The Hero's Path

Why can't we build things the way we used to? A traditional Eastern response to a contemporary Western question.
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Blogger & Heritage and Ornamental Plasterer Patrick Webb.

Blogger & Heritage and Ornamental Plasterer Patrick Webb.

This is a question that has been put to me often. I find it notable that the word "can" is most often used. Of course, we "can" conceivably build a certain way in the sense of possibility. Nevertheless, I believe that by using "can't" instead of "won't" or "don't", a deep frustration is betrayed, a profound sense of loss and more poignantly a feeling of disempowerment and insurmountable obstruction to regaining that which connected us to something greater than ourselves. In summary, we have become a people in existential crisis. Traditional craftsmen are not immune. We find ourselves almost as lost as society at large, holding on by a frayed tether to our corroded traditions which are under relentless attack.

So how did we arrive at this state of disorientation, where we quite literally don't know what to do? Likewise, is there a way back or maybe just out? I believe there is. From the Zen perspective, there have been recognized two paths to enlightenment: the common path under the general condition of normalcy or the special path born of crisis. 

Easy Does It

The path available to most people throughout history has been igyo-do (易行道) the "Easy Way". This is also known as the way of tariki (他力) or "Grace". This path is available in a culturally stable society where it is possible to simply abandon the self to the "other power" as manifest in ritual and tradition as a means of practice leading to salvation. A practice can be ostensibly religious but need not be. Almost all craftsmen of previous times and cultures followed the Way of Grace: intuition and custom guided their daily ritual of work. Since this is not the state craft finds itself in today, it may be helpful to point out a few key characteristics of this Way of Grace.

The hand-crafted art of ordinary people or mingei for short (民衆的な工芸) is an expression representative of our history wherein many people engaged in providing useful, durable, inexpensive items or homes for many other people. Many for many, at it's heart a very communal, social activity. Whereas modern education focuses almost exclusively on literacy and the arithmetic component of numeracy for reasoning on abstract concepts, former societies instead prioritized raising children with efficacy, practical skills for doing and making.

In traditional handcrafts, much emphasis is placed on repetition. For good reason. With repetition, there is muge (無礙) or "no obstruction" between oneself and material. Unobstructed hand craft is thus an unfiltered experience of direct seeing, hearing, touching. There develops a mindlessness mushin (無心), one could even say free or participatory mastery between craftsman and his material not unlike a dance. The dance takes a life of its own; it is in fact what we call tradition. Generations come and go yet the tradition endures; it transcends individual experience and the beat goes on.

Yet what happens when the music comes to a screeching halt? Just as individuals can fall from grace so too can entire societies. In a period of cultural drought and broken tradition there may be no easy way.

"Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy" –F. Scott Fitzgerald 


Just as a seed can grow in the tiniest bit of soil with a mere drop of water, so too can handcraft germinate from sheer inner strength of will even with reduced opportunity for experience under the most unfavorable conditions. Or as traditional potter Bernard Leach so eloquently put it, "Even in bad periods art does emerge, even as the lotus blossoms in the mud."

As the aforementioned illustration would suggest this is a very isolated, individual path known in Zen as jiriki-do (自力道), the "Way of Self-Reliance" or alternatively as the Way of "Hardship", nangyo (難行). When there is no master, there is no ritual, there is no tradition, what then? For the lone craftsman here below a representative sliver of what must be self-instructed:

  • sense of beauty
  • technical methods
  • scientific understanding
  • virtuoso creativity

What does it take to accomplish this? Genius, incredible discipline and a lifetime of effort. And what kind of person devotes his life to healing society with his accomplishments? A Hero.

Of course, such full manifestations of genius are exceedingly rare. Perhaps a handful of occurrences in a generation. How much more infrequently are individual genius and personal salvation coupled with generosity and self-sacrifice? The hero's rise is therefore not an egotistical endeavor. In point of fact he is likely to be unaware, as it is not the hero that creates the role as such, rather circumstances. For a virtuous society, there is no need for a hero and no reason for the individual to stand out. The calling of the hero, therefore, arises thus from society itself, born of a state of deep dissatisfaction within.

