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Standing on the shoulders of giants – a question of lineage.

One of the first questions that a teacher of a traditional art can expect to be asked from some circles is ‘Who was your teacher?’ or ‘What is your lineage’?

Well, firstly let me state clearly that I do not claim lineage in Tai Chi. I have had a number of truly outstanding teachers whom themselves had outstanding teachers, but they are not responsible for my interpretation of Tai Chi, nor the way in which I teach it. I do not pretend to be an inner door disciple, I do not claim to be a master, not an inventor, nor much of anything really!

Now, to some of you this may well be a bit of a shock! Believe me I too have been shocked by such a response. Let me share a little story for you …

I once asked a very skilled teacher the question about his teacher, or where he learned, and he said, ‘Why do you want to know who my teacher was? He was rubbish!!’.

I was taken aback! How could this be the case?!  At the time, I thought that lineage was one of the defining factors of an individual’s ‘authenticity’. In fact, I believed that without good lineage the person could not be skilled, no matter how much they trained! I believed their training would be ‘Wrong’ or their skill shallow! They didn’t get the real stuff from the real master without real lineage!

He went onto explain that once he had learnt the fundamentals and grasped the idea behind them he simply went away and trained, and that made him good. I will never forget the line “in my first lesson the teacher told me the secret is to train the basics … so that’s what I did!”. Apparently, this expert returned to his own teacher a few years later and could best him with ease. It sounds like something from a movie, and of course he could have been lying (judging by his skill … he was not!)

But this experience stayed with me and influenced how I approached learning methods in the future. In one instance, I remember travelling to teacher many times over the course of maybe 6 months. Each time I went I would learn a different thing, I had notepads full to the brim of techniques, movements, and information. Then one day I said “I would love to just learn the absolute basics, the most fundamental things, the boring stuff”. Teacher smiled and responded with “you’re only the second person to ever ask me that … let’s begin!”. And so, I would learn the basics – while everyone else was doing forms or ‘fun’ stuff … I would be doing excruciatingly simple things ad nauseum. But, this approach bared great fruits.

That was a turning point for me and I never asked about lineage again. Instead, I assessed people on their skill and information. These things are what would change my training, not who their teacher was or how they trained. Indeed, some of the very best individuals I went on to meet did not openly discuss their teachers at all, they simply let their own teachings do the talking. Sometimes they would get someone in a seminar or session ask about their teacher. They would simply say ‘Can you do what I am teaching? Can you see that it works? Then my teacher doesn’t matter.’

I would look at true masters of their craft, the coaching elite of their specific discipline – like Cus D’mato  –  the genius boxing coach. I have no idea who taught him, I doubt Mike Tyson had any idea who taught him … Do we think it mattered?

With all of that said, there remains a way that lineage proves to be important in some situations. This is in the preservation of tradition and the historical record. It is the foundation that props up the tradition. It is the background that gives the tradition its depth, and for those tasked with holding up the tradition, it is vital. Traditions and their masters should be respected for the way in which their adherence will preserve the arts.

Inner door disciples bare this burden, the lineage inheritors are extraordinarily rare and the weight they carry is heavy. They are responsible for the preservation and continuation of a history that can span centuries. But understand that these individuals are 1 in a million, I am not talking about the thousands of 'disciples' some teachers have. The 10 a penny disciples with the mass produced certificate to match, I am talking about those rare few, the true inheretors. They are the ones with the burden.

When we talk of ‘lineage’ in most circumstances, it really means nothing. What we mean is ‘Who did you train with so I can check you are the real deal?’ … Well here’s the rub, who you trained with will never make you the real deal. Only How you train will!

Thankfully, I am not tasked with the preservation of any art. One of my teachers would constantly say “Make the art your own!” this is a phase that stuck with me (maybe a little too much!) as I forged my way through extended and prolonged training in the fundamental ideas, concepts, principles and methods of the styles I studied.  My Goal with the Tai Chi Academy is to bring the discoveries and approaches I have made in my studies of Tai Chi, to you. These discoveries and methods are those I have tested, those I have seen heal injuries, those that bring about vibrant health, those that work in a scrap!

So, in conclusion, where does ‘lineage’ fit into your paradigm? How does it instruct, or inform your training and where does the weight of its result fall? A question to ponder …

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