Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugene Herrigel

A must-read book for all serious martial artists. This book is one of the most articulate books on Zen that I have read. From a first person perspective, Herrigel recounts his path towards enlightenment through martial arts training.

I love this book on several levels. Right from the first paragraph of the introduction, I’m reminded of why I reread this book every few years.

One of the most significant features we notice in the practice of archery, and in fact of all the arts as they are studied in Japan and probably also in other Far Eastern countries, is that they are not intended for utilitarian purposes only or for purely aesthetic enjoyments, but are meant to train the mind; indeed, to bring it into contact with the ultimate reality.

I love this book because through it I reflect on my training and our dojo. Karate-do, like Kyudo (archery) is a Japanese Budo whose ultimate aim is the perfection of character. As we train in Kata, for example, engaging in a real fight against an imaginary opponent, that opponent is us.

Before discussing the similarities, I’ll first describe some of the differences between Herrigel’s archery and our Karate. For starters, Herrigel joined archery to learn about Zen. By contrast, I do not know of a single karate student who began their training as a path to enlightenment.

When it comes to teaching methods, at our dojo, Karate is not taught anything along the lines of Herrigel’s archery. Where Herrigel described unquestioning following of the master, I believe in questioning everything. Blame it on (or credit it to, depending on one’s perspective) my Western upbringing, engineering education, or Stoic practices, but I love when students ask: “Why does this work?” “How do we generate power here?” “What is the counter to this?”, and so on, and so on. It is only through questioning that we gain a thorough understanding and pass beyond the blind faith level of comprehension. The most significant difference between our karate and Herrigel’s archery is that our Karatedo is functional first. Karate is fundamentally practical in strengthening the body, in self-defence, and as a fighting art. Practitioners must be able to defend themselves. This runs contrary to Herrigel’s master who espoused that you could become a master archer if you achieved enlightenment, even if you never hit the target.

All this said, one may ask whether our teaching is Karate-jitsu rather than Karate-do. Before Karate was brought to mainland Japan and included as a Budo, defined to cultivate the spirit, it was strictly a fighting art, a jitsu. The answer to this is firmly that we do in fact teach Karate-do. There is a philosophical undercurrent. From Day 1, beginners even in the kids class, continuing through our senior students, and including myself and my ongoing learning, we aim to cultivate the spirit. Two of the first concepts beginners learn are the teachings of Gichin Funakoshi: “Karate begins and ends with respect.”, along with “There is no first strike in Karate.” Karate is for self-defence, not for aggression. Along the path to karate mastery, all of the elements Herrigel describes in his Zen learnings are present, but they are cloaked in imminent practicality: master your breath, focus and be present. From our ever-so-brief meditation at the start of every class, through to our bowing to our partners.

Students train in karate for many reasons. For those who continue on the path, training through the black belt ranks, the utilitarian reasons are often superseded by spiritual motivation. Training at home, meditation, and pursuing excellence in all aspects of life.

All of this is why reading a book such as this, is so valuable for martial arts students, especially those in the middle ranks. It shines a spotlight on a powerful aspect of one’s training that one may overlook in their early stages of training, with all the imminent practicality.

On a different note, our Tai Chi classes, in many ways, do in fact somewhat mirror the traditional classes Herrigel describes, but that’s another story.

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