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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Fragmentation and Preservation

Only a few short days ago, Tashi Jim Logue, Taika Seiyu Oyata's senior student, passed from this world. It came as something of a surprise. I knew he'd had cancer. I knew he made trips every so often to a cancer-treatment facility (all of which I assumed were to verify that he was still cancer-free). I knew he'd been in the hospital recently. I did not know, and possibly others did not know, that his death from cancer was so imminent.

The whole thing put me in mind of something that I've thought about from time to time: what will happen to Taika Oyata's karate when the inevitable happens and he, too, passes from this world? It is true that Okinawans are the longest-lived people on the planet, on average, and it is true that Taika Oyata's father lived to a very old age, and it is true that Taika Oyata may well live another twenty years. And yet it is also true that he cannot live forever, and eventually, his organization, the RyuTe Renmei, will be headed by someone else. I am sure that that person will be someone of knowledge and integrity. Every person within the RyuTe Renmei with whom I've talked or corresponded has been very dedicated to Taika and his system. They have all been classy people. I have not met any exceptions.

And yet the good folks in the RyuTe Renmei are not the only people Taika has taught. There are a number of people who have studied under Taika and who are no longer with his organization for one reason or another. Do not ask me why. I know none of them and cannot even begin to speculate on why they left or were shown the door. But there are a number of them, some of whom were promoted to fairly high rank before they left. Now, it is true that the art as Taika has taught it has changed somewhat over the years. My own teacher thinks that this is because Taika is still analyzing the art, as he was taught to do by his teachers, still splitting pages within the book, as my teacher might put it, and also because Taika has revealed more of the art as his students have demonstrated themselves capable of understanding and handling it. This should not surprise anyone who has seen a person learn--well, anything, even simple cooking. It is pointless to try to teach a person how to make puff pastry if he has not yet demonstrated the ability to make egg noodles. So it is true that a person who left Taika's organization years ago, despite having attained high rank, would not be teaching exactly the same thing that is being taught in the RyuTe Renmei right now.

And yet, nevertheless, regardless of the circumstances under which they left, and regardless of how long ago they left, each of these people can legitimately claim to have been taught by Taika Oyata and to have been promoted to high rank. And that is nothing to sneeze at! I well remember having first been introduced to what was then called Ryukyu Kempo, back in the eighties (I trained for a while, then dropped out for many years, in case you were wondering. I have not been training continuously since the eighties!). I had been training in Taekwon-do for some little time; my next promotion would have been to black belt. I had trained under two seventh-dans, one sixth-dan, and two third-dans. Not one of those people showed me material as advanced as what my teacher showed me then. Not ONE. Not even close. Nor have I seen the like amongst the local Japanese Goju Ryu crowd (though I have much respect for them and their organization and follow them closely online). In other words, a person might have left Taika's organization fifteen years ago and "missed out" on some of the information he's revealed over the last several years, and he would still, in my opinion, be teaching material vastly better than most people in most "karate" classes around the country are getting.

And that is where I start remembering Yip Man. You may not know about him (I'm sure many do!). He was a very famous kung fu teacher in Hong Kong, a remarkable fellow who'd learned Wing Chun back on mainland China before managing to escape to Hong Kong. Yip Man's kung fu was widely known to be extremely street-effective. He taught a number of people over the years, and last I heard, I believe that there were a minimum of three people claiming to have been his "closed-door" disciple, the only inheritor of the true art of Wing Chun kung fu! And the thing is, each of these people is apparently good enough that you might well believe their claims!

I'm sure there are other cases like this. As a matter of fact, I know there are. Look at the history of the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu in Japan. Apparently, that system didn't survive intact past the death of its founder. If I understand correctly, one of the founder's sons went on to teach the Shogun's family, and another stayed behind in the family village, with the one son eventually deciding that the other son had changed some elements of their father's system, and founding his own sub-system, the Owari Yagyu Shinkage Ryu (Don't quote me on this, I may have the details wrong!). And it went downhill from there!

Look at the history of aikido since Ueshiba Morihei's death.

Come to think of it, since there is a sizeable Japanese Goju Ryu crowd 'round here, look at Goju Ryu! How many different sorts of Goju Ryu can you name? Off the top of my head, there is Goju Ryu as taught by the Jundokan, by Morio Higaonna, Seikichi Toguchi, Peter Urban's Goju USA, Lou Angel's Tenshi Goju, "Chinese" Goju, Gogen Yamaguchi's Goju-Kai, and who knows what else!

History and human nature being what they are, then, I find myself wondering how many of Taika's former students will someday be claiming to have been shown the real, true art of karate, of Ryukyu Kempo, to have been Taika's secret disciple. Will any of them have the cheek to claim that that they have it right and the RyuTe Renmei has it wrong? It sounds absurd, but--again, human nature being what it is--I would bet you dollars to donuts that that is exactly what happens.

