Posted by: B Gourley | August 17, 2012

Ban Pen Fu Gyo: Thriving Amid Chaos

BanPen FuGyo means to be unshaken in the face of 10,000 changes. While that isn’t a precise literal translation, what is important is the general concept, which is to be able to thrive in chaos by cultivating an inner calm and an ability to remain unperturbed when the world seems to be shifting under one’s feet.

The universal phobia of humanity is uncertainty. I hate to sound like I’m quoting the Joker from the movie the Dark Knight, but the late Heath Ledger’s character had a point when saying that people don’t freak out when there’s a plan (even if it’s horrific), they do so when they have no idea what to expect. People go to great lengths to avoid uncertainty. They’ll stay in jobs that are literally killing them. They’ll continue to live in communities or neighborhoods that they find dismal and grim. They won’t step out into the wide world even if they wish to know it because they’re afraid what they don’t know will bite them. I’ve heard people say they won’t travel to a country until they have a firm grasp of the local language. I’m not saying you should be the “ugly American” and avoid making one’s best attempt at the local language, but, unless you have Richard Burton’s [the explorer, not the actor] gift for languages, you won’t see much of the world that way.  People collect regrets by the heap because they chose mundane certainty over a life that produces a mix of brilliant heights and catastrophic failure.

The ultimate uncertainty is death. People fear death because they don’t know what, if anything, comes next. They may have faith that something (or, alternatively, nothing whatsoever) will follow death, but their dread of death reflects at least a tiny room for doubt. The person who understands banpen fugyo, however, can turn the logic of death’s uncertainty on its head. For example, Socrates, according the Apology written by Plato, was said to have chosen death over exile because he said, why should I accept a certain bad over death, which I know not whether it is good or bad [paraphrased.]

Marcus Aurelius said, “It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”

For those who like a little more wit in their quotes, Les Brown said, “You cannot get out of life alive.”

The point is that one shouldn’t live a thin, insubstantial, and fear-filled life in the face of the uncertainty of death. Rather one should know oneself and know what one will do in the face of chaos. One cannot know the future, the best one can do is to know oneself, and to know that one will DO or die trying. If one knows oneself, one need not worry about what’s uncertain in the broader world.

This is, I think, what is meant by Tsunemoto in the Hagakure when hesays, “the way of the samurai is in death.”  After the Warring States period, warriors cultivated this spirit through musha shugyō, during which they traveled around engaging in duels and learning from various masters of other schools. I suspect most people think it quite odd when they see a picture of a yamabushi being suspended face-down over a cliff-side, living or dying by the grip of their compatriots and the integrity of the rope. This isn’t about an adrenaline rush; it’s about learning something about oneself that one can’t learn in any other way. It’s about knowing that you can stare into the abyss of uncertainty and remain unscathed.


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