What is a Langkah?

Langkah (Indonesian) - noun: literally step, move, pace, action, measure, stride, leap, foot, footstep, gesture, tread, footpace

In Indonesian martial arts, Pencak Silat, it commonly refers to geometric patterns on the floor used to train footwork and develop an understanding of the role of the lower body in maintaining balance and a base from which to generate power.

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Sunday, March 15, 2015

Thus I have heard ...

Religion: noun the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods
  • a particular system of faith and worship
  • a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance
I often hear Buddhism referred to as a religion. I suppose, according to the third definition above—a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance—it fits the definition in a very technical way. In my understanding of Buddhism, though, there is no faith.

Buddhism, in my understanding, is agnostic. I know some branches of Buddhism are more religious than others but I take much of my perspective on Buddhism from the Parable of the Poisoned Arrow.

When asked metaphysical questions—questions about the afterlife or the nature of the world or similar—the Buddha remained silent. A monk named Melankyaputta approached the Buddha one day and asked him point-blank about these things. He said, "If I do not receive a satisfactory answer, I will renounce your teachings."

The Buddha responded, "Asking such questions is like a man, shot with a poisoned arrow, telling the surgeon, ‘Before you remove this arrow and neutralize the poison, I need to know who shot me. What kind of bow did they use? Were they of the warrior caste?' The man may die before these questions can be answered. Is it not better to have the arrow removed and the poison neutralized now?"

The parable explains that there are no immediate answers to the metaphysical questions. In fact, for many of them, no one can answer them from knowledge. Further, having the answers won't improve the current situation. It makes more sense to deal with the questions and problems in the moment, things which can be answered and addressed.

Another indication of the agnostic nature of Buddhism:

Do not accept any of my words on faith, Believing them just because I said them. Be like an analyst buying gold, who cuts, burns, And critically examines his product for authenticity. Only accept what passes the test By proving useful and beneficial in your life. — The Buddha (Jnanasara-samuccaya)

The Buddha didn't say, "Have faith in my teachings and accept my words as truth." He admonished people to analyze and apply critical thinking. Coupled with the Parable of the Poisoned Arrow, among other teachings I have read or heard from various sources, I interpret the teachings in this way:
  • Don't take anything on faith.
  • Apply critical thinking to everything.
  • Focus on the present.
  • The present contains all the seeds for the future.
  • We can't directly affect the future, but we can influence it and, to a large degree, shape its course by our actions in the present.
  • Be mindful, compassionate, and loving in the present and your future will tend toward the same path.
  • If something doesn't jibe with your personal experience, it's suspect.
  • Don't necessarily discard it out of hand; sometimes you're not ready for the lesson, but the lesson is still valid.
  • If it doesn't jibe with your personal experience, set it aside for future consideration.
In no way am I saying faith or religion is bad. I'm sharing my understanding of Buddhism so people who know me can understand me better. If others find useful nuggets in my thoughts, awesome.

The Wandering Guru

"There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting." — The Buddha

Monday, March 2, 2015

A Waste of Time

In 1998, I attended a seminar with a world-renowned martial artist. This man had over fifty years of training under his belt, had used his training to protect himself and others in life threatening situations.

To kick off the seminar, he had us assume a standing posture and breathe. My memory says we did standing meditation for about ten minutes, but I could be wrong so I'll just say "a while."

Afterward, the instructor asked the attendees what they thought about the exercise. A young man raised his hand. This guy was in his late twenties and had less than five years of training. The instructor said, "Yes? What did you think?"

The guy said, "I thought it was a waste of time."

The instructor, to his credit, said, "Good! If it has no use for you, throw it out."

I, however, as a senior student of the hosting school, was upset. This instructor had been training nearly twice as long as the student had lived, and at least ten times longer than the student had trained. Personally, if someone with that much more background than I have tells me something has value, I'm not going to argue. If I can't see the value, I assume it's a failing in my understanding, not in the material.

The student's statement seemed like the height of disrespect and ignorance to me.

That's not to say I believe students should blindly follow what an instructor teaches. Critical thinking is vital. The problem here wasn't that he questioned the lesson. The problem was that he dismissed it out of hand. He hadn't applied any critical thinking to it. He couldn't, at that point in his training, see the value of it, so he dismissed it as "a waste of time."

If he had said, "I don't understand the lesson. Can you explain why you had us do it, and what we gained, or should have gained?" I wouldn't have had a problem with it. That's an example of questioning with a goal toward critical thinking. It's not a dismissal.

Guru Ken Pannell, my primary instructor, used to have a policy. If he overheard someone say, "I don't like [insert a drill, exercise, technique]." That [drill, exercise, technique] would be the only thing that student would work. He’d keep them working it until they got it.

People often claim dislike for things they don't understand. It's new to them and they feel awkward with it so they claim they don't like it or it doesn't work. You can't judge something's validity until you understand it. You can't understand it without developing it.

If you find yourself thinking, "This doesn't work." or "This is garbage." or "This is a waste of time." or "I don't like this." you should check yourself to make sure you're not falling into this trap. Before you discard it, ask yourself, "Have I worked this enough to develop it? Have I developed it enough to make an accurate assessment of its merit, at least for myself?" If the answer is no then you've just cut your work out for yourself. Develop until you understand, and if it still doesn't work for you, or you still don't like it, then you should be able to express specifics about why it doesn't work for you or you don't like it. If you can't explain the why then you haven't developed it enough.

If someone with decades of experience more than you says something has value, don't dismiss it out of hand. The failing is probably in your perception, not in the material or their teaching. You can question it, but don't dismiss it until you develop it and understand it.

The Wandering Guru

"Mediocre minds usually dismiss anything which reaches beyond their own understanding." — Francois de la Rochefoucauld