Zen in the Art of Archery

Zen in the Art of Archery (1953, read 2018) ($4 Kindle, amazon.com link)

Herrigel Eugen

At sixty pages with simple English, this deserves its status as a classic, where it remains one of the easiest books to learn about philosophy, the subconscious, the self, etc.…. I am so grateful that I did not merely learn some Stoicism in my life, commit to one philosophy, or fail to grow out of Christianity. It is philosophy itself that is important – the act of philosophizing – and one needs no particular dogmatic commitment to these mental perspectives and prejudices.

Conversely, one’s practice should be committed, whether through archery, asanas, painting, gardening, massage, or anything else. Activities with a more physical component – the former over, say, typing or coding or graphic design based on the computer – are probably easier to perform and master. Or I may be wrong, and this may simply be related to dietary and break-focused cutoms.

I read Zen and I feel as though I am reading a source document or the foundation for diverse cultural references throughout my society’s in the last few decades: video games, movies, other books, comics, radio, songs, television, etc. I have finally read a little something – small but powerful – that many creators have read. The Kill Bill movies come to mind, as does the book Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which is probably a philosophical spin-off of this, and brings to my mind images of a solitary person ditching all his/her possessions to ride a motorcycle across China (I know, not Japan…) where philosophy is learn-ed! But regardless of my mind’s prejudices, this book was the origin for many such references.

Routine, routine, routine. Practice until there is no consciousness in the act. Throughout the way, take no pride when the act is executed perfectly, take no pain or disappointment when it is not, perform no differently in front of the wind alone or a full colosseum. For all I love about the exercise philosophy CrossFit, this book perfectly explains the flaws that comes about by avoiding routine and repetition. They are great and many.

The more I grow, the more I believe both the Japanese-influenced culture and the Pacific-filtered air in the islands crafted my being more than my parents, schools, friends, or anything else. And I think the points of this book – and all philosophy, for that matter – touch my insatiable curiosity for the quest of biology, the study of life. For the science only exists by first attempting to respond to one or two great philosophical questions; namely, What is life? or What is the difference between life and nonlife? The Taoist in me would argue – like the modern physicist – that there is none.

Reread often – it’s only sixty pages!



On the breath:

“ 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. ” And as if to prove it, he drew his strong bow and invited me to step behind him and feel his arm muscles. They were indeed quite relaxed, as though they were doing no work at all. . . . The Master attached so much importance to breathing out as slowly and steadily as possible to the very end, that, for better practice and control, he made us combine it with a humming note. Only when the note had died away with the last expiring breath were we allowed to draw air again. The breathing in, the Master once said, binds and combines ; by holding your breath you make everything go right ; and the breathing out loosens and completes by overcoming all limitations. But we could not understand that yet.


Thus, between these two states of bodily relaxedness on the one hand and spiritual freedom on the other there is a difference of level which cannot be overcome by breath – control alone, but only by withdrawing from all attachments whatsoever, by becoming utterly egoless: so that the soul, sunk within itself, stands in the plenitude of its nameless origin.


The more one concentrates on breathing, the more the external stimuli fade into the background.


Overthinking and confusion:

“You must hold the drawn bowstring,” answered the Master, “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 a child doesn’t think : ‘I will now let go of the finger in order to grasp this other thing.’ Completely unself – consciously, without purpose, it turns from one to the other, and we would say that it was playing with the things, were it not equally true that the things are playing with the child.


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.


Great prose and general lessons:

[On the Master] “He reads in the souls of his pupils more than they care to admit.”


“ I can’t help it, ” I answered, “ the tension gets too painful. ” “ You only feel it because you haven’t really let go of yourself. It is all so simple. You can learn from an ordinary bamboo leaf what ought to happen. It bends lower and lower under the weight of snow. Suddenly the snow slips to the ground without the leaf having stirred. Stay like that at the point of highest tension until the shot falls from you. So, indeed, it is : when the tension is fulfilled, the shot must fall, it must fall from the archer like snow from a bamboo leaf, before he even thinks it. ”


“He who has a hundred miles to walk should reckon ninety as half the journey,” he replied, quoting the proverb. “Our new exercise is shooting at a target.”


What is true of archery and swordsmanship also applies to all the other arts. Thus, mastery in ink-painting is only attained when the hand, exercising perfect control over technique, executes what hovers before the mind’s eye at the same moment as the mind begins to form it, without there being a hair’s breadth between. Painting then becomes spontaneous calligraphy. Here again the painter’s instructions might be: spend ten years observing bamboos, become a bamboo yourself, then forget everything and—paint.


Pleasure and pain:

Occasionally several of these right shots came off in close succession and hit the target, besides of course the many more that failed. But if ever the least flicker of satisfaction showed in my face the Master turned on me with unwonted fierceness. “What are you thinking of?” he would cry. “You know already that you should not grieve over bad shots; learn now not to rejoice over the good ones. You must free yourself from the buffetings of pleasure and pain, and learn to rise above them in easy equanimity, to rejoice as though not you but another had shot well. This, too, you must practice unceasingly—you cannot conceive how important it is.


It is 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. To be free from the fear of death does not mean pretending to oneself, in one’s good hours, that one will not tremble in the face of death, and that there is nothing to fear. Rather, he who masters both life and death is free from fear of any kind to the extent that he is no longer capable of experiencing what fear feels like. Those who do not know the power of rigorous and protracted meditation cannot judge of the self-conquests it makes possible. 793


And when, finally, “It” shoots:

Then, one day, after a shot, the Master made a deep bow and broke off the lesson, “Just then ‘It’ shot!” he cried, as I stared at him bewildered. And when I at last understood what he meant I couldn’t suppress a sudden whoop of delight.

“What I have said,” the Master told me severely, “was not praise, only a statement that ought not to touch you. Nor was my bow meant for you, for you are entirely innocent of this shot. You remained this time absolutely self-oblivious and without purpose in the highest tension, so that the shot fell from you like a ripe fruit. Now go on practicing as if nothing had happened.”