Zen in the Art of Archery
More than almost any other book, Zen in the Art of Archery has shaped the way I live – and experience – life.
Eugen Herrigel was a German professor of philosophy who was posted to teach at the University of Tokyo between the first and second world wars. In that time, he took up archery as a means of gaining an insight into Zen Buddhism. The Japanese have a number of disciplines that function as practical, experiential ways for a person to achieve Zen enlightenment; namely calligraphy, flower arranging, the tea ceremony, archery and swordsmanship.
Herrigel was a keen student, but found his progress blocked constantly by his existing paradigm, which was essentially rooted in the highly intellectual western philosophy that he taught. The book is full of the kind of obscure non-sequiturs that abound in cheesy martial arts movies, but what is remarkable about them is that they inspire a kind of deja-vu in a reader, things like;
“We master archers say, ‘One shot, one life!’ What this means, you cannot yet understand. But perhaps another image might help you, which expresses the same experience. We master archers say: with one 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 decisively that nothing more is left of you than a purposeless tension.”
“So I must become purposeless – on purpose?” I heard myself say.
(That last question is reminiscent of David Foster Wallace’s essay on ‘Why Tracy Austin Broke My Heart’, as discussed previously in relation to DFW. To me, that question explains exactly why a western philosopher would shoot himself in the head or find some other way to angst himself to death.)
Realistically, the book is very short; hardly longer than a pamphlet, really. I think I read it when I was around 18 or 19, and pasted chunks of it (including the above quotation) around my bedroom, near my weights bench. My favourite activity at that time was putting on the soundtrack to Conan the Barbarian and pumping 40kg on the bench press. (One of my other quotations was from Conan himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger: “If you told me eating a kilo of shit would put on muscles, I would eat it.”)
I love weight training for many reasons, not least of all is that it is such a convenient way to approach your boundaries. I love the fact that you can push right up to the very knife’s edge of your capacity and on your last rep, really reduce the travel of the bar to a gauge of willpower. I guess there is the fulfilment of a mystic promise in exercise, also; pain is good, because it creates growth. The suffering and investiture of time is repaid by nature, in that you become bigger, faster and stronger. But the best thing is the descent into that kind of spiritual crucible, the only place we are all genuinely equal, and is a measure of how hard we are willing to try.
It seems though, that trying is where it becomes difficult.
“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.”
Again, kickboxing is attractive to me because I love that feeling of perfecting technique, and the amazing sensation connected to throwing punches and kicks in order to find that state of extemporaneous bliss. But the greatest moment is in the rooms, just before you go out to fight. I’m not sure how it works, but the fear and the stress and all the hard work, not to mention all that goes into a highly tuned, highly torqued physicality takes you to another place psychologically. People ask me how it feels before I fight, and I always explain that I give up on the outcome. The better my opponent, the easier it is for me to do so. I guess it’s like the old says, ‘No hope = no fear’. Once I have given up, I can relax. And for some reason, it takes all that stress to make it happen. My life seems to revolve around finding springboards for this release from thinking into doing.
As Jack Henry Abbott wrote in In the Belly of the Beast, “I am an intellectual only insofar as thought is a predicate to action.”
Zen in the Art of Archery is the manual for thinking into doing, and the precarious relationship between them which must be surmounted.