The Good Old Days?

Training was better in the old days. It was more real. The old masters were better than anyone now. The arts have declined, lost something important. Students are lazy now, not like before. You hear these things constantly in the martial arts. Everything was better in the past. And you know what? It is nonsense. Was that a gasp? Am I saying that the old masters didn’t have something up on the McDojo down the street? Or that some of the developments in modern karate here and in Okinawa are not troubling to me? No. I am saying that there was no golden age, that the old masters had issues too, and the old days were just as screwed up as today. And, most importantly, that the imaginary past is not the place to go to learn.

Shaolin Temple

Your dojo?

It is an appealing idea, isn’t it? That there was a time when the old masters had true wisdom and the confused mess we find ourselves in now was simpler. You see it everywhere. Hesiod wrote about the golden age that the Greeks of his time (750-650 BC) had fallen from. Adam and Eve got themselves tossed out of the garden. We live in the Kali Yurga, the time of compassion and truthfulness behind us. Before our era there was an Atlantean (Hyborean?) age of advanced culture and science, since lost to the world. America used to work, back in the old days. But really? I guess if you take Greek mythology factually, or for that matter are a devout Christian or Hindu, these ideas will resonate as truth. But taking just the last one, if you compare crime rates, discrimination, poverty, life expectancy, and so on life is actually better for most people now, as messed up as the times we are dealing with are.

But this whitewashing of the past seems to be built right into us.  We may even be cognitively biased towards thinking the past was better. However, I think the real issue is that the past is simpler. It can’t talk back. You can ascribe anything you want to people and actions, especially if, like the martial arts, they are poorly documented. Motives, what training was actually like, personality, effectiveness, it can all be chosen. If you have an image of the “perfect art” or “perfect teacher”, then it is pretty easy to project that on the past; it can’t refute you. And the present can never live up to an idealized image like that.

In The Analects Confucius wrote (and what is a martial arts blog post without an ancient sage chiming in?) “I transmit, I do not create.  I trust and love the ancients.” You can see the draw. If the knowledge was once perfect then all we need to do is find a way to access that knowledge and we too can be…..  And the idea has other benefits too, more prosaic ones. Certainly it is hard to contradict your teacher if his or her authority comes from ancient wisdom. Are you going to say the old masters were wrong? But relying on authority instead of information is dangerous stuff. It can lead to things like new forms and ideas being ascribed to an “old teacher” or “mysterious old man” who passed them down as secret knowledge, people vainly searching for “roots” of arts that were developed recently but are said to come from ancient times, people believing their arts’ founder fought a tiger and won, and to people trying to “train like the old masters”.

This last can be particularly insidious; since that training was not well documented it can be constructed just about any way the current generation desires. But most importantly it can be constructed to eliminate the mistakes the old masters made, making corrections without even knowing it. And the old masters made a lot of mistakes. The Daoist alchemists included cinnabar in the elixir of immortality but it turns out mercury sulfide is rather toxic. The ballistic stretching done in some versions of junbi undo was how the old masters did it but it turns out it is not very efficient, or very good for your body.  A number of old training methods are pretty effective if your life expectancy is 40 but not that great if you are going to be dealing with the consequences when you are 70. It turns out not everything older, even in the arts, was better. But somehow it seems more acceptable to couch modifications to what has been passed down as “getting back to the roots” than to call them growing.

It is easy to see how the idea developed. First we all have our images, especially before we start, of what the martial arts can do, can be. They are mostly built of fantasy and media, be it from old legends or modern movies, and they can create some cognitive dissonance when facing the reality of humans training:  If this is all there is then something must have been lost! A veneration of the past is also a cultural feature of many East Asian cultures, particularly those strongly influenced by Confucianism, and as I noted above there are some powerful incentives for teachers to emphasize the “ancient” nature of what they are teaching. But I think the most important part is personal. Most of us form our opinions of our teachers early in our training. Especially when we first start our teachers seem nearly superhuman, able to do things we simply cannot. And as we grow they do as well, so that a good teacher, one who is still learning, seems better no matter how hard we try. And then, probably through the same process, they tell us about their teachers. This person, able to do things that seem impossible, is telling me his teacher was immensely more skilled. And his teacher said his teacher was even better! That guy must have been superhuman! Nothing like the teachers of today! Ah, if only I could have trained with, could be like, the old masters!

