“Zen in the Art of Archery”

zen in the art of archery

I don’t know how I missed this book until now.

Maybe it’s cause there’s so many books that sound like it?

But this one is old, published in 1953, which may make it one of the originals of the “Zen in the art of …” books.

It’s fairly short, but fully worth the read, like many good martial art books. I’m only about a third of the way through it now, but am finding it to be an essential for anyone practicing kyudo.

The book is written by the German philosophy professor, Eugen Herrigel, who was sent to give lectures in Tokyo between the wars. The beginning of the book sounds very much like it’s written by a philosophy professor half a century ago, cerebral and analytical. He describes how his fascination in mysticism led him to Buddhism, which led to the Zen sect. It sounds very much like he could be describing any other exotic relgion from around the world, looking at it from behind a glass and thick rubber gloves. At first Herrigel sought out a zen teacher, but was denied. At that point he was told he should find a kind of “introductory” practice to zen, something that could perhaps prepare him for real zen practice. With this he was introduced to kyudo.

His opinions and experiences come off … innocent. But that’s kind of the interesting part. In the modern world just about anybody can come to Japan, and just about anyone from a English speaking country can live here as long as they like (teaching English). Basically you can buy the experience without having to go all that far. But back half a century ago it wasn’t like this. The rift between cultures was all the more steep, with very little information to go on. Given this, it’s interesting to see a “real foreigner” go through “real Japan”.

What’s also interesting about this book is that Herrigel is the student of Awa Kenzo, one of the most famous archers in kyudo history. His name is well known among modern kyudoka. I actually first came in contact with him in the Takaoka Dojo back in Toyama. There was a black and white picture of a man shooting a bow in a frame on the wall. The same man could be seen on a series of black and white photos that always seemed to be floating around the dojo somewhere. I didn’t know who it was at first, but DAMN the guy looked cool. He was dressed in formal kimono pulling the bow and had substantial muscles bulging from his shoulders and back. He also had a really badass goatee that could have been 10 cm long. Without knowing anything, he was inspirational to me. When I asked about the photo, one of the teachers of the dojo explained that he’s a famous archer from the Meiji Period, and is considered somewhat of a god in kyudo circles. It is said he was very strict, but a genius in the art. I later found out more about him in the wonderful book, “Zen Bow, Zen Arrow: The Life and Teachings of Awa Kenzo” by John Stevens. The book gives a few details and stories of his life, plus a lot of invaluable quotes from the man. (Much of which will surely appear throughout this blog in the future.)I found out about this book from that, and they’re both great.

This is the first picture I saw of Awa Kenzo.
This is the first picture I saw of Awa Kenzo.

Anyway, enough of introductions. Below I will leave an excerpt I would like to share on the mystery of kyudo. The below excerpt is of a conversation between Herrigel and Kenzo, written from the first person. It starts with Kenzo:

‘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.’

I had to admit to the Master that this interpretation made me more confused than ever. ‘For ultimately’ I said, ‘I draw the bow and loose the shot in order to hit the target. The drawing is thus a means to an end, and I cannot lose sight of this connection. The child knows nothing of this, but for me the two things cannot be disconnected.’

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 wilful will. You think that what you do not do yourself does not happen.’

But you yourself have told me often enough that archery is not a pastime, not a purposeless game, but a matter of life and death!’

I stand by that. We master archers say: one shot – one life! What this means, you cannot yet understand. But perhaps another image will help you, which expresses the same experience. We master archers say: with the upper end of the bow the archer pierces the sky, on the lower end, as though attached by a thread hangs the earth. If the shot is loosed with a jerk there is a danger of the thread snapping. For purposeful and violent people the rift becomes final, and they are left in the awful centre between heaven and earth.’

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 deciseively 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.’

And when do we begin these new excercises?’

Wait until it is time.”

A picture of Awa Kenzo in full draw, and after the release in zanshin.
A picture of Awa Kenzo in full draw, and after the release in zanshin.

So true.

So difficult.

So beautiful.




5 thoughts on ““Zen in the Art of Archery”

  1. For an even fuller draw, have a looksie here:

    1. Wow, thanks for revealing this article to me! It looks very interesting and deals with a few reservations I have about the book and it’s idea as well. After a more thorough read I’ll surely make a future post about this article. Thank you very much.

    1. Crazy stuff. Like many others, I can’t completely agree with all the connections and presumptions he makes with zen and kyudo, but that aside, a great book every kyudoka should read. Thanks for the comment!

  2. In the Book, Zen Bow Zen Arrow the author basically says, those who are saying Herrigel is talking out his Butt, are themselves speaking from there.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s