Review: Zen in the Art of Archery

Cover Photo

Zen in the Art of Archery

For most people, this book needs no introduction. But just in case someone has been living on a deserted island for the past 60 years, it describes the experiences of the author, Eugen Herrigel, as he studied and practiced kyudo while working at his “day job” as a visiting professor of philosophy at Tohoku University in Sendai, 1924-1929. His kyudo teacher was the legendary Awa Kenzo. The book does not dwell on the physical aspects of kyudo, the hassetsu, etc, but focuses instead on the inner journey of the author and on his interactions with Awa. On that account it is extremely valuable whether one practices kyudo or not, and I think Suzuki Daisetsu, who wrote a foreword, was correct to call it a “wonderful little book.”

Although little (81 pages), the text is dense, shifting back and forth between Herrigel’s encounters in the dojo, and the thoughts and emotions he goes through as he perseveres in training which can only be described as “old school.” Herrigel spends the first three of his five years of in front of the makiwara, repeating the basics over and over and over and over until he is able to draw the bow and release the arrow in a way that satisfies his teacher, the way that Awa describes as “spiritual.” Only when that is accomplished does Herrigel graduate to the mato, and I have no doubt this will strike modern students as extreme.

How many of us would have the patience to spend three years shooting at the makiwara, trying and trying, only to once again have the teacher demonstrate, and then be told “Do it again!” Maybe only the fortunate few whose first teacher is a master, and who somehow intuit the depths behind what at first looks so simple? Or maybe it is because Herrigel began his apprenticeship with the aim of finding the spiritual target (as opposed to just “punching holes in a piece of paper”) that Awa took him so seriously? Herrigel wrote:

    The Japanese pupil brings with him three things: good education, passionate love for his chosen art, and uncritical veneration of his teacher… As though he had no higher aspirations he bows under his burden with a kind of obtuse devotion, only to discover in the course of years that the forms which he perfectly masters no longer oppress but liberate. [pp. 40-41]

But if Herrigel needed tremendous patience to put up with the pace of his training, imagine how much more patience Awa must have had to teach that way, never knowing if the effort would bear fruit. Indeed I wonder about that sometimes about my own teachers. They give up so much of their own time, and of themselves, yet accept no pay at all. The only other teachers I have met like that were Buddhist monks.

In any case, the results can’t really be argued with. Despite shooting at the mato for only two years, when Herrigel took part in a shinsa toward the end of his stay in Japan, he was awarded 5-dan, a rank that would take someone these days ten years or more to achieve despite shooting at the mato virtually the entire time. I can’t help thinking that I should go back to the makiwara myself for a while.

But that aside, what someone reading this book for the first time will probably find most intriguing is Awa and the dramatic events of the story, which are not lacking. Herrigel’s descriptions of encounters and conversations with Awa are written in a very clear and straightforward way. By contrast, his own inner dialogue as he considers and reconsiders the matters at hand read like they were written by, well, an early twentieth-century German philosopher (even worse — a Kant scholar), and can be difficult to penetrate unless you already know, or have a sense of, what he is talking about. In this, however, we do at least have the benefit of hindsight. People these days have more opportunities to learn about (and practice!) Zen, and Buddhism in general, than Herrigel or most other Westerners at that time ever did. And kyudo, too, thanks in no small part to Herrigel, is no longer quite the mystery it once was. But back then these were both largely unexplored territory. Yet for all that, Herrigel’s story, his encounters with himself, remain quite fresh, and I suspect this is because his journey is the same one everyone goes through if they have the will to keep at it.

What I find captures my attention more on re-reading the book are Herrigel’s own thoughts, and especially the conversations with Awa:

    The right shot at the right moment does not come because you do not let go of yourself. You do not wait for fulfilment, 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… [pg. 30]

I have to admit that probably does describe my state of mind sometimes. A Japanese author on budo once said that much of the time what causes us to fail is that we essentially sabotage ourselves, wanting the tension of the moment to end, rather than allowing it to fulfil itself.

I found the copy shown here in Tokyo, but it should be easy to find in any book shop. US list price $10.95. Note that this is a translation from the German, Zen in der Kunst des Bogenschießens, which is available from Amazon. There is also a Japanese translation,「弓と禅」, available in Japan, hardcover list price ¥1,400 plus tax.

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