Last week I reread a little book I first read around twenty years ago. This post is a look back at how that book influenced me in my art practice. (The illustrations between paragraphs are details of artwork that has appeared previously in Drawing Life, and clicking on the images will link you to the posts containing uncropped versions of the works.)
Zen in the Art of Archery is German philosophy professor Eugen Herrigel’s account of his experience studying archery in Japan in the 1920’s under kyudo master Kenzo Awa. Awa taught the traditional Japanese art of the bowman as a spiritual practice aimed at transcendent mastery. Herrigel’s terse and eloquent account, which can easily be read in an afternoon, was one of the first attempts to make Eastern philosophy accessible to the nonspecialist western audience. His choice to approach the subject through practice rather than theory helps to show the roots of mystical ideas in down-to-earth realities. The accessibility of the writing has made this book a popular and often-imitated classic, though Herrigel’s own reputation has justifiably suffered because he later embraced Nazism. It reveals the limitations of Herrigel’s understanding – he never got to the supreme Buddhist virtue: compassion. The book, though, makes no moral or political claims, remaining simply an account of a particular approach to the learning of a craft.
In my youth and young adulthood, I read fairly extensively (for an amateur) in the literature of mysticism and esoteric philosophies. The first book that set me on that path was probably the Tao Te Ching (or Daodejing), a 2500-year-old masterpiece of aphoristic poetry that opened my eyes to a way of being in the world utterly unlike the modern Western consensus reality. Zen in the Art of Archery introduced me to the tradition of teaching these perhaps unintuitive ways of perceiving via the practice of various crafts or artforms. The movies have offered a pop version of this teaching method through their portrayal of Kung Fu masters and Jedi Knights, but the arts need not be martial – the Way is also taught through the bamboo flute, the calligraphy brush, through dance, poetry, yoga, flower arranging, sand painting, or the tea ceremony.
By approaching these ideas through a practice in the physical world, we understand them not as doctrines that must be taken on faith, nor as mysterious metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that relies on awe for its power. We experience them in our own bodies, interacting with tangible objects and the immutable laws of physics. The practice of a craft, no less than the practice of meditation or prayer, cultivates the spirit.
My early encounter with Zen in the Art of Archery convinced me that I could use the practice of art to transform my own perception of the world, to transcend the illusion of the separateness of ourselves and the things of our world. Science or philosophy can reveal the oneness of reality to our reason, but only the practice of an art can make us feel it in our bones. Herrigel’s book gave me important insights into how that might work. It sets forth a particular idea of what constitutes “mastery”, but one that can apply to various disciplines of art, craft, or athleticism.
Herrigel practiced archery over about five years under Master Awa. Mostly, the study involves endless repetitions of drawing the bow and releasing the arrow. The practice of shooting goes on for a very long time before a target is introduced, and even then the Master never looks at the target, but always at the student, at the quality of his attention and breath, at the relaxation of the muscles. He allows the student to struggle and fail to the point of despair before introducing any “zen” approaches to the seemingly insoluble problems the student faces, and even when such ideas have been mentioned it often takes a great deal more practice before the student begins to grasp them.
“You must hold the drawn bowstring,” says the Master, “like a little child holding the proffered finger. It grips it so firmly that one marvels at the strength of the tiny fist. And when it lets the finger go, there is not the slightest jerk. Do you know why? Because a child doesn’t think: I will now let go of the finger in order to grasp this other thing. Completely unself-consciously, without purpose, it turns from one to the other, and we would say that it was playing with the things, were it not equally true that the things are playing with the child.”
The goal of the practice is to lose all self-consciousness, to let something act through you rather than to act from the ego. The Western approach to the arts is all about the ego – expressing one’s feelings, proving one’s brilliance, selling one’s brand. Westerners encountering these Eastern ideas about transcending the ego or becoming empty of self often interpret them moralistically, as “the ego is bad”. The real idea is more about getting your “self” out of your own way, getting to that state that musicians call being in the groove, that athletes call being in the zone, that Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi described in his famous book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
Those who practice improvisational music or dance with others know that when they are in the groove, changes and reactions happen spontaneously and without any reaction time. Suddenly the whole group modulates to a new key, simultaneously. If you were to ask them, not one of them “decided” to modulate, and no one had to notice the modulation and then react to it. Unconsciously, the “group mind” made a shift, and they were all there, together, instantaneously. Reaction or intention always has a delay, but in the groove there is no delay.
The state of being empty of self, as described in Zen in the Art of Archery is just such a state, except that there is no group. How can there be a group mind without a group? It works when you know that the world itself is the ultimate group mind, with which one can sometimes meld, especially while practicing actions one has repeated and repeated and repeated until they can happen without intention. On the path of mastery, one practices not to gain ultimate control, but to go beyond the need to control, to trust the natural flow of things. One practices endlessly not so that one may be fully conscious of every action one must perform, but to be able to perform the actions unconsciously.
This ideal of mastery as unconscious, effortless, and fully detached from the self is never perfectly attainable, but to keep moving it is important to have a goal that remains always just over the horizon.
“Your arrows do not carry,” observed the Master, “because they do not reach far enough spiritually. You must act as if the goal were infinitely far off. For master archers it is a fact of common experience that a good archer can shoot further with a medium-strong bow than an unspiritual archer can with the strongest. It does not depend on the bow, but on the presence of mind, on the vitality and awareness with which you shoot. In order to unleash the full force of this spiritual awareness, you must perform the ceremony differently: rather as a good dancer dances. If you do this, your movements will spring from the center, from the seat of right breathing. Instead of reeling off the ceremony like something learned by heart, it will then be as if you were creating it under the inspiration of the moment, so that dance and dancer are one and the same.”
Zen in the Art of Archery introduced me to this ideal of mastery that has guided my practice of life drawing over the years. I am no master, but I travel on the path of mastery, trying more and more to let go and just let it happen, not to draw, but to be drawn.
All the images included in this post, with the exception of the first one, are details of works featured previously on Drawing Life. Click on any photo to be taken to the post where the uncropped version of the image can be found.