Zen in the Art of Archery (1954)

Zen is . . . “sleeping when tired, eating when hungry” (viii).

After reading Zen in the Art of Archery, I have a better understanding of what Zen, the artless art, is. Herrigel does an excellent job of communicating, through memoir-like story, the growth into “purposelessness,” into “egoless.”

Herrigel begins by saying that “the art of archery is rather like a preparatory school for Zen, for it enables the beginner to gain a clearer view, through the work of his own hands, of events which are not in themselves intelligible” (11).

So, Herrigel, a German professor, moves to Japan and begins taking classes in archery with a Master. The first instructions that he receives focus on how to draw the bow—the proper technique being to “learn to let only your two hands do the work” (18). The body should be relaxed, even when drawing a heavy bow.

Herrigel struggled.

The Master then advised him that the breathing is all-important; specifically, he instructed, “Press your breath down gently after breathing in, so that the abdominal wall is tightly stretched, and hold it there for a while. Then breathe out as slowly and evenly as possible, and, after a short pause, draw a quick breath of air again—out and in continually, in a rhythm that will gradually settle itself” (20).

Herrigel was told to practice breathing without the bow. When he took the bow back up, he found that the breathing helped. He had progressed, gaining the perspective that sporadic success gave in the midst of constant failure. He began to experience the art of archery as indeed spiritual. It took him a year to be able fully to draw the bow spiritually.

Next, Herrigel had to learn to shoot the bow. For this phase of the learning process, he shot at straw set up very close to him. The object was to learn the release, which was to be done without jerking the hand open. Try as he might, he could not emulate the Master’s release. Of course, the trying was what was letting him down. The Master said to hold the drawn bow until the tension made the string leave his hand. “The shot will go smoothly when it takes the archer himself by surprise” (29).

Herrigel questions his ability to shoot without being prepared for it. The Master replies,

Do you know why you cannot wait for the shot and why you get out of breath before it has come? The right shot at the right moment does not come because you do not let go of yourself. You do not wait for fulfillment, but brace yourself for failure.. . .

What stands in your way is that you have a much too willful will. You think that what you do not do yourself does not happen (30–31).

So how must one wait? “By letting go of yourself, leaving yourself and everything yours behind you so decisively that nothing more is left of you but a purposeless tension” (32).

Next, Herrigel recounts “the first intimate talk” he had with the Master (33), in which the Master continued to discuss breath and detachment. “The more one concentrates on breathing, the more the external stimuli fade into the background” (35)—which is part of the process of breath prayer in Christianity, also. Detachment, according to Herrigel’s Master, is “[l]ike water filling a pond, which is always ready to flow off again, it can work its inexhaustible power because it is free, and be open to everything because it is empty” (37–38).

After that conversation, Herrigel reports the process grew easier (in a sense) for him. The Master still had to tell him not to think on occasion, but he was finding the “spiritual” side of the practice more “spiritual.”

Until, he tried to cheat.

Herrigel says that he continued to have difficulty with the release. The Master gives an illustration about a leaf (47–48), in which he notes that a leaf, when covered with snow, will bend until the snow falls off. Then it snaps back into place without putting forth any effort. Such is the release, but Herrigel decided to weaken his hand, consciously, until the string zipped out of his hand. Herrigel tells it this way:

The very first shot I let off after the recommencement of the lessons was, to my mind, a brilliant success. The loose was smooth, unexpected. The Master looked at me for a while and then said hesitantly, like one who can scarcely believe his eyes: “Once again, please!” My second shot seemed to me even better than the first. The Master stepped up to me without a word, took the bow from my hand, and sat down on a cushion, his back towards me. . . .

The next day [our translator] informed me that the Master declined to instruct me any further because I had tried to cheat him” (50).

Horrified, Herrigel protested, saying he did not intend for the new release to be a cheating, and, through the intercession of the translator, Mr. Komachiya, the Master agreed to instruct him again after Herrigel promised not “to offend again against the spirit of the ‘Great Doctrine'” (51).

