Succession in The Martial Arts: the Master on the Mountain pt2

So the idea of succession, of passing on information and of maintaining a lineage through generations, has been on my mind a lot lately. While most people think they understand what this entails, I am not so sure. The model most of us use to think about the lineage of our teachers, especially the head teachers of any system, is pretty simple. The leadership of the system is passed on to the “senior student” of the former leader. This makes sense: the senior student is supposed to be the one who best represents the former leader’s art and so has the mantle of leadership bestowed upon him or her either by the former leader or by universal acclamation of the other members of the group.

The ideal is also that the leader shows a marked difference in skill compared to other members. Here in the west that is often easily accomplished. Especially in the early days of karate in the US the teachers had no peer group. They were the only people with knowledge in the dojo, so it was obvious who the leader was. In many ways I believe this, along with a desire for clear hierarchy, has deeply colored westerners’ view of the student-teacher relationship, and what it means to be the head of a system or dojo.

In a well-established dojo the concept of direct lineage is much more complex. As an example, let’s look at Goju Ryu, and the Shodokan (Goju Ryu Kokusai Karate Kobudo Renmei) branch in particular. The leadership of this lineage is:

Kanryo Higashionna – Miyagi Chojun- Higa Seiko- Takamine Choboku- Higa Seikichi- Kurashita Eiki- Gushiken Zensei.

Looks pretty simple, doesn’t it? It is an unbroken line of succession. But I think the real question is: what does this succession mean? Not exactly what it appears, at least as I look at it. Starting in the first generation, while it is commonly understood that Miyagi was Higashionna’s successor Kyoda Juhatsu started training a bit before he did and never stopped. Some say Kyoda sensei was the only one to learn sanseru from Higashionna, which implies he received knowledge Miyagi did not. And Kyoda and his students certainly do not accept Miyagi as the successor to Higashionna. So even in what seems like an uncontested transmission we have a first generation successor who is not the senior, or the successor, from another, equally valid, perspective.

The second generation is more complex. Higa Seiko trained with Higashionna along with Miyagi and Kyoda. Since they were both students under their teacher the lineage is not perfectly clean, teacher to student. It is also quite possible Higa received instruction or information Miyagi did not, just as Kyoda did. Later, when Higa founded his dojo there were other long standing students of Miyagi around, Yagi Meitoku and Miyazato Eichi among them. They did not take Higa as their teacher. So while in the Shodokan Higa sensei is the lineal successor to Miyagi that is not the case in other Goju Ryu lineages; his “successorship” is not universal, nor therefore is his status as “senior student”.

As both Goju and the Shodokan get better established, things get yet more complicated. Takamine became the next leader. In his cohort were a variety of other people, including Fukichi Seiko who had acted as assistant instructor in the dojo, Toguchi Seikichi, who had gone on to study under Miyagi and founded his own dojo (the Shoreikan) and of course Higa Seikichi. So while Takamine was the successor he was not the only success story in dojo- he had peers and, rather importantly, seniors. Higa Seikichi then became the leader after Takamine, but there were people in the dojo (including Takamine) that had started training earlier.

When Higa Seikichi passed away the leadership went to Kurashita sensei by decision of the senior teachers and at that time there were quite a number of people that had been ranked senior to him and had started before he did, people like Kiyuna Choyu who some referred to as the “technical director”. They were never his students, but he was still recognized as the head of the group. The successor. The same goes for Gushiken Zensei. Does this take away from their leadership or skill in any way? Absolutely not! These are some of the best martial artists Okinawa has produced. But it does make the question of succession much more complex.

Look at it this way: much as Kyoda may have had knowledge that Miyagi did not, the various seniors around the current leader of any well established dojo may have insights, information, or skills the leader does not. The paths training takes get complex: person x started 5 years earlier but took 7 years off when he worked outside the country. Person y started 2 years later but was independently wealthy and so trained 4 hours a day through his 20s and 30s while the current leader was at work. Person z was considered the best in the dojo until a car accident left him unable to move properly. Persons w,v, and u all started the same year as the leader, but one focused on kata, one on application, and one on fitness and basics and none was that interested in other aspects. Person t was a far better teacher than practitioner and many people relied on him to help them improve in ways others could not. Person s left to form his own dojo and so while still friends and senior to almost everyone in the group is no longer considered formally part of the lineage.

Then add to this that teachers change what and how they teach as their understanding changes. This means students with equal amounts of time might learn slightly different things depending on when they trained with their teacher and what their interests and attributes were. Not to mention that personal relationships might also affect how and what a teacher teaches.

In short- some may have different knowledge, and some may have more focused specialization. So where does that leave the succession? We want to have a simple answer to the question: who was teacher x’s top student? But that answer may not exist. A leader is often, indeed should be, chosen for a variety of reasons. Of course they might simply stand out as far superior to their peers in ability and understanding. They may be a better teacher than anyone else. Hopefully they have the skills to keep a dojo together and maintain the support of their peers in this task. Who is the best student? Answering that question needs to start with defining best.

Sometimes, in wanting “the best” but not defining it carefully people dismiss things. I have seen students disappointed visiting Okinawa and training not with the head teacher but with one of the other seniors. I have seen people ignore valuable insights because they did not come from the head teacher. (Because they came from a Westerner asked to teach…) This is foolish. If you were not there for the decades leading up to the current leader’s taking charge, how could you possibly understand the web of knowledge around him or her? Why would you ignore someone with vastly more experience just because they are not the figurehead? Particularly if the leader has asked them to teach you.

For me this comes back again to: who are the leader’s friends, training partners? Who does he or she look to for assistance or guidance? The simple model: this person is the old teacher’s senior, so he is the new head of the system and the main authority on it, is comforting. It makes understanding roles simple. But it is weak. It ignores all the other knowledge and experience in the system. It ignores other branches of the system. So don’t accept the simple answer; give some credit to all the other people around the head teacher or successor. They are part of the lineage too.

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