This was inspired by a Bobbe Edmonds post. It's worth a read, and some thought. I'm going to hit it from the other direction, though.
First things first- not everyone studies martial arts for the same reasons. I have no problem with people exercising or learning a culture or testing themselves in the arena. It is what it is. I have a little problem with people who think that all of those things- fitness, culture, sport- are the same. Worse when they delude themselves into thinking that those skills equate to either combat or self-defense (and those two are not the same, either). I don't have a big problem until people start teaching that they are all the same. Even there, though, it is not a huge problem- delusional people teaching other delusional people things that they will never test is like any other religion: a big problem, but not my big problem.
Anybody offended yet?
Second, though I get a lot of secondary benefits from study and practice, my primary objective in studying martial arts is to keep me uninjured though I spend a great deal of time unarmed while in close contact with violent criminals. (In person, I would go off on a tangent here about how broad and strategic a subject that is- reputation and presentation have prevented more bad events than skill has ever overcome).
People are fond of saying that there are only a finite number of ways the human body can move. That's true, but there is a nearly infinite number of ways those movements can be prioritized. For every ten things a person sees, there can be a hundred interpretations. Interpretations affect what we 'see'. What we 'see' and how we are taught to prioritize it, drives what we do.
From this perspective, lineage and tradition are important.
Whatever you study came from somewhere and it came through somebody. If the time difference between where it came from and you is great, then it was transmitted through several people. This makes for two obvious and important places where things can go very, very wrong.
Where it came from: Though there are athletic basics to martial arts, the 'how to fight' guts of a system came from one of two places. Either one or more people experienced enough cutting and bone breaking to pass it on or somebody made it up. That simple- in it's earliest incarnation, what you learned is either based on truth or fiction. Experience or imagination (well-reasoned imagination, probably... but we know by now how far off basic assumptions can be). Is it possible for an imagination-based art to be workable? Sure, for two reasons: sometimes random chance works. The art may be workable just by luck. More likely, though, it is because of the ingenuity of humans. A great natural fighter can make a shitty system work. People hate losing and certain people are very good at winning (the art of advantage is a very broad-spectrum skill). All bets are off when you have someone good. The converse is also true- in one of the arts I most admire for it's sheer tactical efficiency and ruthlessness, I know two instructors who couldn't fight their way out of a paper bag.
This is also why it is important to know what your system was for. Military arts are very different than civilian arts. Arts of last resort are completely unrelated to dueling arts. What an Okinawan peasant needed to know to prevail in a bar fight or a fishing rights dispute is vastly different than what a soldier needs to know for sentry removal and both are completely different than the skill the sentry needs in order to not be removed. Things stretch, but they only stretch so far. The most valuable techniques on my list for ambush survival are nearly worthless sparring. Things are what they are.
So tradition, in the sense of where it came from and what it was designed to do, can be vital.
Transmission The second source of problems is in how the lessons are taught. As Mr. Edmonds pointed out, you have only ever learned from your direct instructor(s). Sensei Billy-Bob may have learned from someone who learned from someone who learned from someone who learned directly from Shihan Smackemdown but you have only learned from Billy-Bob.
The whole point of teaching, really, is to bypass the experience issue. . I want students who can do what I can do without the (feel free to ignore, it's been written before) screws in the knee and the fists that won't close all the way and the memory loss from concussions and the eye that is permanently blurry from the scratched lens and the wrist that pops loud enough to wake me up and the fingers that go numb.
Combat is rare enough and messy enough that very few people will ever gather enough experiences to have much insight. It is weird, too in that everything you have learned about human psychology and civilization ceases to apply under rage and fear; that everything you think you can expect from your mind and body changes under extreme stress. On a very fundamental level, the 'you' in an assault won't be the same 'you' that trained for the assault. People don't accept this. People are funny, too. They can't leave simple alone; they feel a need to 'improve' things even when they don't understand them... and secretly, they think that they are smarter than everybody else.
So the fact that someone gathered and the experience he or she transmitted is now at the mercy of how well each generation of instructor can pass it on. And each generation will be tempted to 'improve' the product. Each generation may lose or forget something or accidentally change something. The changes become part of the tradition.
Rote memory can avoid this, sort of. If you make a standard high enough, information can be passed down word for word and motion for motion even if no one understands it. The problem, of course, is that people come to believe their skill is measured by precision and not by adaptability, by how they move and not how they think or see. It is the essence of the dilemma between moving right and moving well.
One of the cool things about the rote system is that it can get information, intact, to people who might use it generations down the line. I've never seriously studied karate, but I see more good fighting skills and wisdom in karate kata than almost any karate instructor I know. But in a lot of ways, it is like teaching answers without questions.
Bottom line- are tradition and lineage important? If you have neither, you're just making stuff up. Unless you have a good amount of first-hand experience with the subject it is just mental entertainment. If the tradition arose from somewhere else that applies, the seeds were there. If not, you are just indulging in someone else's fantasy. If the seeds were there but the teaching was flawed... the seeds are usually still there, but you will have to find them on your own. My preference is to learn things that have proven useful, passed on by people who understood them- but I'm funny that way.
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