Review of “Zen in the Art of Archery”

While under the unforgiving sun of India, an opportunity presented itself to attend a silent meditation retreat in Dharmasala, a city flooded with Tibetan refugees.  At first hesitant to commit myself to what I was sure was going to be ten days of silent agony, I arrived at the monastery plagued with reservations.  The first few days were, in all honesty, as brutal as expected, as never had I gone so long without speaking a word.  The days were constituted of meditation, reading and yoga.  After the first week, however, I began cultivating an acute awareness of the thoughts that hijacked my mind and kept me so hopelessly distracted while meditating. Eugen Herrigel articulates it best in his work, Zen in the Art of Archery, when he speaks of all the “moods, feelings, desires, worries and even thoughts that incontinently rise up in a meaningless jumble” (36). Herrigel’s reflection of this struggle is an insight into the difficulties that are enviably encountered in one pursuit of spirituality, whether it be through the medium of archery or silent meditation.  Eugen Herrigel was a German professor of philosophy.  Initially drawn to mysticism, he sought to understand Zen Buddhism through practicing the art of archery.  His colleague Soza Komachiya, who had been taking lessons in archery for over 20 years, agreed to introduce him to his former teacher Master Kenzo Awa.  Herrigel apprenticed himself to this Zen Master for nearly six years while residing in Japan.  His experience serves as the inspiration for this book.

The ‘artless art’ of archery is ultimately a contest between the archer and himself.  It is rooted, Herrigel explains, in an aspiration to attain an egoless state and actually has little to do with successfully hitting the target.  In fact, the target was not even introduced into Eugen’s instruction until late into the practice. The pursuit is not one of sport, but one of gradual mastery of one’s self.   Eugen Herrigel equates archery to “a preparatory school for Zen” (23). In a traditional sense, it is “a religious ritual” in which the skill of an athlete renders irrelevant. Thus, the ‘art’ of archery is fundamentally rooted in an individual’s ability to harness one’s spirituality.  It is believed that the sportsman has no control of the fate of the arrow, which will independently pursue it rightful place at the center of the target. Evidently inspired by Zen Buddhism, the idea that the archer must learn to aim at himself, not the target, and in doing so will “succeed in hitting himself” (14) is perhaps most intriguing concept connected with archery. As Herrigel’s book unfolds, the seemingly contradictory statements constituting the fundamentals of Zen and art of archery become increasingly logical.

Zen in the Art of Archery unveils how the relationship between the pupil and the Master is unparalleled.  Through his experiences, Eugen Herrigel admits that the “master knows his pupils” (23) often times better then the pupil knows himself and through this understanding the master is able to best instruct his subject. This wisdom is reciprocated by the unwavering devotion of his student, as “the Japanese pupil brings with him three things: good education, passionate love for his chosen art, and uncritical veneration of his teacher” (40).  At the commencement of his apprenticeship under Master Awa, Herrigel illustrates the necessity to surrender oneself to the will of the Master.  Although at times Herrigel confesses he did not completely understand the significance behind Awa’s instructions, he learned to do as he was told without questioning its purpose.  In the initial stages of his lessons, the Master placed a great emphasis on proper breathing and deep concentration, as it is a fundamental principal of Zen Buddhism. At first, Eugen found the breathing exercises not only difficult, but failed to grasp the significance of them.  Nonetheless, he devoted himself to the practice, having faith in his Master’s guidance.   After several months, he cultivated the ability to breath so effortlessly that at times he felt that it he himself was not who was “breathing but- strange as this may sound- being breathed”. He only began to understand the importance of breathing upon noticing the influence it had on his ability to effortlessly release the arrow.  Yet, he admits that the challenges encountered in one’s pursuit of Zen “cannot be overcome by breath-control alone, but only by withdrawing from all attachments whatsoever, by becoming utterly egoless”.   This, of course, takes time.

The “Great Doctrine” is not something that can be explained, it can only be understood through experience.  This is why whenever Eugen approached his Master with a question, Awa would often reply, “’don’t ask, practice’”(54).  After 3 years, Eugen began to worry that his efforts were all in vein, as he was unable to grasp the basic fundamentals of Zen Buddhism through archery.  His struggle was partly rooted in his inability to comprehend the concept of “it” loosing the bow, or in other words, the arrow loosing itself.  For hours on end, he would try to make sense of the idea that “’It’ shot and ‘It’ made the hit” (59). Despite the Master’s incessant instruction regarding the bowstring’s release, it took Eugen’s several years of diligent practice before he was able to perform the release the arrow both mentally and physically effortlessly.  Once able to loose this conscious control of his mind, he mastered the natural release of the arrow.  It was only at this point in his instruction that his Master introduced a target into Herrigel’s practice.

In his embrace of “the spirit of the Great Doctrine” (11), it becomes increasingly evident how the art of archery can yield the state of detachment, self-abandonment and purposelessness intrinsic to Zen Buddhism. Eugen Herrigel illustrates through his experience how the archer must first disentangle himself from all the attachments and distractions plaguing the mind before succeeding at the ‘art’ of archery.  His Master cultivates this understanding by reprimanding Eugen whenever he sees that, in reaction to his shot, Herrigel surrenders to a sentiment of either rejoice or disappointment. The archer must aspire, instead, to realize a state of utter indifference during shooting and in doing so achieves the desired state of selflessness.   It is through this self-abandonment that, Eugen’s Master explains, an archer is no longer present as ‘himself’.   The absence of the self and presence of the spirit alone renders an awareness that “shows no trace of egohood and for that reason ranges without limit through all distances and depths, with ‘eyes that hear and with ears that see’” (44).  This egoless state yields the ability to become one with the collective consciousness constituting the external environment.  No longer confined to the skin that separates him from the rest of the world, the archer becomes unable to differentiate himself from the arrow, the target and the bow.  The idea that everything in this world is connected is intrinsic to the fundamentals of Zen Buddhism. In time, Eugen learns that “the hits on the target are only the outward proof and confirmation of your purposelessness at its highest, of your egolessness, your self abandonment” (56).  Once you have grown truly egoless, you become indifferent to life or death, failure or success and thus “can break off at anytime” (51). The Master final lesson in detachment arrives at the conclusion of the apprenticeship when he hands over his sword to Eugen, asking that he takes it under the condition that when he has “‘passed beyond it, do not lay it up in remembrance! Destroy it, so that nothing remains but a heap of ashes’” (66).  Eugen accepts the sword and returns to Europe a different man.


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