16 September 2008

Spiritual Authenticity: An introduction

Malaysia sits at the nexus of some very interesting commercial lines. I say interesting, because not only does the society acknowledge and condone their existence, but in a way, so does the government.

If you go to Kuala Lumpur, the tourist spot that everyone tells you you should visit is Petaling Street, or fondly known as Chinatown where knock offs abound: pirated handbags, wallets, watches, DVDs and what have you.

In all the government and non-government travel brochures, Petaling Street is touted as "the" place to get cheap goods, but stops short of revealing its ethical dilemma. The problem is, most of the goods aren't out and out pirated. They are overruns, meaning, they were produced at the same factory contracted to produce the originals. They are just as good as the real thing. And if there ever was an analogy that worked for plagiarism in silat, Petaling Street would be it.

Silat could properly be classified as Traditional Knowledge if we go by the definition here. Traditional Knowledge is deemed to belong to a community, but an issue arises when segments within that community cross-claim it to belong to a smaller group, a family or even an individual.

This was not always a problem. Long before there were 'schools' and 'styles', there was a master and a student. This minimum of a pair was the 'school' and what passed between them was the relationship.

From my surveys among silat masters, most of them agree that knowledge does not pass from them to their students, because they ultimately do not know what their student receives or understands. This is rooted in the sufi conception of knowledge, that when someone teaches something, it is not the facilitation skills of the teacher, nor the sheer intellect of the student that creates understanding. It is that Allah reveals this knowledge to both the teacher and his student at the same time with differing insights.

The master could, in his process of explaining a concept he studied, gain an updated enlightenment. Or, it is the student who gets it immediately, without the master having to say too much. This, especially in silat circles who are deeply influenced by Tariqat, is called "Haq Diri" or granted knowledge for one individual.

Because the master and student now have 'different' knowledge, and the master acknowledges the student as a master himself, they are now masters of different styles. Their own "Haq Diri".

When one studied with one's master, the master's duty was always to lead one on the right path of understanding, of seeing the universe in a holistic manner, which made Silat applicable in both wartime and peacetime. You'd use the same methodology to fight or debate, in diplomacy or marital facilitation, in economy or government and it was always your interpretation of the same basics.

Which means, whatever knowledge you learned was indisputably your right. This knowledge had good tendencies and would always guide its user towards good. However, in Islam, a right to something carries certain responsibilities, and it is understood that when abused or misused, can lead to the understanding being "repossessed" by Allah and in its place, false knowledge that resembles the original which guides its user, by virtue of the evil in his heart, towards evil.

A simple way of stating it is that the status of the knowledge changes from being "authorised" to "unauthorised".

Now, although this "authorisation" process happens spiritually, there are masters who claim to be intermediaries or are able to assess that his student has met the conditions for authorisation, in effect, becoming Allah's earthly authorised representative. For example, when a master grants masterhood to his student, he also places conditions, most of which are sourced from Islamic Law.

He is deemed to have lost his right to the knowledge his master facilitated if he kills without due reason, fornicates, commits adultery, steals, lies and so on. In one way, the conditions are also parameters to safeguard the sanctity of the knowledge.

We have to remember that this was a time when there was no style names, no uniforms and certainly no school colours. There was no plagiarism because there was no way to identify one from another. Everyone was graded on their skills in battle, or their wisdom in the village, not by how many students they have or what fancy techniques they employed.

They were valued more for their piety than their haughtiness. It was this humility that signalled the height of their skill and gave credence to their spiritual authenticity.

This method of authentication is practised by and an accepted part of many silat styles in Malaysia, and the modernisation of silat is threatening this age old tradition. Styles that are legally registered, are recognised by the government as organisations, and not as traditionally passed down schools.

This opens up opportunities for opportunists who see financial or material gain in leading his own version of a particular school. There have been cases where silat syllabi have been lifted wholesale and imported into another school under a different name.

Thus, in one way, law helps control the copyright of the master's knowledge, but it also robs him of many other rights, which he was granted under the spiritual authenticity system. Since there are very few things in culture that can be copyrighted, we are forced to accept it when dissenting factions split off from the main, and continue teaching the main art.

In extreme cases, offshoots actually manage to legally copyright their master's arts and claim them as their own.

Until the day that the law catches up with spiritual authentication, we will see more plagiarism of the efforts of masters who know nothing of the law and what it can and cannot protect.

Original Article by Mohd Nadzrin Wahab



Salam Nadzrin...it's been quite a while...Here it comes

I was reading this interesting article of yours and thought of dropping a few lines.

