About as long as a good-sized New Yorker essay, Eugen Herrigel’s book about his many years as a German studying Japanese archery (kyudo) and Zen comes recommended by a struggling Zen friend as a good primer (along with the longer and unread “Three Pillars of Zen” by Phillip Kapleau Roshi). And in a Zen-like moment, I found it exactly when I wasn’t looking for it in Book Den used books (or was that a Tao moment?).
Zen is the most mindbending of philosophies, and Herrigel’s struggle to master his chosen art is full of, well, such moments. His sensei, Kenzo Awa, offers little explanation, but guides his students through a series of failures and frustrations, so that the proper way of doing anything comes as a much larger enlightenment. When, after many years (years!) Herrigel starts to hit the target, Sensei chides him for any satisfaction: “What are you thinking of? You know already that you should not grieve over bad shots; learn now not to rejoice over the good ones. 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 importance of meditation, and of ceremony, of what sports-type secular people call being in the zone, before engaging on a work of art, is part of the Zen experience too. It is the most purpose-filled arts (swordsmanship, painting, archery) that Zen requires to be approached with purposelessness. It’s very difficult to comprehend, but Herrigel does his best.
Herrigel’s wife, too, spends her five years learning the art of Japanese flower arranging, and goes on to master Zen in her own way. Herrigel doesn’t say much about her, which says something about the times and his attitudes. These days, the book would have to be about both husband and wife, I suppose.
Over at Amazon, the book gets good ratings, apart from some kyudo expert called Earl Hartman, who feels the whole book is a sham.
To put it bluntly, Herrigel got everything, and I mean everything, wrong. He himself only practiced kyudo for three years, if his translator Sozo Komachiya is to be believed (he started in 1926 and returned to Germany in 1929). He spoke no Japanese. He was himself a mystic (or he wanted to be one, anyway) intent on understanding Zen, not archery, and he had very definite pre-formed ideas about what he was looking for and what he believed Zen, and, by extension kyudo, to be. Given such a situation, the impending disaster was a forgone conclusion. Even with the best instruction he would not have understood kyudo.
His book is very seductive, filled as it is with tantalizing mystical stories about a seeker on the road to “enlightenment”. So, it will appeal to romantics who have no experience in either Zen or kyudo, and it has been my experience that the book indeed appeals primarily to such people. It is instructive to note that those people who have experience in either discipline are quick to point out how thoroughly Herrigel bollixed it up.
Gosh. Well, that’s that then.