The Anti-Canon Series: Zen in the Art of Archery by Brendan Pickett

The Anti-Canon series is a collection of short essays focusing on writers less well known, positioned outside of the literary mainstream or simply deserving of more attention. An alternative (but by no means definitive) list of works that have influenced the writers at Influx Press, offering a different perspective to what is, and what is not, considered ‘important’, and hopefully giving you some new books to read into the bargain…


Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel is a sublime introduction for Westerners seeking an understanding of Zen. Herrigel was a German professor of philosophy at the University of Tokyo. As such, the prose is concise and efficient, focusing on the “essentials, so as to make them stand out more clearly.” If it was a waffling literary tome it would not accurately recount Herrigel's enlightening Zen experiences. And it is enlightening.

Herrigel wished to study the mysticism of Zen because he could not understand the “esoteric writings” about it, realising that only through “personal experience and suffering,” would an actual understanding be reached. Having been asked to lecture at Tokyo's University, he welcomed the chance to make personal contact with the Japanese culture of Zen Buddhism and the “introspective practice of mysticism.” However, Zen Masters were not keen on instructing a foreigner. This was between World War One and Two. Herrigel was told it would be “quite hopeless for a European to attempt to penetrate into this realm of spiritual life.” Herrigel persisted though, finally convincing “the celebrated Master Kenzo Awa” to instruct him, not because Herrigel was merely curious or sought pleasure in learning about Zen, but because he wanted to do so “for the sake of the 'Great Doctrine.'”


To begin understanding Zen, one must undertake “a kind of preparatory schooling” in “one of the Japanese arts associated” with it. Herrigel choose the art of archery, misguidedly believing his experience of shooting rifles and pistols would help.

Herrigel recounts his six years of archery instructions in brief chapters packed with wise gems. At first he is taught how to draw the bow in a “spiritual” way – so that the muscles of the arm and shoulder “remain relaxed” when the bow is drawn “to its full extent” (about four foot.) The bow therefore “encloses the 'All' in itself.”

Herrigel found the physicality of drawing the bow difficult. His hands trembled “after a few moments.” His breathing “became more and more laboured.” After weeks of practising, being unable to relax his muscles, the Master finally told him he could not draw the bow spiritually “because you do not breathe right.”

The Master did not reveal this earlier because you need to fail before you can understand the importance of guidance. Still, knowing he needed to breathe right did not make drawing the bow in a spiritual way any easier for Herrigel. He tried consciously to relax, to which the Master replied:

“That's just the trouble, you make an effort to think about it.”

It took Herrigel a year before he was able to draw the bow spiritually, and lose himself “so effortlessly in the breathing” that he found that he “was not breathing but - strange as this may sound – being breathed.”

The next stage of Herrigel's instructions was the “loosing” of the arrow. This requires the archer to draw the bow and hold it at the point of “highest tension,” then wait until the shot is released smoothly. For this to be spiritual it must be loosed without thought, so that it takes the archer “by surprise.” Again, Herrigel found this immensely difficult. He opened his right hand and loosed the arrow when the point of highest tension simply became unbearably painful. He practised fruitlessly for “weeks and months,” getting more and more frustrated, until one day he and the Master found themselves “together over a cup of tea.” Herrigel did not know whether the Master had arranged for this to happen.

Like a good philosophical Westerner, Herrigel poured his heart out and asked many questions. Herrigel could not disconnect from the idea that drawing the bow and loosing the shot is ultimately about hitting the physical target, not a spiritual one. The Master replied saying:

“The right art is purposeless, aimless! … You have a much too willful will. … You must learn to wait properly … leaving yourself so decisively that nothing more is left of you but a purposeless tension.”

In other words, to hit the target you must not think about hitting the target, or even that it exists. Your art will not be art unless it is artless.