For our hero craftsman the Way of Hardship may be an understatement. The flame of mingei "many for many", was snuffed out in Western society a century ago and is little more than a flicker elsewhere. The Way of Grace has been aggressively and violently supplanted by the Way of Industry, "Few with capital and mechanical means for Many". Industry is not a participant in life, it is an extractor of life which it feeds upon as a means to an end, the accumulation of an accursed share of abstract profit. Like a mechanical monster, it is not truly alive, cannot be nurtured by experience, but instead must consume people and burn resources to keep its dreadful gears crushing ahead. Where traditional craft provided us with a deep sense of connection, industry substitutes the minimal level of manufactured "experiences" and utilitarian functions frigid with insensibility. Freedom from obstruction is replaced by demands of consumption, the needs of the many by the avarice of the few.

Simply put our craftsman hero is here confronted with his Kraken, his trial to overcome: the material world and human society placed under intellectual control. Sensible quality is reduced to quantitative analysis. Human beings, life and the bounty of the earth is cut to a million pieces and measured against money, a mere concept. Yet upon the slightest examination industry is revealed to be far feebler whilst less advanced than it claims. Is drywall superior to plaster? Does stick frame outperform timber framing? Is a CMU wall better than stone masonry? Are asphalt shingles more desirable than a thatched roof? Do any to the products of industry provide deep, enduring satisfaction? We have been sold, and cheaply. The meaningful traditions that provided direct experience of life have been ripped from our rightful possession and we've been handed in turn a plate of sawdust and poison. Oh no, it's not a gift either; Industry will take your check when you're ready.

The Hero's Path

The hero sees clearly. He does not bend his knee before false idols. His clear vision is his gift to the many. However, if there is no longer mingei what is his path? The only refuge available that remains for practice: the artist's path, the Few for the Few, a difficult path unsuitable for his temperament. The artist's path as old as civilization itself is patronage, commissions from the few to create unique and costly works of exquisite refinement or ostentation. The most social, communal of these are monumental and sacred spaces that are bequeathed to the many and so contribute to the civic life. Almost exclusively today they take the form of private commissions of works having little utility, rather serving as symbols of status rather than for any direct enjoyment. Increasingly, craftsmen are obligated to work under NDA's (non-disclosure agreements), forced to acknowledge that the work of their hands is the intellectual property of the one who bought them.

There is another path of the Few for the Few, the independent artist. His works are characterized by uniqueness, novelty and impossibility of replication. They are unlike the drawing from tradition or developing a method of use to be shared. They are signature works bound and forever associated to the individual severed from society. In place of direct seeing there is the interposition of intellect. Exchanged for the inherent meaning that points to something outside of itself typical of traditional craft, a work of fine art is the personal conception of the artist, loaded with self-contained explicit meaning, begging for interpretation. So as not to be considered a fool, saying the same thing over and over, the artist is pushed to perpetual novelty and creation, bound hand and foot by his willful pursuit of freedom. The path of genius is exhausting but for the hero there is no igyo-do, there is no easy way.

The way of the hero craftsman then is not at all tariki-do, the Way of Grace. Rather his path is nangyo-do, the Way of Hardship, self-reliance and suffering. In the West we have come to associate pleasure with the good and suffering with the evil, carrying a sense of opposition between the two. The hero does not succumb to such intellectual dualism. This frees him to directly experience and thus learn from suffering, an able teacher. The lifelong burden of the hero craftsman is to prepare the Way of Grace for others. He does this not by example; as we have considered his example is fraught with difficulty. Rather he lays out a return path by direct pointing: by writing, speaking, demonstrating, teaching. A culture in balance does not need to be told, shown or taught what to do. It already knows and in fact knows nothing else. So it is that the appearance and life of sage, prophet, healer, the hero is not the path itself, rather an incarnate manifestation of the society's desire to return to a balanced condition.

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