Master noted that Herrigel’s worries about progression were hindering his progression. “The way to the goal is not to be measured! Of what importance are weeks, months, years?” The Master then talks about “It.” What is this “It”? Well, it’s mysterious. “‘It’ shoots. . . . ‘It’ waits at the highest tension.”

Herrigel notes that as time continued on, he began to care less and less about the time passing and about what the “It” was. Again, Herrigel, tells it thus:

I lived from one day to the next . . . and in the end ceased to bemoan the fact that all my efforts of the last few years had become meaningless.

Then, one day, after a shot, the Master made a deep bow and broke off the lesson. “Just then ‘It’ shot!” he cried, as I stared at him bewildered (52).

Herrigel let out a shout of delight. The Master warned that his statement “was not praise, only a statement that ought not to touch you. Nor was my bow meant for you, for you are innocent of this shot. You remained this time absolutely self-oblivious and without purpose in the highest tension, so that the shot fell from you like a ripe fruit. Now go on practicing as if nothing happened” (53).

Time went on, and Herrigel continued to loose the increasingly unloosed shot.

The Master decided it was time to add a target, set at 60 feet.

The master demonstrated, shooting twice and hitting the target twice. Then he instructed Herrigel to shoot at the target. His first shot falls short; the Master tells him to shoot as if the target was infinitely far away, drawing a deep sense of spiritual strength. Herrigel continues to question; Master gives a miraculous target shooting display at night. Herrigel continues to practice. Then,

[o]ne day the Master cried out the moment my shot was loosed: “It is there! Bow down to the goal!”

The Master broke off lessons for the day so that it ended with a “right shot,” counseling, “You know already that you should not grieve over bad shots; learn now not to rejoice over good ones” (60).

Herrigel concludes this chapter with an exchange between he and the Master, in which the Master asks whether he understands how “It” shoots and not Herrigel himself? Herrigel says that he doesn’t understand anything, even simple things are “in a muddle. . . . For as soon as I take a bow and shoot, everything becomes so clear and straightforward and so rediculously simple—” The Master cut him off, saying, “[T]he bowstring has cut right through you” (61).

After five years in total, Herrigel passed a test to become certified, so to speak, as an archer. His time in Japan had come to an end, and, as he prepared to return to Germany, the Master gave him a bow and told him to send pictures of him practicing with it, saying he would know everything by looking at his technique.

A final warning from the Master,

You have become a different person in the course of these years. For this is what the art of archery means: a profound and far-reaching contest of the archer with himself. Perhaps you have hardly noticed it yet, but you will feel it very strongly when you meet your friends and acquaintances again in your own country: things will no longer harmonize as before. You will see with other eyes and measure with other measures. It has happened to me too, and it happens to all who are touched by the spirit of this art (65–66).

I do wonder whether Herrigel kept up his training when he returned to Germany—1940s Germany! In all, this book helped me get an insight into Zen, which, as the Master notes, doesn’t really help one know Zen. Knowledge isn’t knowledge, and no-knowledge isn’t no-knowledge. Such is Zen. Such is the spiritual life, methinks.

I did find it interesting to see spots where Christians and Zen Buddhists share common ground—and that that common ground is in contemplation. As Tai Sheridan said in Buddha in Blue Jeans, you learn life in silence.

This is not to say that Zen and Christianity are saying the same thing. There are important differences that faithful adherents to each faith must acknowledge—the utmost for Christians is that Jesus is the Word, the fullest revelation of God’s self—but it is to say that silence draws us nearer to the Ultimate, who is mystery. And that that silence is a central necessity of life for both Christians and Zen Buddhists.

Moreover, the themes of self-forgetfulness speak across traditions. Christians, who are to have the mind of Christ—”who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”—must practice self-forgetfulness, humility, kenosis. For emptying oneself—kenosis—is the True life.

So, to the extent that the art of archery is self-forgetfulness, there is much wisdom in the Master’s counsel to his students: “Focus your minds on what happens in the practice-hall. Walk past everything without noticing it, as if there were only one thing in the world that is important and real, and that is archery!” (34).

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