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"Be the Ball"
am 5. Juli 2000
Immensely popular and with a cult like following, this work is worthwhile if read with a grain of salt [sic?: rice]. Frequently assigned reading to students of the arts (pick one); I disagree with most of it.
With Zen in the Art of Archery Eugen Herrigel has secured his place among the great allegorical philosopher/comedians. Chevy Chase is in good company. Artists, as much as art, must be understood in perspective. Unlike Eugen Herrigel, Chevy Chase and his genre did not spend most of their adult life teaching philosophy in Tokyo between the wars. Professor Herrigel (or "Master" Herrigel as I am sure he would prefer) was German, and it is through a mid-nineteenth-century western perspective that he attempts to open our minds to a greater understanding of Zen Buddhism. Like other allegorical philosopher/comedians he has chosen sport as a metaphor to hasten our understanding. Two generations later Chevy Chase would do the same with golf. Golf was not popular in Japan between the wars so Professor Herrigel was faced with the limited choices of floral arrangement or archery as his allegorical theme. As the title to the book suggests: he chose archery. (His wife chose floral arrangement, but gender distinctions were more predictable between the wars.)
Archery has been around for at least 15,000 years. Mankind utilized it to hunt and fish with and to also kill other human beings with in the practice of that most exalted art form: warfare. But archery it is and Professor Herrigel utilizes the synthesis of archer-bow-arrow-target as an effective literary device by which to explain essential principles of Zen Buddhism and how one can, by seemingly indirect paths, come to be one with the universe. Zen in the Art of Archery was published in 1953 and unfortunately Professor Herrigel reached the highest state of consciousness conventionally accepted in western society in 1955 when he died at the age of 71. His death so soon after the publication of this work probably denied us its logical sequel based upon his experiences during the war years following his return to Germany after years abroad in Japan. It might have been called Zen in the Art of Rocketry. ("As the ascending V-2 rocket approaches the zenith of its arching ballistic course over the gently lapping waves of the English Channel, the minds of the rocket scientists, warhead manufacturers and children at play in Coventry at once become one and the rocket is thus involuntarily compelled to its target as if a greater force were at play.")
The author "for the sake of comparison," concludes the book by "cast[ing] a glance at another of these arts, whose martial significance even under present conditions cannot be denied: the art of swordsmanship." [p. 68] Cannot be denied? Tell every child who has seen Star Wars that it really is true that the way to total consciousness is to engage in mortal combat and simply "let The Force be with you."
My quarrel with Professor Herrigel is obviously with his choice of metaphor and not his message. To paraphrase one World War II fighter pilot, the medium could have been "kinder and gentler." Such was the comparative message I took from the movie Caddie Shack. Was not Ty Webb's (Chevy Chase) masterful instruction to the young caddie precisely what Professor Herrigel teaches us: "Be the ball."
The Zen Master teaches us, or so we are informed, that before we even pick up a bow (and by extension this is equally true of a club, bat, pen, brush or clump of clay), we must learn to breath properly. Now this is interesting. Breath control is critical to many undertakings: all sports, both the act of procreation and childbirth itself, oration and song, meditative thought and scuba diving -- just to name a few. Breathing, if the brain is functioning properly, is an involuntary act. Breathing occurs in both the conscious and unconscious state. Stresses in the higher brain functions will almost always cause disturbances in breathing patterns. (Anxiety, fear, or worry for instance will cause suppression of normal breathing, changing its patterns and manifesting itself in the form of frequent sighs or hypertension.) Stresses in the lower brain functions will cause similar disturbances, often with more serious consequences. (Blunt trauma, toxic drugs and organic brain disease will often repress breathing altogether.) So breathing is important and it is important that before the painter paints, the writer writes, the foul shooter shoots, or the pilot lands, it is best to stop banging one's head against the wall, breath naturally (really naturally), and try to "unabsorb" oneself from everything except the task at hand. (Mastering breath control was invaluable to the Kamikaze pilots -- an outgrowth of the ancient Samurai -- of World War II. If the pilots became gripped with fear, they would often hyperventilate and either overshoot their target or crash into the sea before their predestined evaporation into their holy part of the "Great Doctrine.")
The Zen Master teaches us that we are surprised by the strength of the grip of the infant to whom we offer our extended finger (this is undoubtedly true in not only eastern culture and western culture but all cultures in between, beneath and above), and we are struck by the inexplicable effortless of the baby's release, which is only possible because the baby does not think, it simply does. So it is with many athletic endeavors and we are taught thusly: relax your grip and let the club, bat, racket or what-have-you, do the work. But this grip thing attaches too much importance in the archer-bow-arrow-target synthesis to the bow and arrow components. It is sort of hyperbolic buck passing to the instruments themselves. (Have you ever seen a frustrated tennis player throw a racket to the ground as if it was the rackets fault?) This "be the ball" stuff cannot be understood in serial parts; the whole literally is greater than the sum of the parts.