7/11/2006

Artless Art

The book Zen in the Art of Archery, by Eugen Herrigel, has had a profound effect on my playing. I would highly recommend getting a copy yourself, but I have pulled out one of the passages that I found to be particularly illuminating.

Herrigel, who was a German philosopher, traveled to Japan to gain an understanding of Zen. In the pursuit of this understading he studied archery for six years with a Zen Master. In this passage, Herrigel has been having trouble loosing the shot smoothly (letting go of the arrow).
The Master was evidenty less horrified by my failure than I myself. Did he know from experience that it would come to this? "Don't think of what you have to do, don't consider how to carry it out!" he exclaimed. "The shot will only go smoothly when it takes the archer himself by suprise. It must be as if the bowstring suddenly cut though the thumb that held it. You mustn't open the right hand on purpose."
After months of fruitless practice, Herrigel has this conversation with the Master:

"I understand well enough," I said, "that the hand mustn't be opened with a jerk if the shot is not to be spoiled. But however I set about it, it always goes wrong. If I clench my hand as tightly as possible, I can't stop it shaking when I open my fingers. If, on the other hand, I try to keep it relaxed, the bowstring is torn from my grasp before the full stretch is reached-unexpextedly, it is true, but still too early. I am caught between these two kinds of failure and see no way of escape." "You must hold the drawn bowstring," answered the Master, "like a little child holding the proffered finger. It grips it so firmly that one marvels at the strength of the tiny fist. And when it lets the finger go, there is not the slightest jerk. Do you know why? Because a child doesn't think: I will now let go of the finger in order to grasp this other thing. Completely unself-consciously, without purpose, it turns from one to the other, and we would say that it was playing with the things, if it were not equally true that the things are playing with the child."

"Maybe I understand what you are hinting at with this comparison," I remarked. "But am I not in an entirely different situation? When I have drawn the bow, the moment comes when I feel: unless the shot comes at once I shan't be able to endure the tension. And what happens then? Merely that I get out of breath. So I must loose the shot at once whether I want to or not, because I can't wait for it any longer."

"You have described only too well," replied the Master, "where the difficulty lies. Do you want to know why you cannot wait for the shot and why you get out of breath before it has come? The right shot at the right moment does not come because you do not let go of yourself. You do not wait for fullfillment, but brace yourself for failure. So long as that is so, you have no choice but to call forth something yourself that ought to happen independently of you, and so long as you call it forth your hand will not open in the right way-like the hand of a child. Your hand does not burst open like the skin of a ripe fruit."

I had to admit to the master that this interpretation made me more confused than ever. "For ultimately," I said, "I draw the bow and loose the shot in order to hit the target. The drawing is thus a means to an end, and I cannot lose sight of this connection. The child knows nothing of this, but for me the two things cannot be disconnected."

"The right art," cried the Master, "is purposeless, aimless! The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one and the further the other will recede. What stands in your way is that you have a much too willful will. You think that what you do not do yourself does not happen."

I will leave you with that for now. I don't want to guide your thinking too much right now by saying how I relate that passage to my playing, but I would love it if you would join more for a discussion in the comments. I plan on coming back to this passage and the rest of the book a few more times, so try and read it yourself (it's cheap and only about 80 pages).

(update 7/18) Continue to Artless Art, part II.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Andrew Hitz said...

This is one of the great passages from an amazing book. Sam Pilafian made the entire studio read this book when I was at ASU a little over 10 years ago.

Thanks for bringing me back to "the beginning" of my playing again.

"The right shot at the right moment does not come because you do not let go of yourself. You do not wait for fullfillment, but brace yourself for failure. So long as that is so, you have no choice but to call forth something yourself that ought to happen independently of you, and so long as you call it forth your hand will not open in the right way-like the hand of a child."

What an amazing passage! Great blog too.

5:04 PM, May 31, 2010  
Blogger Jason Pellett said...

Thanks. I've actually found myself getting away from this recently so it's nice to be reminded. I feel like my practice tomorrow will be different. Sometimes, even when you're doing it, it is hard to believe how well you play with this approach. It's counter-intuitive and so easy to slip back into trying to control everything.

1:00 AM, June 01, 2010  
Anonymous Neil Stalnaker said...

Great book and great post Jason. Best book I've ever read for trumpet playing. Been going back over it 1-2 times a year since I've been living in Japan. Had an opportunity to go to an outdoor martial arts festival a few years ago in Tokyo. There was an archery exhibition with a group of older masters..70-80 years old. It was one of the most profound moments of my life seeing everything talked about in the book right before my eyes. Amazing! I'm also interested in how tai chi and qiqong can be incorporated into one's playing as is some of these zen concepts from the book.

9:21 PM, September 22, 2010  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home