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Zen in the Art of Archery

Eugen Herrigel

  • Preface
  • Chapter I.
  • By archery in the traditional sense, which he esteems as an art and honors as a national heritage, the Japanese does not understand a sport but, strange as this may sound at first, a religious ritual.
  • This sounds puzzling, no doubt. What, the reader will say, are we to believe that archery, once practiced for the contest of life and death, has not survived even as a sport, but has been degraded to a spiritual exercise? Of what use, then, are the bow and arrow and target? Does not this deny the manly old art and honest meaning of archery, and set up in its place something nebulous, if not positively fantastic?
  • The “Great Doctrine” of archery tells us something very different. According to it, archery is still a matter of life and death to the extent that it is a contest of the archer with himself; and this kind of contest is not a paltry substitute, but the foundation of all contests outwardly directed—for instance with a bodily opponent. In this contest of the archer with himself is revealed the secret essence of this art, and instruction in it does not suppress anything essential by waiving the utilitarian ends to which the practice of knightly contests was put.
  • Or, to use some expressions which are nearest the heart of the Masters, it is necessary for the archer to become, in spite of himself, an unmoved centre. Then comes the supreme and ultimate miracle: art becomes “artless”, shooting becomes not-shooting, a shooting without bow and arrow; the teacher becomes a pupil again, the Master a beginner, the end a beginning, and the beginning perfection.
  • I mean Dhyana Buddhism, which is known in Japan as “Zen” and is not speculation at all but immediate experience of what, as the bottomless ground of Being, cannot be apprehended by intellectual means, and cannot be conceived or interpreted even after the most unequivocal and incontestable experiences: one knows it by not knowing it.
  • Bow and arrow are only a pretext for something that could just as well happen without them, only the way to a goal, not the goal itself, only helps for the last decisive leap.
  • The reason for this painful feeling of inaccessibility lies, to some extent, in the style of exposition that has hitherto been adopted for Zen. No reasonable person would expect a Zen adept to do more than hint at the experiences which have liberated and changed him, or to attempt to describe the unimaginable and ineffable “Truth” by which he now lives. In this respect Zen is akin to pure introspective mysticism.
  • Yet the man who is transformed by Zen, and who has passed through the “fire of truth”, leads far too convincing a life for it to be overlooked. So it is not asking too much if, driven by a feeling of spiritual affinity, and desirous of finding a way to the nameless power which can work such miracles—for the merely curious have no right to demand anything—we expect the Zen adept at least to describe the way that leads to the goal.
  • No less decisive, on the other hand, is the fact that his experiences, his conquests and spiritual transformations, so long as they still remain “his”, must be conquered and transformed again and again until everything “his” is annihilated. Only in this way can he attain a basis for experiences which, as the “all-embracing Truth,” rouse him to a life that is no longer his everyday, personal life. He lives, but what lives is no longer himself.
  • So understood, the art of archery is rather like a preparatory school for Zen, for it enables the beginner to gain a clearer view, through the works of his own hands, of events which are not in themselves intelligible. Objectively speaking, it would be entirely possible to make one’s way to Zen from any one of the arts I have named.
  • To be more precise, I shall try to summarize the six-year course of instruction I received from one of the greatest Masters of this art during my stay in Japan. So it is my own experiences which authorize me in this undertaking. In order to make myself intelligible at all—for even this preparatory school holds riddles enough—I have no alternative but to recollect in detail all the resistances I had to overcome, all the inhibitions I had to fight down, before I succeeded in penetrating into the spirit of the Great Doctrine.
  • Everything must hinge on the art of archery, which, I sometimes feel, is even more difficult to expound than to learn; and the exposition must be carried to the point where we begin to discern those far-off horizons behind which Zen lives and breathes.
  • Chapter II.
  • I had realized, therefore, that there is and can be no other way to mysticism than the way of personal experience and suffering, and that, if this premise is lacking, all talk about it is so much empty chatter.
  • When, therefore, I was asked—I had in the meantime become a lecturer at a university—whether I would like to teach philosophy at the University of Tokyo, I welcomed this opportunity of getting to know the country and people of Japan with especial joy, if only because it held out the prospect of my making contact with Buddhism and hence with an introspective practice of mysticism.
  • Thereupon I was informed that it was quite hopeless for a European to attempt to penetrate into this realm of spiritual life—perhaps the strangest which the Far East has to offer—unless he began by learning one of the Japanese arts associated with Zen.
  • But to which of the arts named for this purpose should I subscribe? My wife, after a little hesitation, decided for flower arrangement and painting, while the art of archery seemed more suitable for me, on the—as it later turned out—completely erroneous assumption that my experiences in rifle and pistol shooting would be to my advantage.
