Martial arts Internet forums are full of some of the biggest collections of haters I’ve ever seen. There’s so much trolling by low self-esteem chairborne warriors that these things are nearly 100% useless.
One of the things that frequently comes up is the topic of lineage. Who’s your teacher, who is their teacher, who’s their teacher’s teacher … and so on. Then there’s the incessant arguing over who’s lineage is mostly fake or mostly real. Most of it is crap.
Why Lineage is Mostly Unimportant in Martial Arts
When I met my teacher, Peter Freedman Sensei, it was at a kubotan seminar at my kenpo karate school. I had many years of martial arts training by that point. I was instantly impressed by his teaching style, teaching ability, his technical expertise, and his depth of understanding. When I had the opportunity to study with him, it was a no brainer. I grew more in a few weeks with him than I had in years of other types of training.
(Please note, I realize the irony of mentioning my teacher’s name in an article talking about the unimportance of lineage. I don’t mention his name to build credibility for myself, only to highlight a story from my own training.)
You know what? I never asked him or cared who his teachers were. I know who they are now, but it doesn’t matter.
I have met many very skilled martial artists who were students of very famous martial arts teachers. However, none of them had the ability to teach that matched my instructor. If I had chosen to train with one of these folks because of their connection to somebody famous – I would not be as good as I am today.
Martial arts ability does not equate to the ability to teach martial arts. Being famous does not equate to being able to teach. Having a famous teacher does not equate to being able to teach.
You can have the greatest lineage on the planet and still suck.
Neither Mike Tyson nor Sugar Ray Leonard have never trained a champion boxer, but Cuss D’Amato trained Floyd Patterson, José Torres, Vinnie Ferguson, and Mike Tyson, and discovered Rocky Graziano. If you ask almost anyone who doesn’t know much about boxing who they would raher have learned to fight from Cuss D’Amato or Mike Tyson, most people will say, “Cuss who?”
My point is that teaching and training is a skill unto itself.
Martial Arts Lineage = Marketing
For the most part in martial arts training circles, lineage is used and abused as a way of “borrowing” credibility. It’s a marketing tactic and, as far as I can see, it always has been.
There’s nothing wrong with marketing, of course, as long as it’s done ethically. I even have a masters degree in marketing and often serve as a marketing consultant.
One of the things marketing communications does is to highlight things as important which might not be. For example, the coffee brand Folgers positions itself as “mountain grown.” Did you know that ALL coffee is grown in the mountains? The Folgers marketing people siezed on the fact that nobody had claimed that yet in their marketing.
Lets run the lineage numbers game
So, when someone tells me they are the 9th generation grandmaster of some lineage, really so what? Imagine that a founder of a system 9 generations ago had only five students, and each of them had 2 five and so on through each generation. By my calculations, there would currently be 1,953,125 lineage holders. Just through personal experience, I can say that maybe 3% of these people would be good teachers.
That makes for a whole lot of crappy martial arts teachers.
When Lineage is Important
For my money, lineage is really only important for historical reasons. I think that people who pass down and preserve traditional martial arts are great. Historic martial arts study is important, as is collecting scrolls and doing lineage trees.
Some people like the connection of studying a traditional martial art handed down over the centuries. For example, there are many schools Koryu (traditional) Japanese martial arts. There are arts from the Shaolin Temple, and the Wudang mountains in China. Some people might enjoy mounted archery, or very traditional Okinawan karate.
All of these things are totally great, and having lineage might be helpful in making that connection.
When it comes to arguing some authority on the Internet – not so much.