54. The ato-tsugi: who takes over when you’re no longer around?

An interesting confluence of incidents and discussions happened just this week that got me thinking about the nature of leadership succession in martial arts. First was the seemingly unrelated news that the NFL Football team, the Indianapolis Colts, was releasing their star quarterback, Peyton Manning. At 36, Manning is an “old man” by pro football’s bruising, physically arduous standards. He sat out the entire 2011 season because of injuries that caused four neck operations. His shaky health, especially regarding his neck, caused the management to release him rather than pay a $28 million bonus that would have kicked in had he been retained.

So part of the decision by management was about the money. But the other factor was uncertainty about his health and his ability to continue playing without causing catastrophic injury to himself. Manning is considering becoming a free agent and playing for another team, recapturing the glory that he won in his career: starting every game for 13 seasons, 227 in all, winning 150 games, eight division titles, two AFC championships, a Super Bowl Championship, and being picked 11 times for the Pro Bowl and once as a Super Bowl MVP.

A shoulder, arm or hip injury can be nursed and adjusted to, and maybe they aren’t career finishers. But that kind of neck injury…Well, good luck to Mr. Manning, but I’d be thinking of hanging it up and taking up golf. He’s made his mark in the sport, and I’d have real concerns about getting hurt so bad in the future that it would be fatal.

The problem with very competitive athletes, however, is that they are so competitive by nature, they sometimes don’t know when they should hang up their cleats, boxing gloves, or rugby jerseys before they cause permanent injury to themselves and to their sport. There’s so much fight in them. That’s what got them so far. But what got them that far can be their own undoing.

I’m reminded of the two times I encountered former Golden Gloves boxers. In both cases, I didn’t believe they were former athletes. They were physical wrecks. One former boxer was living in the streets, careening from drugs and alcohol to sleeping in the gutters and alleys. The Chinatown merchants in the stalls on the street that I encountered him told me that he really was who he said he was. He just got punch drunk, then addled from staying in the game too long and getting too many punches to the head. Now he was living in the streets, a parody of an athlete.

Another time, I was hanging around a free clinic waiting for a friend who was helping out as a student intern. An old man shuffled in, barely able to walk, blood trickling down the back of his pants. He was bleeding internally from an ulcer but was so far gone he didn’t even know he was sick. Again, the other patients told me sadly that he was a former Golden Gloves champion who stayed in the ring too long for his own good. He got punch drunk and now lived alone, in poverty, his mind as broken as his beaten body.

I’m talking of sports that take a huge toll one’s body: football and boxing. But if you’re not careful, certain kinds of martial arts will also exact a price on your body as well as your brain. Major concussions aren’t the only dangers to your head in such contact sports. Get hit enough times in the head and the relatively “minor” percussive injuries add up over time. New research indicates that such head injuries, even minor ones, are cumulative, leading to brain diseases and early onset of senility and dementia.

And of course, there are ample stories of older martial artists who went to the extreme in their training, who ended up in middle age looking like their bodies went through a meat grinder. Bad knees. Popped shoulders. Cauliflower ears. Middle-aged guys walking like they were 90 years old because their knees are so badly wrecked from too many leg kicks and leg jams. Arthritic hands barely able to hold a coffee cup because of the pounding they took hitting makiwara and breaking things the wrong way.

Injuries in any physical activity are a given. I have old injuries that I have to nurse now and then from high school football and wrestling, and from judo (who Donn F. Draeger nicknamed something like “The Great Crippler”). My wife even thinks I got somewhat addled from too many hits to the head from high school football.

In any case, however proud a young person can be of his/her robust, seemingly immortal physical health, time and age have a way of humbling even the greatest of us. We are humans, all of us. And the greatest of us still will age, wither and weaken. We could be the greatest ring fighter in the world, but a microscopic bacteria or virus that gets into our body through a chance nick can still kill us. We could pound our way through judo tournaments or full-contact karate matches, but old age could make us invalids from the abuse we took in our callow youth.

But this is not a screed about physical injuries so much as the whole notion of stepping aside when it’s the right time to move out of the limelight. With physically punishing sports, the athlete needs to know when to bow out for his own health and enduring legacy.  With some martial arts that you can do well into your middle age and beyond, it’s about reaching a pinnacle of experience, leadership and knowledge…and then being willing to let go. To pass it on.