  • the celebrated Master Kenzo Awa. The Master at first refused my request, saying that he had once been misguided enough to instruct a foreigner and had regretted the experience ever since. He was not prepared to make concessions a second time, in order to spare the pupil the burden of the peculiar spirit of this art. Only when I protested that a Master who took his job so seriously could well treat me as his youngest pupil, seeing that I wished to learn this art not for pleasure but for the sake of the “Great Doctrine”, did he accept me as his pupil, together with my wife,
  • Chapter III.
  • But it seemed even more important to him that we should note the noble form which the bow—it is over six feet long—assumes as soon as it is strung, and which appears the more surprising the further the bow is drawn. When drawn to its full extent, the bow encloses the “All” in itself, explained the Master, and that is why it is important to learn how to draw it properly.
  • Even at the first attempt with a medium-strong practice-bow I noticed that I had to use considerable force to bend it. This is because the Japanese bow, unlike the European sporting bow, is not held at shoulder level, in which position you can, as it were, press yourself into it. Rather, as soon as the arrow is nocked, the bow is held up with arms at nearly full stretch,
  • The strength needed for this unusual method of holding and drawing the bow caused my hands to start trembling after a few moments, and my breathing became more and more labored.
  • To comfort myself, I hit upon the thought that there must be a trick somewhere which the Master for some reason would not divulge, and I staked my ambition on its discovery.
  • But the day came when it was I who lost patience and brought myself to admit that I absolutely could not draw the bow in the manner prescribed. “You cannot do it,” explained the Master, “because you do not breathe right. 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. If it is done properly, you will feel the shooting becoming easier every day. For through this breathing you will not only discover the source of all spiritual strength but will also cause this source to flow more abundantly, and to pour more easily through your limbs the more relaxed you are.”
  • I cannot think back to those days without recalling, over and over again, how difficult I found it, in the beginning, to get my breathing to work out right. Though I breathed in technically the right way, whenever I tried to keep my arm and shoulder muscles relaxed while drawing the bow the muscles of my legs stiffened all the more violently, as though my life depended on a firm foothold and secure stance, and as though, like Antaeus, I had to draw strength from the ground.
  • Concentrate entirely on your breathing, as if you had nothing else to do!” It took me a considerable time before I succeeded in doing what the Master wanted. But—I succeeded. I learned to lose myself so effortlessly in the breathing that I sometimes had the feeling that I myself was not breathing but—strange as this may sound—being breathed.
  • Now and then, and in the course of time more and more frequently, I managed to draw the bow and keep it drawn until the moment of release while remaining completely relaxed in body, without my being able to say how it happened. The qualitative difference between these few successful shots and the innumerable failures was so convincing that I was ready to admit that now at last I understood what was meant by drawing the bow “spiritually”.
  • Chapter IV.
  • The next thing to be learned was the “loosing” of the arrow. Up to now we had been allowed to do this haphazard:
  • Hitherto I had simply let go of the bowstring when the hold at the point of highest tension had become unendurable, when I felt I had to give way if my parted hands were not forcibly to be pulled together again.
  • When drawing, the thumb is wrapped round the bowstring immediately below the arrow, and tucked in. The first three fingers are gripped over it firmly, and at the same time give the arrow a secure hold. Loosing therefore means opening the fingers that grip the thumb and setting it free. Through the tremendous pull of the string the thumb is wrenched from its position, stretched out, the string whirrs and the arrow flies. When I had loosed hitherto, the shot had never gone off without a powerful jerk, which made itself felt in a visible shaking of my whole body and affected the bow and arrow as well. That there could be no possibility of a smooth and, above all, certain shot goes without saying: it was bound to “wobble”.
  • Only now, when expressly watching out for it, did I observe that though the right hand of the Master, suddenly opened and released by the tension, flew back with a jerk, it did not cause the least shaking of the body. The right arm, which before the shot had formed an acute angle, was jerked open, but ran gently back into full extension.
  • However that may be, I went on practicing diligently and conscientiously according to the Master’s instructions, and yet all my efforts were in vain. Often it seemed to me that I had shot better before, when I loosed the shot at random without thinking about it. Above all I noticed that I could not open the right hand, and particularly the fingers gripping the thumb, without exertion. The result was a jerk at the moment of release, so that the arrow wobbled. Still less was I capable of cushioning the suddenly freed hand. The Master continued undeterred to demonstrate the correct loose; undeterred I sought to do like him—with the sole result that I grew more uncertain than ever. I seemed like the centipede which was unable to stir from the spot after trying to puzzle out in what order its feet ought to go.
