Countless articles in martial publications have discussed it. Internet chat rooms, list servers and newsgroups devoted to the subject seem obsessed with it and I’ve seldom read a martial arts magazine that didn’t have at least one letter to the editor in which a practitioner claimed that “my sifu can beat your sifu” because my teacher got the “real” or “secret” transmission. Often when a great acknowledged master dies, his top students contend among themselves as to whose understanding of the art entitles them to be the standard bearer. Sometimes, even a lesser-known or unknown student will make such a claim to mastery. Personally, these conflicts have always saddened me as a martial artist and a human being. Many are simply motivated by greed, petty rivalry or shameless self-promotion. But, putting all that to one side for a moment, as we enter an age where many of the learned masters of the older generation are dying off, how does one decide who to study with? Whose “transmission” can be said to be “authentic”? I believe the answers to these questions lie not so much in the art, but in the artists, in their basic humanity. Let’s consider a few examples.
Often the question arises, “Why do the top students of the same teacher often perform the form differently?” Part of the answer to this question has to do with when the student began training with his sifu and how long his training lasted. For instance, Cheng Man-Ch’ing learned the Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan from his teacher Yang Cheng Fu. The students who studied with Professor in his early days received a transmission that looked much closer to the traditional Yang family Tai Chi than those who studied with him in his later years. These students received a “snapshot” of Professor’s skill as it was in those days.
This is true of most teachers. If a teacher is young and strong and vigorous and has no trouble performing deep stances and fast movements, his students will most likely be performing deep stances with fast movements in an effort to get their form to resemble their teacher’s (as all good students do). The same teacher at 75 may not need to take a deep stance to generate the same amount of power. Those students studying with him at that time will attempt to emulate a form that is compact, economic, efficient. Such a form is often the distillation of a lifetime spent training the muscles and the nervous system to perform a certain set of movements felicitously. Students who attempt to copy such a form will naturally look differently than their older kung fu brothers because the “snapshot” they are attempting to imitate is different. So, a reasonable assumption to make might be that students who study with a master at different times in the master’s own career will get different “versions” of the style. These variations inevitably reflect the master’s own preoccupations and his own stage of development at a given time and account, at least to some extent, for perceived differences among students.
Those who study with quite advanced teachers are often faced with a unique problem in acquiring their teacher’s transmission. Technically speaking, it is wise to keep in mind that there are both advantages and disadvantages to studying with a highly skilled master in their mature years. If the teacher is teaching the form as he feels it and his feeling is much more advanced than yours, then it will be exceedingly difficult for a student to approximate anything more than the gross movements. He may then have difficulty applying his knowledge against an opponent with the same movement his teacher uses so easily. If a teacher is good, then he will try to give a student what they need to achieve what he has. This frequently involves the repetition of basic exercises and performing the forms in a different way than one’s teacher does. (Clearly many great masters achieved their skill through methods drastically different than the ones they teach their students.) Teachers who teach from a more advanced bodily felt sense may feel that they are giving their students the benefit of their experience after practicing for 40 years, but without practicing ourselves for this long, how can we know anything more than the external shapes? Much of what is happening inside (at the level of the sinews, muscles and nervous system) of one’s teacher, which gives them their great ability, can only be felt and not seen or explained easily.
It should be also incumbent upon the teacher to assess the student’s abilities physically in respect to his own. For instance, if a teacher is extremely flexible, has hyper-mobile joints or quite a long reach and his student doesn’t, the teacher should take this into consideration when training the student. Although this seems like a “common sense” approach, it is surprising how often teachers assume their body type or prowess is universal and teach their students as if they were all physically equal. In other words, a good teacher must be circumspect enough to teach the techniques of the style that will be of most benefit to the student. This will naturally tend to make even the form of advanced students appear dissimilar.
In his essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent, T.S. Eliot speaks of how great writers internalize the works of other writers and then add their own particular talent or genius to the tradition in order to take the art of expression in new directions. Much the same is true in martial arts. It is certainly true that a highly skilled athlete with natural ability for a specific art can far outpace his classmates in a short time. There are other students who are less skilled, but understand the principles. Still others are only mediocre. All have been exposed to the “tradition” but it is a combination of intelligence, natural ability and correct training among certain students that allows for the art to be transmitted correctly.
