Nearly two decades have passed since the day I stumbled upon a text to which I have returned many times since. Browsing my father’s library, I spotted the slim volume: Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel. As I flicked through the opening pages, my eyes fell upon the following words:
Should one ask… how the Japanese Masters understand this contest of the archer with himself, and how they describe it, their answer would sound enigmatic in the extreme. For them the contest consists in the archer aiming at himself—and yet not at himself, in hitting himself—and yet not himself, and thus becoming simultaneously the aimer and the aim, the hitter and the hit. Or, to use some expressions which are nearest the heart of the Masters, it is necessary for the archer to become, in spite of himself, an unmoved centre. Then comes the supreme and ultimate miracle: art becomes ‘artless,’ shooting becomes not-shooting, a shooting without bow and arrow; the teacher becomes a pupil again, the Master a beginner, the end a beginning, and the beginning perfection.
These sentences enthralled me. I drew the book from the shelf and read it in a single sitting, and on closing it I vowed to practice the art of archery. Archery, this small book taught me, was not—as I had thought it to be—a mere quirky hobby practiced by people who like the outdoors, but potentially something much more: a path to self-mastery.
The archer, according to Herrigel, is not in fact concerned with hitting the target, which he does only as the external expression of the interior struggle he is undertaking. Herrigel insists that the archer is seeking to hit himself, and he only truly becomes an archer when the self has been pierced by his own spiritual arrows. But here is the true archer’s paradox: to seek to hit the self is to be preoccupied with the self, and therefore always to miss the self in the pursuit of hitting the self. Only when one develops total indifference to the self—which is not a capacity of the self—is the self’s centre hit over and over.
When the self is hit, the student of archery becomes a Master, and this very transformation allows him to see that he remains a pupil, a beginner, and to think of himself otherwise would be folly. Finally, he sees himself as he truly is, which is to see nothing at all. This notion immediately struck me as true. And it has been my life’s experience that on the far side of complexity one only encounters simplicity: having undergone the training, one finds oneself untrained.
This experience of becoming a master by discovering one’s novicehood was, incidentally, precisely my experience of studying philosophy. When I began my studies as an undergraduate, I felt as if I’d been thrown into a labyrinth of cryptic jargon and esoteric insights, out of which there was no obvious escape. By the end of my degree, however, I had become familiar with what terms denoted which principles, the general assumptions of most important philosophers and their interpreters, and the respective conclusions to which they arrived. Thus, I felt—and this was a feeling confirmed by my receiving the highest award at graduation—that I had mastered the discipline. (Given that most people only undertake bachelor’s degrees, this is a state of epistemic illusion in which the majority remain for the rest of their lives, thus one of the tragedies of universalising tertiary education is its acceleration of civilisational decline through the expansion of ‘mid-wittery.’) On embarking on post-graduate research, however, I discovered that what I had learned was the content of a set curriculum, and in fact I didn’t really know anything at all. By the time, then, I received the highest award for my master’s degree, I was beginning to intuit the depth of my witlessness. Finally, I undertook doctoral research under the supervision of two of the four greatest philosophers in the academy, and my thesis was examined by the other two. Having passed with flying colours, I now have the confidence to assert my utter ignorance.
With Socrates, I can say that the only difference between my present self and my younger undergraduate self is that I now possess certainty about my ignorance, whereas before I just suspected it. Unfortunately, declaring one’s ignorance is not conducive to employment in the academy. Universities are packed with fakes who purport to be experts, and they are terrified that the secret might get out that there is no such thing as an expert. In turn, the fakes expect you to do the decent thing and keep up the fakery on which they all depend: pretending to belong to an intellectual elite only works if everyone plays along. Going about asserting that you’re not wise at all (but only a mere lover of wisdom) might mean game-over for everyone—and thus will only bring you hemlock.
No doubt Professor Herrigel, the first Westerner to hold a chair in philosophy at a Japanese university, was well aware that his academic discipline necessarily led to Socratic ignorance. And every philosopher must decide whether he is going to be honest about his status as an accomplished ignoramus or become a fake with the rest of them; the former requires the humility to see yourself as you really are. Cultivating such humility is a struggle for the best of us, and the best of us are not found among intellectuals. Thus, to be free to say the truth—beginning with the truth about oneself—one must locate the target: the self.
Like Herrigel, I began to practice philosophy because I thought it might be a path to mysticism, and certainly Lady Sophia—as she did Boethius, by her rebukes—has shown me the threshold of her province, the Cloud of Unknowing, beyond which only prayer is of use. Like Virgil outside at the gates of paradise, she has left me there to await my Beatrice. And again, like Herrigel, I did not expect Beatrice to come in the form of Diana, with a strung bow and full quiver.
For six years Herrigel studied archery under Awa Kenzō, a Zen Master and teacher of Kyūdō (Japanese archery). Whilst there, Herrigel was enamoured by the cultural confidence of the Japanese, and regrettably on his return to Germany mistook the Nazi ascendency for the German counterpart of such confidence, becoming a committed member of the party and wrecking his scholarly credibility in the process. Still, his book on archery remains a spiritual classic that has consequently never gone out of print.
The major theme of Zen in the Art of Archery, that archery is not about hitting the target but hitting oneself, is a lesson to which I have time and again returned. As it happens, this is the hidden lesson in all physical education in the West too. The reason the gymnasium has been an essential part of the academy ever since its genesis is because physical activity generates the interior disposition of humility by presenting us with our current limitations, forcing us to depend on others, and providing a vision of the aptitude we’ll likely never achieve. Indeed, any displays of humility in the heat of the game we have always been content simply to call ‘sportsmanship.’
