No Menkyo Kaiden for You!

Fixed and bounded systems can be fully known. In martial arts this is a convenient and reassuring structure. But it is a fiction. To be sure there needs to be a clear, well-defined and structured knowledge base. It needs to be scrupulously acquired and mastered. But this should be understood as the platform for exploration, development and innovation, not the end of the road. The familiar Shu Ha Ri 守破離 “Guard, Break, Depart” formula arises from this insight. It is not mystical or esoteric. It is mature, confident and honest.

There can never be “total transmission”, in a sense. Of course, a teacher can approve a disciple’s competence in a set of techniques, and certify his or her authority to teach the system. But the system is the teacher’s system. He formed it or learned it under particular conditions: the demands of his life, his culture, his environment and his training. Detached from the conditions that engendered it the system becomes isolated and begins to decompose. Unless new life is introduced into it, with fresh demands, including purposeful engagement with unpredictable conditions, the system will stiffen, wither and die. 

Menkyo 免許 is a license. Kaiden 皆伝 is a total transmission, or a formal initiation into an art.

The Menkyo Kaiden handed from a teacher to a student may be a personal matter between the two of them. It may have significance within a group of practitioners: as a transfer of institutional authority, defining a requisite scope of knowledge and skill. It may mark the passing of the torch to the next generation. From time to time, it functioned as a professional license – giving credibility to the person’s claims of skill, and, by restricting entry into the field, limiting competition, and enhancing prestige. It may express the east Asian tradition of veneration of ancestors which privileges the continuity of generations as a source of stability, legitimacy and prestige.

But however well it may be used, in reality, even if you are approved to teach your teacher’s entire system, you are not finished. You cannot stop exploring, learning, testing, – at once humbly and energetically – discovering new depth, new subtlety, new dimensions, new connections – if your practice is alive, and if your life is on the line.

Can you pass it all on? To another person who has a different life, different experience, different aspirations? You can show them the foundation. You can model the approach. Then they are on their own. That is the Ri 離in “Shu Ha Ri” 守破離.

Any body of knowledge, identified, codified and mastered is inherently incomplete. It may work extremely well. It may be formidable, awesome, stunning in its power. But still, it came into existence in time, space and mind, based on experience, perspectives and objectives which are particular.

There are professional standards and competences which are gateways or baselines. Even after decades of practice, that is the beginning, not the end.

The relationship between maintaining patterns of training in a defined curriculum on the one hand and a willingness to scrupulously examine, explore, refine and deepen on the other, is similar to the relationship between fire and water. 

Used carelessly fire and water will destroy each other. Water will try to extinguish fire. Fire will try to boil away the water. But when we bring them together with skill, they bring one another to life: for drinking or cooking or bathing; for cooling a room or warming a city.

Without a well-formed system there is no way to forge skill and spirit – newcomers would lose their way trying to cut a fresh path, unguided, through the infinite possibilities. Without the freedom to test, refine and re-engineer the old ways just get old. Once-great achievements become museum pieces, as decontextualized and dry as a mounted shako or a dusty pickelhaube. 

But with freedom, based on real skill-mastery, wisely applied in training and in combatives, the hearts and minds of practitioners transform as their fighting skills evolve to meet the very real threats and potentials we face.

To achieve high skill takes more than rote repetition, but continual exploration and refinement are no guarantee either. Those can go on forever and lead nowhere. It takes certainty about what matters and what problems we need to solve. A professional credential, degree, or title may help get us started. But they do not mark the ultimate achievement.  

Mastering a tradition and bringing it to life is liberating. Who knows what you may discover?


Post by Jeffrey Brooks, Mountain Karate Dojo, Saluda, NC. He is the author of 
The Good Fight – The Virtues and Value of the Martial Arts and The Rhinoceros Tale – Martial Arts and the Path to Freedom. Post copyright © 2021 Jeffrey Brooks and Mountain Karate Dojo, LLC

Photo by Ryutaro Tsukata, via Pexels

1 Comment

  1. Arnold Rosenstock says:

    “A professional credential, degree, or title may help get us started. But they do not mark the ultimate achievement.” This hold true for any field of endeavor which has a foundation curriculum the completion of which certified and deemed a ‘first step’. The learned professions such as medicine, dentistry, law , accounting etc, and even technical skills such as cosmetology and nail care et al, provide the same, and must stand for licensure in most jurisdictions. Karate has been allowed to evolve to the belief that ‘the black belt’ is the end of the line. As to the host of degree granting institutions, certifying boards and licensing agencies which administer the aforementioned arts, establishing parallels in the martial arts to which there is general agreement has been a hopeless endeavor. Everyone wants to be king.


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