Tradition and Entropy

After some of the feedback on my post The Good Old Days, I have been thinking even more about the power of tradition. The martial arts are obsessed with passing on the tradition.  In a way no other art- dance, music, painting- seems to be we are much more concerned with conserving the past than with creativity or development. It constant- passing down the knowledge, maintaining the flame, keeping the art alive- they are catchphrases in the martial arts, on websites, dojo walls, tshirts and patches. If you think about it, it is astounding. Imagine a musician deciding that his or her main goal was to be identical to Huddie Ledbetter, or Thelonious Monk? Imagine a painter saying the epitome of his art was painting exactly like Raphael, or Picasso? That diverging from these masters was the worst blasphemy. But in the martial arts the vision is constantly backwards, to the masters of the past. They are venerated. We are told we cannot equal them. Their skill, their approach, is as good as it gets: no one now is their better and straying from their path is just ego. If you know me you know how much stock I place in what has been passed down to me. I value it deeply, and believe it is worth preserving. I am not what you would call a radical innovator. But there has to be more!

It some ways of course it is understandable. Those arts that have something really concrete to pass on can hold an incredible body of knowledge, hard won and carefully nurtured. It is knowledge that cannot be imitated by athleticism or created out of whole cloth. And while we tend to credit the founders alone for this knowledge it is really the accretion of information and skill through multiple generations that gives us what we have today. Each generation has left its mark and in deep arts the accumulation of information, the honing and improvement of the technique and teaching methods, has resulted in something greater than the original. But that is because in each generation, once the system as it is has been internalized, those that wound up passing it on added their mark to it, heralded or not.

The process of passing a folk art down through generations can be very complex. In our desire to hold the earlier generations up as examples and maintain the traditions we value I think we often refuse to recognize how much change is inherent in the transmission. Things cannot stay the same. They either change or decay. One of my teachers, Liu Chang’I has an excellent description of this process:

The best student, the one who is the most dedicated, attentive, and talented, will learn at most 90% of what his teacher has. (And let’s be clear. By this I don’t mean sequences of kata and other subjects. These can all be passed down easily. I mean the meat, what makes these things work!) This is not because the teacher is better, or the student misses something, or even because the teacher doesn’t teach something. It is because no one is perfect, and no one can, or should want to, copy another person exactly. So what about that missing 10%? It is up to each student to fill it in him or her self. That is the process of making the art your own. The bones of the art- the mechanics, theory, fundamental movements- they are what you make your contribution with, what you use to grow the art for yourself. They are what keeps the art coherent across generations and they must be mastered before you can contribute something. But, and this is important, if each generation does not add their 10% back in the art will die. At a 90% retention rate In 3 generations it will be 73% of what it was. Just 3 generations! So the art cannot, must not, remain exactly the same. You cannot just practice what your teacher shows you! Once you have the bones you must think for yourself! You must learn as much as you can and then try to move your art and practice forward. That keeps it alive, so another generation can enjoy it.

I think this is a powerful idea. It assumes careful attention to your teacher, learnt depth of knowledge and good instruction. It acknowledges the complexity and imperfection of human interaction. And it takes out the hero worship and replaces it with hard work. It is also not really a new idea. There are a number of proved, working models of knowledge transmission that essentially describe this exact idea. Apprenticeship practically and Shu-Ha-Ri conceptually are two examples. Regardless of the exact model however, the concept says three things to me:

  • You need to learn the bones of your system as deeply as you can. Without these you are no longer doing your system you are making something up.
  • When you are ready (and your teachers should help you understand when this is) you need to take these bones and work with them to grow yourself and your art.
  • No art is the same as it was even 100 years ago. It cannot be and we should not want it to be. Anyone who tells you different is lying, either to themselves or to you.

So, basically, transmission is an attempt to forestall entropy. But entropy is a given so energy must be added in to the transmission or, by the simple nature of things, it will decay. I have seen that happen to what must have been valuable arts once. Now they are shadows of themselves, forms and methods that lack life and are practiced by people who don’t even recognize it because they are obsessed with being just like the last generation, with making sure they don’t alter any part of the treasure they have been handed. And in the process they have altered it beyond recognition.

 

“To have been always what I am – and so changed from what I was.”         Samuel Beckett

 

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