Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery is one of the most widely read books about a Zen tradition that documents the author’s learning curve while studying the art of archery with his master. In this passage, he is reaching the peak of his frustration with the process and its inherent paradoxes, feeling that no matter how hard he tries, he is always moving further away from his target. In the light of his difficulty, his master warns him against trying to succeed by way of excess will and instead guides him towards a state of ‘purposeless tension’.
‘You have described only too well’, replied the Master, ‘where the difficulty lies. Do you 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 fulfilment, 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: it 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 wilful will. You think that what you do not do yourself does not happen.
‘But you yourself have told me often enough that archery is not a pastime, not a purposeless game, but a matter of life and death!’
‘I stand by that. We master archers say: one shot —one life! What this means, you cannot yet understand. But perhaps another image will help you, which expresses the same experience. We master archers say: with the upper end of the bow the archer pierces the sky, on the lower end, as though attached by a thread, hangs the earth. If the shot is loosed with a jerk there is a danger of the thread snapping. For purposeful and violent people the rift becomes final, and they are left in the awful centre between heaven and earth.’
‘What must I do, then?’ I asked thoughtfully.
‘You must learn to wait properly.’
‘And how does one learn that?’
‘By letting go of yourself, leaving yourself and everything yours behind you so decisively that nothing more is left of you but a purposeless tension.’
From: Zen in the Art of Archery