "authenticity"?

In koryu, it seems that it is not enough that teachers are "skilled"; people also demand that they are "authentic" and "legitimate", as if these terms have any meaning. In fact, I question the meaning of the word "skilled" too, since increasingly, nobody really knows what skills are required to defeat someone in a sword fight. (If you really want to find out, perhaps you can find employment as a mercenary in a civil war in Africa somewhere, and get some experience carving people up with a machete. Just please, please, never come back to where I live.)

Legitimacy, in turn, is decided by a committee of people who have no direct connection with the art itself. An organization is set up (usually by people with a vested interest in representing themselves within said organization) and then it is a race to get recognized as "the legitimate head" of your school before the other guy down the road gets it. If you've got more papers and knick-knacks than the other guy, (not to mention more students) you'll probably win. But if it happens that you don't get recognized, all is not lost: you can always get together with a few other people and form a rival organization of your own. Nobody needs to be left out completely: it is just a question of how large and influential YOUR organization happens to be.

So, do I seem pretty cynical to you?

All of this is in response to some bickering which took place in a couple of online martial arts forums. The problem is that I know both parties involved, and as far as I know, despite all the accusations of lying and "spreading falsehoods", I think both parties really believe in their own version of the truth. The problem is simply that their versions are mutually incompatible. It's like Rashomon.

I don't know what the truth is. I don't know when X sensei started training with Y sensei or what Z sensei said about whom. I do know that all sensei in question were or are fine, reputable, generous, dedicated, and honourable people who would be ashamed and embarrassed that their students were carrying on like they are, EVEN if this carrying on was being done with the best of intentions and in the name of defending their honour.

I wish people would keep a few things in mind:

It's not your responsibility to defend your teacher's honour. Your teacher probably doesn't care what some yahoo says about him. Turning around and saying something bad about his teacher only makes an ugly situation uglier.

When somebody says "My teacher is more skilled/authentic/legitimate/enlightened than yours!" the correct response is "So what? How skilled or enlightened are you? And how does authenticity or legitimacy (assuming these words have any meaning whatsoever) affect my teacher's ability to teach me right from wrong?"

Finally, martial arts are about self-improvement. Self-improvement is found in the dojo, and then in your real-life interactions with other people. I find it very difficult to imagine self-improvement coming after a long night of posting on forums, or in blogging.

Which reminds me, I've really got to get my fat ass into the dojo.

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Physical Training June 2008