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BOOK REVIEW: Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel

Zen in the Art of ArcheryZen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Herrigel’s book is part autobiography of his experience learning Japanese archery (kyudo) from the distinguished master archer Kenzo Awa (and through archery, Zen,) and it’s part philosophical treatise on how archery can help one achieve a Zen state of mind.

The book is less than one hundred pages and has a Zen feel itself. Exemplary of this, the book’s divisions aren’t labeled or numbered into chapters—i.e. there’s a general trimming away of the extraneous features of a book. That said, there’s a clear organization to the book, and most of it follows the chronology by which the author (and others) progress in developing deep insight into the mind through the practice of archery.

There are nine sections:
The first section helps the reader understand why one might consider Zen and archery in the same thought–something that will by no means be obvious (even to many Zen Buddhists.)

The second section explains why Herrigel took up Zen and decided to use archery as his vehicle to understand it.

Section three describes the early learning process, and focuses heavily on the importance of breath.

Section four takes place after Herrigel has been practicing about a year, and the theme of purposeless action is at the fore. This idea is one of the recurring central ideas in the book.

Section five is Herrigel’s introduction to withdrawing from attachments, and—in particular—letting go of the ego. It’s not the point at which Herrigel masters this difficult practice, but he’s made aware of it.

The next section is one of the longer chapters and in it Master Awa tries to teach Herrigel the importance of letting “it shoot” rather than making the shot. This is clearly a challenging idea.

In the seventh section, Herrigel has been practicing for five years and Master Awa recommends that he take a test to help him move on to the next stage in his practice.

Section eight is a brief elucidation as to why kyudo is still relevant and how its relevance has long been tied to what it teaches about the mind.

The final section shifts gears into the relation between Zen and swordsmanship. There have been many works written on this subject, and Herrigel’s purpose may have been to convince the reader that kyudo isn’t uniquely a vehicle for Zen. One can engage in many activities (arguably any activity) with the mind of Zen, be it flower arranging, tea ceremony, calligraphy, or spearmanship.

I’d recommend this book for those interested in the mind / body connection. It’s short, readable, filled with food for thought, and is a classic on the subject.

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