I found your first 3 paras very intriguing but I think I can quickly recognize their significance.

Eventually, my 2 cents conclusion would be...

'be aware of 'inauthenticity' that may camouflaging itself using the label 'authentic' - I presume that you're referring to Silat.

Yes...different people have different views on this matter.

I do think that today (as we speak) there are so many 'inauthentic' Silats (please excuse my using the 's' - plural)

Let me tell you what I think...

The definitions and levels of inauthenticity may vary but to me (personally), whenever there are presence of 'hybrid elements' (some may not agree with me) I would say that this is an attempt to create another faction whether the practitioner realizes it or otherwise.

After looking into many angles - I humbly conclude that this 'hybrid' happens possibly due to :

a) For 'pesilat' that learns more than one silat - it is either simply reflex actions or an act tailoring oneself movements to the opponent's style (following the flow) Thus, the hybrid movements are unintentional. (perhaps self-discovery is also the reason)

b) For 'Pesilat' that learns more than one silat but has something else in his mind - to form up a new faction by combining 'Silat A' and 'Silat B'.

In this case, I wouldn't know what to say except wondering - Is the practitioner thinking of commercial purposes?

or just another 'publicity stunt' to say that 'I have improvised the method to make it better' (or worse?)

c) The best one - but I rarely heard of this one nowadays - By Act and Willing of Allah SWT, the practitioner 'discover some new movements' and established a total new 'Silat' - usually for the purpose of 'dakwah'(but I think this is more related to the spirituality domain - so 'no comments')

Whilst expressing the aforesaid personal opinion, I do not in any way against the 'hybrid' or 'spiritual discovery' (again, I'm merely saying out my personal views)

Traditional Knowledge? Hmmmm...it's difficult to say despite the definition that you quoted may sound convincing. Perhaps I'm not looking into Silat alone but into Martial Arts of Self Defence in general.

On the other hand, I find it hard to acknowledge the 'so-called' narrow claims (be it individual or groups) that Silat belongs to a certain community.

But if claims DO happen, the main reason is still somehow related to the 'self-discovery' (accidental) or as a result of 'hybrid'.

I would also second the motion of the silat masters that 'knowledge does not pass from them to their students, because they ultimately do not know what their student receives or understands' for the same reason - Sufi and 'how it should be' (once again, this phenomenon may involve the possibility of the future existence of the new versions coming out from the students eventually - is it 'inauthentic' or 'hybrid' or simply 'evolution')

On the 'authorized' or 'unauthorized' issue, my say :

"Is the practitioner using his skills for good or evil?"

"Is the movements (new movements that the-then student found out later) associated with some evil practice (black magic for example) or with something against the religious teachings?"

On the possibility of losing one's skills for 'committing sins' (unless I do not understand what you were referring to - as you use the word 'deem')

I do think that this action is still linked to 'taubat' (repent) and a practitioner can still; by God's Willing; self-discipline/restraint him/herself through 'taubat' and 'istiqamah' ('sustain' - rite?)

I somehow believe that every human being will be given 'second chances' to repair his/her mistakes.

Ok...that's all for now...


Pok Nik

Mohd Nadzrin Wahab said...

Salam hormat Pok Nik,

The whole point of this is not the effectiveness of techniques, but verification by an authority, whether the student has permission by his master (or whatever spiritual lineage the master represents) to carry on his work, even if it is totally different from the original.

As for Traditional Knowledge, yes, defining it is difficult, even for the United Nations because both silat and taekwondo are Asian heritages, but certain taekwondo federations are based outside Korea and ultimately led by non-Koreans. Where do draw the line? When does it stop becoming Traditional Knowledge and becoming public domain? For now, silat is still easier to corral than other global martial arts.

You said, "On the possibility of losing one's skills for 'committing sins' (unless I do not understand what you were referring to - as you use the word 'deem')". Yes, I was referring to sinning against Allah and mankind and that his knowledge can be restored by repentance, through proper decorum and methods (and of course biiznillah).

It's an honour having you back here again. Please visit us more often. We miss you.

Salam persilatan


Salam again my bro. (The honour and the 'missing this blog feeling' is totally mine)

Even my close silat friends found me difficult and tightlipped - to talk about 'verification' (tashih) or 'permission' for a practitioner
to (become the new Guru/Master to) carry on his work especially when the issue is interlinked to lineage and spiritual

To talk about lineage alone will definitely conquer so much space in here. Spiritual? Even 'longer'

So, may I avoid the spiritual and validated lineage subjects for now? Please...

