L'École Marchutz

Seminar Notes: Zen

UncategorizedMarchutz Fellow

For our seminar on Zen we read Eugen Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery, a story about a German professor that travels to Japan to learn the Japanese Zen art of archery. Ariel Osif, Colette Aboussouan, and Lindsey Beetem were the students who led the seminar. They began with these three quotes. "No less decisive, on the other hand, is the fact that his experiences, his conquests and spiritual transformation, so long as they still remain 'his,' must be conquered and transformed again and again until everything 'his' is annihilated. Only in this way can he attain a basis for experiences which, as the 'all-embracing Truth' rouse him to a life that is no longer his everyday, personal life. He Lives, but what lives is no longer himself."

"Thus, between these two states of bodily relaxedness on the one hand and spiritual freedom on the other there is a difference of level which cannot be overcome by breath control alone, but only by withdrawing from all attachments whatsoever, by becoming utterly egoless: so that the soul, sunk within itself, stands in the plenitude of its nameless origin."

"Every Master who practices an art moulded by Zen is like a flash of lightning from the cloud of all-encompassing Truth. This Truth is present in the free movement of his spirit, and he meets it again, in 'It', as his own original and nameless essence. He meets this essence over and over again as his own being's utmost possibilities, so that the Truth assumes for him - and for others through him - a thousand shapes and forms."

There is a part in the story where Herrigel has learned how to draw the bowstring correctly, but is struggling with loosing the arrow. The Master continues to tell him to be egoless and to be without purpose. Eugen asks the Master, "How can the shot be loosed if 'I' do not do it?" To which the Master replies " 'It' shoots."

The question posed to the class was (hardly) simple: what is "It"?

I'll try my best to offer an explanation of what I think "It" is. In the beginning of the story, Herrigel tries to explain a way of understanding Zen archery. He writes, "the contest consists in the archer aiming at himself - and yet not at himself, in hitting himself - and yet not himself, and thus becoming simultaneously the aimer and the aim, the hitter and the hit." At the end of the book, once he has learned the way of Zen archery, he writes a similar passage, "Bow, arrow, goal and ego, all melt into one another, so that I can no longer separate them. And even the need to separate them has gone." Together all of the components of the act of archery are united into one.

Herrigel learns to attain a primordial state of mind in order to become egoless and free to connect with all of these other components. He describes this freedom of mind and how it applies to painting, "...mastery in ink-painting is only attained when the hand, exercising perfect control over technique, executes what hovers before the mind's eye at the same moment as the mind begins to form it, without there being a hair's breadth between." The ability to create a seamless transfer of conception to execution is essential in the Zen art forms.

I believe this entity where archer, bow, arrow, and target, (or painter, motif, paintbrush, and canvas) become united through one's control over technique and seamless execution is "it."

I think this is a very important concept for us as artists. Being able to keep a clear mind allows our senses to engage the motif, respond to it, and transfer our conception to canvas clearly without being hindered by thoughts, expectations,  preconceived notions, or insecurities. Informed by the teachings of Zen, our artistic expression can realize a very pure form.

-Nick Velleman, Alumni Fellow