Sunday, October 7, 2012

NWCU Book Talk - Zen in the Art of Archery 07.10.12

Welcome to NWCU Book Talk. I'm Beth Winter and I'll be moderating this edition of Book Talk. The book that we chose to discuss today is Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel. Contrary to what the title implies, this book does not require an understanding of archery, instead readers should think of archery or flower arranging as a metaphor for anything that you do in life.

The Artless Art

"In a short, pithy narrative, he brings the heart of Zen to perfect clarity--intuition, imitation, practice, practice, practice, then, boom, wondrous spontaneity fusing self and art, mind, body, and spirit. Herrigel writes with an attention to subtle profundity and relates it with a simple artistry that itself carries the signature of Zen." --Brian Bruya

In 1948, when Eugen Herrigel published Zen in the Art of Archery, he chronicled his experiences in Japan learning under the guidance of a Zen Master. Many books exist with a focus on the meditation and practice elements of Zen but this book takes a different approach. Herrigel shared his experiences through the ritualized arts of discipline and beauty.

"The right art," cried the Master, "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.” ? Eugen Herrigel

We have all heard of that state of being known as "being in the zone," a time when creativity flows freely, without forethought or intent, when the art and artist become one. We practice our crafts, study and practice. We know the right place to insert commas, the proper exposure for light conditions or the optimum brushstroke to create a certain effect. Likewise, we can place ourselves in position to create. We can pick up our cameras and wander through the woods or prepare our supplies and line them carefully in front of us. But none of the equipment, supplies or settings will allow our art to exist to its fullest unless we find that zone.

As Herrigel describes through his experiences, the philosophy of Zen is the mastery of an art to the degree that it can be done without conscious thought.

If I take my camera to the edge of the pond with the sole intent of taking pictures of the juvenile blue heron, I may well get pictures of the heron but will not have practiced my art. Imagine all that I bypassed by having a target as my primary goal. If I go to the pond without a focus, the pond, the life surrounding it, my finger on the shutter release and my entire being become art. I allow the target to be without conscious thought. One of the most frustrating things for me is to have someone say "take the shot already." They don't understand that the shot will occur when the shot occurs.
I didn't read this book until recently. I wish I had read it a long time ago. Shortly after reading it for the second time, I put the artless art into practice with my pre-dawn yoga exercise. For years, I practiced yoga to an audio recording that prompted me from pose to pose, reminding me of breath and stance. Then one morning, I assumed prayer position without audio prompting and allowed my body to breathe and assume the poses that it knew from years of practice. Timing was undefined. My body held poses and transitioned to the next of its own accord. I did not choose to stand in tree pose for five minutes and honestly cannot say how long I remained in any single pose. In the end, my yoga practice was a moving spiritual experience, one that taught me the truest meaning of centering and balance. The audio tape is now in the pile of items for the garage sale. I may give it away.

One of the most influential parts of the book for me is when Herrigel alters his practice to train himself to release the arrow smoothly with intent. He practiced a shortcut to achieving a goal and in forcing the result, he insulted his Zen master.

As I read, I associated the little conscious finger twitch that allowed the arrow to release with those times when for whatever reason, I cannot write freely and force my words, wedging them together in a futile attempt to write a poem. Most of those forced poems remain in draft form awaiting the day that they are meant to be. In comparison, I frequently wake with poetry half formed at my fingertips, allow them to flow and look at the end result with the wonder of "where did that come from?" It didn't come from conscious thought rather appeared when I wasn't trying. I do admit to trying to taunt my reluctant muse into action by attempting new forms. In the process of trying something new, my focus isn't on the poem but rather on the structure. This practice often bypasses any block that I experienced and allows me to do what I love.

In closing and before discussion begins, I thank you for your interest and patience with my rambling. Although the art practiced by Eugen Herrigel is Archery, it is metaphorical for any art. The lessons remain the same though the tools might differ.

"The man, the art, the work--it is all one.” Eugen Herrigel

  • We will hold our discussion in comments either on this post or our Facebook Event Book Talk. I look forward to gaining more insight through your interpretations of Zen in the Art of Archery.
  • We want your suggestions for books to be featured in future Book Talk events. Please feel free to share them as well.
Thank you.


  1. Beth...I have to thank you and Roger for bringing this book my way. I am by no means a scholar of poetry and creative writing. I have not had the luxury of schooling on such matters...yet, I find myself compelled to write the words...and I ALWAYS have. I was asked once how I come up with titles for my pieces...the answer...the title is revealed once the piece is written. Even when working with prompts, I never know what will fall from my pen...and if I think too hard about it, nothing does. I had to giggle a you chose to share quotes which I was was going to use..."the right art is purposeless...aimless..." My doodles are a fine example of this. When I bust out the crayons...I almost always start with one black dot and no destination...this particular read has justified, for me, the state of nothingness that I refer to as my therapy when creating, is just that...and I will no longer seek to name it.

    1. Right on Natasha! You are in the ZEN ZONE! YAY! Roger ☺

    2. The fact I was seeking that justification, now, after reading, is almost embarrassing! I've still not mastered the all pervasive ego, I'm's always waiting to take over once I release my pen :(

    3. These concepts and personal experiences made this book an intimate experience for me as though the book was exposing what occurs in my being.

  2. I must say Beth this is a 'Brilliant' blog, on Herrigel and "Zen in the Art of Archery! No 'rambling' at all Beth, simply a great presentation!

    Roger ☺

    1. Thank you, Roger, first for suggesting this book to me and for your wonderful comment.

  3. The description of the stance when preparing to shoot the arrow turned on a lightbulb for me. I can't position myself with the attitude of failure when I have a goal I wish to achieve. I need to relax, breathe and believe.

    1. Let go and let it flow! :) That is the most important thing I walked away with. Almost similar to its about the journey...not the destination. Let go the target, let go the bow...allow yourself to be the arrow. I've pages of notes and reflections...and that was from one read only!

    2. I have found that by letting go and letting it flow, I experience everything in a greater depth.