zen in the art of archery

Zen in the Art of Archery

Ever since I saw the movie Enter the Dragon in the 1970s, I became infatuated with martial arts. To me Bruce Lee will always be the greatest exponent of martial arts. His iconic fight with O’Hara on Han’s Island and his immortal stoic remark, “boards don’t hit back” will forever remain implanted in my memory. So when the Black Belt Academy was established in Dhaka by my friend and sensei Kazi Qais, I immediately enrolled with the dream of one day being able to wield the nunchaku like Bruce Lee. Alas, I never could come even close to the majesty of Bruce Lee but I did have the wonderful life enriching experience of training in the martial arts for six years which culminated in my sensei graciously awarding me the black belt. Having achieved the black belt which is the ultimate goal of every novice karateka, I realized that in the never-ending Karate saga, a black belt is where the journey begins. The years of training leading up to the black belt is the preparation for the long road ahead. It is akin to reaching the base camp if you are planning to climb the Everest.

The most beautiful part of Karate is the kata performance. A kata can be described as a martial arts dance. The best exponents of kata appear as if they are in a trance. An incredible amount of power is put into each move but it is delivered in the most elegant and graceful manner. It is a state of total awareness of the surroundings with a relaxed alertness. In Japanese this state is called Zanshin. In the Black Belt Academy, I practiced my katas for hours on end. The focus was on each precise move and it was repeated an endless number of times to achieve the ever-eluding mastery of the art.

Eugen Herrigel was a German professor of philosophy who in 1948 wrote a book titled Zen in the Art of Archery. The book was based on his experience of studying and practicing Kyudo, a form of Japanese archery when he was living in Japan teaching philosophy at a university near Tokyo. He learned Kyudo under the tutelage of the legendary archer Awa Kenzo. Kenzo was a traditionalist who believed that for any structure to be durable, it must be built on a strong foundation and therefore insisted that his students should master the fundamentals of archery before attempting to shoot at a real target. So extreme was his belief in this theory that for the first four years of his training, Herrigel was only allowed to shoot at a target a few feet away. (Those who have seen the movie Karate Kid would be able to relate to this concept as they saw Jackie Chan put his young acolyte Jaden Smith through the gruelling “jacket on jacket off” training). When Herrigel complained of the incredibly slow pace, his teacher replied, “The way to the goal is not to be measured! Of what importance are weeks, months, years?” Kenzo went on to tell Herrigel that it was not whether one aimed, but how one approached the task that determined the outcome. Herrigel was not convinced by his teacher’s views and challenged him to prove his own competence in archery without aiming. Kenzo looked at his student pensively and after a pause, asked him to come and see him in the evening.

When night had fallen, Kenzo motioned Herrigel to proceed towards the practice area. In total darkness Kenzo fired an arrow towards his target and then put another arrow to his bow and let it loose. He then asked Herrigel to go and check the result. Herrigel switched on the light and when he walked up to the target, he saw that in total darkness Master Kenzo had hit the bullseye with his first arrow and then slit the first arrow into two with this second arrow.

Kenzo believed that aiming was only one aspect of the fine art of Kyudo. But the best results can be achieved even without aiming. Kyudo is a complete art; it has many facets and even if one important part is overlooked, the combination of all other facets of the art can still yield great results. It is about where the feet are placed, how the bow is held, how the breathing is done at the time of release of the arrow- it all determines the end result. Master Kenzo was so aware of all these processes that he could repeatedly hit his target without seeing it. This anecdote is a great example of zanshin where the master demonstrates a complete awareness of his body, mind and surroundings. Literally translated, zanshin means “remaining mind”. Or the mind being completely focused and fixated on what the person is doing. The philosophy of zanshin does not have to be restricted to Kyudo. It is as much applicable to our daily lives as it is to the ancient martial art.

The singular objective in our lives should not be to achieve the result. The objective should be to fall in love with the process of achieving the desired result; To think of what we do as an art rather than as a means to an end. To regale in mastering every little aspect of our art. There is a certain mystic charm in the grind that goes into achieving any great result. To quote Thomas Edison, “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration”.