I'd love to be able to say that I know how to prevent this, but I haven't a clue. And it will be a darn shame when it happens.

Tashi Logue's death also put me in mind of the vital necessity of teaching what you know whilst you have the chance. You never know just how much time you have. Tashi Logue certainly set the example in this case. He worked hard to share his knowledge.

The reality is that each of these systems--I am talking about the older, more classical martial systems--is, at any given time, but one generation away from extinction (the same has often been noted of Christianity, by the way). It is not possible to learn it all from a book or video and there are never enough people practicing them. They are not the same as systems like Taekwon-do or Shotokan or Japanese Goju Ryu or Aikido or Judo or Kendo, which have millions of practitioners throughout the world. I would not be at all surprised to find that there are fewer than five thousand RyuTe students worldwide. The majority of those, of course, are not yet qualified to be teachers. While I do not know, have never tried to make a count, it would not at all surprise me if the depressing reality is that there are really very few members of the Renmei ranked fourth dan or above. Or perhaps there is a high percentage of people ranked at that level, but a high percentage of a small number is still a small number.

This is very sad in a way, yet it is also completely amazing that there is a RyuTe Renmei at all. You can put it down to divine providence or sheer dumb luck as you prefer, but if I understand what I've read and been told correctly, the content Taika Oyata learned from his first two teachers might well have perished with them had he not encountered them. I have certainly not seen anything quite like what my own teacher has shown me anywhere else. That is significant. Over the decades, I have acquired what has to be, I think, as solid a martial-arts library as can be had in English. I have works on aikido, on jujutsu, on judo, on karate, on pressure points, acupuncture, and chin na. I have watched way too many hours of video online. And I am serious, as serious as a heart attack, when I say that what Taika Oyata has revealed, as passed on to me by my own teacher, is different. Not that you can't find similar techniques in those other martial arts. More than once my teacher has said things like, "This is how they do it in aikido. We just do this little (fill in the blank) to (fill in the blank)." There are techniques that look a lot like what we do in RyuTe, but in RyuTe there is always something, something that changes the results of the technique from the "oh-crap-that-hurts" or the "oh-crap-where-did-my-balance-go?" elicited by other systems to the "OHCRAPWHERETHE****DIDTHATCOMEFROM?" that you get with RyuTe. It is just not like anything else, and it was almost lost. As my own teacher has told me repeatedly, Taika's teachers were not, per se, teachers, they were upper-class fighting men, nobles. As far as I can tell from what I've read and been told, Taika Oyata was not simply their premier student, he was their only student, and had he not been there at the right time, huge chunks of the real Okinawan martial traditions would simply have vanished, lost to time. More, the world would not have even known it! The world would have gone right on assuming that what they were being shown in the dojo of modern karate systems was all that there was (as a matter of fact, I have read some fairly amusing stuff fairly obviously premised on the idea that modern karate is all that there is--that is, there are still a pretty fair number of people who simply will not admit to themselves that there is more to the kata or to vital point striking or to karate's grappling than Funakoshi revealed in Karate-Do Kyohan.)

But because Taika Oyata was there, and because he, in turn, has been willing to teach, those centuries-old skills are largely in the hands of middle-class Americans. I sometimes wonder if people fully appreciate what a huge leap he has made in choosing to entrust us with this art. I hope that we do not fail him--and in a larger sense, our neighbors--by failing to pass it on. I think he has certainly done everything humanly possible to make sure that the knowledge is not altogether lost, even if no one else of his capabilities arises for a long time to come. I hope also that everyone realizes that preserving that body of knowledge is going to have to be something of a team effort--have to be, I say, and I am quite sure I am not the first person to have thought along these lines! You see, as far as I know, the weapons knowledge--nunchaku, sai, bo, jo, and so forth--is split up, kind of as though there are, shall we say, "subject matter experts." My own teacher knows the jo very well, and also can teach sai--but although he has nunchaku and tanbo in the weapons racks, he does not know the kata for those weapons and wouldn't venture teaching more than the most basic movements. I am given to understand that this situation is not uncommon--that there are people that know nunchaku pretty well, but not chizikunbo, or vice versa, and so on.

This body of martial knowledge doesn't reside in one man--other than Taika Oyata--but in a body of men, in the RyuTe Renmei and especially in Shin Shu Ho. Part of me wonders if Taika Oyata didn't set it up that way deliberately, so that they would have to stay united.

I won't be in a position to teach much of anything for another couple of years. At that time, I hope to begin teaching on a modest scale, under my own teacher's direction. I particularly hope to spread RyuTe amongst the local homeschooling community. They--homeschoolers and RyuTe--seem natural fits for one another. And I hope that in a modest way, I can thereby contribute to keeping this system alive amongst people who truly need it. And I hope that when the inevitable occurs, I hope that it can be said of me that I played my part in keeping this knowledge available for others.

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