Zen Bow, Zen Arrow: The Life and Teachings of Awa Kenzo, the Archery Master from Zen in the Art of Archery
By John Stevens
Reviewed by Christopher Triplett
I first heard about Zen archery in 1984. Someone told me about a German man who had met an archery master in Japan and discovered a “Way” to self-realization through kyudo, a form of moving, meditative archery. Immediately attracted, I enrolled in a kyudo workshop, and before I knew it I was sitting in a field in New York, watching a small Japanese man dressed in a kimono, mirrored sunglasses, and cowboy hat carrying one of the longest bows I had ever seen. Having had only a vague idea of Japanese archery, I had imagined Zen archers using some kind of metaphorical bow and arrow, counting shots instead of the breath. Seeing a demonstration of actual feet-on-the-ground kyudo shattered my illusions. I have been walking the kyudo path ever since.
Some time later, I learned that the German man I had heard about was Eugen Herrigel, author of Zen in the Art of Archery, a popular classic originally published in 1948 that did much to shape Westerners’ perceptions of the relationship between Japanese martial arts and Zen Buddhism. The Zen archery master that Herrigel encountered and studied under was Awa Kenzo (1880–1939), one of the greatest kyudo masters of his time.
In pre-war Japan, traditional archery was oriented toward developing form and technique, as well as the Confucian ideals of clear thinking, good character, and unwavering loyalty. Awa introduced Buddhist principles in his teaching of kyudo, which was met by fierce opposition from critics who saw this as an attempt to develop a new religion. Awa refuted his critics, saying that his practice was not about religion but about the “Great Nature” that transcends it.
John Stevens was so inspired by Herrigel’s training in kyudo as a way of discovering truth, beauty, and goodness that he went to Japan on a similar quest. He became an aikido instructor and a professor of Buddhist studies at Tohoku Fukushi University in Sendai, the same university where Awa had his encounters with Herrigel. This lends a certain familiarity to the way he writes about Awa’s life in his new book, Zen Bow, Zen Arrow. It’s as if he were telling the story of a cherished ancestor, selecting the most instructive teachings with the most universal application and translating them into what he calls “an appropriate idiom.”
Stevens begins by describing his own brush with kyudo and then outlines his approach to the material in the book. He has made extensive use of what he deems an “exhaustive study” of Awa and his teachings published in 1981 by Sakurai Yasunosuke, one of Awa’s disciples, to commemorate the centenary of Awa’s birth. He proceeds to chronicle Awa’s rather extraordinary life, from mischievous boy to kyudo master. Anecdotes and quotes from students add color to the fast-paced story and offer a fascinating look at what it was like to learn under such a powerful and inscrutable teacher. Moreover, the bright, clear quality of Stevens’ translation makes it possible for readers to see how even the most mystifying teaching has a fundamental wisdom that can be beneficial to their own practice or situation.
In a journal entry from 1918, Awa states, “For twenty years I have been shooting with the bow, but recently I have begun to realize how to really shoot.” Stevens describes how this insight led to a deep meditation on the true meaning of archery:
He had a profound awakening, a “great explosion,” one moonlit night when he was in the dojo. The resonance of the release of the arrow and the sound of it hitting the target seemed to reverberate through heaven and earth. Rainbows appeared, and Kenzo, in a state of rapture, felt himself explode into a million pieces. He sensed that his arrow had flown leagues to the end of the universe. Time and space had disappeared.
Afterward, Awa began to emphasize notions such as “shoot without shooting” and “shoot in harmony with the universe.” He went on to found a new Japanese archery system that he called Daishado-kyo, “The Great Shooting Way Teaching”:
Trust in the practice of the Way of the Bow
Archery is not an art, it is a Way
When you practice the Way, it is not just training in technique; it is spiritual forging.
Forging your spirit is to become empty, and to focus on your center.
To become empty is to become one with the divine—this is the Way.
To attain the Way of the Bow is to manifest your buddhanature and arrive at the ultimate.
In the second part of the book, Stevens looks at how the bow and arrow have been used as articles of protection, purification, and transformation in many cultures, East and West—actually and metaphorically—using examples from tales about Confucius and Siddhartha, the Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu, Apollo, and the Prophet Muhammad. He also delves more deeply into Awa’s teachings. Awa referred to the notion of enlightenment as kensho, “seeing your nature,” and to the notion of ultimate truth as satori,“transcending duality.” As Stevens writes, “there is a relative, culturally conditioned truth that is messy and muddled and where we dwell most of the time, and an absolute truth that is true, good, and beautiful, and that can be glimpsed and acted upon on certain occasions. This is the level where all of us are at our best. This is the ‘enlightenment’ that Kenzo sought and realized; it is what he wanted to impart to his students.”
In an effort to “augment and expand” upon what Awa taught to Herrigel, Stevens includes a forty-page collection of teachings on archery, Zen, Confucianism, and Taoism in the form of poems and aphorisms. Though the sources aren’t stated, the selections are well rounded and potentially inspiring to any practitioner of the Way. Indeed, short, succinct teachings such as these seem to appear out of the absolute and cut right to the core of experience. Many of the teachings relate directly to kyudo as taught by Awa Kenzo, such as:
Shooting is rooted in nature. You are a miniature universe; everything—heaven, earth, the stars, the sun, rivers and valleys—is within you. Trust in this truth when you shoot. Shoot in harmony with the four seasons.
With no target,
With no arrow to draw,
Not in the middle,
Others have a more universal quality:
Let nothing bind you. Transcend right and wrong, good and bad. Move like a solitary lion. Make heaven and earth your dwelling. Renew! Renew!
Shatter heaven and earth,
Shatter your ego,
With no movement:
The wings of a phoenix.
The final part of the book features three tales from classical texts, including the Hekiganroku, an eleventh–twelfth century collection of koans and commentaries of Chan masters. Each story depicts the bow and arrow as metaphorical instruments used to transcend duality and attain the Way. These intriguing tales are lively examples of the genre, but it would have been helpful if the author had enhanced them with a brief commentary for the uninitiated.
From his perspective as a present-day practitioner, Stevens gives us a unique look into Awa Kenzo’s teachings. However, this book is more a devotional work than a far-reaching study of Awa and what he taught. By dismissing Awa’s detractors disparagingly as just “scientifically trained physicians, engineers, and lawyers” who found his teachings too mystical, Stevens leaves himself open to criticism. In his notes, he goes so far as to label contemporary questions about the reliability of Herrigel’s interpretations in the book, as well as the writings of D. T. Suzuki, as the product of “small-fry academics” and “pedants.”
Despite this devotional slant, Zen Bow, Zen Arrow is an inspiring affirmation of the life of a master who revolutionized the teachings of Japanese archery. Awa’s combination of Taoism, Confucianism, Zen Buddhism, and indigenous Shinto, as well as the emphasis on training as a means of attaining satori, has much to offer spiritual seekers, especially those with an attraction to Japan. Stevens’ chronicle brings Awa Kenzo to life even for readers unfamiliar with Japan and what have come to be known—due in part to Herrigel—as the Zen or dō arts.
Since those days in that field in New York, I have continued my effort to understand the Way of the bow. The bow and arrow are striking images—and even more striking weapons in the battle for human dignity. The lives of masters such as Awa who found that dignity in their hearts and left us their teachings are echoes of hard-gained wisdom, calling to us in the long dark night.
CHRISTOPHER TRIPLETT is a longtime student of kyudo master Shibata Sensei. He lives in Kings Langley, England.