Zen In The Art of Archery

Zen In The Art of Archery was recommended to me by the late Tony Carter when I was postgraduate student and he was both Principle and leader of the Fine Art MA at The City & Guilds of London Art School.

Last week I found a used copy which reminded me that I needed to read it – after thirteen years. During that time I have developed both my understanding of Buddhism and a strong daily meditation practice, which I believe puts me in a better position to understand the subtleties of the book.

Tony Carter’s understanding about the connection between Zen, archery, and artistic practice has become apparent to me on page 46 of the text. At this point the author, Eugen Herrigel, has convinced a Zen Master to teach him archery. He has spent a year learning the correct breathing technique for drawing the string of the bow. Having finally understood how to breathe and relax his body he is struggling to let the string of the bow go without jerking the bow, and thus missing the target.

‘You have described only too well’, replied the Master, ‘where the difficulty lies. Do you know why you cannot wait for the shot and why you get out of breath before it has come? The right shot at the right moment does not come because you do not let go of yourself. You do not wait for fulfilment, but brace yourself for failure. So long as that is so, you have no choice but to call forth some thing yourself that ought to happen independently of you, and so long as you call it forth your hand will not open in the right way – like the hand of a child: it does not burst open like the skin of a ripe fruit.’

I had to admit to the Master that this interpretation made me more confused than ever. ‘For ultimately’, I said, ‘I draw the bow and loose the shot in order to hit the target. The drawing is thus a means to an end, and I cannot lose sight of this connection. The child knows nothing of this, but for me the two things cannot be disconnected.’

‘The right art’, cried the Master, ‘is purposeless, aimless! The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one and the further the other will recede. What stands in your way is that you have a much too wilful will. You think that what you do not do yourself does not happen.’

… ‘What must I do, then?’ I asked thoughtfully.
‘You must learn to wait properly.’
‘And how does one learn that?’
‘By letting go of yourself, leaving yourself and everything yours behind you so decisively that nothing more is left of you but a purposeless tension.’

How often do we too ‘brace ourselves for failure’ instead of ‘letting go’ in all aspects of our lives.  In relation to artistic practice this notion of ‘letting go’ can be applied such that one is no longer trying to make a picture, or indeed produce a good one. By letting go of the outcome we can feel the brush or pencil and be at one with it in the moment, unhindered, so that the brush is moving without will power, it is automatic like the muscle memory used by sports professionals.

When I learned windsurfing I was told that by breaking down the manoeuvres and practising the movements required I would be training the muscles to remember how to perform the sequences on their own, without the need to think about it. So that when the wind came up and speed together with the correct movement was required the response would be automatic. By letting go of the need to control the equipment the body would feel and respond to the wind directly without requiring any input from the mind.

For the author, the thought of letting go of the string is becoming a block to letting go well. Letting go well would prevent the jerk of the bow and therefore the target would be hit directly. Therefore by not thinking about the goal we would be better able to achieve our goal.

The Master’s comment that ‘you think that what you do not do yourself does not happen’ relates to our ability to let go and to be able to trust. Setting our intention and then letting go of it is essential for manifestation. We need to be able to put our trust in the right outcome happening without straining for it with will power.

I believe that Tony Carter was talking about going with the painting and allowing it to happen without force. Being in the moment, being in the painting, working automatically.

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