To those who already practice Zen Buddhism, this book will seem awkward. To those nonpractitioners who would like to understand how to practice Zen Buddhism, this book will be a delightful enlightenment -- especially valuable to those who live outside of Asia. Eugen Herrigel takes on the almost impossible task of describing in writing something that has to be experienced to be understood, and is remarkably effective.
The author spent six years in Japan just after World War II, and decided that he wanted to understand Zen Buddhism. He was correctly advised that Zen needed to be experienced as the path to achieving that understanding. Several possible areas were suggested, from sword fighting to flower arrangement to archery. Because he had experience with rifle target shooting, the author chose archery. He was fortunate to be taken on by a Zen master who normally refused to teach Westerners, because they are so difficult to teach.
As a typical high-achieving Westerner, Mr. Herrigel wanted to make rapid progress and to achieve conscious competence in archery. His instructor wanted him to achieve unconscious competence based on experience and build from there into spiritual awareness. This conflict in perceptions created quite a tension for both of them. This tension was ironic, because the purpose of Zen practice is to achieve the ability to be strong like the flexible water. Tension is the enemy of that state of being.
Mr. Herrigel also learned from attending flower arranging classes from his wife, who was studying Zen in this way. He also benefited from finding some wonderful commentaries on sword fighting as a path to Zen that are included in this book. These are more eloquent than Mr. Herrigel, and he chose wisely in saving them for the end.
I suspect that this wonderful book will mean the most to people who have regularly practiced either meditation or Eastern-style breathing. Having followed both kinds of practices for the past six years, I found it was easier to relate to the Zen concepts in that way than through trying to imagine myself performing the archery described here.
By the way, this archery is not at all like what you did in camp as a youngster. It is both much more stylized and difficult. Think of it as being more like a Japanese tea ceremony than like Western-style archery.
You will love the many descriptions of how Zen masters helped their students learn through experience rather than lecturing or demonstrating to them endlessly. Mr. Herrigel makes a good point concerning how Japanese teaching in these ancient arts has remained the same, while newer subjects are taught much differently.
Some of the most beautiful parts of the book are the explanations that employ natural metaphors. The concept of the Samurai is explained through the fragile cherry blossom, for example, in a way you will not soon forget. The metaphors used in the archery are also very compelling and vivid. They spoke very eloquently to me, especially about how the shot is "released."
I got a lot personally from this book in reconsidering how I could and should step back more often to "go with the flow" of the moment rather than trying to orchestrate everything very rationally. The book made me much more aware that I operate in both styles, probably too often in the totally preplanned rational one.
I am also reminded of books about golf that I have read that cite similar principles for becoming more competent. I also remembered how all of my best golf shots have come when I was totally egoless. That lesson was very profound for me. I wonder what will happen in other areas if I follow that lesson, as well.
If you have never tried meditation, I encourage you to experience this if you find this book interesting. That will probably be your best way to begin to explore what is described here. Naturally, if you can find someone to teach you one of the Japanese arts, that will further expand your soul.
A good Western-style book to help you rethink your approach to life that parallels this one in many ways is The Art of Imperfection. The title is a misnomer. What we often think of as perfection is really the height of imperfection, as the author discovered when he began substituting his own methods for those of his Zen master.
Aim straight for yourself!