True Transmission

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True Transmission: Exploring the Controversy
by John Leporati
John Leporati is a Kung Fu instructor and the former Director of Web Operations for The Patience T'ai Chi Association.
He can be contacted at
Benjamin Franklin once said: "The secret of Freemasonry is that it has no secrets."

What constitutes an "authentic" transmission in terms of martial arts and which individuals received that transmission from their teachers is one of the most controversial topics in martial arts today. Countless articles in martial publications have discussed it. Internet chat rooms, list servers and newsgroups devoted to the subject seem obsessed with it and I've seldom read a martial arts magazine that didn't have at least one letter to the editor in which a practitioner claimed that "my sifu can beat your sifu" because my teacher got the "real" or "secret" transmission. Often when a great acknowledged master dies, his top students contend among themselves as to whose understanding of the art entitles them to be the standard bearer. Sometimes, even a lesser-known or unknown student will make such a claim to mastery. Personally, these conflicts have always saddened me as a martial artist and a human being. Many are simply motivated by greed, petty rivalry or shameless self-promotion. But, putting all that to one side for a moment, as we enter an age where many of the learned masters of the older generation are dying off, how does one decide who to study with? Whose "transmission" can be said to be "authentic"? I believe the answers to these questions lie not so much in the art, but in the artists, in their basic humanity. Let's consider a few examples.

The snapshot theory of training

Often the question arises, "Why do the top students of the same teacher often perform the form differently?" Part of the answer to this question has to do with when the student began training with his sifu and how long his training lasted. For instance, Cheng Man-Ch'ing learned the Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan from his teacher Yang Cheng Fu. The students who studied with Professor in his early days received a transmission that looked much closer to the traditional Yang family Tai Chi than those who studied with him in his later years. These students received a "snapshot" of Professor's skill as it was in those days.

These variations inevitably reflect the master's own preoccupations and his own stage of development at a given time and account, at least to some extent, for perceived differences among students.

If the teacher is teaching the form as he feels it and his feeling is much more advanced than yours, then it will be exceedingly difficult for a student to approximate anything more than the gross movements.

The Teacher, The Student and The Language Barrier

In his essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent, T.S. Eliot speaks of how great writers internalize the works of other writers and then add their own particular talent or genius to the tradition in order to take the art of expression in new directions.

As a professional educator, I understand that every student in my class receives the same lesson. Why is it that some achieve high grades while others do not? Much has to do with the effort the student is willing to put into the educational situation and their natural talent for the subject.

One may be physically talented and grasp the principles intuitively, yet be unable to articulate them. There are many excellent practitioners of tai chi, kung fu or karate who have only limited teaching ability. The ability to take instruction and the ability to give it are two distinct competencies.

Consider the difficulty many English-speaking people have reading Shakespeare imagery and the fact that he wrote in a different time for a different audience all act to distance us from him. Yet, those who put forth the effort to understand him are rewarded by a richness, a beauty and a depth of insight not found in any other writer. As far as literature is concerned, he was a master of kung fu.

Are There Really "Secret" Transmissions?

Inevitably, one must grapple with the question of so-called "secret transmissions." Do they exist? Yes, they do. Usually, they are insights about training methods or unusual but effective applications gleaned painstakingly over a master's lifetime and passed down to only a few of his most trusted students.

He too claimed systematic and diligent practice of the basic techniques taught to him openly in his early years.


To sum up, all of these elements have to be taken into consideration when someone claims to have received the "true" transmission of an art: their innate ability, the length of time they spent with their master, when they studied with him, whether or not they spoke the same language, how diligent a student they were, how articulate a teacher he was, how open their master was to teaching the full art as he understood it, whether their understanding of the art was based upon the acquisition of physical skills, principles, philosophical teachings (or all of them) and, most importantly, what they've done with the art since they learned it. Because practitioners are stressing different aspects of the art they learned from their master doesn't mean that their teaching is less authentic. They are merely adding their individual talent to the tradition. Consider, for example, the differences found in the philosophical lineage of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Jung, as well, learned from his master Freud, but went on to found his own school of psychoanalysis. It is clear that Jung absorbed Freud's transmission, but are we not all enriched by his new insights into psychology? Wouldn't our world be a poorer place without them?


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So what does this mean to Freemasonry?

