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Thoughts on Lineage

“The Force is strong in my family. My father has it. I have it. My sister has it…”

This quote from the imminent release of Star Wars Episode VII encapsulates an idea of lineage almost ubiquitously portrayed in the West in our books, films and myths. As attractive as this default may be, it is actually a blind alley and does not serve us well as an image to drive us forward.

Where we in the West use the word “lineage”, the most appropriate words for this concept in Japanese are RyuuHa (流派), meaning a “School of [ ]”, and DenTo (伝統) meaning “Tradition”.

流派 – School 流 means “current” or “flow” and contains the ideograms for water and river. 派 means a “faction” or “portion of a greater whole”. It has similarities with the character for pulse, 脈.

From this we understand the sense of a continuous, but evolving, flow of knowledge. Our particular ‘Faction’ or ‘Style’ or ‘School’ is a bit like our choice of where to take the pulse (or, more broadly, which diagnostic method to use). Each should be a representation of the whole, so it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that we see past the particulars of our chosen School to really understand the unchanging fundamentals behind. Only then can we access the holographic window that it offers of the whole, and the understanding required to express ourselves freely. But to achieve this is no mean task. It means me must really deeply understand it; know its “in’s and outs”. This is where tradition comes in.

伝統 – Tradition 伝 means “transmit / communicate / walk along”. 統 means “Fundamental Relationship / Overall / Rules”. So tradition is the transmission of the fundamental relationships. And importantly, of the Overall: the perspective of things. It is not enshrined. It is active, living and evolving. The transmission happens by living the tradition. “Walking along” with it.

“Waking along” brings to mind the idea of the Dao (道) – The Way. In our context, the Way of Acupuncture. Yes, once we scratch the surface of this art a little, it becomes clear that if we are really to achieve anything meaningful, we are not trying to learn Acupuncture. Rather, we are compelled to become Acupuncturists. This is not some abstract concept. This is a real Way to be developed and walked and lived each day. We must adapt ourselves to (and be prepared to be adapted by) the terrain, the elements, the broadened perspectives. Although the Way is marked here and there, we must still make the journey for for ourselves.

Blood, Sweat & Tears

This reminds us that their gift of perspective is not bestowed upon them by some deity or lineage or birthright. Rather by toil and experience… or as my teacher has put it: “Blood, sweat & tears”. The idea that there is some kind of special sense or ability transmitted through genetics or other means from generation to generation is a nice idea perfect for Hollywood. But this idea of “the One” is highly limiting. No, seeing past this reminds us that the responsibility is ours alone. And this responsibility is not only to our patients but also to the tradition itself. We are not the culmination. Rather we should see ourselves as stewards and learn and develop deeply to allow the continued flow of this “lineage”.


One trouble with our understanding of traditions and lineage and teachers, etc. is a sense of restriction. This is particularly so in the West where we tend to put a higher value on concepts of individualism and self determination.

Counter-intuitively, truly embracing tradition/ lineage actually has the effect of freedom to express ourselves appropriately. This is different from an anarchic, non-aware sense of freedom. Such “chaos” is actually limited as there is no concept of the extent of the possibilities. Arthur Stanley Eddington put it like this:

“Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.”

To be truly free, we need help to extend our imaginations. And our awareness to make sense of such imagination in the context of the clinic. This is extremely difficult to achieve unaided and is why adherence to a tradition can be of great value. This provides a vehicle for the transmission of the fundamental structure and changes which govern the universe of this medicine. Since these are not obvious until we are able to fully grasp them, a good Sensei familiar with the terrain is invaluable. We are helped in the knowledge that someone has passed here before us. Or rather “lived” this before us. The word “Sensei” (先生) is roughly translated into our languages as “teacher” or “master”. But these words lose the true sense and potentially misguide us. It is our responsibility to learn, not the responsibility of someone else to somehow enforce teaching, lineage or empty tradition upon us. ‘Mastery’, too, is problematic as it suggests a certain level to attain. This can be limiting by instilling a sense that such a level is out of reach. Or more insidiously, that such a level exists. No, the true master is learning and traveling faster than ever, disappearing out of sight.

The characters for Sensei actually mean something like: one who has lived (生) before (先). It is only through having literally lived & shaped by the challenges and experiences we face that a 先生 can point out the pitfalls and turns in the road. Such people are sometimes called “sighted” for the perspective they offer. We can instead think of them as “hind-sighted”.

Relationship The Sensei-Deshi* relationship is complex. The paramount issue is that the student must develop a high degree of trust since (s)he will necessarily be exposed to things which (s)he cannot currently perceive. Such trust is only brought about in the context of a true relationship with the Sensei. Then the student is able to let go of their limitations and accept the sense of puzzlement and perplexion implicit in learning.

Blind faith is not it either. This can lead to a sense of deification in which the teacher is imbued with unattainable qualities. Alternatively, it can lead to sudden reversal where the student swings wildly into disillusionment & disappointment on realising that actually the Sensei is a human being. This can lead to violent rejection of the Sensei and, worse, possibly even the entire Way.

Poignancy of Life** The true result of studying within a lineage is Poignancy. This can be experienced in the presence of a true Sensei where the mundane becomes extraordinary, and the extraordinary mundane. Thank you, Edward Sensei***.


Notes * Deshi translates roughly into English as “apprentice/student”. ** This concept is drawn from Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa *** Toby Stephens trained in Tokyo in traditional apprenticeship under Edward Obaidey for 6 years.

This Article was first published in the British Acupuncture Council magazine, “Acu.” Late Summer 2015 Edition.

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