A student once asked his teacher, ‘Master, what is Enlightenment?’
The master replied, ‘When hungry, eat. When tired, sleep.’
When I first started my martial arts training eighteen or so years ago, my then-teacher recommended I should read a few books on the spiritual, mental, and philosophical aspects of martial arts. Surprisingly, a youth spent watching old, badly-synced kung fu films and practicing my ‘fist of death’ technique on clothing store mannequins tended to glaze over that part. I’ll be honest, a lot of it went right over my head at the time. I was very young and while I had an idea for why I wanted to get into martial arts in the first place, I had zero idea of what other benefits I might be able to gain, and so couldn’t really recognize them when they were right in front of me. Among the many books were two about the Japanese interpretation of Buddhist philosophy known as Zen. Zen in the Martial Arts and Zen in the Art of Archery. This week, in preparation for my upcoming weekend away to the Eastern Traditional Archery Rendezous, I decided to revisit Zen in the Art of Archery and see if hopefully now, I was better prepared to capture more of its valuable insights.
Zen in the Art of Archery was written by Eugen Herrigel, a German professor of philosophy, in 1948. In it he writes about his experience in Japan during the 1920s as a visiting professor at University of Tokyo. During his time living in Japan, Herrigel took up the ancient art of Japanese archery, known as kyudo, under the tutelage of Awa Kenzo, a renown kyudo master and teacher/philosopher of Zen. Since one of the major aspects of Zen is that for it to be fully understood one must ‘walk its path’ versus ‘learn its way’, the book doesn’t spend too much time trying to define Zen or dwell on its teachings. Rather, it reads like a journal going through the years of lessons and private conversations Herrigel had with Kenzo. It lays out the obstacles, trials, and difficulties when it came to both physical and mental blocks and the demonstrations and words Kenzo had to share to slowly, but masterfully, guide Herrigel through it all. There is a whole wealth of wisdom and insight hidden in plain sight between the sparse eighty pages of this short book. Not to betray the spirit of Zen and become too long-winded, I’ll only share my thoughts on three.
If one really wishes to be a master of an art, technical knowledge of it is not enough. One has to transcend technique so that the art becomes an ‘artless art’ growing out of the Unconscious.
-Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery
This I like because it goes beyond just archery, and can be applied to any practice. A unique aspect of Japanese culture is that everything, from its food to its art, music, and even its most lethal martial disciplines, all of it stems from philosophical and spiritual roots. In this case of course we mean Buddhism, and then further Zen Buddhism. What I love then is the mindfulness characteristic of Japanese life. There is a certain beautiful minimalistic yet ritualistic rhythm to everyday Japanese life. How one enters and exits a room, prepares and enjoys a meal, and yes even how one draws a bow. In it all there is an unconscious awareness that brings with it peace and purpose. There’s a saying in Zen archery that an archer should be able to shoot without a bow or even an arrow. Eventually, an archer transcends both bow and arrow to the point that his mind and body know what to do without knowing or thinking. We are often times caught up in our own thoughts, so fully aware of ourselves and our actions we can never fully inhabit the moment. Once we are aware of ourselves, we lose sight of the goal. This is a higher level than just an archer being able to hit his target. It is an archer realizing that there is no target, only himself. The best artists, chefs, performers, martial artists, they never dwell on what they are doing as they are doing it. They simply do. And it is safe then to also believe that they continue that mindfulness throughout their day, so that this Zen never actually leaves them. It’s supreme confidence, awareness, and unconscious consciousness. It’s eating when hungry, sleeping when tired, and never questioning or wondering. So in whatever we are passionate about, whatever we pursue, there are two great goals. The first is to achieve this level of Unconscious awareness, where we can do without getting lost in our own thoughts. The second is to pursue ‘artless art’, where we can apply the mindfulness and awareness to our everyday life in all aspects.
The master knows you and each of his pupils much better than we know ourselves. He reads in the souls of his pupils more than they care to admit.
-Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery
In the beginning of the book, Herrigel mentions the struggle he had trying to find a teacher willing to teach a Western student. In fact his eventual master, Kenzo, was extremely averse to the idea, having tried to teach a Western student before and had ‘such a dismal experience he regretted it ever since’. The teacher-student relationship is a significant one in both Western and Eastern cultures, although it takes a very different shape and structure. A common aspect of teacher-student relationships in the West that we often take for granted is that students are often invited, even encouraged, to ask questions of lessons and teachers. In a more traditional Eastern setting students are expected to follow a teacher’s instructions with very little question. This can be seen in say, more traditional martial arts schools where often the format is the teacher will demonstrate a certain posture, stance, or form once, twice, maybe three times if you’re really lucky, and then the students are expected to watch diligently and then do their best to recreate the motions. There are no questions, no explanations, the teacher shows as much as he sees fit and the students are expected to do a lot of their ‘learning’ on their own. While there are pros and cons to either approach, I just want to focus on the unique benefits of this particular style of instruction. First of all, for this to work we have to assume the highest in the instructor. If we trust in the teacher, then we do not doubt ourselves. There’s no need to pressure or worry, we must simply, in the spirit of Zen, do what is asked of us. Sort of like ‘wax on, wax off’. Which takes a lot of pressure off of the student and more impetus on the importance of finding a highly qualified, skilled teacher. I also appreciate it for how much it more readily lends itself to actual results-driven growth. You can’t smooth talk your way through something when you aren’t allowed to talk. Just show. Much like true Zen, mastery is not displayed in rhetoric but in practice. The right teacher will show you what you need to see when you need to see it, and the right student will understand how to grasp the lesson and apply it to practice.
The Zen adept shuns all talk of himself and his progress. Not because he thinks it immodest to talk, but because he regards it as a betrayal of Zen. Even to make up his mind to say anything about Zen itself costs him grave heart-searchings.
-Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery
While I take this to heart and understand that to try and speak of Zen and explain it betrays not only the spirit of it but my own understanding of it, I am still so green to the concept that this really only probably set me back a couple months’ progress. Hopefully. The truth is, I love this because there’s something very purpose-driven in trying to understand and pursue Zen. And not just in archery, but in my martial arts, my daily mindfulness, relationships, in everything I pursue with any level of passion. And I would love to see more outside of the traditional Eastern arts try to pursue and understand Zen as well. There are two great fundamental observable truths of all the masters of Zen. The first is that there can be no denying that a Zen master carries himself with a certain level of distinct poise. In their mastery of their chosen art, but also in how that mindfulness carries through in every aspect of their life, there is an undeniable appeal to want to pursue what the master has. The second though is that inevitably, when one finds a master to help them along the way, one will find that the master has very little to say on what Zen is or, frustratingly, how to achieve it. It is a path we have to walk on our own, and the further along we go the more we realize the futility in trying to capture it for others. That’s sometimes very difficult to grasp in modern times. We like to have things readily available, and when we falter we want support, guidance, we want explanations. But Zen and its masters offer us neither, because the struggle, and the eventual resolution, are all valuable parts that are necessary to the path. They know that to expound would rob the student of valuable experience. There’s a saying that once we know, we longer do. So it is promising to think that to pursue Zen we must do in order to know. It’s a longer and more arduous path, not much suited for modern times, but it is rooted in ancient wisdom and understanding.
I don’t know how much Zen I might get this weekend, but one weekend aside, in my martial arts training, my further archery practice, my cooking, my relationships, in all aspects of life I want to master, I can continue to develop this mindfulness until, with some hope and patience, it becomes like the masters say, ‘an artless art’.
Jerel says, ‘when hungry, eat-when tired, sleep’.