The Tribune - Spectrum


, June 16, 2002
'Art and Soul

Zen and the art of archery
B.N. Goswamy

"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 1104),
writing of a painter

An archer in his ceremonial robes. Woodblock print; Japan, 19th century
An archer in his ceremonial robes. Woodblock print; Japan, 19th century

WHEN 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.

Art from the south seas
June 2, 2002
To collect and then to donate
May 19, 2002
An estate of the mind
May 5, 2002
Rama’s journey in San Diego
April 21, 2002
An intrepid photographer
April 7, 2002
Shringara: Passion and adornment
March 24, 2002
The peaceful liberators, again
March 10, 2002

Picasso: Again and forever
February 24, 2002

A female naturalist
February 10, 2002
Miniatures in another vein
January 13, 2002
Magic in the shadows
December 30, 2001
Remembering a painter of birds
December 16, 2001
The mysteries of silk
December 2, 2001
The Night of the Museums
November 18, 2001

In many ways, the book is all about the author's personal journey through the winding paths of an alien culture. Greatly intrigued by the thought of so many people - some of them learned colleagues teaching at the same Japanese University as himself - taking up archery in an age when the bow and arrow as weapons were of little use, this German professor made up his mind to try and understand what it was all about. With considerable difficulty, he managed to have himself accepted as a pupil by a great master of the art. But this was just the beginning of his trials. For there was no syllabus, no fixed period of time for the 'course': everything depended upon the Master. He proceeded in his own stern and unhurried manner, gentle at times, angry at others, lifting the veil of mystery for his pupils sometimes, but quickly dropping it again. But one of the things that Prof Herrigel learnt early on was that the art of archery was not an activity to be pursued because it was aesthetic in itself: it was essentially a training in consciousness, awareness. The archer does not shoot only to hit his target, the Master said; the swordsman does not practice only to injure or kill his opponent. It is all aimed at bringing consciousness in harmony with the unconscious. From time to time, he would speak of prajna - the Sanskrit term we use so often in our own thought -; of the awareness that zero is eternity, and eternity is zero. He would remind them of the fact that the hall in which the best of swordsmen learned their skills was always called the 'place of enlightenment'.

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.

A transformation

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 tools.