I once presented myself at a kwoon, a kung fu training hall. The instructor and I made polite introductions, traded respects. At the proper interval, I voiced my interest in learning Yang Taijiquan. Might I inquire as to the lineage of his style?
His smile faded. No. No, very impolite.
Confused, I tried again. I must have misspoken, very sorry. I was simply wondering, who was his teacher?
“No! No! Get out!”
I think it very nearly came to blows.
This is the question of an art’s integrity, the effectiveness of techniques in which students invest. If a teacher struggles for an account of his line, or is reluctant to share it, it might be wise to walk.
During my 30 years as a martial artist, I have never wanted a medal. I have never scored a point. It’s been my lifelong purpose to find the most authentic transmission of technique from times when they were actually applied.
A decade ago, I was overjoyed to discover a study group of Daito Ryu Aiki Ju Jutsu. This was my Holy Grail; I could not have hoped for more. Daito Ryu is a koryu, a classical Japanese school, with a direct and documented transmission of about a thousand years. It was secret, taught only to high-ranking samurai. About a century ago Takeda Sokaku, its soke (headmaster), opened the school to the public. The curriculum includes bare-handed techniques and traditional weaponry.
One day I asked, why are most of these techniques instigated with a downward chop? I was told it represented the sword. Why are my opponents so often attacking with blades? “Well, if they haven’t got a sword, they’re probably dead.”
For a while to come, I really turned this over. I had no question as to authenticity — Okabayashi Sensei had learned from Takeda’s son and student. He would visit us from Japan to supervise, and share generously with our group leaders. These were scary, bone-breaking techniques. Neck-breaking. I was happy. But I had this dawning realization that not everyone has a sword anymore; there's little potential for getting assailed by enemies as I kneel on someone's floor.
Martial arts — like religions, politics, economics, family values or any other social construct — are the flowers of time and place. They may have embodied some pinnacle of civilization, and we may take these things to heart… but we shouldn’t be blind to the distinctions of present and past.
50th annual Daito Ryu Aiki Jujutsu demonstration held at the Nihon Budokan October 4th 1992. Okabayashi Sensei can be seen demonstrating for the Takumakai school, about 38 minutes in.