Thursday, January 17, 2008

Dojo matters

So, I looked at going to this dojo here in Brisbane. I'll withhold their name to protect the innocent, and besides they are good people. I was going to start up training with them, but then, on the day I was going to get serious, I read what amounts to a manifesto of sorts, and I went to myself: "No Way, Jose." Or "No Way, Till." because I'm not called 'Jose'.

Several things in the manifesto turned me off so far that I declined to be involved with these folks; despite the fact that they do some very cool traditional swordsmanship that I really would liked to have learned:
  1. The excessively autocratic nature and structure of this variation of a modern-day incarnation of a traditional Ryu.
  2. The lack of openness with regards to what is being taught.
  3. The atmosphere in the dojo; which, in view of the other two items, suddenly became something more than an incidental quirk.
Regarding (1):

I have authority issues anyway, but when it's shoved into your face in writing...hmmfff. And, yes, I appreciate that, since this 'traditional' swordsmanship, with a view towards preserving the framework and details of a 'style', some form of autocracy is unavoidable. Someone's got to say: "This is how it's done."

But in my world that someone, if challenged--at some appropriate time and within the proper context--ought to be able to justify the 'how', especially in an openly combative style, and rise to the challenge of having it questioned. And, the more 'advanced' a teacher is, the more he or she should benefit from having such challenges offered. Autocrats who cannot abide this usually do so because from excessive arrogance about their abilities, and/or because they implicitly consider every chink in their armor of perfection a sign of a threat to whatever authority they think they possess, deserved or not.

Personally I've found that the most useful question to ask oneself at the time a challenge to one's teachings arises is "Why?" Is it because the questioner is just being a pain in the ass and/or thinks s/he'll derive some advantage from the challenge? Is it because I haven't made, to the questioner at least, sufficiently clear what s/he needs to know not to have to need to issue the challenge? Have I not thought issue XYZ through, and are there loopholes or hidden contradictions/imperfections/bad-assumptions that really ought to be dealt with? What did I do to prompt this question, here and now? (And that question has more levels and meta-levels than you can throw a stick at!)

The teacher who has an instant answer to every question and who is good at rationalizing everything he does and teaches...that teacher is probably not a good teacher. Admittedly, again, there is a time and a place for asking the questions, and the astute student has to learn to ask when the time is right and only after s/he's though some more about the question: that's what makes him a good student.

It is in the nature of 'tradition', almost everywhere, to be autocratic. That's why a given 'tradition' still exists, because if its transmission hadn't been autocratic, fixed, it probably wouldn't have survived as a tradition. It's just in the nature of the beast. But people have choices. How they choose defines what they are. I do not wish to associate with people making certain choices. Bad mojo.

Regarding (2):

There is a place and a time for secrecy and exclusivity. In a time of war, for example--whether it be open or undeclared--as the saying goes 'loose lips sink ships'. I'm completely on board for that. But in the martial arts?? For goodness sake! What, apart from the exclusivity of some traditions, is at stake here? Sweet bugger all! Maybe, if we want to stretch it, let's include the tender feelings of those who will feel less exclusive and self-important if their 'secret traditions' or 'special teachings' are suddenly spread all over the place.

All of this reveals the silliness of the whole 'tradition' thing, because it elevates it above the living, breathing people of the world. The whole notion that a tradition should ever be more than a tool to help people live, that it's something 'more', over above human lives...that, to me at least, makes no sense. There may be certain instances where something learned is abused for nefarious purposes; but that's not something anybody can protect against. The issue here is that when I learn something I consider useful and valuable to transmit to others, I will not abide by someone telling me that I'm not allowed to teach it--with due caution and exercising my judgment, of course--unless it's approved by and blessed by someone else.

As I said, this isn't the military or some spook-service, where the lives of many, directly and/or indirectly, may depend on secrecy and shutting your trap. Martial arts, at the level it is practiced, and no matter how serious the martial artists in question take themselves--which is all-too-often far too damn seriously--is a game! Even if a given style includes members beating the crap out of each other: it's still a game! A game that can become quite 'sick', maybe, but it's just that and nothing more. Apart from the fact that it's done more 'live' there's little difference between it and, say, video-games.

Ahh, the heresy! I know, I know. Every martial artist and sundry are just about ready now to jump on me and beat the living daylights out of me. Or at the very least look upon me with contempt and/or disgust or whatever.

Well, bite me and choke on the pieces. If martial arts is supposed to have any use whatsoever-- apart from ritualistic preservation of some 'tradition' or other, which basically puts them onto the same level as any kind of ritual, and very close to 'religion' and 'cult' indeed--it must be oriented toward the consumer, as it were. It's about teaching people skills, competencies, recipes they can extend and apply to their lives, physical coordination, and so on.

Anyway, these folk felt that their traditions were so important and sacred or whatever that you basically had to sign up to not teaching anything you learned there--not even if you didn't actually use their name--to anybody else without permission, possibly written.

Thanks, but no, thanks!

Regarding (3):

Nothing really 'wrong' with the atmosphere in the dojo. Everybody was well-behaved. Everybody worked earnestly at their drills or whatever. Everybody seemed to know exactly what to do, even without direct involvement or extensive direction by the sensei. I got the impression everything went like a well-oiled machine.

But I didn't see anyone smile.

So, not for me. Disappointing, really, because there aren't any other promising dojos around teaching swordcraft. So, what does that mean? Do I have to start something up myself? That's a big order, because in Australia there are insurance and other issues to start with; and that's even before you become practical and look for dojo space and, even more importantly, for prospective students.

More to think about. As if I didn't have a gazillion other things lurking and waiting.

Next on the agenda: find a place to live--for longer than just a few months. Because we've decided to stay here for a while. Because it looks like the contract job I started on may extend for some time and because it's different to anything I've done before and it's actually quite interesting. So, South-East Queensland and/or North-East New South Wales it might be for us for a few years.

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