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.