Monday, September 10, 2007

Zen and the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel

It's the name of a book I just finished.

I'm always interested in how people get exposed to and eventually read certain books, and this one is a good example of how/why it can be so interesting. I'm pretty sure I got it from reading Michael Lewis' The New New Thing. He may have mentioned that this book was on one of Jim Clark's bookshelves.

It sounded interesting, so I checked it out. Is it about Zen or is it about archery? As the book would answer: it's all the same thing. Everything and nothing.

Yeah it can be confusing, and some people might get annoyed at such ethereal talk, but this is an interesting perspective on an otherwise well-guarded tradition that is intentionally difficult to penetrate.

The author was a German philosophy professor back in the day (the book came out in 1953) and he was offered a job in Japan, which he gladly took. He had always been interested in Zen and he figured Japan was the ideal place to learn it. He soon learned that Zen per-se isn't taught. It's "taught" in an indirect way. That is, you need to choose one of the arts—and be instructed in it—in order to "get" Zen. So the guy signs up for archery training with a master and over six years he is taught the art of archery.

Yeah, I know, lots of quotes. It's that kind of a "thing."

The good thing is that this guy is in and gets it, yet he's a Westerner and he understands this stuff won't come easily to us. Which is OK. Zen isn't something you can read about in a book and "get."

But since he's being exposed to Zen teachings through a sport, there are several instances in the book where—as an athlete—something clicks and I know what he's talking about.

Last week I read a quote relating to baseball:

"I've been doing a pretty good job of trying to keep things simple," Pena said Wednesday. "The less you think, the better you hit. Less is more."

Compare this to a line from the book:

"Don't think of what you have to do, don't consider how to carry it out!" he exclaimed. "The shot will only go smoothly when it takes the archer himself by surprise."

This also goes back to something Bruce Lee deeply believed in. In Return of the Dragon, a scene was cut from the released version in which Lee expounds his spiritual beliefs on fighting. It goes something like this:

Question: What are your thoughts when facing an opponent?
Bruce: There is no opponent.
Question: Why is that?
Bruce: Because the word "I" does not exist.
A good fight should be like a small play . . . but played seriously. When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And when there is an opportunity . . . I do not hit . . . it (and here he brandishes his fist) hits all by itself.

It's all very cool and Zen and makes you want to learn it. The whole point is that, if that's what you're after, you won't learn it. That is where the arts come in. Arts like archery, sword fighting, martial arts, and even flower arrangement, which the author also gets into.

The idea is that individuals can eventually lose themselves in the "all," eliminating the "I" and achieving a state of Zen.

It's very "new agey" and hard to really swallow. And that's the whole idea behind it. It's like when Marcus Aurelius asks Maximus to be the next emperor and he says he doesn't want to. Aurelius responds with "That is why it must be you!"

That's what appeals to me about it. They aren't trying to actively bring you over to "their" side or convince you they know better than you. "They" is the wrong term here, actually. There is no "they." There is no you or I or any of it. It's all one thing that, if mastered, you can tap into and be a part of.

Zen holds great appeal to hard-headed people like me because it's intentionally hard to penetrate and get through to. It's hard work and requires discipline and sacrifice. Few things do anymore, and I like that.

I have to mention that, if it wasn't for the connections I can make with the stuff in the book in terms of sports, I probably wouldn't care to go any further and explore Zen. I wouldn't have enough to make me believe that any of it could apply to me.

But athletes have all felt those moments of Zen at one time or another. When you stop thinking and just react—letting all those hours of practice take over and just do the work without processing. Reacting according to how you've been trained.

One more baseball-related bit I found in the book. You ever watch Bobby Howry of the Chicago Cubs, the late Rod Beck, Matt Herges, or any of the other pitchers in the big leagues that do it? They have a very particular breathing routing before every pitch they throw. The first thing the author is taught in his archery lessons is breathing. It's the first step to getting your consciousness out of the way and losing your ego, your "I."

If you read this book, you'll find all kinds of connections to whatever art you practice, follow, or are a fan of, be it a sport, a hobby, or any other kind of activity you are passionate about.

Try it, it's only around 80 pages and even though some parts are tough to get through (again, that's the point—the text naturally has to be mysterious, Zen cannot be put on paper), it's well worth the journey.

Here are some parts I deemed worthy enough to highlight:

- "Wrapped in impenetrable darkness, Zen must seem the strangest riddle which the
spiritual life of the East has ever devised: insoluble and yet irresistible attractive."

- "This, then, is what counts: a lightning reaction which has no further need of conscious

- I also like the part about not grieving over bad shots and not getting excited over good shots. The master tells him that you should learn to detach yourself from both of them. You hear
that all the time in long seasons like baseball. "Keep an even keel," "Never get too high, never get too low." Especially with closers: "You have to let it go," "Tomorrow is another day." Are you seeing these connections?

- "But if he is to fit himself self-effacingly into the creative process, the practice of the art
must have the way smoothed for it . . . everything that he does is done before he knows it."
This goes back to what Bruce Lee talked about and to something boxers mention a lot: that
fights aren't won in the ring, they're won during training. Once you step into the ring, you've done all you can to win the fight. There is no more you can do but be, do. Let what you've
prepared for happen.

- "When the tension is fulfilled, the shot must fall, it must fall from the archer like the snow
from a bamboo leaf, before he even thinks it."
This one felt especially close to the golf swing to me. The master is talking about letting go of the shot, but it could easily apply to that
moment in the golf swing when the backswing ends and the swing begins. It's a "feel thing,"
involving tempo and timing. Zen believes you don't shoot, you allow the shot to come when it's

OK I could go on and on. But the analogies are for each person to make individually so they can actually relate to Zen and find out how they can come at it and "feel" it. After all, "Unless we enter into mystic experiences by direct participation, we remain outside, turn and twist as we may."

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