The first time I ready Zen and the Art of Archery (Herrigel, 1948) I was mostly confused. I was actually a lot confused. It was 1993 and I had just received my yellow belt from my teacher in the Pacific Martial Arts, a very traditional school, which focuses most of its training on the core art of Washin-Ryu Karate-do. As a reward, my instructor had given me the lower belt reading list and told me to read Zen in the Art of Archery first. I know for some of you this may sound like a slightly boring read, but given my yearning for what I believed were the mystical secrets embedded in the Asian martial arts, I thought that I had just been given access to the first of the many secret texts to come. Plus, my teacher had told me that this very book summarized the core of our art! This would be the first step on my new path, a path focused on knocking people down with my eyes and developing kiais (shouts) that will break bones. Finally, it begins!
Then I got to page 4:
“And consequently by the ‘art’ of archery he does not mean the ability of the sportsman, which can be controlled more or less, by bodily exercises, but an ability whose origin is to be sought in spiritual exercises and whose aim consists of hitting a spiritual goal, so that fundamentally the marksman aims at himself and may even succeed at hitting himself.”
“OK, you lost me on that last part,” I thought. How do I fundamentally aim at myself and sometimes succeed at hitting myself. And by the way, where is the section on secret techniques already? I quickly finished the book that night, looking for those answers. As far as I could tell at the time, none were given. Mostly the author talked about practicing over and over and over again. And then one day, he shot at a target for a demonstration and hit it. All while not “trying” to hit it. The end.
This “anticlimax” and all of these riddles made no sense. So I held onto the one thing that made sense to me after reading the book. I started practicing a lot. It was easy to do because karate was so much fun. And my two best friends were in the same dojo! I stopped trying to figure out the book, although I did periodically re-read it. It was supposed to represent the core of our art after all. And after these many years, I discovered that I do sometimes hit the target without trying to hit the target. These are the beautiful moments when I seem to move spontaneously. The words in my head seem to stop for just a moment. Sometimes, entire complex attacks have even flowed out of me of their own volition. I wasn’t even trying to do them. And even better, they worked! These moments seemed dramatically slowed down, my vision seemed heightened, and my responses pre-cognitive and perfect. I can still clearly remember all of these brief, precise moments.
So, how did this all start happening? What mystical techniques were used? I don’t know. All I’ve been doing is practicing my karate over and over and over again.