Monday, August 20, 2007

Lineage and Fallen Houses

Over on Steve Perry's blog there's an article about the politicking in our branch of the Silat family tree and attempts to end it. The squabbling has gone on for a long time and will probably continue until all of the old generation has passed away. Maybe not. The biblical precedent is a little bleaker

“For I the LORD thy G-d am a jealous G-d, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation”

-Exodus 20:6

The strife has gotten to the point where my wife and I have a joke: "Indonesian Brain Rot strikes four out of five. Please give generously." Look at the American Silat population - I hesitate to call it a community - from the outside and it seems ludicrous. Long-time students tossed. Strangers venerated. Odd superstitions. Conflicts that would embarrass a herd of fourth graders let alone grown men and women. Teaching certification and fancy titles given for favors and withdrawn at real or imagined slights. Wannabe-Wahabites saying that only the right sort of Muslim can do Silat while they ignore its Chinese and Indian roots. Histories rewritten to make the tellers the heroes of their own imaginary dramas. Young people stopping fights among their elders instead of the other way around. In the words of the Great Sages of my people "Oy vey. What meshugas." Maybe it's something in the water. Maybe it's a curse from the Clue Fairy who has turned her back on us.

If you haven't read Mark Kurlansky do yourself a favor and pick up a couple of his books. I strongly recommend Salt: A World History, The Basque History of the World: The Story of a Nation, A Chosen Few: The Resurrection of European Jewry, Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea (with the Dalai Lama), and Choice Cuts: A Savory Selection of Food Writing From Around the World and Throughout History. Whenever he writes you'll find the Basque, the Jews, the Caribbean and food.

A few years back I read The Basque History of the World and was struck by the expression "the house would vanish".

When asked for the antique recipe for her family's gateau Basque, Jeanine Pereuil smiled bashfully and said, "You know, people keep offering me a lot of money for this recipe."

How much do they offer?

"I don't know. I'm not going to bargain. I will never give out the recipe. If I sold the recipe, the house would vanish. And this is the house of my father and his father. I am keeping their house. And I hope my daughter will do the same for me."

The Dutch-Indonesians who brought Silat to North America certainly weren't Basque. But there's a very similar feel to their situation. They mixed more with the local peoples for a longer time than almost any colonialists except maybe the French-Polynesians while remaining a distinct population. They were landowners, government officials, the professional classes and very close to minor nobility for generations. Then everything was taken from them. The Japanese put them in concentration camps. After World War II when they were just beginning to get things together Indonesia achieved independence. Their lands and property were confiscated. They were driven out of the new nation because they were Dutch. When the surviving refugees moved to the Netherlands they weren't really Dutch. They were "coffee beans", half-castes. Some moved to places where their old skills could be used. Some ended up in the United States where everyone was an immigrant and almost anyone could become American. The weren't outcast, but they were just another group of immigrants.

Their house had vanished.

What was left of what they had been? The communities were gone. The physical property had disappeared. Their children might speak some Dutch and Indonesian at home, but their grandchildren wouldn't. About the only thing remaining was knowledge, especially when it had been passed down in the family. How do you keep knowledge? If you hoard it and don't teach it to anyone it dies with you. If you give it away to everyone the last thing you have that makes you what you were is worthless. If you show it to someone it becomes his as much as yours. In many martial arts, famously the Chinese ones, the solution has been to destroy the Art. You only teach your inner students 80% of what you know and keep the rest, especially the parts that make it particularly good, for yourself. You encourage cult-like devotion to your style and discourage the next generation from interacting with other people who have different strengths. After seven go-rounds nobody knows more than a fifth of the original system, and that's gotten fragmented.

You couldn't call what happened in America a solution although there seems to have been a greater willingness to thoroughly train selected students. Let's say it's the way things worked out. There's been a lot of jealousy tied up with the transmission of the family martial arts and a desire to hang on and keep control while passing it on to the worthy. Any rational person could see that you can't do both, especially after you pass away. But we're dealing with fundamental threats to identity here. People are rarely rational about that.