  • “I understand well enough,” I said, “that the hand mustn’t be opened with a jerk if the shot is not to be spoiled. But however I set about it, it always goes wrong. If I clench my hand as tightly as possible, I can’t stop it shaking when I open my fingers. If, on the other hand, I try to keep it relaxed, the bowstring is torn from my grasp before the full stretch is reached—unexpectedly, it is true, but still too early. I am caught between these two kinds of failure and see no way of escape.”
  • “You have described only too well,” replied the Master, “where the difficulty lies. 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. So long as that is so, you have no choice but to call forth something yourself that ought to happen independently of you, and so long as you call it forth your hand will not open in the right way—like the hand of a child: it does not burst open like the skin of a ripe fruit.”
  • “The right art,” cried the Master, “is purposeless, aimless! The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one and the further the other will recede. 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.”
  • “What must I do, then?” I asked thoughtfully. “You must learn to wait properly.” “And how does one learn that?” “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.” “So I must become purposeless—on purpose?” I heard myself say. “No pupil has ever asked me that, so I don’t know the right answer.”
  • Chapter V.
  • This conversation—the first intimate talk I had had since the beginning of my instruction—puzzled me exceedingly.
  • During the next lesson the Master—to my disappointment—went on with the previous exercises: drawing, holding, and loosing. But all this encouragement availed nothing. Although I tried, in accordance with his instructions, not to give way to the tension, but to struggle beyond it as though no limits were set by the nature of the bow; although I strove to wait until the tension simultaneously fulfilled and loosed itself in the shot—despite all my efforts every shot miscarried; bewitched, botched, wobbling.
  • “When you come to the lessons in the future,” he warned us, “you must collect yourselves on your way here. 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!”
  • The demand that the door of the senses be closed is not met by turning energetically away from the sensible world, but rather by a readiness to yield without resistance. In order that this actionless activity may be accomplished instinctively, the soul needs an inner hold, and it wins it by concentrating on breathing. This is performed consciously and with a conscientiousness that borders on the pedantic.
  • One only knows and feels that one breathes. And, to detach oneself from this feeling and knowing, no fresh decision is required, for the breathing slows down of its own accord, becomes more and more economical in the use of breath, and finally, slipping by degrees into a blurred monotone, escapes one’s attention altogether.
  • This exquisite state of unconcerned immersion in oneself is not, unfortunately, of long duration. It is liable to be disturbed from inside. As though sprung from nowhere, moods, feelings, desires, worries and even thoughts incontinently rise up, in a meaningless jumble, and the more far-fetched and preposterous they are, and the less they have to do with that on which one has fixed one’s consciousness, the more tenaciously they hang on.
  • In this way one gradually gets into a state which resembles the melting drowsiness on the verge of sleep. To slip into it finally is the danger that has to be avoided. It is met by a peculiar leap of concentration,
  • This state, in which nothing definite is thought, planned, striven for, desired or expected, which aims in no particular direction and yet knows itself capable alike of the possible and the impossible, so unswerving is its power—this state, which is at bottom purposeless and egoless, was called by the Master truly “spiritual”.
  • Like 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. This state is essentially a primordial state, and its symbol, the empty circle, is not empty of meaning for him who stands within it.
  • The necessary detachment and self-liberation, the inward-turning and intensification of life until full presence of mind is reached, are therefore not left to chance or to favorable conditions, the less so as the more depends on them, and least of all are they abandoned to the process of creation itself—which already demands all the artist’s powers—in the hope that the desired concentration will appear of its own accord.
  • But, from the time he succeeds in capturing it not merely at rare intervals but in having it at his finger tips in a few moments, the concentration, like the breathing, is brought into connection with archery. In order to slip the more easily into the process of drawing the bow and loosing the shot, the archer, kneeling to one side and beginning to concentrate, rises to his feet, ceremoniously steps up to the target and, with a deep obeisance, offers the bow and arrow like consecrated gifts, then nocks the arrow, raises the bow, draws it and waits in an attitude of supreme spiritual alertness.
  • After the lightning release of the arrow and the tension, the archer remains in the posture adopted immediately following the shot until, after slowly expelling his breath, he is forced to draw air again. Then only does he let his arms sink, bows to the target and, if he has no more shots to discharge, steps quietly into the background. Archery thus becomes a ceremony which exemplifies the “Great Doctrine”.
  • If everything depends on the archer’s becoming purposeless and effacing himself in the event, then its outward realization must occur automatically, in no further need of the controlling or reflecting intelligence.
  • Chapter VI.
  • It is this mastery of form that the Japanese method of instruction seeks to inculcate. Practice, repetition, and repetition of the repeated with ever increasing intensity are its distinctive features for long stretches of the way.
  • He grows daily more capable of following any inspiration without technical effort, and also of letting inspiration come to him through meticulous observation. The hand that guides the brush has already caught and executed what floated before the mind at the same moment as the mind began to form it, and in the end the pupil no longer knows which of the two—mind or hand—was responsible for the work.
