Zen in the Art of Archery

A short and sweet retelling of being a student of archery while in Japan teaching philosophy.

For years, students practice various stages of drawing back, holding, and releasing bow and arrow. All of this conscious practice is preparation and subconscious training for real advancement: spiritual moments drawing the student ever closer to becoming one with the target. The master patiently observes the students as they progress through their failing. Only after the student has become lost for options is it the serendipitous time to drop a bit of wisdom in the student’s ear.

The wisdom is spiritual in nature. There is always one theme: losing the self in purposelessness so that it may fire.

Day by day I found myself slipping more easily into the ceremony which sets forth the “Great Doctrine” of archery, carrying it out effortlessly or, to be more precise, feeling myself being carried through it as in a dream. Thus far the Master’s predictions were confirmed. Yet I could not prevent my concentration from flagging at the very moment when the shot ought to come. Waiting at the point of highest tension not only became so tiring that the tension relaxed, but so agonizing that I was constantly wrenched out of my self−immersion and had to direct my attention to discharging the shot.

“Stop thinking about the shot!” the Master called out. “That way it is bound to fail.”

“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.”

One time, after long frustration at not getting the thumb to release gracefully, our professor calculates a technique to advance. On seeing the technique, the master turns away, disheartened: only after repeated protestations does he allow the professor back into his tutelage.

Years of conscious effort only to let go so that the unconsciously-guided self execute fully engaged in the moment.

Echoes of the surrender theme of religions and self-help; echoes of Jung’s development of the primary function (example: consciousness) followed by development and integration of the secondary function (example: unconsciousness).