March 25, 2003
Vol. III, No. 10
"Bulls-eye! Or not."
After shuffling "Zen in the Art of Archery" around my bookcase for a year or so, I finally picked it up and gave it a read. I had always wanted to know a little bit more about Zen and it appeared to be a classic text on the subject. More importantly, it was short.
I don't know what it's like in Japan today but at the time the book was written in the 1950s, Zen was still being practiced as a life philosophy. For centuries, fulfillment in this philosophy had been gained through the mastery of archery, swordsmanship, flower arrangement, or painting. However, these activities were not practiced as sports or hobbies but rather as spiritual paths. These paths were mastered through the learning of ritualized ceremonies, which had disciplined breathing and right thinking at their core.
I see the world through organ-colored glasses so it's not unusual for me to learn about organ playing from odd places. While "Zen in the Art of Archery" didn't speak directly to becoming a Zen organist, there was one lengthy passage that I could relate to playing the organ. At the beginning of the passage, we find the Zen student frustrated and perplexed. He has learned to breathe, and to hold the bow and shoot the arrows but his shots are falling short of the target.
"The slender bamboo arrows flew off in the right direction, but failed to hit even the sandbank, still less the target, and buried themselves in the ground just in front of it.
'Your arrows do not carry,' observed the Master, 'because they do not reach far enough spiritually. You must act as if the goal were infinitely far off. For master archers it is a fact of common experience that a good archer can shoot further with a medium-strong bow than an unspiritual archer can with the strongest. It does not depend on the bow, but on the presence of mind, on the vitality and awareness with which you shoot. In order to unleash the full force of this spiritual awareness, you must perform the ceremony differently: rather as a good dancer dances. If you do this, your movements will spring from the center, from the seat of right breathing. Instead of reeling off the ceremony like something learned by heart, it will then be as if you were creating it under the inspiration of the moment, so that dance and dancer are one and the same. By performing the ceremony like a religious dance, your spiritual awareness will develop its full force."
"I do not know how far I succeeded in 'dancing' the ceremony and thereby activating it from the center. I no longer shot too short, but I still failed to hit the target. This prompted me to ask the Master why he had never yet explained to us how to take aim. There must, I supposed, be a relation of sorts between the target and the tip of the arrow, and hence an approved method of sighting which makes hitting possible."
'Of course there is,' answered the Master, 'and you can easily find the required aim yourself. But if you hit the target with nearly every shot you are nothing more than a trick archer who likes to show off. For the professional who counts his hits, the target is only a miserable piece of paper which he shoots to bits. The 'Great Doctrine' holds this to be sheer devilry. It knows nothing of a target which is set up at a definite distance from the archer. It only knows of the goal, which cannot be aimed at technically, and it names this goal, if it names it at all, the Buddha."
In the second paragraph of the passage, if we substitute the word 'play' for the word 'shoot,' and the word 'organ' for the word 'bow,' we have, "It does not depend on the organ, but on the presence of mind, on the vitality and awareness with which you play." This could be a clue as to why we sometimes get the most compliments when we feel we have played our worst. Perhaps in our desperation to stay in control we are forced to let go of our conscious intention to "make music" and our natural ability to make music is allowed to shine through. We could call this a musical bad performance (as opposed to a bad musical performance!).
Confirming that there is something more to strive for beyond performing all the right notes, rhythms, and registrations, the Master says, "Instead of reeling off the ceremony like something learned by heart, it will then be as if you were creating it under the inspiration of the moment...." That would translate into performing a piece of music so that it sounds like you just came up with it on the spot, as if it welled up out of you spontaneously. I find that sometimes this happens and sometimes it doesn't and sometimes I'm just too tired to try. Creating a "sounds like new" performance each and every time you play can be challenging, especially if it's something you've played a hundred times. Then again, it's all the more likely to happen when playing a piece with which you're very familiar.
Reading "Zen in the Art of Archery" showed me that this kind of inspired performing could be accomplished consistently through the discipline of Zen but for now I'll have to settle for a bit of extra practicing.
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Added is the story of Martha G. Dibblee.
I've repositioned "Zen in the Art of Archery" and added "Everyday Zen: Love and Work" which Peter Stapleton recommended as a "more concrete and contemporary view" of Zen.
Have a great week!
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