Access, creativity and budo – Nov 28, 2014, Kim Taylor, Renshi, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan

Often with the martial arts it seems to be about access, who gets to learn with whom. There is always a discussion about which teacher is legitimate, who has the proper papers and who got them in a box of bowling trophies after the last headmaster died.

We like being members of an exclusive club and most of those who talk about “who’s legitimate” are convinced that their lineage is impeccable, they’re “in” and the rest are, if not out, at least no further in.

But access has never guaranteed great training or great learning, it’s just the key to the front door and no matter how chic the furnishings in the club itself, your average kid off the street wearing saggy jeans and a baseball hat on backward is not going to look any sharper for it.

The flip side of this record is the need to perform the art “exactly as it is passed down”. If you’re “in” the exclusive club you can still climb the heirarchy if your particular table is closer to the front than anyone else’s. You get to be the one who is most faithfully passing along those kata as taught by the guy who got the papers in the shoe box full of trophies. Or something like that.

In this scheme there is no room for creativity, especially in arts that have no competitive component. Let’s face it, you can be creative in kendo, you can fight right up to the rules and invent better ways to convince the judges you’ve split your opponent’s skull by using a brand new combination of fakes and blocks, but you can’t test your new iaido idea with a shinken in your hand. As one of my teachers says, you can only invent a new kata on the battlefield.

So we koryu folks are looking for an exclusive club where we can stifle our creativity, learn only how to imitate correctly, and brag about how unoriginal we are.

Sounds like fun.

Why then, good muscle memorist and good note-taker that I am, do I not look like my sensei? In fact, I was just chatting with him about what a pain in the wazoo all the administrivia we have to deal with is, when he came out with “who the hell taught you to do Yae Gaki like you do?”. Hunh? After trying “you did”, the best I could come up with on the spur of the moment was “I read books??” As far as I know I do things the way I was taught. Of course I’m twice the size of my teacher and maybe my injuries (mostly knees) aren’t the same as his (achilles tendon) so perhaps our bodies move differently. I also don’t sit in front of him every class any more, so maybe he’s changed the way he does things. I know he has. And just maybe (I’m not admitting anything here) I may have changed too over the last 20 years of practice.

No, with a big sigh I will have to admit that he was probably seeing something I read in a book. Since there aren’t many books out there he’s probably read the same one but I suspect something caught my eye that didn’t catch his. So now I’m a bit embarassed that I was teaching something in his presence that he doesn’t teach. I’ve got no business doing that, when he’s in the room he’s the sensei, even if he’s told me to go teach. It is not my place to teach what he doesn’t. Creativity is for my own dojo, not his.

Not that I should demonstrate a lack of learning, or a lack of originality, after all it’s a poor student who doesn’t learn and pick up new ways to do the same old kata, but damnit, don’t try to teach your grandma how to suck eggs. Don’t teach that variation on a theme in front of your instructor to his students. It’s just rude.

Is he going to boot me out for doing something else? Not this time, but if I get too far from what he taught me he just might tell me I’m not his student. No, wait, he told me that the first day I met him and has told me that ever since so never mind. What is really likely to happen is that I’ll get honest with myself and admit that I’m no longer his student. That’s if what I do is not what he taught, but I’m not there yet.

I buy into two things, you pass the kata down intact, as faithfully as you can, otherwise the art drifts too far and too fast. But you also learn, you create, you figure out how to make new kata faithfully from the waza of the school. That fellow who said you can’t make a new kata unless you’re on the battlefield? He teaches me a koryu that requires public demonstrations of different kata from what you’ve learned as “the school”. That’s right, nothing you ever see outside of class in that art will be what you are taught in class.

No new kata? It’s all new kata.

Access or create your way out of that one!

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