In Japanese, it’s about finding and grooming your ato-tsugi, your successor(s) when you’re still capable, physically and mentally, to do a good job of teaching them. It’s hard, because in doing so, you must acknowledge your own mortality.  You’re not going to live forever. So who will take over the dojo when you are too old, too senile, or dead? Will you let the art you love so much simply die with your death, or will you have the integrity to let it flow into a new generation?

This concern is always with me, especially when I turned the half-century mark in my age and realized the best years, physically, are probably behind me, and there are perhaps more years behind than ahead of me. But it was highlighted when a fellow teacher in my system noted his own concerns to me in an email.

Were his students advancing fast enough so that they would be able to take over, eventually? He already thought that there were two students who could possibly jump in, more or less, were he to get hit by a falling asteroid while crossing the street. Or would they?

Our own teacher, and our koryu system, have a preoccupation with succession. I guess that’s why the Takeuchi-ryu kobudo has survived over 450 years. Early on, the main line split into what is now called the honke and sodenke lines. The two parallel lines are two branches of the Takeuchi family. As it was explained to me, this system was established early on, in the era when Japan was coming out of civil war. The fortunes of a warrior family were fickle and ever-changing. To be sure that the ryu’s tradition would survive, two lines was considered better than one. In case one line was extinguished, the other line would continue. Also, as a family lineage, in the case that one line didn’t have male heirs or a suitable male that could be adopted and trained to succeed the lineage, a son from the other line could be adopted into the family.

The notion of multiple branches to safeguard a tradition is also found in Japanese tea ceremony. The founder of traditional Chanoyu, Sen No Rikyu, was ordered to commit suicide when he displeased the imperial regent, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, his family scattered to the wind. Only decades later, when Hideyoshi had died and Tokugawa Ieyasu became shogun, were the Sen family reinstated, their properties returned. When Rikyu’s grandson, Sen Sotan, retired, he divided up the family property and tradition into three major schools of tea, the Urasenke, Omotesenke and Mushakojisenke. After the devastating experience dealing with the whims of warriors, the Sen family wasn’t going to put all its eggs in one basket, and indeed, there were a couple instances of heirs being adopted from one line to another in order for a line to continue.

My own school is a branch of the Takeuchi-ryu, the Bitchuden Takeuchi-ryu. It has its own interesting method of forestalling extinction. A soke (headmaster) will name the next headmaster even while he is still active. There can thus be two practicing soke at the same time, which is somewhat unusual for traditional koryu. My own teacher, Ono Yotaro, is the 16th head of the Bitchuden Takeuchi-ryu, and he was close to the 15th master, Nakayama Kazuo sensei. Shortly after Nakayama sensei passed away, Ono sensei named Nakayama’s son, Takuya, as the 17th head of the system.

Not all budo schools, even in Japan, think like that. I recall talking to a visitor to my dojo who was on his way back to his home country after several years of training in Japan. He was frustrated by what had recently happened. The founder and head of his karate school had passed away without being clear about who would take over the system. That led to a bitter, acrimonious feud between his children and one of his top disciples. Both sides felt they should take over the organization, and the organizational disagreement even broke out into fistfights and eventually litigation. That was sad, but such problems are not unusual both in Japan and outside in the world of martial arts.

One problem might be if the teacher begins to feel he/she is bigger than the art itself. Then the teacher begins to think that undue profits, fame and attention should belong only to him, and not so much the art, and so matters like succession is neglected.  Another problem is our very human failing of refusing to accept our own mortality. We put off planning for the inevitable for a later day, and when the later day does arrive, we’re not ready for it. Nothing is in place for a smooth transition. We haven’t trained our students well enough to take over. We haven’t given them enough responsibilities gradually, over an extended length of time, for them to take hold of the reins when we are no longer able to.

Another reason may be that a teacher may actually be insecure in his skills that he hesitates to teach a student all that he/she can learn to the best of their ability, because of fear that the student will one day surpass him.  To that, I would say what I tell my computer graphics students: As a teacher, my responsibility is to make them gain so much knowledge from me that they COULD surpass me one day, because my repute as a teacher is based not on my own skill, but on how well my students do once they leave me.  Teachers who withhold information due to insecurity infantilize their students, not allowing them to spread their wings as an up and coming generation of future teachers and leaders.

