Book Notes #19: Zen in the Art of Archery

by | Jan 16, 2024

I read this book because I’ve heard a lot about it.

I also read it because it’s short (~81 pages), and I was looking for a small read over the holidays. Why not something about zen?

Zen In the Art of Archery
By Eugen Herrigel

Though this book is brief, it’s rich (and dense) with wisdom. I found myself having to go back and read sentences and passages a second and third time to fully absorb the meaning. And even then, I still feel like I have more to learn from the timeless wisdom in these pages.

In the preface, Eugen Herrigel explains that he had given a lecture in 1936 which was published in a Japanese magazine on the topic of “The Chivalrous Art of Archery,” which continued to generate interest. So, he published his fuller account of learning archery during his years in Japan.

A religious ritual

Archery isn’t just a sport but religious ritual. Herrigel explains that the act of preparation, aiming, loosing the arrow can have a spiritual significance. Because one has to concentrate and ultimately know oneself, this physical activity is governed by precise and particular mental activities.

“For them the contests in the archer aiming at himself – and yet not at himself, in hitting himself – and yet not himself – and thus becoming simultaneously the aimer and the aim, the hitter and the hit…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.”

A pathway to Zen

Herrigel makes clear that he chooses archery as a pathway to Zen. There are other paths such as the Japanese tea ceremony or flower arrangement. The key is in learning and becoming the process and ultimately surrendering to the process until there is mastery of craft and, most importantly, self. Archery is just one school for achieving Zen.

He summarizes the elusive goal:

“Zen must seem the strangest riddle which the spiritual life of the East has ever devised: insoluble and yet irresistibly attractive…Zen is akin to introspective mysticism.”

Finding the master

When Herrigel lived in Japan, he sought the help of Master Kenzo Awa to teach him archery. But the master rebuffed him initially, not wanting to take on a foreigner. But he eventually relented and the mentorship and lessons began in earnest.

Master spent much time going over the mechanics of how to draw the bow properly.

“To be able to draw the bow ‘spiritually’ after a year, that is, with a kind of effortless strength, is no very startling achievement.”

The ease of archery

When someone attains mastery, the whole process becomes easy. It becomes fluid. Of course, when the Master looses the bow, it looks like child’s play.

“You must hold the drawn bowstring…like a little child holding the proffered finger. It grips it so firmly that one marvels at the strength of the tiny fist. And when it lets the finger go, there is not the slightest jerk. Do you know why? Because the child doesn’t think: ‘I will now let go of the finger in order to grasp this other thing.’”

Aimless Art

The Master advises that the purpose of art is to be aimless. The more you aim for the bullseye or goal, the more you will become frustrated. You have to trust in the process. When you let go and detach is when you find mastery of knowing oneself. It’s through practice and repetition that you make progress.

“Stop thinking about the shot!”

“That way is bound to fail.”

The power of breathing

Master advises his pupil on the importance and power of breathing. When you focus on your breath, the less you’re focused on other things. It’s a way of focusing the mind.

“Care has only to be taken that the body is relaxed whether standing, sitting, or lying and if one then concentrates on breathing, one feels oneself shut in impermeable layers of silence. Only one knows and feels that one breathes. And, to detach 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, escape one’s attention altogether.”

The ego of self-validation

Practicing the arts can be a form of self-validation, or fully embracing one’s ego. Achievement can be a trap. We have to focus on detaching from our own aspirations and goals.

“In other words, of behaving as if the artistic existence were a form of life that bore witness to its own validity. The teacher foresees this danger. Carefully and with the adroitness of a psychopomp he seeks to head the pupil off in time and to detach him from himself.”

“Its not for nothing that the Samurai have chosen for their truest symbol the fragile cherry blossom. Like a petal dropping in the morning sunlight and floating serenely to earth, so must the fearless detach himself from life, silent and inwardly unmoved.”

The unity of practice

Through practice and dedication, the practitioner becomes the practice.

“Bow, arrow, goal, and ego all melt into one another, so that I can no longer separate them.”