That's where the obsession with "lineage" comes from. In the everyday sense of the word it's where you come from, your ancestry. In martial arts the meaning is a little different. Someone is designated to maintain the organization, settle disputes and generally be the guy in charge. In Silat in this country it has mutated into a full out hemiptera-conjugating chiroptera-feces barking madness. The Lineage becomes something with an independent existence. It can be bestowed in a moment and removed on a whim. If you have it you are the Fair-Haired Boy, the Annointed of Heaven, possessed of some invisible supernatural legacy. If you don't have it or had it taken away you are suddenly diminished.

With those sorts of stakes riding on something completely arbitrary strange things happen. He who has The Lineage guards it jealously. It comes with status and the assumption that he is the best around. Those who don't have it but think of themselves as contenders politic for it madly. If you or your teacher has it you must be "real". Anyone who doesn't is suspect. Someone who had the magical prize but had it taken away must not have had the martial art to begin with. Obviously, neither do his students.

On the face of it it's insane. Knowledge once given can not be taken away. Skill is skill whether the practitioner is a saint or a 24 karat brass-plated jerk. An administrative title just doesn't signify.

If you look at it another way it makes emotional (although not rational) sense. The Lineage is more like a patent of nobility or chieftanship. It can be given and taken back. It is a mark of favor, the sign of who is entitled to the family lands. Of course only one person can have it. It's a unique legacy that represents the continuation of one's family and ideals in a single body.

The problem is that understanding is not like a farm. It is not diminished or divided if more than one person has it. Quite the contrary. If there are more good people who understand something there is less chance that the knowledge will be lost. Idolizing The Lineage will simply cause dissension and backbiting as people scramble to be The One and resent it if they aren't. Whole groups of students will have a reason to look down on or resent others depending on who is associated with the extra special teacher. The system as a community is designed to tear itself apart from the top down.

This is closely related to the habit some teachers have of withdrawing certification and recognition. If the Art is a thing it can be lent, sold, given away and taken back at one's pleasure. You can give someone a title or a certificate. It's yours to do. If he falls out it can be taken away in the way that the king can ennoble or debase someone. The honors are his and are no more or less than a mark of his favor.

Taken on its own terms the whole thing makes sense. Unfortunately, there is an expectation that the piece of paper and the title are supposed to say something about the quality of the person who has them. From that point of view it makes no sense at all. If someone really was a qualified teacher or a Master of the craft that is supposed to have some meaning outside of the personal relationship between him and his teacher. One could say "He and I no longer speak to each other," or "I recognize that he has these skills, but I can no longer trust his character," or even "He was up to par then. I don't know about now."

To say "He never was" or "He was but I take it back" is a different thing. None of the alternatives makes the teacher look good. One possibility is that the teacher is lying. Who would want to trust a liar? Another is that he has no interest in quality control. The honors are worthless. He could be in denial. He could have very poor judgment. Or he's subject to flattery and pettiness which makes the recipient suspect; the implication is that a teacher is one who can curry favor, not someone who can teach.

I'm afraid Steve Perry is right. A number of the last generation will have to pass away before things get better. We can only hope that when that happens people will act more sensibly. In the meanwhile let's try to treat each other kindly. Judge people on what they are and what they do more than who happens to be popular with the higher ups this week. Don't take the ornate titles seriously. Don't even ask about them. Especially, forget about who has The Lineage. Just ask "Can he fight?", "Can he teach?", "Does he have good skills?", "Where did he learn it?" and "Is he a decent person?" Those are what's important. The rest is rubbish.


sifu guro dan donzella said...


sly fox said...

excellent post...

AriaPutra said...

Very well written and worded :-)

The idiocy of all that you have observed isn't just confined to North America. One form of 'Buah Pukul' found on the Mainland of Malaysia is a case in point.

The backbiting and issues that have arisen out of lineage has seen several perguruans at each others throats in both the figurative and literal sense.

I have since migrated to Australia, and have long decided that the art (Silat or Kuntao) will stand on its own merits. Neither by sheer force of personality nor marketing dazzle will I present the art to my new home.