In the Case of the Archer: Zen and Tao for the Western Mind

How Zen and the Tao can guide us through the frenzy of modern expectations.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

In the pursuit of achievement, we are bogged down by the weight of expectations. Modern culture tells us we are aimless, and this is bad. We must have goals, we must keep score, and we must achieve.

An archer could shoot for the pleasure of shooting, yet when given the task of hitting a bullseye, she changes. She must measure herself. She must win. To be content is to be surpassed. Everyone is an enemy; even her friends are her adversaries. Her life is one of contention.

Modern culture says an archer must have a target, or else, how would she satisfy her ego? She will believe of herself: without a target, and without successfully besting her target, she is useless. She is told, without aim, an archer does not exist. Yet the archer exists regardless — no matter what she is told.

The target changes everything. The archer will believe she is inherently unworthy, and a target will validate her worth.

If goals are the light, we must assume we are in darkness. If achievement makes us winners, what were we before achievement? To be told you need more is to be told you are lacking.

(Painting of Ji Gong)

(Painting of Ji Gong)

Like a drunkard who drinks to forget he is a drunkard; the solution begets the problem. Expectations convince us we are not good enough, then they constantly remind us we are not good enough. They are solutions looking for problems.

Without goals and aims, keeping track, and winning, are we to believe we will never grow? Is this the only path for growth?

Zen

In Zen and the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel quotes his master Awa Kenzô:

The right art 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.

The archer aims at herself. To hit a target only changes the target. What must grow is the individual, and this can only happen by letting go. Just as a child does not aim to be an adult, it naturally occurs if we give in to the process. Mindfully.

In Zen and the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel writes:

In the case of archery, the hitter and the hit are no longer two opposing objects, but are one reality. The archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bull’s-eye which confronts him. This state of unconsciousness is realized only when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill...

Our vision is not clear. Here, Zen teaches us that it is the archer herself that hinders her own ability to grow and live a life of contentment. Her goals are not solutions to obstacles; they are the obstacles. Aiming to eliminate her target is a metaphor for aiming to eliminate her ego. One cannot be skillful while maintaining the ego.

One can aim to achieve goals, while developing nothing of themselves — and be utterly useless.

Tao

In The Way of Chuang Tzu, Thomas Merton writes:

When an archer is shooting for nothing
He has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle
He is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold
He goes blind
Or sees two targets —
He is out of his mind.

His skill has not changed, But the prize
Divides him. He cares,
He thinks more of winning
Than of shooting —
And the need to win
Drains him of power.

To the Taoist, it's all ego. Just let go and shoot. You'll be better off that way.

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