Hang around in martial arts circles long enough and the subject of lineage will inevitably come up.
It’s not always explicitly spelled out, but the traditional concept goes something like this: Once upon a time, there was a brilliant, badass fighter who created an innovative, super-effective method of combat. He (occasionally she) passed this method down to a handful of selected students, who then trained others, and so on down the line to the modern age.
There are a number of corollaries to this view. Typically the legitimacy of an instructor is tied to how close his connection is to the founder. Often there will be suggestions that the founder didn’t pass all his secrets on to his students, or that he passed those secrets on to just certain selected students. Some times the statement is that a certain student didn’t stay around long enough to be trusted with the details which make the system truly effective. In some traditional Japanese arts, the system may be referred to as a “Ryu“, which means “school” or “system”, but has implications of a spring flowing from an original source. Sometimes there will be a headmaster (“soke“) appointed in each generation of the ryu to protect the continuation and integrity of the school. This person would have the authority to decree what is taught in the system and who is allowed to teach or train in that system.
This sort of outlook is not entirely absent from BJJ culture. Helio Gracie and his sons have actively promoted this view of history. According to their version, BJJ was entirely the creation of Helio, who watched the Jujutsu his older brother Carlos had learned from Mitsuyo Maeda and improved it, focusing on refining leverage and technique so that a smaller fighter could overcome a stronger one. I’ve read an interview with Helio Gracie where he explicitly states that you can judge the ability of a teacher by how closely he is connected to Helio.
On the other hand, once you start learning more about the actual history of BJJ, the more you get glimpses of a different way to think about lineage.
To begin with, Carlos Gracie studied under Maeda for no more than 3 years, possibly less. I’ve also seen suggestions that Carlos actually mostly studied under Donato Pires, who had learned from Maeda. In this time, Carlos primarily learned a few Judo throws and self-defense techniques and was certainly not any sort of Judo master. He probably wasn’t even awarded a black belt. This, then, might suggest that Helio’s account is correct. All that knowledge had to come from somewhere, right?
To begin with, the other branches of the Gracie family (from Carlos’s other brothers) do not generally accept that Helio invented the whole shebang himself. They give him credit as an important contributor, but not as the sole inventor. However, there is an even stronger argument against Helio as the sole founder. The Gracies were not the only people that Maeda taught while in Brazil. He also taught others – notably Luiz França. While the Gracies were focusing their efforts on middle-class and well-to-do students, França (and later his student Oswaldo Fadda) were teaching the poor in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.
Here’s the interesting thing: if you watch BJJ practioners who learned through the França lineage and compare them to practitioners who learned through the Gracie lineage – you can’t tell them apart. It looks like the same art. How can that be? The only connection between the two lineages is Mitsuyo Maeda, but we already established that Carlos did not and could not have learned everything that makes up BJJ in his short time of studying with Maeda.
The answer is to rid yourself of the idea that knowledge only flows downhill from a single source. Over the course of the early-to-mid 20th century, BJJ was developed in an environment where judoka, catch wrestlers, and jiujiteiros took part in numerous challenge matches, trained together, and learned from each other. In the later part of the century, many of the Gracies learned wrestling from legendary coach Bob Anderson and/or judo from Georges Mehdi. Rolls Gracie studied and competed in wrestling and Sombo, and brought the knowledge of those systems back to BJJ. The only limitation was that everything had to be tested in the fires of sparring, competing, and fighting.
In the current century, serious BJJ students continue to grab knowledge from every available source. Competitors study video of tournament champions in order to analyze their techniques. Top practitioners sell videos breaking down the details of their games. My instructor comes from a Carlson Gracie line, but I have also learned from dozens of seminars with other instructors as well as from books and videos.
Knowledge doesn’t even have to flow from senior to junior practitioners. I’ve had higher belts attend the classes I teach and tell me that they learned good stuff. Likewise, I’ve learned a lot from students who are junior to me. The bottom line for BJJ practitioners is “when it comes to grappling, if it works for me, I’m stealing it.”
This is the alternative to the concept of martial wisdom flowing down from a single, divinely inspired source – the idea that we can all learn from each other. Without casting judgment on the more traditional view, this is an idea that works for me.