Sunday, December 4, 2016

Benpo 便法 (Shortcuts)

Benpo便法 (Shortcuts)

One very deliberate feature of the dojo website is that the links are fairly ecumenical. Since the intent of the site is to be informational, we've included a number of arts (many, that bear no connection with ours but that may prove of interest to readers) as well as to (Japanese and English) language resources and study materials. It is not uncommon to receive E-mail from people suggesting new links, some of which are great fits, others, less so. Several months ago we were contacted by someone from a "Cliff Notes"-type site suggesting it for inclusion. Our response was:

While recommendations are gratefully accepted, sites of the type that you suggest run counter to the ethos of traditional arts.

My concern is that inclusion of such a site might encourage, even tacitly, the impression that reliance on secondary sources in lieu of (rather than as a supplement to) personal research is acceptable. For us, us there simply is no substitute for exertion in both practice and study.Thank you for your suggestion.

With that bit of correspondence sent we could get back to (continuing to ignore) long-neglected projects... but unfortunately, the seed was planted; so, what place do shortcuts have in traditional arts and ways?

Translated from Japanese, benpo presents a (Sanskrit-derived) term, meaning expedient method. Considering that its original use was tied closely to transmission of esoteric meditation practices, the implication is of being efficient while undergoing arduous training. Curiously though, despite the rather strong association with the (purportedly quicker) 'immutable path' it does not point to the skipping of steps or avoiding of hardship, both of which only seem like perks early on (it is often not obvious until too late the ways in which it manifests as a curses; There are a number of reasons for this, not least of which is that built-in to many arts are links between, seemingly, disparate bits of information*.)

For most of us, training (and the surrounding/supporting activities) is not a full-time endeavor. No matter how genuine the desire to develop expertise, it is unreasonable to expect that anyone is going to go home from a long day of work and/or school, fulfill familial duties, do chores, and then spend time training, learning a new language and familiarizing him/herself with connected cultural practices. Modern life is complex and we are overbooked. Don't we need/deserve some kind of shortcuts to make practice easier or more fun?

Well, unless your days begin with you or a member of your household having to fetch cooking and bathing water from a nearby well, stream or river, you grow and/or hunt for the bulk of your food, and routinely have to forego opportunities to read (or otherwise deepen your training experience with research) by remaining daylight (because your artificial light alternative is a fire of some sort, which you must create, then tend yourself) to dig a new privvy or build/repair some portion of your hovel, probably not. Most of us who live in the modern West already exist in far more physical comfort by default than did most (even the very wealthiest) humans in history... The convenience of having nearly unfettered access to life's necessities (and many luxuries, just consider how a series of developments lead to the relative ubiquity of the internet in our homes, allowing us to view the bulk of preserved knowledge, music, science, art, etc. on demand, while in skivvies; beyond the initial barriers of acquiring hardware and maintaining a connection the only hard limits are one's free time and level of curiosity) raises an expectation that everything should come so simply. It hasn't, doesn't and shouldn't (always).

Despite the prevailing attitude that it is possible to hack anything and everything to achieve peak efficiency, sometimes the best hack is to just 'do the work'. Grit, determination, resiliency and other traits fostered through the process of earnestly trying (and failing often, though hopefully learning to avoid making the exact same mistakes in perpetuity), are nurtured this way.

Proceeding along an art or way (particularly when traditional cultural trappings figure heavily) tends to shift one's perspective. Instead of chasing instant gratification, we come to appreciate that adopting and holding to a regular practice is to tread the same ground as previous generations, itself, a type of shortcut (by not having to constantly reinvent the wheel). So despite moments of wishful thinking, we find ourselves genuinely grateful for clear transmission from good teachers**, and see that this (coupled with rigorous personal practice) are all the shortcut we can use. By moving too far away from those unreasonable expectations, we risk cheating ourselves.

Yours in the struggle,

Jigme Chobang Daniels, instructor
Aoi Koyamakan Dojo

* A friend coined a great phrase, describing the population of her school (who range in age from 6 to late-teens, all with hearing-loss up to and including profound deafness, many of whom had not been exposed to a formal sign language before starting school) as inhabiting, "islands of knowledge." That is the case for us all- we each bring specialized bits of information and experience into our training. Guided exploration (with an instructor or senior) in conjunction with personal practice and study encourages those islands to connect, bridging them tenuously at first; those links become far more important and robust than one might guess.

** Actually, if fortune provides, a good teacher can, by example and pedagogical method, alter one's practice radically with just a question, phrase or through observation and correction. To use the image of a garden, we are like loam; training in basics makes an ideal planting medium for seed (the principles contained in our arts). A skilled, attentive teacher, like a master gardener, knows through experience when to further condition the soil, when to water, to harvest, and when conditions are right for the next round of planting. S/he also knows how to pull weeds and even thin culms to strengthen the plants that are most beneficial.

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