But I think I'm quite clear about the possibility of introducing a different version after becoming the new master. It's his prerogative to introduce or improvise the technique during his
time and tenure as a Guru.

(I think this is about becoming the new 'Guru' or one of the authorized representatives of the 'Guru' - in Abjad's case we called them 'Badal'?)

In GENERAL, to ascertain the authenticity of the lineage (sanad) besides than looking or have the guts of asking the Guru to seek proof, practitioners must first know what sort of Master and the kind of Martial Arts he/she is looking for. (not limited to the following)

(Not all Master is 'really qualified' to be called Master - some are self-proclaimed and not verified or authorised or permitted but 'claims that they have been given permission' (so far I've never fallen for this 'trick')

1. Observe certain good qualities, traits and specificiations of the Master being sought, (KPI : 30%)

2. What are the core objectives of learning such Martial Art/Silat? Self-Defence? Sports? Healthy Lifestyle? Dakwah? etc, (KPI : 30%)

3. How does learning the martial arts/silat affects the practitioner personally - is he/she changing for the better or worse? In life, in religious practice etc.(KPI : 40%)

Permission/Authorization; on the other hand; is usually 'AWARDED' by the Master - in many cases NOT INHERITED - meaning - being the heirs to the father who happens to be the Master at the same time shall not automatically qualifies the son/daughter to carry out the legacy - UNLESS THE MASTER SAYS OTHERWISE (in his capacity as a 'Master' NOT as a 'Father' - otherwise - it is not an accurate practice - I'm not saying that it's wrong but depending on situation being encountered)

Why? It defies the principle of 'spreading the word/knowledge freely' when the legacy is restricted only to the family line. (Spock says : It's not logic)

(Haha- We're also not talking about Harry Porter's - heir to the Slytherine that can practice magic because they are from the 'pure blood family line' and the 'muggles' can not - it's discrimination, nepotisme and cronisme..you name it, we got it. But we're talking something similar to the 'Dragon Warrior' Po - where the 'award' is not given to the 'senior member' but is given by prerogative of the Master)

This is one of many reasons that eventually led to many conflicts when the heir started claiming the legacy after their father's death especially in the event of there is no written or oral will. So how to solve this issue? (some spiritual signs? or an EGM among the committee members)

On the other hand, conflicts may also arise when a practitioner felt that he is 'much senior' or 'much more experienced' or much more 'skillful' (or 'I was born first') than the 'junior' being selected by the Master.

So once the 'dissatisfied senior' questioned the Guru's selection (an act of insubordination - derhaka), he will usually create a new faction (despite from the validated lineage) (Darth Vader : Welcome to the Dark Side of the Force --- 'Ngeri!')
Formally speaking, Permission is granted via special ceremonies in the presence of the students. Usually via means of awarding 'selimpang' (belt) of the highest order, seal, certain weapon, cert or some other symbolic gifts etc.

The Master will then proclaim the practitioner as his or one of his authorized representatives or even one of the new Guru. Those who are not present are asked to disseminate the info.

The significance of such ceremonies are very clear - so that there will not be any future conflicts.

Mind you, I'm not touching on 'taking into account spiritual elements for selection criterion and the validity of lineage' - due to 'certain constraint'...

Back to the traditional knowledge - I must agree with you that it should basically related to the place of origin.

But nowadays, it's like branding (not 'deemed as'). - ie. Branding 'Silat' as 'Malay Legacy', Branding 'Kung Fu' as 'Chinese Legacy' etc. Thus, if branding is equivalent to traditional knowledge, then probably it makes things easier to be resolved.

When the line is not drawn, then a new set of ruling will usually follow. Take the case of 'silat olahraga' - even in boxing and wrestling - a set of fixed rules required to be complied with)

But I feel that if this is the case, the real secrets are still safe with the traditional knowledge domain - not all are being revealed.

(Anyway, where are you directing me too? Tell me what's bothering you really bro Nadzrin - perhaps I could help as now I don't know of whether I'm talking gibberish or related to what you wish me to?)

Mohd Nadzrin Wahab said...

Salam hormat,

You hit the nail right on its head. Gibberish, it's not. What's really bothering me is the extinction (inevitable) of Silat Melayu, as different aspects of its tradition begin to fade away, and instead of being replaced with something just as good or better, is not being replaced at all.

Just sad.

Salam persilatan,