Book review: Zen in the Art of Archery

Recently due to COVID my gym was closed, and I decided to pick up the archery to exercise, outside, with other people. We meet weekly, shoot, and talk, breath fresh air near the lake in the woods. My 30lb Samick Sage was not that easy from the start, and I built my muscles over time. Now I moved to 40lb draw.

The book title came up several times in my search not just for the archery, but also for photography. Eventually I decided to give it a try, and now, after some contemplation about it, I want to express what I think about it.

The explanation of what the subject matter of the book is very confusing. The Introduction by D.T.Suzuki talks about the unconscious as the true master of the art. The specific state of mind that called Zen or, as the author pointed out, dhyana Buddhism, eventually is getting explained as something that comes after many repetitions of letting the movements of the body go from the ego control to the control of the unconscious. Only then the true religious ritual is experienced which characterized by the uninterrupted breathing and movements which applies also to the tea ceremony and flower arrangement arts.

The whole book is a story about a Westerner trying to learn and achieve that state through guided archery practice. The Reader is assumed to be that Westerner, and I would say, a clueless person in Zen, maybe even in archery as well. So, the intent was to open the Truth to the un-initiated.

Okay, okay, it was 1950s. Since that we got so much of Eastern traditions baked in into our modern “Western” culture that so many people practiced archery at some point, or hatha yoga, or read about Zen and Buddhism. We all know what this is about, right?

Yes and no. I tried. It’s still hard.

Any serious (i.e. hunting or Olympic) traditional archery is a challenging physical activity. The most valuable skill is the intuitive archery when no sight is needed. All you need is a 3 second hold before release an arrow. It’s almost like a handgun shooting – you don’t breath, you keep your hands steady, and you do focus on the target. That’s the whole point.

Zen in archery is different. I would call it mindfulness. You focus on your self-awareness of own worlds: physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. You achieve internal unity by centering your mind. The bow is a reflector of your mental state. The arrow or the target is not even coming to the picture.

Is it the same as meditation? Sitting meditation is easier. Any physical movement in archery requires significant force to be applied which shifts your mental state as a toy in a storm, bringing back your internal focus to the object, and your holding the breath.

What about taichi? Can the taichi practice of movement meditation be applied to archery? Sure! You getting much closer to the goal of Zen in archery by practicing taichi.

So, start from yoga meditation – stillness. Try to get the experience of Zen which is dhyana. Then practice taichi until you can have the same experience. And then move to archery.

What is the real value of this exercise? To reduce overwhelming during stressful situation and remain in the conscious control of your response. Such situations happen all the time and everywhere – at home, at work, on the street. The point is to avoid fragmentation, uncontrolled instinctual reactions, primary defenses. The point is to remain a civilized elegant intellectual.

If you can master Zen in archery, you mastered the self-control for any situation. The problem is, it will decline over time. So you need to practice it all your life. Kyudo is a practical religion, so is taichi and yoga, and Jungian active imagination. It’s a way of life.

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