72. Direct Transmission

In the koryu, there is a tradition that can generally be defined as “direct transmission.” Literally, this is what “jikiden” means, as in Muso JIKIDEN Eishin-ryu; i.e., the direct transmission, from one person to another, in an unbroken line, of the system of Master (Hasegawa) Eishin, the unparalleled (Muso) art thereof. Or, Tenshinsho, as in Tenshin Sho(den) Katori Shinto-ryu, the Katori Shinto tradition passed on (shoden) directly from the Heavens (Tenshin).

Whether or not such descriptions are in the title of the koryu style or not, the implication is that there is an unbroken line from a founder, who had divine and/or esoteric inspiration, from master to master. A general appellation of particular kata within a ryu (which are often taught only to upper level initiates) can be okuden (teachings taught only in the back, rear, or deepest part of the house, where only family members or initiates are allowed), shinden (teachings from God or Gods), or souden (soden); the teachings passed on in an unbroken line from the original founder.

Every year at the Choufukan dojo in Kyoto, my own school of Bitchuden Takeuchi-ryu, adherents gather to celebrate the founding of the ryu. On a particular Saturday in August that is closest to a festival night for the deity of Atago Mountain (the ryu’s guardian spirit), we receive new rankings, perform kata for the spirits, and the newly minted higher-ranked students are taught the soden torite kata, a series of methods that encapsulate the essence of the ryu’s grappling methodology.

Soden, the passing on of methods from one generation to the next, is an essential characteristic of a koryu. It is done from person to person, teacher or senior to student. For better or for worse, it is the ONLY way for anyone in a koryu to be considered a legitimate exponent of the ryu.  You have to have learned it from a living, breathing person.

I personally think the tradition has its origins in the way Buddhism was passed on. Buddhism, like Christianity and Islam, is a book religion. In Asia, Buddhism explored the inner psychology of human beings and developed an extensive cosmology and complicated esoteric knowledge (much of which, it should be admitted, were borrowed from Hinduism and other extant antecedents). Written objects such as scrolls, placards and books were essential elements for an academic study of Buddhism. However, it is believed that the true essence, the core of the original historical Buddha’s teachings, can only be verified and transmitted from person to person, in a way that is beyond any written means or verbal description.

A story goes in the Flower Sutra: one day, the historical Buddha was to give a lecture. Instead he just held up a single flower. Only one of his disciples,  Mahakasyapa, understood what that gesture meant, and smiled. Hence, the Buddha said (in a translation by Dumoulin 2005:9 , ISBN 0-941532-89-5):

“I possess the true Dharma eye, the marvelous mind of Nirvana, the true form of the formless, the subtle [D]harma [G]ate that does not rest on words or letters but is a special transmission outside of the scriptures. This I entrust to Mahākāśyapa.”

Thus, the origins of Ch’an Buddhism, which later became called Zen in Japan.

Whether the story is true or not, there thus exists a tradition in Asia (and in the Mystery cults of the West) in which esoteric knowledge  is passed on that is beyond words, beyond print, beyond intellectual description, that can only happen from person to person, spirit to spirit.

I believe that this tradition found its way to Chinese and Japanese martial arts with the concept of soden/jikiden. You can’t truly “get it” unless you studied directly under someone who “got it.”

Nowadays, even in a hoary old koryu like mine, we are allowed to take notes, even videotape kata for future individual reference, and we discuss things via the Internet, on bulletin boards and discussion groups, on Facebook and through email. We are able to see demonstrations of koryu on YouTube. I keep up a spotty long-distance communication with my own sensei in Japan through emails, and he often sends me photos of the goings-on of his dojo. Modern technology is not ignored completely. In fact, I think it’s embraced quite a bit, especially since it seems the Japanese are as gadget-crazy as we Americans are, perhaps even more so.

All these learning crutches and modern communications, however, do not take the place of learning directly from a teacher, who learned it from a certified teacher, who learned it from…all the way down the line to the original founder of the ryu.

Without that characteristic, it’s not a koryu.

There are several videos I’ve seen on YouTube in which some clubs are doing what are obviously such-and-such a kata from a particular koryu style. The koryu world is small, so I can pretty easily ask around and find out if they were legitimately trained or not. When I point such videos out to exponents of a ryu whose kata they appropriated, reactions range from shocked disbelief that anyone would be crass enough to do something like that, to head-nearly-splitting-open outrage.

One friend, however, shrugged his shoulders. You’re not pissed off? I asked.

He replied, “Well, I could get mad, but what can I do about it? Travel thousands of miles to those people’s dojo and ask them to stop? People who know koryu will know that they are doing bullshit. Just look at their form: it’s stiff and robotic. They probably learned it self-taught from books and videos that are readily available. It’s pretty obvious they’re full of crap.”

