The Holy Writ – August 22, 2014, Kim Taylor, Renshi, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan

The idea of a set curriculum in a koryu often presumes that a “real” ryu hands down, or attempts to hand down techniques unchanged from the past. Is this true? We now have 4-5 generations of video hanging around for some lineages. Are the most “legitimate” of them the same as previous generations? Even with the ability of teachers to check back using film and video I suspect we’ll see considerable variation in almost all arts. I further suggest this is something that’s inevitable, so over several generations we get changes that some folks rail against in one generation.

What’s a “ryu”, What’s a “soke”? I think the terms are interpreted pretty narrowly by Westerners, but let’s assume we mean them to be a defined, confirmable line of instructors (ryu) and the designated current “owner” of said line (soke).

Given that a soke can do whatever he wants with an art since he “owns” it, that would include changing the art to something that’s unrecognizable. Now if he does, I suspect that he would lose a lot of students, particularly those who believe that a ryu should never change and that want to study the “arts as invented by those who died on battlefields testing the techniqes” and all that. You will get senior students who simply go off and teach the old stuff. You may get junior students who do the same, with all the intelligence that implies.

Why would a soke do such a thing? Hard to say but I can think of many reasons offhand, perhaps one or two of them good.

The senior students who go off will probably preserve the old methods, the juniors will probably come up with something as different as the current soke is doing since their techniques aren’t as “set in stone” as the seniors, but what about those who stay? What of a long time student of the art who looks different than the soke?

Well, I suggest that he will look different. Is that a problem? Perhaps for some, beginners like to see consistancy because they aren’t really able to see what works and what doesn’t. They see what’s right and what’s wrong by the shape of the kata, it takes decades to see the effect of a movement that is essentially a dance step. Is a senior student’s physical difference a problem to the new soke? Depends on the soke of course but loyalty to the art or to the man can be different, and one can be loyal to a soke without being concerned about mimicing the shape of his movements. This can be especially true for senior students who are older and more experienced than the soke. You didn’t know that soke can be other than the oldest, most experienced person? Sure they can, for all sorts of reasons. Maybe the art is intensely local and the senior local person isn’t the most senior overall. Maybe the new soke is the one who can keep the various senior students from flying away. Maybe he’s the one to bring in new blood. Maybe he’s a great administrator or a great researcher or maybe he’s the former soke’s kid.

Regardless, if he’s a good soke he’ll know that the spirit of the art lies in its students and not in the dance moves, as long as said dance moves are functional, that they are true to the original concept of the school, that they work. The other thing that is required is that the kata are preserved. I talk a lot about functional arts, and tend to downplay the shape of the kata but you will not find me actually making up new kata and presenting them as real (yes real) or wandering from what I consider the intent of the kata. I have made the best notes I can and will teach the kata as I was taught them, with the original explanations, whether or not I agree with or understand those explanations, because the kata are the holy writ, they are the syllabus of the school. If I teach a variation it’s labelled “variation” not “original”. Even if it’s original to me.

If the kata are handed down faithfully the school can survive several generations of mediocre teachers until a talent shows up and re-invigorates the art. You can find examples of this in almost any koryu, sometimes so shockingly that the revival may be called a recreation. The test is in the curriculum and in the existance of a teacher before. If the reviving sensei was taught accurately and sticks to the kata it’s the school. Taking the name and a list of the kata of a dead school from a scroll and inventing movements is less likely to be what the school was, due to the rather poor preservation of instructional materials in the Japanese arts. You won’t find manuals like the midieval sword books of Europe which are pretty much step by step but are still subject to large variation of interpretation.

The Japanese schools have their holy writ, they are the kata. The book may be copied well or poorly but when interpreted by a teacher with physical talent and an understanding of the underlying principles, the art comes truly alive.

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