Zen and the art of
"Here is a man who transforms a blank sheet of paper into all
space, an inkwell into all the waves in the ocean, the tip of a
brush into the mountain Sumeru itself …."
— Hoyen Gosozan (died
the demonstration of the art of archery by a Japanese master was
announced as an event that the Museum Rietberg was organising in the
Noble Park within which it is located, conversation turned somewhat
naturally to that classic work, Zen in the Art of Archery. I had heard
of it, but everyone around seemed to have read it. Even though I was not
to stay long enough in Zurich to be able to witness the event, my
curiosity was greatly aroused. A German copy of the book, the language
in which Eugen Herrigel, a German professor, originally wrote it some 60
years ago, was not difficult to procure, and I started poring over it,
but without being able to shake off the uneasy feeling that the exact
import of some of the terse thoughts it contained, some technical terms,
was escaping me. But then a friend located an English translation for
me, and things became much simpler. It is a slim volume, making for
exciting reading, but challenging at the same time in its own manner,
brushing now against meditative practice, now engaging with the
struggles that we wage in our daily lives.
But it was not all theory, or mystical thought. There were long and hard passages in the training: judging the bow and its material, testing the strength of the bow-string, and the stringing, the bend and the stretch, listening to the string as it flew back, making that sharp, crack mingled with a thrumming sound, and so on. But, above all, it was about taking aim, and releasing the arrow. Controlling your breath was of the essence, the Master told them. "If you do not breathe right, you do not shoot right", he would say. And then, the greatest, the toughest lesson of them all: forgetting yourself after taking aim, with the arrow stretched taut on the string. This 'forgetting yourself', this artlessness at the time of releasing the arrow, Prof Herrigel had the greatest difficulty with, for it all seemed so contrary, so paradoxical. Till the Master, he says, came up with this: "You must hold the drawn bowstring like a little child holding a 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 the child doesn't think that 'I will now let go of the finger in order to grasp the other thing'. Completely unselfconscious, without purpose, it turns from one to the other." There is only an 'inward movement'. It is necessary for the archer to become, in spite of himself, an unmoved centre. Art becomes artless, shooting turns into non-shooting. This is the Great Doctrine of archery, the Master told them.
The book is filled with wonderful passages such as this. But, all the time I was reading it, my mind was racing back to what we find in our own, early texts: stirring tales not only of marksmanship but of concentration, of the ability to eliminate and throw out extraneous thought: Arjuna taking aim and seeing only the tip of his arrow and the eye of the sparrow that he was meant to hit; Shankaracharya learning, as he said, 'the art of concentration from the maker of arrows'; Prithviraj, blindfolded, shooting Muhammad Ghauri down, as narrated by Chand Bardai, his bard. But then things and thoughts have a way of crossing boundaries, going beyond time and space.
Zen, one has to remind oneself, is derived from
the Sanskrit dhyana. And extraordinary things are associated with the thought
that the two words contain. Just one more passage from the book before I end
this piece, however. The Zen master, an early text says, thinks like the rain
that falls from the heavens, like the waves that rise in the ocean, like the
stars that nightly light up the heavens, like the grass that sprouts naturally
as gentle spring breezes blow. The Zen practitioner does not, like the painter,
require any canvas or pigments, or brushes; he does not, like the archer, need
any bow or arrow or mark. He has his limbs, his body, his head: these are his