Archery, however, differs from other sports in that—outside tournaments—the only person one is playing against is oneself. And because archery is not just a sport but also a martial art, one is more fighting oneself than playing against oneself (at least that is how it feels). The main enemy one is fighting, in fact, is the horde of distractions that comes when one wishes to loose the arrow. These distractions drive you to calculate the weight of the arrow against your draw length, to remember the bow’s poundage, gauge the distance of the target, and they cause you to look down the arrow with one eye closed to estimate how far from the centre you must aim in order to hit it. This, for the traditional archer, is all a mistake: his task is to banish that host of rationalisms and ‘clear his mind.’
Here, I should explain something to the uninitiated. When I speak of archery, I am speaking of traditional archery. (I am a traditionalist in all things, and archery is no exception.) With an Olympic recurve bow or a compound bow, with all their weights and sites and balancers and triggers and levers and pullies and clickers, numerous calculations are required. This kind of archery, however, is closer to rifle shooting than to anything our ancestors understood by the term. What I mean by ‘archery’ is the shooting of wooden arrows with feather fletchings from a string tied to a wooden stick. To become proficient at such a simple activity, one must free oneself of all calculations, and instead just feel the shot. In fact, the traditional archer does not even ‘aim’ at the target, but merely ‘points’ at it, keeping both eyes open, looking not down the arrow but straight at the place he wishes to hit. Traditional archery is nothing like shooting a rifle; it’s much more like throwing a stone.
A sharp-shooting archer attacking his enemy was not making mathematical calculations, nor was a hunter who was creeping with his bow through the undergrowth. Such people simply looked at their target and shot it. This is even more obvious with horse archery—a remarkable skill that, thanks to Lajos Kassai, is now being revived in Hungary—for which the calculating brain is of little use, and feelings and instinct are everything. If Albrecht Dürer is to be believed, the shooting of fowl from horseback with bow and arrow was an Imperial pastime (practiced especially by Emperor Maximilian I), and this could only have been done by putting aside calculations and simply feeling, pointing, and loosing.
The notion that one will only hit the target when one stops aiming at it—and starts clearing the mind, pointing the arrow and loosing it—is also an important feature of Zen in the Art of Archery. As Herrigel argues, one does not even loose the arrow at all; It looses the arrow, and only by letting It loose the arrow is the arrow sure to pierce oneself. And It is whatever is left when the illusion of self has been overcome. Reading Herrigel’s book was my first encounter with Zen. Five years later I had my second encounter.
Aged nineteen, I ascended a mountain in Kerala, south India, to join a small community that had gathered around a Jesuit priest whom his followers claimed was enlightened—and he had a certificate from Japan to prove it. I stayed for a week, which sufficed to judge that his disciples were unhinged and unpleasant, but it also allowed me six hours of silent ‘meditation’ per day for eight days, and this taught me something. In this religious tradition, which is certainly not Catholic Christianity, ‘meditation’ denotes the emptying of one’s mind from all distractions in order to remain in a state of mental silence. When, later, I became a Roman Catholic, I discovered that prolonged periods of prayer required a very similar discipline, and, whilst such Christian exercises are undertaken not to empty the mind but to fill it with the transformative presence of God, one must still do battle with the very same enemy: distractions.
That swarm of mental flies torments the devoted hours of the toxophilite too, especially when he seeks to encounter the mystical presence of God in that silent eternity that subsists between loosing his arrow and its penetrating of the target. Archery, therefore, requires deliberate and concentrated recollection before it can be practiced successfully. And in the execution of this interior quietening, the distinction between archery and spirituality becomes blurred. In the words of Herrigel:
In order to slip the more easily into the process of drawing the bow and loosing the shot, the archer, kneeling to one side and beginning to concentrate, rises to his feet, ceremoniously steps up to the target and, with a deep obeisance, offers the bow and arrow like consecrated gifts, then nocks the arrow, raises the bow, draws it and waits in an attitude of supreme spiritual alertness. After the lightning release of the arrow and the tension, the archer remains in the posture adopted immediately following the shot until, after slowly expelling his breath, he is forced to draw air again. Then only does he let his arms sink, bows to the target and, if he has no more shots to discharge, steps quietly into the background.
Herrigel is describing here a series of acts that border on the liturgical, in which the archer offers himself and his weapon as “consecrated gifts,” and proceeds to adopt an “attitude of supreme spiritual alertness,” which in fact is realised only in the self-forgetfulness that comes by concentration on the task at hand.
Whatever the errors contained in the Zen conception of selfhood, which I’m confident are many, there remains a truth therein that I think is unassailable. This is a truth about ourselves that is supported by the classical ethics of the Greeks and the Roman stoics, and that was purified and transformed by Christianity: interior liberty comes by the quadripartite sequence of mastering oneself, forgetting oneself, gifting oneself, and embracing Reality. What these terms mean differs according to the tradition in which they’re entertained, but the assumption from which they spring is the same, namely that we remain shackled so long as we are preoccupied with the self, which is the ultimate state of illusion. To be free to embrace Reality, the self must be hit and killed—only then can it be resurrected.
Archery, the Japanese have long believed, supplements this interior journey towards a state of wisdom, a journey that to some degree we must all undertake if we are to avoid becoming a nuisance to others. And it is for others that, in the attainment of wisdom, we discover we exist. In hitting the self, we hit the target, and from wherever the self is hit we can pour out ourselves for the felicity of others. Self-gift and union with Reality, which I judge to be two aspects of the same condition, is wisdom, and how archery can lead to its enjoyment will be the topic of Part III.