Over the years I have been practicing Tai Chi and Freemasonry, I have noticed that, since Tai Chi and other "Chinese internal arts" have been promoted in the United States primarily for their health and energetic benefits, many people perceive them in that way alone. In the past, this seemed attributable to a general lack of genuine knowledge about arts such as Tai Chi (or styles of kung fu in general). However, what continues to fascinate me today is that, although we have every means at our disposal, through Internet search engines and web sites, for the instant collection and dissemination of information of all kinds about these once more esoteric arts, so many people still cling to the myths they are so comfortable with:

"Tai Chi's all about energy, Man. It's not about fighting or killing. If you see that in those pretty moves that are harmonizing me with the universe, you're on one bad trip, Dude."

The truth is, unless you're getting off the bus at a Grateful Dead concert, this point of view is patently false. It's not that Tai Chi isn't about energy or can't be a Dharma-vehicle--sure it can, it's just that it wasn't originally designed exclusively for that purpose.

Tai Chi Chuan is an all-purpose tool. One of those purposes, the original one, was to kill someone. Let me be clear: I'm not saying Tai Chi cannot be used for more than one thing, but one must bear in mind what it meant to those who created it. This meaning was a martial one, not a spiritual one (that came later--once you were alive to concentrate on spiritual development). It equally behooves the deniers to understand that often things just don't mean what you want them to mean just because you feel that way. T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" for instance, could never justifiably be construed as a comic fairy tale or Machiavelli's "The Prince" a comment on women's rights just because that happens to be your feeling. Similarly, because you may choose to deny Tai Chi's martial underpinnings doesn't make it so. There is a certain range where interpretation is possible. Outside of that range, you must either be startlingly creative or a bit of a fool.

Similarly, Freemasonry is viewed by many as extremely esoteric or simply hopelessly out of date. There are those who take the stories in the degrees literally and trace the history of Freemasonry to the building of Solomon's Temple. Others link Freemasonry to the Knights Templar and to the "secret knowledge" discovered by them and spirited away from the Holy Lands during the Crusades. Still others view the initiatory aspect of the degrees as linked to the "magic schools" of antiquity or as simple re-enactments of various Christian religious stories told in the degrees.

All of these can be considered reasonable opinions based upon some piece of information. However much like the ancient Indian parable of the blind men and an elephant, each only describes part of the whole.

Why WAS Freemasonry created?

One presumes that we can never know the actual answer. There are no written records which document or elaborate on the thinking of the men who created the Ritual structure which we have come to know as Antient York Masonry. The best we can do is to depend upon the scholarship of historians such as Margaret C. Jacob.

Similarly, Scottish Rite Masonry, as practiced today, is primarily a creation of Albert Pike. His "Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry," or simply "Morals and Dogma," is a book of esoteric philosophy published by the Supreme Council, Thirty Third Degree, of the Scottish Rite, Southern Jurisdiction of the United States. It was compiled by Albert Pike, and first published in 1871. "Morals and Dogma" has been described as "a collection of thirty-two essays which provide a philosophical rationale for the degrees of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite. The lectures provided a backdrop for the degrees by giving lessons in comparative religion, history and philosophy".

All of this simply supports the metaphor of dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants expressing the meaning "discovering truth by building on previous discoveries". This concept has been traced to the 12th century, attributed to Bernard of Chartres. Its most familiar expression in English is by Isaac Newton in 1675: "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."

We are all products of our intellectual and spiritual development. Throughout our lives we have learned from others - parents, relatives, teachers, friends, neighbors, co-workers, casual acquaintances like shopkeepers or clerks - and from experiencing the world around us; from books, radio, television, digital media.

Freemasonry offers to "make good men better;" to teach men to know and practice their duties to themselves and their fellows.

Since the beginning of time man has sought self-improvement and has obtained this in many material ways. His progress starting with the primitive ages to where we are today is a clear indication of his struggle. By in large his achievements have been mostly material and not always attending to inward self-improvement.

In today’s competitive environment individuals are becoming energised with the prospect of self improvement. In most cases with the sole purpose of succeeding in business, believing that through attending courses and seminars they will gain the recognition of their peers and improve their standing in the community. They turn to these motivational courses advertised in newspapers such as Dale Carnegie and others. Unfortunately the feel good factor soon wears off.

Bro Clive Herron – Marine Lodge 627 IC

The fact that should not be overlooked is that Freemasonry, like Tai Chi, has been teaching self-improvement for centuries. Like Tai Chi, Freemasonry is a lifelong process of reinforcement, repetition and encouragement that takes place every time we initiate, pass and raise a new member or attend a Masonic meeting.

William H. Magill