Zen and the Art of Archery

I remember spending a lot of time in my 20s reading D.T. Suzuki's wonderful books about Zen. At that age a lot of young educated people dabble in stuff like that, they're brain dead from 12-15 years of formal education and are looking for some ray of enlightenment that transcends the textbooks' worth of facts they've just had crammed in their heads, and would show the world of work as some great delusional thing which they're right to be scared of.

But Suzuki's books stand the test of time, as does Zen. Zen and other Eastern philosophies, approaches and techniques have always suffered in the West by their adoption by misfits and the margins of society, who see in them some mystical pathway out of what they see as their sordid capitalist lives. But if you can get away from all the incense-burning hippies and study it dispassionately and objectively, the wisdom of a lot of it is seriously profound. And entirely practical and able to be adopted without changing outward appearances much at all.

This topic tweaked for me after watching a Zen archer on TV last night. There's a famous book on Zen archery (Zen in the Art of Archery - see here, and most good libraries will have a copy), written by an American (from memory) who went to Japan to learn what it was all about. Like all the Zen arts, it seems utterly bizarre to the West, because the way the thing is done seems completely impossible. Zen archers don't even look at the target - they can even be blindfolded. And they say they're not aiming for the target, they're aiming for themselves, which sounds very New Age and wanky, but once you understand what they're doing is quite a practical thing.

The demo on TV last night showed an assistant throwing a small nut into the air and the archer firing the arrow and obliterating it, mid-flight. Impossibly difficult to do even at the best of times, it would most likely be called a fluke. What Zen does though is dissolve the boundaries between people and their environment. The East recognised much earlier, and it's a recognition that is still not widespread in the West, that there is no separation between us and the world, and even between us and our selves or bodies. This is what attracts the New Agers to the East, but rather than take the insights and use them in simple, practical ways, they too often turn it into some form of mystical religious ceremony.

By dissolving those boundaries, which in fact don't need to be dissolved because they're not real anyway, the archer or other athlete (or anybody doing an activity) is moving away from the whole idea that the activity has to be 'done'. No aiming or pulling of the bow, in the case of archery, or trying to make some match between what the bow is doing and where it's pointing and the object it's firing at. All of that takes care of itself, the archer his aiming at themselves because the 'self' of traditional archery is that artificial separation of the person and bow from the target.

I experiment with this when playing the guitar. Normally when you play an instrument, at first you're very aware of doing all the work. And for years afterwards this can be the case. As you get better at it though you increasingly go into automatic pilot, your fingers just fall where they need to fall, and even seem to manage to fall in new places that sound great, all by themselves. Masters are able to do this a lot of the time. It's the Zen 'state', although it's less a state for a human being than it is dissolving the usual construction we call a human being. But once you understand how to get to this sort of place, by stepping back and just letting the body coordinate itself to what you're doing, mastery is much faster - I suspect many masters practice for years and achieve it simply by the obsessive number of hours they spend with the instrument. But you can short-cut that process dramatically once you know why it happens.

I'm doing it right now typing this post. If I stop trying to do the typing and let it just happen, it gets faster and more accurate - much faster and much more accurate. I can't say that will be an immediate result for everybody, it took me a few years to get to this point, where it can be applied in anything I do. We are genuine masters in interfering and getting in our own way.

I wrote somewhere before here I think about how I slightly differ from the way the East does and describes all this. They often seem to take the person-and-world schema and use their techniques to push it towards a limit, at which point it dissolves. I think there are other, more simple and practical ways of just ignoring that split altogether, as we do already in much of what we do, without even noticing ('noticing' is often just that split, which is why we don't notice when we're not operating like that!).


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