  • As in the case of archery, there can be no question but that these arts are ceremonies. More clearly than the teacher could express it in words, they tell the pupil that the right frame of mind for the artist is only reached when the preparing and the creating, the technical and the artistic, the material and the spiritual, the project and the object, flow together without a break.
  • Thus the teacher lets his pupil voyage onward through himself. But the pupil, with growing receptiveness, lets the teacher bring to view something of which he has often heard but whose reality is only now beginning to become tangible on the basis of his own experiences. It is immaterial what name the teacher gives it, whether indeed he names it at all. The pupil understands him even when he keeps silent.
  • The inward work, however, consists in his turning the man he is, and the self he feels himself and perpetually finds himself to be, into the raw material of a training and shaping whose end is mastery. In it, the artist and the human being meet in something higher. For mastery proves its validity as a form of life only when it dwells in the boundless Truth and, sustained by it, becomes the art of the origin.
  • Steep is the way to mastery. Often nothing keeps the pupil on the move but his faith in his teacher, whose mastery is now beginning to dawn on him. He is a living example of the inner work, and he convinces by his mere presence.
  • Chapter VII.
  • Day by day I found myself slipping more easily into the ceremony which sets forth the “Great Doctrine” of archery, carrying it out effortlessly or, to be more precise, feeling myself being carried through it as in a dream.
  • Waiting at the point of highest tension not only became so tiring that the tension relaxed, but so agonizing that I was constantly wrenched out of my self-immersion and had to direct my attention to discharging the shot. “Stop thinking about the shot!” the Master called out. “That way it is bound to fail.” “I can’t help it,” I answered, “the tension gets too painful.”
  • In spite of everything I could do or did not do, I was unable to wait until the shot “fell”. As before, I had no alternative but to loose it on purpose. And this obstinate failure depressed me all the more since I had already passed my third year of instruction.
  • We spent our summer holidays by the sea, in the solitude of a quiet, dreamy landscape distinguished for its delicate beauty. We had taken our bows with us as the most important part of our equipment. Day out and day in I concentrated on loosing the shot. This had become an idée fixe, which caused me to forget more and more the Master’s warning that we should not practice anything except self-detaching immersion.
  • If, after drawing the bow, I cautiously eased the pressure of the fingers on the thumb, the moment came when the thumb, no longer held fast, was torn out of position as if spontaneously: in this way a lightning loose could be made and the shot would obviously “fall like snow from a bamboo leaf.”
  • I was able to convince myself very quickly that I must be on the right track. Almost every shot went off smoothly and unexpectedly, to my way of thinking. Naturally I did not overlook the reverse side of this triumph: the precision work of the right hand demanded my full attention.
  • 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. I knew what that meant, and withdrew. The next day Mr. Komachiya informed me that the Master declined to instruct me any further because I had tried to cheat him. Horrified beyond measure by this interpretation of my behavior, I explained to Mr. Komachiya why, in order to avoid marking time forever, I had hit upon this method of loosing the shot. On his interceding for me, the Master was finally prepared to give in, but made the continuation of the lessons conditional upon my express promise never to offend again against the spirit of the “Great Doctrine”.
  • “You see what comes of not being able to wait without purpose in the state of highest tension. You cannot even learn to do this without continually asking yourself: Shall I be able to manage it? Wait patiently, and see what comes—and how it comes!” I pointed out to the Master that I was already in my fourth year and that my stay in Japan was limited. “The way to the goal is not to be measured! Of what importance are weeks, months, years?”
  • One day I asked the Master: “How can the shot be loosed if ‘I’ do not do it?” “‘It’ shoots,” he replied.
  • I lived from one day to the next, did my professional work as best I might, and in the end ceased to bemoan the fact that all my efforts of the last few years had become meaningless.
  • Only after a considerable time did more right shots occasionally come off, which the Master signalized by a deep bow. How it happened that they loosed themselves without my doing anything, how it came about that my tightly closed right hand suddenly flew back wide open, I could not explain then and I cannot explain today. The fact remains that it did happen, and that alone is important. But at least I got to the point of being able to distinguish, on my own, the right shots from the failures. The qualitative difference is so great that it cannot be overlooked once it has been experienced.
  • The heart continues to beat evenly and quietly, and with concentration undisturbed one can go straight on to the next shot. But inwardly, for the archer himself, right shots have the effect of making him feel that the day has just begun. He feels in the mood for all right doing, and, what is perhaps even more important, for all right not-doing. Delectable indeed is this state. But he who has it, said the Master with a subtle smile, would do well to have it as though he did not have it. Only unbroken equanimity can accept it in such a way that it is not afraid to come back.
  • Chapter VIII.