By Sean M. Laflamme Ac.
The importance of lineage is a subject that is often up for debate in the martial arts community. It is clear that in a country such as China, great importance is placed on a master's heritage, for it is often a key element to his reputation. It is even common in Chinese custom to hear: "To know the teacher is to know the student". Here in the West, it is a different story altogether.
The lineage of martial-arts teachers is usually overlooked in Canada. Our accepting natures often allow us to be misled in this seemingly mystic world of Buddhist and Taoist arts. We tend to take for granted that a thriving school must be the true thing. We say to ourselves: "He's been around for so long, he must be the real deal" or "He's Chinese, therefore he must know what he's doing, right?" - Wrong. There is no legislative control for martial-arts schools in Canada. Just about anyone can open a school claiming to master a particular style. In places like China, fraudulent schools are easily exposed, but we are far from China - in more ways than one.
Lineage in the martial-arts community is comparable to a C.V. (Curriculum Vitae) in North America. To know a person's lineage is to know what they have been exposed to, and what was available to them from which to gain experience. For the Chinese, it is common to inquire about a martial artist's background, just as here we often ask: "So which university did you attend?" or "What was your major".
Don't get me wrong, it isn't because someone has studied with a great Master that he or she is necessarily very good. To make a comparison, not all Harvard students are the best at what they do. On the other hand, martial-artists with a not so great Lineage have excelled and raised their art to higher levels. It is important to understand that above all, serious study, dedication and mindful practice are key to any art form.
A teacher's Lineage, no matter the purity, tells us whether the proper instruction and guidance were made available to them.
I myself began studying martial arts in 1994, and like most people, I blindly chose my first teacher. The more I got involved in the study, the more I began researching anything and everything about the art and the particular style. To my surprise and dismay, I began to discover that what I had been studying was not quite the real thing. The experience was quite an eye-opener and motivated me to deepen my research on both the external and the internal styles. Fortunately, in the past few years, the internet has greatly helped in closing the gap between China and the West. It is now much easier for surfers to inquire about styles, schools and lineage. Another discovery that pleases me greatly is that many recognized schools in China are willing to publish or send records pertaining to their family tree (present and past recognized students and teachers). Understandably, they do not want people falsely pretending to be their students.
I've now become quite comfortable in asking: "With whom did you study and for how long?". I believe that questions such as these must become commonplace in the West.
If you are looking for a school for the first time, keep in mind that it is easy to be overwhelmed by the atmosphere. Many schools seem to be a direct portal into traditional China, with pictures of past masters, Chinese writings, and religious symbols on display. Do not mistake these decorations for diplomas or certificates. The credibility of a teacher is not necessarily on those walls. A school in Canada should have available, in English, the credibility of the master - don't be afraid to inquire.
Beware of a place or a teacher that will not give his or her lineage in detail, for it could mean that that teacher has something to hide. Remember, before you begin learning any art or discipline, inquire about the background or the qualifications of the teacher, you have a right to know who is teaching you. Do not trust your health to a teacher who isn't qualified - too many students must give up their practice due to irreparable damage to their bodies.
Slowly, but surely, associations are being formed in the West. Hopefully someday soon it won't be so complicated to find a credible teacher. In the meantime, be vigilant in your search.