The corollary here though is, if we want to be honest, “not like the crappy teachers of today”. Because if you are looking at your teacher and in your heart believing he or she is a pale shadow of the teachers of the past, on a fundamental level you don’t respect that person. Why not? Do they know the art? Do they have good skills? Do they show something to aspire to? Can they teach? Are they a decent person? Is their, for want of a better term, shit together? If you can answer yes to these things, just exactly what is it the ancients had up on your teacher? If you are looking for super-human powers, perhaps adjusting your expectations to a more realistic level might be appropriate before looking to an imaginary past. If your teacher lacks skills, teaching ability, morals, then perhaps looking for another teacher might be the answer.

Because there are great teachers teaching today. And these teachers are the only bridge we have to the past. With the advent of video, since the 70s really, we now have some records of some of the last generation or two, though these records are snapshots, incomplete and often inaccurate. But for anything before that we only have stories. And their students. Ishiki Hidetada said something to me last January that resonated. We were talking about people visiting the Kodokan and treating it like a shrine. “What do they want?” he asked me. A link to the past, I said, to touch something famous. “Why? They can’t learn from a building. And they can’t learn from anyone who is dead. Don’t they want to learn?”

Isn’t learning what we want? To develop our art (to be like our image of the old masters)? To do so we need to train in the present. I don’t really like this idea of a golden age. It seems patently false to me. Maybe things were better in the past but I don’t see much evidence for it. Regardless of political rhetoric things have actually gotten measurably better for the vast majority of people over time.  We have improved. (Take a look at Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker for a closer look at some of the ways in which things actually are better, along with a discussion of why.)

And in the martial arts? Well, if they had not spread to the international masses, which so many seem to lament, we simply would not have been able to access them. (You might say, yes, but I would have gone to Asia and found a teacher. Really? In an art you had never heard of? One that has possibly died off due to local lack of interest?) And we know lots more about training than the old masters did. Not getting hit in the head repeatedly to avoid CTE and the other benefits of sports science, things we might take for granted like better methodologies around HIIT training, plyometrics, nutrition, recovery, etc.. We have a much better understanding of and pay more attention to unhealthy power dynamics and sexism in the dojo, have better pedagogical tools, and understand the difference between training and selecting students. In general we have more leisure time so people other than the wealthy can train and that is coupled with mobility that allows one to train with someone other than whomever is teaching in the village. These things are improvements, both for practitioners and for the arts.

Sure there are problems. Many teachers are simply not good martial artists, or good teachers. I bet though that was always true. Of course some teachers have sold out their arts, bastardizing them to make a buck, and others have simply made stuff up and are selling that, but a little attention and you can avoid those folks. And again, I bet this is not a new thing. Some effort and you can find a good teacher, because they are out there. And as for standards, who cares what other people are doing, how low their bar is or what direction they are taking the art? So what if there are a lot of them and some have social or government support? Are they forcing you to do the same thing? Set your own standards and then meet them. It is up to you, now. It always has been.

What it comes down to for me is that if there is a real golden age, it is the future, not the past. Change is not automatically bad, it is just change. And it is inevitable. Believing that the only good times are in the past prevents you from growing. In the end, it kills the art, demanding stagnation. To learn, to experience the art, you have to look to today, to “where you are and what you are doing”. In my opinion if you are hoping to learn a martial art you need a guide. Someone to teach you the art and aid you in growing in it. To help you get to the point where you can take it forward to the future, when they are gone. Without that link to the art, you are either making it up or being what so many decry, an imitation, a fake. Because I am not saying the old teachers did not pass something real down. I believe they did. I see, I have experienced, the difference between arts with solid foundations and those with little behind them. But the only way to access this transmission is through the current generation of teachers. These are the people who deserve our respect and attention. They are the living art. Not the images we hold dear of the now passed masters. And certainly not an imaginary past.

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