The Skill of Zen

The German professor of philosophy, Eugene Herrigel, as a guest professor in Japan,  studied the art of archery from a Zen Master, for 6 years.  He wrote of this in Zen and the Art of Archery, to explain the technique of Zen skill training.

It was, for him, a mystifying and frustrating time.  Some how, one is not to try.  The setting of the arrow and the release of the bow are to be effortless.  The bow should release itself, like as a tree branch bends to release the snow.

This is the ‘artless art’.

Remember that archery is not meant to strengthen the muscles.  When drawing the string you should not exert the full strength of your body, but learn to let only your two hands do the work, while your arm and shoulder muscles remain relaxed, as though they looked on impassively.

Don’t think of what you have to do, don’t consider how to carry it out!  The shot will only go smoothly when it takes the archer himself by surprise.  It must be as if the bowstring suddenly cut through the thumbnail that held it.  You mustn’t open the right hand on purpose.”

”The right art is purposeless, aimless!  The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one and the further the other will recede.  What stands in your way is that you have a much too willful will.  You think that what you do not do yourself does not happen.”

Concentrate entirely on your breathing, as if you had nothing else to do!”

Skills must be ‘spiritual’.  A state . . . “In which nothing is thought, planned, striven for, desired or expected, which aims in no particular direction and yet knows itself capable alike of the possible and the impossible”.

It was very hard for Eugene Herrigel to come to allow the arrow ‘release itself’.

“How can the shot be loosed if ‘I’ do not do it?”

“‘It’ shoots.

“And who or what is this ‘It’?”

Once you have understood that, you will have no further need of me.”

Zen skill training is a system of learning which encodes the skill completely in the subconscious, and it insists that the skill reside no where else.  To the western mind, this subconscious is a not-so-subconscious act that requires effort, it requires a disciplined Ego.  To the Zen mind, it is the place of the unknowable, the unthinkable.

There are processes which are beyond the reach of understanding.  Do not forget that even in Nature there are correspondences which cannot be understood, and yet are so real that we have grown accustomed to them, just as if they could not be any different. .  The spider dancers her web without knowing that there are flies who will get caught in it. . . The archer hits the target without having aimed – more I can not stay.”

At the end of his training, Herrigel was privileged to a demonstration of Zen archers, splitting arrows in targets, at 80 yards, blind folded, one after another.