That is a common malady not just among teachers, but parents as well. I remember teaching art to some middle school kids and was stymied at the inability of one child in a supposedly gifted and talented class. I finally had to take a girl aside who had taken other classes with the student and ask her if she knew what the matter was with the boy. He had to have gotten very good grades to be in the class. Why was he struggling?

The girl hesitated at first, but then she blurted out the sad reason: the boy got good grades because his mother, a schoolteacher, did all his homework for him. She babied him so much that he couldn’t even tie his own shoelaces. His mother would do it for him in the car before she dropped him off at school. Every one of his classmates knew about it, but nobody talked about it because they felt sorry for him.

The mother was overprotective of her child through a misplaced sense of maternal love. In doing so, she was doing more harm than good to his growth to adulthood and self-sufficiency.

That situation happens more than you’d like to know in many dojo between teacher and students. It can also be exacerbated by students who LIKE being in an infantile position, forever not taking responsibility for running the dojo, or for making decisions or taking responsibility for taking the initiative for learning and contributing. I’ve had to rouse my own students out of their stupor several times, reminding them that their advancement is not a one-way street where I shove techniques into their heads and they just sit there and pick it up. They advance only insofar as they motivate themselves to advance. I can only point the way.

I remember training in one dojo where there was obviously one top student, who had trained with this teacher for decades, ever since he was a child. He would probably be the obvious choice of the ato-tsugi to the sensei. One day I was talking about the student’s superb technique as I drove her home, but the teacher blurted out to me in a moment of honesty, “But the problem is he is still a botchan (a spoiled baby).”

…This, about an adult student she trained for decades, her top student and one who stood the best chance of succeeding her. I would blame both of them for maintaining a teacher-student relationship that wouldn’t force him to grow up. When that teacher is unable to teach, or passes away, that dojo is going to be in big trouble.

So when you train, is your teacher striving to make you the best you can be, so that one day you can be the next generation, or his he/she holding back, controlling you so you can’t mature and grow? Is there a sense that the teacher hopes you will improve so you, too, can contribute to the tradition, or is there a sense that the teacher is so insecure that he doesn’t want you to get better than him?

As a student, do you prefer being forever infantilized, like a baby who never learns to be independent of his parents, or do you want to gain the tools from your sensei to eventually, even if reluctantly, become a teacher yourself?

I know for me, I’d prefer a student who will grow up into budo adulthood. That, more than anything else, would make me a proud budo parent.


7 thoughts on “54. The ato-tsugi: who takes over when you’re no longer around?

  1. As I told someone years ago when they said they wanted to “learn quickly in case something happened to me.” “I have a son,” I said. I’m so “lucky” and recognized his talent and heart very early. He grew into the man he is today due to my example, my teaching, and his own good sense and recognizing his own tools and heart while learning from what was around him as well. Two of my teachers made it a point that they were teaching me to be my own teacher, and I’ve passed that on to everyone I can. I’m now learning much from my son… and some others. Arts that have survived with strong histories of good training are usually well structured in their practice and teaching methods also. It’s important to have the structure as well as the leadership.

    These subjects continue to get better and lead to good comments Wayne. Good job….

  2. How do Koryu’s view students that are not going to be the future of the system? Ones that do not stick around thru the the whole learning process.

    I’m old and gray and have maybe 20+ years of Ki left. Do seniors fit in the scheme of things ?

    1. John,
      I can’t speak for other koryu groups but we are so small we love anybody willing to train as long as they are not psychotic, unbalanced, or plain nuts. Maturity is a plus. That way we don’t lose ’em when they find out they won’t learn light sabers or become Batman if they train with us.
      Wayne…who is off to see the “John Carter” movie because “The Artist” stopped playing at the local cineplex.

  3. John, I’m not Wayne, but from my experience with koryu groups, it’s your intent and willingness to take part and do your best for as long as you choose that’s important. You don’t “join a koryu” right away anyway. You sort of have to earn your way in with good practice, etc.

    – C. Clark

  4. When my judo teacher leaves town to teach, many of the people in the class stop showing up. Who takes over the class is simply the two guys that show up when sensei is gone. While this is an oversimplified example, I think there is a lot to that.

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