In our overly materialistic lives, there is an obsession with the result. It does not matter how we get it as long as we get it. People compromise on ethics and morals to reach their desired goal. Empathy and compassion for others are long forgotten ideals. Happiness is measured by the bank balance. Gertrude Stein’s sardonic quote sums up the warped values of modern society. “Whoever said money can’t buy happiness simply didn’t know where to go shopping”.

No. It is not all about the end result. It is about how you achieved the end result. Were you happy practicing your art? Did you enrich the lives of others along the way? Did you try to make the world a better place? Will you be remembered for what you did for others or will you be remembered for what you did for yourself?



Comments (26)
  • ” Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them – Dalai Lama”. Reading the last paragraph of this article reminds me of this quote, thank you.

  • Thank you sir for your well-written blog. In the context of Bangladesh, it is very difficult to make money with an ethical process. If anyone wishes to start a new business, he/she has to face lots of difficulties to get permission, he has to go through a huge bureaucratic process. He/she has to manage different govt. office like RJSC, tax, vat, local authority, utility office, local mastan, local govt. authority etc. Lots of peoples don’t want to go to do something him/herself for these hassles. As we have to pay additional money to manage these authorities/persons, so to recover this money, we are compelled to take an unethical way to earn money. In this situation, how do we make money with an ethical process? In some cases, it may be possible but in most of the cases, it is difficult I think. Thank you again, sir.

  • Inspirational writing, but I think if it is written in a simpler language, it will be more convenient for everyone to understand.

    • 100% Agreed with Mr. Selim Reza.

    • Writing that the reader can easily understand is needed more. Sorry, I’m not clear on what the article (Archery/martial arts/Karate/biography/Kenzo/philosophy) is about. Hopefully, in the future, Honored Author, Make sure that the reader understands the article. Thanks.

    • Selim Reza, You are absolutely Right and I’m totally agreed with you.

    • I have been a reader of this blog site for about 5 months. I like to read the writings, but I think it attracts more readers if it is easier to understand.

  • If you don’t realize that you have genuine value and that you are worth investing in, then you will never put in the time and effort needed to grow to your potential.

  • As always very engaging. In a business set up though more often than not, it is the result that counts and not the effort.

  • Challenges are what make life interesting. Overcoming them is what makes life meaningful.

  • No matter what you’re going through, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. It may seem hard to get to it but you can do it. Just keep working towards it and you’ll find the positive side of things.

  • Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.

  • If you want to succeed you should strike out on new paths, rather than travel the worn paths of accepted success.

  • Wonderful essay where the author’s experience, this time with martial arts, lead us gently to deeper life questions. The last sentence (question) is particularly powerful.

  • Once you replace negative thoughts with positive ones, you’ll start having positive results.

  • If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you? Not much.

  • The most important thing is to try and inspire people so that they can be great in whatever they want to do.

    • Well Said

  • The martial art was very popular in the eighties and Bruce Lee contributed a lot. In the VCR era of that time, people were eagerly waiting to see his new picture.

  • We should do the work that makes our minds happy.

  • You have to take action to move forward, and failure is part of the progress. You are finding out what doesn’t work and trying again. Every iteration has an opportunity to makes things better. Look at James Dyson, he made 5127 prototypes for the vacuum before he got it right. He failed 5126 times. Failure is part of the journey.

  • If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything.

  • Few things in the world are more powerful than a positive push. A smile. A world of optimism and hope.

  • If you make a mistake once, it’s ignorance and pardonable. A winner is just A Loser Who Tried One More Time.

  • Please stop looking at others’ work and focus on your self-improvement. The driver needs to focus on his way to reach his destination.

  • “The singular objective in our lives should not be to achieve the result. The objective should be to fall in love with the process of achieving the desired result; To think of what we do as an art rather than as a means to an end.” I just loved these words…🙌

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