Copycats vs creators – Sept 10, 2015, Kim Taylor, Renshi, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan

I am now bereft of children. My son has gone off to school and I miss him. It’s not that I saw him that much but there were signs that he was in the house, dirty dishes would appear (sometimes in alarmingly large amounts all at once if he cleared out his room) and maybe we would pass in the kitchen as we both made our suppers. Now there’s a hole in the house.

Not long ago we had a talk about school and I described my rote learning, the regurgitating of biochemical pathways or the laboratory test where I was able (at that moment) to identify the genus and species of a rodent from a single tooth. Impressive even to myself, but today I doubt I could tell a mole from a vole. This was in contrast to what he’ll be doing in his computer engineering degree which is learning how to create vs how to repeat.

Which brings me to budo of course. (Everything does). There are two ways you can approach an art like iaido or jodo. The rote learning way is to work on doing the best repeat of what sensei has done or said. The second is to actually understand what is behind what sensei is doing. Repetition vs creation.

In the repetition form of things we find the standard forms of practice used for testing and competitions. These are not even as creative as figure skating or gymnastics, we don’t make up new forms from the basic elements, we just practice the basic elements in the set forms. (OK at one time I suppose the figures part of figure skating would be pretty close but that stuff was dropped years ago because those mechanical Russians kept winning). Judging students on how they approach the ideal forms is easy and fairly accurate, it allows judges to see how well the students can control their swords and themselves, how much they practice, and a lot of other useful things beside. As well, these performances can be as impressive as identifying species and genus from a tooth found in the dirt.

Then there is the stuff we say we want to see from the higher grades, the demonstration of the riai of the sword. This is where we expect an understanding of the principles such that you could create a new kata from the basic elements at need and without thought. Ah got you on that last bit didn’t I? Up to then you figured you could make up a new form from the kihon. I have seen what happens when students try to make up a new kata, sometimes they succeed in keeping it within the school, sometimes they manage to… how shall I put this… pull things more from their fundaments than from the fundamentals.

But eventually anyone can make up variations on the kata that look right, even if they don’t know what they’re doing. How do we judge that? How do we know whether what we’re looking at is the result of creation or just good copycatting?

That’s where we have to take someone’s word for it, that word in the form of inka, a testimony to attainment. There are lots of things out there that have the appearance of a new thing but are really just mutton dressed as lamb. In our modern world this copycatting would have the lawyers down on your software engineer because today an inka comes in the form of a patent and the judges are… well judges.

Are patent examiners the best judges of cretativity? We hope so. Are judges and juries and lawyers the best panels to determine the difference between copycatting and creativity? Welllll… This is what I mean by taking someone’s word for it. It gets messy doesn’t it? The only one who truly knows whether it was created or copied is the performer, the maker. In budo we trust our students to be honest with themselves because the only benefit of cheating would be to boost their own egos (by winning a tournament or a higher grade) which is the exact opposite of what they ought to be working toward. In other words, we trust our students because if they cheat the only person they hurt is themselves so the situation is self-correcting.

Kim Taylor DSC00603 (2)
Sept 10, 2015

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