A Tradition Without Life is a Desiccated Flower

The argument that something is valuable simply because it is ‘traditional’ falls flat when we fail to understand the context within which that tradition started. Even with the best intentions, without understanding this context, the best we can do is recreate the outward form of that which we believe our predecessors, ancestors, or fore-bearers were doing, but it is difficult to revive the essence or spirit that the form was meant to contain and transmit. Tradition-for-tradition’s sake is an empty vessel, like a vase with no flowers or a chalice with no wine.

Consider the so-called traditional or classical martial arts for example. There is a tendency in modern times to claim that the form of the tradition one follows is ‘as the founder did it’ and this is meant to shut down any criticisms of that tradition’s efficacy. Knowing the form that the founder or his successors taught does not necessarily mean that one is training or executing that form with the spirit with which the founder developed or even practiced the form. To embody the spirit of the founder in one’s practice, assuming that this is desirable, requires us to imagine why they were who they were and why they taught what they taught, not simply to accept the teaching as an end in itself.

I have seen videos of classical Japanese martial arts where the modern exponents are doing the exact same form as the older generation, but with none of the spirit of aliveness and intensity that the older generation had. Conversely, I have seen videos of classical Japanese martial arts where the more modern generation had more spirit, more intensity, and more aliveness than the folks in older video footage did, even though the latter were chronologically closer to the founder’s influence than the former. The form is important. It is part of what defines an art. Like music, the restrictions of the art, the things it intentionally includes or leaves out, define its character and make it what it is. The form, without life, is the equivalent of playing scales and calling it a song.

It is easy to rest on the laurels of history, to assume that what we are doing has value or superiority because of the claims or the reputations of our teachers, the founder, or the tradition itself. It is up to us, the practitioners of the present, however, to bring passion, sincerity, integrity, and life to the tradition we are a part of. It is up to us to ask questions, to research, to practice, and to try our best to manifest the spirit of the founder and his or her intentions within whatever discipline we have chosen to study or dedicate ourselves to. If the tradition we are a part of has become desiccated to the point where we are unable, regardless of how hard we try, to revive its spirit, we are left with no option but to move on lest we lose ours as well.

 Robert Van Valkenburgh is co-founder of Kogen Dojo where he teaches Taikyoku Budo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

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