What about people who don’t know enough to recognize their poor level of ability? My friend replied, “Well, all anyone needs to do is ask them, ‘Who was your teacher?’ If they say they learned it from such-and-such a sensei, it’s easy enough to figure things out because the koryu world is so small you could probably deduce whether they were lying or not. If they say they learned it from osmosis through videotapes, then anyone with half a logical brain can figure out that’s crap, because you don’t learn the essence of a koryu from videos or books or stealing techniques from other people. You can only learn it from a teacher. All you’re learning from a videotape is that you put one foot ahead of the other, but you have no idea, no idea what it’s really all about.”

When the e-budo discussion site was a happening place, I once gave an opinion about a particular group’s web site. They claimed to be a koryu. A study of their claims and observation of their technique led me to believe otherwise, especially when they started posting photos of their side business  teaching Japanese tea ceremony. I know tea ceremony, and friend, those pictures weren’t of any tea ceremony that I knew of. I thought they were bogus. One observer countered, however, “They LOOK so good, though! I don’t care if they’re fake or not, I would love to study with them!”

What? Okay, so let’s say you’re in need of open-heart surgery. You have a choice between two doctors. One surgeon has been board-certified, he has a verifiable degree from Harvard Medical School and interned at Johns Hopkins. You can verify that. The only problem is he doesn’t look like your stereotyped concept of a Marcus Welby M.D. type surgeon (for those under 40 years old, that was an old TV show). The other doctor claims he got a degree from some obscure medical school you never heard of, from a fly-by-night college in the Third World country of Krapistan. He isn’t certified to practice in your state, but he’s cheaper, he claims to be an excellent surgeon, and he looks like a surgeon, he acts like a surgeon, and he talks like a surgeon. So never mind his lack of certification and verifiable credentials. He ACTS like what you think a doctor should act like…so would you go with the Harvard Medical School surgeon or this goober?  Gee, not that hard a decision, is it?

My friend who’s not overly anxious has a point, though. To borrow a politician’s phrase, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig. Without direct transmission, a fake is a fake, even if it’s a pretty good fake.

11 thoughts on “72. Direct Transmission

  1. Even as modern a discipline as BJJ is increasingly looking at “lineage” when it comes to its exponents: in particular those claiming black belts.

    And I have seen an interesting trend with the particular modern combatives group I mainly associate with: people are mimicking certain key elements in other instruction. One guy has made a name for himself writing for a number of gun magazines, in particular in their personal protection “special editions.” He’s never attended one of the classes, but had been a member of the group’s forum for a while. He appropriated many of the postures, positions, techniques, and even terminology for the articles he was writing….

    But something was ‘off’ to the informed observer.

    This has caused an interesting discussion as to how to protect the authenticity of the original teachings (going way beyond static postures…) without resorting to the overly commercial, pyramid marketing type “certified instructor” model common in combatives and LE instruction today.

    1. AS I have said before, I can’t comment with any authority on modern combatives since I do mainly koryu, but it’s kind of amazing that similar problems arise in those systems as well. Or maybe that’s the nature of the beast. Appropriation without full understanding…


  2. Good article, I fear a lot of ppl will ignore it and continue on their own “lostway”the truth is out there and a lot of ppl don’t won’t to know about it, but also koryu isn’t for everyone either , some ppl like to grapple , some like to punch , while others like weapons, a place for everyone , BUT as you have stated , koryu is koryu and Bobs backyard jujutsu is not ! Or as I told my colleague today some ppl have certified training ,( me), and some don’t , after he had blown up a $2000 computer system,

  3. First let me say that I think your Blog is wonderful. I read it with a lot of pleasure and I learn a lot from it. I feel there is still a lot of information on the subject of koryu missing – for us, the general but interested public. What I find refreshing about your articles is the input of your personal experiences. This makes the subject of koryu( which can be prone to become a bit dusted) really lively. Also the cultural background and information you provide is something I sometimes miss when I am reading other writers.
    What I find difficult about your latest article is the statement if there is no direct transmission it is not koryu. I understand what you are saying and I do not want to argue it at all. Following this line of thought however it could mean that if you have a really old (say ill) teacher who can only pass on certain aspects of his ryu before he passes away it is a genuine koryu. On the other hand if there is a ryu who has been in existence for several hundred years but somewhere along the line the link of direct transmission was damaged or broken it is no longer a koryu.

    Bill’s Backyard Jujutsu (BBJ)a truly marvelous invention not to be confused with BJJ.

    Best regards and happy landings.

    Johan Smits.