As a professional educator, I understand that every student in my class receives the same lesson. Why is it that some achieve high grades while others do not? Much has to do with the effort the student is willing to put into the educational situation and their natural talent for the subject. I once took an extremely demanding graduate class with a world famous, highly respected professor. Out of a lecture class of 66, only six of us passed. I’m certain that everyone in the seminar learned bits and pieces of what the professor taught but, in the final analysis, he believed only a handful of us had grasped what it was he was trying to say. All of us, of course, could have claimed to have studied with him, but how many of us really came away with more than a superficial understanding of his ideas? It was easy to see in that situation it was the ones who persevered the most, who struggled the hardest and had an insight that the others lacked who were rewarded.
This analogy, while helpful in explaining the combination of effort and talent one must put in to master anything, is flawed somewhat in respect to martial arts. One may be physically talented and grasp the principles intuitively, yet be unable to articulate them. There are many excellent practitioners of tai chi, kung fu or karate who have only limited teaching ability. The ability to take instruction and the ability to give it are two distinct competencies. A good student can often overcome a poor teacher, but what if that teacher doesn’t even speak the same language? This is often the case when one seeks to learn an art from another culture. There are unspoken cultural assumptions and linguistic nuances that someone outside the culture can find perplexing. Consider the difficulty many English-speaking people have reading Shakespeare…and he wrote in English! His vocabulary, his imagery and the fact that he wrote in a different time for a different audience all act to distance us from him. Yet, those who put forth the effort to understand him are rewarded by a richness, a beauty and a depth of insight not found in any other writer. As far as literature is concerned, he was a master of kung fu. Now imagine he was teaching you how to write…and he was Chinese! This is often the case for those seeking instruction from highly proficient teachers from other lands.
Inevitably, one must grapple with the question of so-called “secret transmissions.” Do they exist? Yes, they do. Usually, they are insights about training methods or unusual but effective applications gleaned painstakingly over a master’s lifetime and passed down to only a few of his most trusted students. This is not an unusual practice for martial artists who, due to the nature of their lives, traditionally needed a few tricks up their sleeves (literally and figuratively) often just to stay alive. It also stands to reason that such practitioners would be reluctant to share these methods with all but a few chosen disciples or family members for obvious reasons. (A teacher may, for example, if he is upright, question the morality of a student and not wish share certain techniques for this reason or he may hold back instruction simply fearing that a talented student may eventually surpass him.)
No doubt there are advanced and esoteric techniques and methods. However, how does one begin to assess the value of such “secrets?” Invariably, in a contest between two practitioners even of the same style, the deciding factor in the outcome of the combat (whether friendly or to the death) often lies not in the acquisition of “secret techniques” but rather in the ability of the martial artist to apply even the simplest techniques flawlessly. The great karateka Mas Oyama practiced the basic technique of the reverse punch until he could kill an opponent with one blow. His secret? Striking objects methodically thousands of times until his technique was perfected. Mister Ku Yu Cheong, the iron palm master, was able to inflict internal injury upon an opponent without leaving external indications. He was also known for being able to shatter any brick in a stack placed before him while leaving the others intact. He too claimed systematic and diligent practice of the basic techniques taught to him openly in his early years. Personally, I wouldn’t want to cross hands with either of these two great masters. Did they need “secret transmissions” to defeat their opponents? Do you?
To sum up, all of these elements have to be taken into consideration when someone claims to have received the “true” transmission of an art: their innate ability, the length of time they spent with their master, when they studied with him, whether or not they spoke the same language, how diligent a student they were, how articulate a teacher he was, how open their master was to teaching the full art as he understood it, whether their understanding of the art was based upon the acquisition of physical skills, principles, philosophical teachings (or all of them) and, most importantly, what they’ve done with the art since they learned it. Because practitioners are stressing different aspects of the art they learned from their master doesn’t mean that their teaching is less authentic. They are merely adding their individual talent to the tradition. Consider, for example, the differences found in the philosophical lineage of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Jung, as well, learned from his master Freud, but went on to found his own school of psychoanalysis. It is clear that Jung absorbed Freud’s transmission, but are we not all enriched by his new insights into psychology? Wouldn’t our world be a poorer place without them?