“The artless art” is a koan used many times in Zen in the Art of Archery. Like all koans, “the artless art” is a challenge to understand. It is contradictory, at first. In fact, don't try to understand it. Because seeking to understand is about satisfying the ego. And if the ego is involved, failure follows. Herrigel does not explicitly state this, but his ego obscured his path. He was becoming “oppressed more and more by a premonition of failure.”

The Master noticed. He directed Herrigel's lessons to a more mindful position; instructing him to focus on his breathing again so that “external stimuli fade into the background.” Only by focusing on breathing can you become “utterly egoless,” and therefore render the disturbances of your thoughts inoperative. In Buddhism this is called “right presence of mind,” meaning:

“the mind is present everywhere, because it is nowhere attached to any particular place.”


This is why to begin to understand Zen you must first be instructed in the arts associated with it. The physical actions and ceremonies of creating art help the right presence of mind to flow. But only through practice and repetition of these actions can the artist reach a point where there is no difference between preparing and creating, technical and artistic, project and object. These should “flow together without a break” so that the person, “the art, the work – it is all one.” To do this requires egolessness, and in terms of archery means that “It” looses the shot... not “I.” Moreover, “I” is the target that “It” shoots at.

After three years of instructions, although feeling he was closer to understanding “the artless art” of archery, Herrigel had still not learnt to wait. Whilst on a summer holiday by the sea, he practised without the aid of the Master, utilising his rifle-shooting experience to develop his technique.

When he returned to his Master's lessons to start his fourth year, he loosed a couple shots using this rifle informed method. The Master took the bow from his hands and “sat down on a cushion, his back towards me.” Herrigel had offended his Master by trying to find a quick and easy way. The Master admonished him for “not being able to wait without purpose in the state of highest tension.”

The lessons re-started from the very beginning. Herrigel persisted... but unlike the Japanese pupils, he also persisted in questioning his Master... until one day the Master was insulted by Herrigel's gimmicky suggestion that the Master, “ought to be able to hit it blindfolded.” The Master told him to meet him later that night.

Despite having been insulted the Master must have realised Herrigel needed a visual demonstration to knock him out of his rut. In the large practice-hall lit only by one dim candle, the Master loosed two shots. Both hit bull's eye. The second “splintered the butt of the first and plowed through the shaft.”

This demonstration caused a satori like moment in Herrigel, as if the arrows had also hit him. Overnight he stopped succumbing “to the temptation of worrying.” Shortly after Herrigel loosed a shot to which the Master bowed “as before the Buddha!”

The arrow had only grazed the target... but “It” shot, not Herrigel. He soon became proficient in the art of archery. When questioned by the Master if he now understood what “It” meant, Herrigel simply didn't know.

“Even the simplest things have got in a muddle … Do 'I' hit the goal, or does the goal hit me?”

Herrigel had made his art an artless art, because the “bow, arrow, goal and ego, all melt into one another.” Therefore when he takes his bow and shoots, “everything becomes so clear and straightforward and so ridiculously simple...” The Master replied:

“The bowstring has cut right through you.”

After five years he passed a test at a public demonstration and gained a diploma... but this is irrelevant. Right presence of mind needs no praise. Herrigel continued under the Master's instructions for his sixth and final year in Japan, pursuing the artless art: knowing it is a contest with the self.

“It” Looses Bow and “It” is “I” It Hits.

This book changed my philosophy on life and art by illuminating what I'd always known yet never seen clearly before. To create poignant art demands a spiritual transformation of the artist. The artist must become a conduit for ideas to flow spontaneously from the mind and body without distraction. As this requires liberation from the ego, it will take years, perhaps decades, before the artist can become “It” at a moment's notice, whenever an idea strikes. But if the artist does not worry about it not having happened yet, and continues practising with increased intensity, inevitably “It” will hit.

These are the long-term guidelines I adhere to. I aim not to be a writer, but to be written. The words are not mine, but have cut through me. Sometimes “It” strikes perfectly... other times I've missed completely.

This is the only book I have two copies of. I recommend you at least get one.

Brendan is a poet, performer and short story writer. He is studying creative writing at Middlesex University