    1. Johan,
      Thank you for your positive comments. As for the difficulty regarding the definition of soden being necessary for a koryu, I would have to say that it’s a requirement made by Japanese culture and its arbitrators, not something I made up. I know of some situations very close to my ryu or concerning researchers I know that show how Japanese view it. In one case, a dojo had been training in various koryu, but some time before World War II, one of the ryu was lost; training stopped. A few decades ago, the headmaster of the dojo discovered scrolls and notes of that koryu written by the previous headmaster. Based on the existing koryu and the written notes and kata explanations, the teacher reconstructed the weapons art. But he made it clear that the art was “broken.” It was a reconstruction done as best he could. It was made very clear to anyone. In another case, someone I know investigated a ryu that was an offshoot of our own school that had died out. He visited the family of the ryu’s former head, studied the existing scrolls and documents, and reconstructed the bulk of the system. However, he made it clear that the techniques were, again, reconstructed. I believe that as long as the nature of the system is honest and open, unbroken soden or reconstructed, the ryu can be accepted for what it is.

      1. Wayne,
        So then again as usual it all boils down to sincerity and integrity. Two traits sorely needed and rather scarce it seems at times.But in ample supply in your writings.I am looking forward to your next article.
        Happy landings,


  4. Wonderful blogpost, Mr Muromoto. You continue to come up with wonderful nuggets of information, week after week. The whole concept of “Jikiden” is pretty interesting and makes Koryu so intriguing.

    Kamal Singh

  5. The only problem I have with the medical analogy is that it muddies the water a little by seeming to mix the issues of authenticity and quality.

    For me, this discussion seems to be primarily about authenticity as relating to integrity, and whether not someone is is making an accurate representation of what they are doing.

    Quality is, to my mind, a separate issue. It’s nice to know that someone has studied in an unbroken 400 or 600 year line – but that doesn’t guarantee that they’re any good.

  6. These are my comments am throwing out on the table, next to Wayne’s.

    Speaking from being under a Koryu and an old school Japanese sensei I would like to comment. I agree with Wayne, not from my non-Japanese side, but from what I was taught. My American ethnicity and background tells me to create something new is ok. As long as it fraudulent. Barjutsu, BJJ, are examples of what is ok because they are not committing fraud. What is not ok, some one flat out lying about themselves, training, etc. Don’t include McDojos, as they are ok. In a capital society McDojos are legit business, as long as they don’t commit fraud. My influence and teachings from my sensei points to proper transmission is paramount in defining koryu, It doesn’t matter if the head of the ryu is was skilled or not; proper transmission is the overriding key factor defining a koryu. A koryu is about preservation of history, a heritage, and carrying on of traditions.

    There are two areas in the koryu world that open it up for criticisms usually by those outside the koryu world. One is when the head of a koryu announces he has made changes to the arts techniques, seemingly going against the popular idea a koryu is not suppose to change the original wazas, or add new ones. The next area is more gray attracting more intense criticism. Some Japanese arts which missed the stamp of koryu, or accurately keep to the principles and traditional structures of koryus often enjoy the same recognition and privileges as koryus. These two gray areas are where much of the criticism and argumentation about koryu springs from. For me, the greatest concern is both these gray areas provide loop holes for those who will take advantage of martial arts for their own personal gain.

    Those who take advantage of martial arts for their own purposes are not always sloppy about it. Some are very knowledgable and sophisticated putting together an impostor ryu. One which is very hard to tell on the surface if it is actually legitimacy. These impostor ryu have all the imitated bells and whistles, especially hard to detect by those unfamiliar to koryu arts. Koryus then are really protective of their ryu. Here is where the importance of legitimacy records lays. Real koryus relay on authentic transmission, documentation, and lineage for the sake of preserving Japan’s historical and cultural heritage. By not fighting off impostors, real koryus would be lost, like the pure Ainu.

    Koryus have to battle these constant attacks against their existence. Why then are koryu such sticklers about transmission? It maybe because of the weight koryus carry in historical importance. They are after all, are historical living records of culture where legitimacy is determined on correct lineage and transmission. They are not like gendai arts whose credibility is based on quality of skill applicable to today’s world. Argumentation is the result where the measurement of gendai arts is placed upon koryu arts. Koryu arts have nothing to do with being effective into day’s world. As an acquaintance of mine put it, Koryu are the fine museum arts with them requiring certified letters of authenticity. Otherwise how can you tell them from a good fake?

    My observation tells me the there is an huge misunderstanding of koryu arts and what they face from the efforts of impostors. It would be refreshing to read comments along those lines rather the frequent discussions where koryu arts are being criticized for things like their snobbery, or lack of effectiveness on the streets, and so on. Because I appreciate all martial arts, and not just mine. Be it my opinion, koryu arts need more understanding of the position they are in., and less criticism for their stress on the importance of lineage. If the scales tip, the result maybe better for everyone.

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