Book Review: Zen in the Art of Archery

Zen in the Art of ArcheryZen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A German professor of philosophy gets a job teaching Kant in Japan back in the 1920s, and decides, while he’s there, to look into this Zen business, see what all the hubbub is about. He asks a bunch of natives “How do I get into this Zen thing?” and they all look around, embarrassed, and assure him that he wouldn’t like it because he’s foreign.

Now, you’ve gotta understand, this is before the Beatniks. You couldn’t just smoke mids and Kerouac off in the back of train then claim you’d achieved Nirvana. There was a system, and whenever our professor asked anyone about it, they assured him it was a system of systemlessness, or something equally incomprehensible to his precise prewar German academic mind.

Undeterred, Doc Herrigel keeps demanding Japanese natives teach him to Zen. Eventually somebody cracks and tells him, “You’re not gonna get it. Your only hope is getting involved in one of the traditional Zen arts, and learning Zen by osmosis.” He looks at swordsmanship, martial arts, flower arrangement, and archery, then decides on archery because he was pretty good with a rifle back in the Motherland. It’s probably the same, right?

It is not the same.

He joins up with a Daishadokyo master and begins his agonizing six-year journey toward being kind of good with a bow. Daishadokyo is to Kyūdō, or traditional Japanese archery, as the Spanish Inquisition is to the US Census: they’re both going through the same motions, but one is religious and far more motivated.

From there it follows the formula of every Zen chronicle or kung fu movie montage: The master tells him to do the thing, then stands by and watches as he ballses it up repeatedly and painfully. The master says nothing. The student asks whining questions in an effort to hurry to “the goal” and the master smiles serenely and tells him to keep doing the thing.

Eventually, Herrigel modifies his grip (“I found a better way to do it!”) and surprises his master with a few competent shots. The master is insulted by Herrigel’s attempt to cheat him, and tells him to never darken his door again. Herrigel prostrates himself and begs forgiveness, the master magnanimously grants same, then tells him, “now do the thing”.

For these six years, Herrigel is grappling nonstop with what Zen might potentially be, and how far he feels from getting it. He loses faith. He has doubts. He thinks about quitting a bunch, but he idolizes the master too much to go through with it. Eventually, when he’s going through the motions, the master’s like “That’s it! Nailed it!”

Herrigel releases a mighty “HOOTY HOO!” of triumph, at which point the master recoils in revulsion.

“You can’t be excited about succeeding,” he said. “That’s not Zen. You’re getting your gross ego-grease all over the archery.”

Herrigel is like “A thousand pardons, senpai.”

Master is like, “Now do the thing.”

Eventually, Herrigel manages to get automatic enough in his archery that he gets an inkling of Zen, and the arrow shoots itself. His life is changed. We did it, fellas.

Good book. Good Zen story. I ugly-laughed at the little swordmaster koan at the end, paraphrased as follows:

Young man seeks out swordmaster in his hermitage, says, “teach me to the be the next hokage”. Swordmaster says, “Sure”, and makes him do all of his chores. The kid is the swordmaster’s butler for like a year, making rice, sweeping the dirt floor, washing his stank-ass socks, before he hits his limit and demands the swordmaster teach him swordmastery, damnit! That’s what I’m here for!

Swordmaster says, “Sure”. Everything is the same, though now the swordmaster will unexpectedly hit the kid with a stick as he does the chores. These beatings continue for another year or so, until one day, the swordmaster is facing the fire, working on frying up some eggs. The kid recognizes this as his chance. He grabs the whuppin’ stick, sneaks up on his sensei, and KIYAAAAA brings it down on the back of his head!

Swordmaster blocks effortlessly with the pan full of eggs.

The kid is like “oh shit. I thought this was just weird old man sadism, but you were for real this whole time.” And thus, he gets a little nugget of Zen.

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