Quotes From Zen in the Art of Archery

Selected quotes from Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel.

The story goes something like this: Eugen Herrigel, a German teaching and living in Japan, set out to understand the meaning of Zen. Realizing it cannot be studied but only experienced, he decided to learn about it through the practice of one of the arts “touched” by Zen, Kyudo (Japanese archery). Out of his experiences came the book Zen in the Art of Archery.

This was one of the first book I read on the subject. Given the choices made by Herrigel later in life, it is unclear what he took away from these experiences.

As I understand it, talking about Zen has a tendency to confuse things. What makes this a worthwhile read is not the author’s interpretation of what Zen actually is (or is not) but rather the fact that it is one of the earliest books to expose the Western public to Zen. It spawned a century of speculation and countless books on the subject.

Anyone interested in the “Western tradition” of Zen should find this book interesting. Independently of my agreement or disagreement with some of the statements, below is a selection of quotes and excerpts from the English text.

You can buy the book by clicking here.

If one really wishes to be a master of an art, technical knowledge of it is not enough. One has to transcend technique so that the art becomes an “artless art” growing out of the Unconscious.

In archery, the hitter and the hit are no longer two opposing objects, but are one reality.

Fundamentally the marksman aims at himself and may even succeed in hitting himself.

[Kyudo] consists in the archer aiming at himself – and yet not at himself, in hitting himself – and yet not himself, and thus becoming simultaneously the aimer and the aim, the hitter and the hit.

It is necessary for the archer to become, in spite of himself, an unmoved center. Then comes the supreme and ultimate miracle: art becomes “artless”, …the end a beginning, and the beginning perfection.

Dhyana Buddhism, which is known in Japan as “Zen” and is not speculation at all but immediate experience of what, as the bottomless ground of Being, cannot be apprehended by intellectual means.

Bow and arrow are only a pretext for something that could just as well happen without them, only the way to a goal, not the goal itself, only helps for the last decisive leap.

Unless we enter into mystic experiences by direct participation, we remain outside, turn and twist as we may.

Like all mysticism, Zen can only be understood by one who is himself a mystic and is therefore not tempted to gain by underhand methods what the mystical experience withholds from him.

The merely curious have no right to demand anything.

Nobody can stay the course without conscientious guidance from a skilled teacher and without the help of a Master.

The Zen adept shuns all talk of himself and his progress. Not because he thinks it immodest to talk, but because he regards it as a betrayal of Zen.

Objectively speaking, it would be entirely possible to make one’s way to Zen from any one of the arts…

Only the truly detached can understand what is meant by “detachment”.

There is and can be no other way to mysticism than the way of personal experience and suffering.

Zen repudiated the least trace of “teaching”.

I learned to lose myself so effortlessly in the breathing that I sometimes had the feeling that I myself was not breathing but – strange as it may sound – being breathed.

Lao-tzu could say with profound truth that right living is like water, which “of all things the most yielding can overwhelm that which is of all things the most hard.”

The effortlessness of a performance for which great strength is needed is a spectacle of whose aesthetic beauty the East has an exceedingly sensitive and grateful appreciation.

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

An infant does not think: I will now let go of the finger in order to grasp this other thing. Completely unself-consciously, without purpose, it turns from one to the other.

The right shot at the right moment does not come because you do not let go of yourself. You do not wait for fulfillment, but brace yourself for failure.

The right art is purposeless, aimless! The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one and the further the other will recede. What stands in your way is that you have a much too willful will. You think that what you do not do yourself does not happen.

You must learn to wait properly.

…letting go of yourself, leaving yourself and everything yours behind you so decisively that nothing more is left of you but the purposeless tension.

The tension spontaneously fulfill[s] itself.

Between the two states of bodily relaxedness on the one hand and spiritual freedom on the other there is a difference of level which cannot be overcome by breath-control alone, but only by withdrawing from all attachments whatsoever, by becoming utterly egoless: so that the soul, sunk within itself, stands in the plenitude of its nameless origin.

The demand that the door of the senses be closed is not met by turning energetically away from the sensible world, but rather by readiness to yield without resistance. In order that this actionless activity may be accomplished instinctively, the soul needs an inner hold, and it wins it by concentrating on breathing.

The more one concentrates on breathing, the more the external stimuli fade into the background.

Right presence of mind means that the mind or spirit is present everywhere, because it is nowhere attached to any particular place.

Out of the fullness of this presence of mind, disturbed by no ulterior motive, the artist who is released from all attachment must practice his art.

Before all doing and creating, before ever he begins to devote and adjust himself to his task, the artist summons forth this presence of mind and makes sure of it through practice.

Nothing more is required of the pupil, at first, than that he should conscientiously copy what the teacher shows him.

In the end, the pupil no longer knows which of the two – mind or hand – was responsible for the work.

The Masters behave as if they were alone.

All right doing, is accomplished only in a state of true selflessness, in which the doer cannot be present any longer as “himself”. Only the spirit is present.

Just as one uses a burning candle to light others with, so the teacher transfers the spirit of the right art from heart to heart, that it may be illuminated.

The way to the goal is not to be measured.

Outwardly, for the observer, the right shot is distinguished by the cushioning of the right hand as it is jerked back, so that no tremor runs through the body. But inwardly, for the archer himself, right shots have the effect of making him feel that the day has just begun. He feels in the mood for all right doing, and, what is perhaps even more important, for all right not-doing.

He who has a hundred miles to walk should reckon ninety as half the journey.

The “Great Doctrine” knows nothing of a target which is set up at a definite distance from the archer. It only knows of the goal, which cannot be aimed at technically, and it names this goal, if it names it at all, the Buddha.

You can be a Master even if every shot does not hit.

You must free yourself from the buffetings of pleasure and pain, and learn to rise above them in easy equanimity, to rejoice as though not you but another had shot well.

The instructor’s business is not to show the way itself, but to enable the pupil to get the feel of this way to the goal by adapting it to his individual peculiarities.

What counts is a lightning reaction that has no further need of conscious observation.

One must learn to disregard oneself as resolutely as he disregards his opponent.

The last trace of self-regard vanishes in sheer purposelessness.

Perfection is reached when the heart is troubled by no more thought of I and You.

All is emptiness, even the thought of emptiness is no longer there.

The hand, exercising perfect control over technique, executes what hovers before the mind’s eye at the same moment when the mind begins to form it.

The painter’s instructions might be: spend ten years observing bamboos, become a bamboo yourself, then forget everything and paint.

The Zen Master lives happily enough in the world, but ready at any time to quit it without being in the least disturbed by the thought of death.

He who masters both life and death is free from fear of any kind to the extent that he is no longer capable of experiencing what fear feels like.

Take the road to the artless art.

The Void which is the All.