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How is a martial art passed from one generation to the next? In the past, written words and diagrams were used somewhat to codify this sort of thing, but a martial art was primarily passed from master to students, some of whom went on to become masters and passed it on to their students. This method of passing on the art led to claims of "secret" techniques that were known only to some chosen few. This method also meant that any information that was passed down was tainted by the memory, intelligence, and bias of each master in the chain. Nowadays, with television, movies, videos, and the internet, there are no secret techniques.

Even though information on a martial art may be found easily, it is still being tainted by the memory, intelligence, and bias of the persons passing the information. There are still claims of having been passed the "real" or "secret" knowledge of a martial art. Often, when a great, acknowledged master dies, one of his or her top students will claim, or fights amongst others to claim, that he or she is the rightful successor to the master's art. Many of these claims are motivated by greed, petty rivalry, or shameless self-promotion. As many of the learned masters of the older generation are dying off, how do we know who are the legitimate successors the art of a martial art? A martial art may be passed by several means. Each one has its own way of "tainting" the art.

Changes during the passing

If you watch carefully, you often see that even the top students of the same master often perform a technique or pattern differently from the master, even when the master is still alive and teaching. This is the result of when each student began training with the master and how long the training lasted. Master's themselves often change their thoughts, ideas, and even their techniques over the years. Therefore, a student who studied with a master during his or her early years will receive a “snapshot” of the master’s teachings at that time. A student who studied with the master during his or her later years will receive a snapshot of the master's teachings at that time, which may be totally different than the snapshot received by the student during the earlier years. Students who have been with the master continuously since the early years probably will have changed along with the master and be more in line with his or her current teachings.

These changes in a master's teachings are not necessarily purposeful, they just occur naturally as a master ages. A young, vibrant instructor has no problem performing deep stances, high kicks, and fast movements, therefore, the young instructor teaches students to use these techniques. As the instructor ages, even if he or she stays fit, his or her strength and flexibility decrease, and techniques begin to slow. Students of the instructor at this later time will learn techniques that are less flashy and more efficient in movement.

The theory of "primacy of learning," states that people tend to remember best those things that were learned first. Old habits are difficult to break. This means that newer students of the same instructor will probably be performing techniques that look somewhat different than those of the instructor's earlier students. Therefore, students who study with a master at different times in the master's career will get different "versions" of the master's style of teaching.

Consequences of passing

Studying with an older master has its advantages and disadvantages. Older masters have performed and taught their arts for so long that it is as natural to them as walking. They have a wealth of knowledge to share with their students. Older masters have a "feeling" for their arts that is much more advanced than their students. Their techniques are smooth and effortless, making them seem simple to perform. In trying to emulate these techniques, students tend to exaggerate their movements and become frustrated when they cannot perform as well as the "old" master.

Wise masters try to give their students "what they need" to use "what they have." This frequently involves teaching techniques and patterns in a way that is different from the way the master currently performs the same techniques and patterns. The master knows that perfection of a technique or pattern is a process that takes years of training. Perfection is not an end; it is a process. Perfection cannot be achieved, only approached by never-ending steps that get smaller and smaller as perfection is approached but never reached.

Passing by teaching has other problems. Each master has a different body build and physiology. Tall instructors teach differently than short instructors. Heavy or strong instructors teach differently than lighter or weaker instructors. Although their teaching methods seem natural and correct to them, their methods actually differ from others because of differences in their body builds. This means that the knowledge that they pass is tainted by their body builds.

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 to take the art of expression in new directions. This is also applicable to the passing of taekwondo. Each instructor or master takes the teaching of his or her master, adds his or her own experiences and knowledge gained from other sources, and then passes these "revised" teachings to his or her students.

Barriers to passing

While every student in a class receives the same lesson, all students do not fully understand or retain all the information. Some of this is related to the students' intelligence and attention level, but much of it is related to how dedicated the students are to learning and how much effort they are willing to put into learning. Students who persevere the most and work the hardest, learn the most.

Not every student is destined to become an instructor. Since taekwondo is a physical art, all students must also be able to perform physically what they have learned. However, while many students are skilled at physical techniques and understand all the principles of taekwondo, they are unable to articulate them. The ability to take instruction and the ability to give it are two distinct competencies.

Language may also hamper the passing of information. A person may be a highly competent instructor in his or her own native language, but, when instructing in another language, the instructor's competency in that language will determine the quality of the instruction and the amount of information that is passed.

Passing "secrets"

Are there martial arts secrets that are only passed from master to successor? A secret is withheld information. If it is not withheld, then it is not a secret. Therefore, the only secrets in a martial art are things that an individual instructor withholds from his or her students.

An instructor may not tell young students about a potentially harmful technique for safety reasons, but this does not make the technique a secret since the information is not withheld; it is merely being delayed. In the past, martial arts instructors may have withheld certain information from all but their most trusted students so they could protect their livelihood from students who may want to open rival schools. In addition, some instructors may have withheld information to prevent talented students from surpassing them. In this day of mass information systems, such as the Internet, there are no martial arts secrets. If there were a martial art secret, someone would post it on the Internet and then it would not be a secret. The only secret in any martial art is the dedication, perseverance, and hard work it takes to become proficient in the art.

True succesor?

Therefore, when someone lays claim to being the true successor to an art, you should consider the following questions:
  • Did the master state to many people that this person was to be the successor?
  • Did the master's actions indicate that this person was to be the successor?
  • How open was the master to teaching this person the full art?
  • Does the person possess all the physical skills required?
  • Has the person spent a great length of time training with the master, especially in the master's later years?
  • Does the person speak the same language as the master?
  • Is the person a diligent student who has practiced the art continuously for many recent years?
  • Does the person have the ability to articulate the art?
  • Is the person worthy of succession?
  • What has the person done for the art?

  • Leporati, J. (2003). The True Transmission: Exploring the Controversy.

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