Zen Paganism In The Art of Archery

Zen Paganism In The Art of Archery July 4, 2018

(So we’re experimenting with video here at TZP. You could just read, you could just watch or listen, as you please.)

So at FSG last year, our friend and blogging neighbor Thorn Mooney gave a talk and demonstration about “Archery as Devotional Practice”. (FSG regular Thista was co-presenter — I’m not sure how public she is about festival attendance, if she’d like me to give a full name or link, so I won’t. Thorn, on the other hand, now has her name on a book and so doesn’t get to hide.) It had been probably 30 years since I picked up a bow, but it was a thing I was interested in as a kid, so I went and shot a few arrows.

Though I’m definitely not on the same page as Thorn about bowhunting — as a martial artist I will happily prepare to put a shaft through a human if needed, but as a vegan I’m against harming animals, even in “devotional practice” — I was reminded of how cool it is to let a few fly. “Maybe I’ll get myself a bow”, I thought, even browsed eBay a bit.

But before I’d gone anywhere with it, everything sort of went sideways in my life for a while.

However, a bit before FSG this year I got a message from a friend — she was cleaning out her attic, and had an old bow. Hadn’t I gone to that archery thing last year? Did I want the bow?

Well. Take a hint when it’s offered.

The bow, as we’ve mentioned before, shows up a fair bit in mythology and ritual. Odysseus, at his homecoming, was recognized by his ability with the bow; Apollo was the god of archery. Sagittarius the Archer is in the Zodiac. In Tibet and Japan, arrows play roles in significant rituals.

And wood for a bow is a lot easier to come by than bronze, iron, or steel for a sword. In some places — especially England — the bow became a weapon of the common people, an equalizer against armored feudal enforcers. A citizenry skilled in archery was so important to the English rulers that in 1363 a law was passed requiring men to practice archery on Sunday and holidays — while not enforced, that law is apparently still on the books.

On the other side of things, Eugen Herrigel’s book Zen In The Art Of Archery was an important introduction of Zen to Western audiences. Though later scholars have questioned whether Herrigel’s teacher was actually practicing something that can be called “Zen”, my impression is that some of the debate is the politics of institutional Zen versus the broader version of Zen that has permeated Japanese culture. Either way, it has influenced Western understanding of Zen, including mine; it was one of the first Zen books I read as a teenaged karate student.

So, for a little 4th of July video blog here, instead of shooting off fireworks I’m going to shoot off a few arrows here.


Speaking of the Free Spirit Gathering, I’ve just agreed to be a featured presenter next year. Register now for FSG XXXIV, June 11-16 2019, at Camp Ramblewood in Darlington, Maryland! And, as I mentioned in the video, I’ll be at Starwood next week, at Wisteria out in Pomeroy, Ohio.

I’ve also just agreed to present some classes about karate at the Lovelight Yoga+Arts Festival coming up this September 21-24 in Reisterstown, Maryland. Hope to see you out at one of these events.

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