There’s a particularly memorable scene in Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery (German 1948; English 1956). Herrigel had come to Japan in 1921 to learn more about the practice of Zen. Once there, he concluded his best route would involve training in a specific discipline. A serious athlete, he picked archery as that discipline, which he took up under a renowned master, Awa Kenzo.
In this scene, Herrigel is complaining that Awa regularly criticizes his pupil’s performance but never demonstrates his own putatively superior skill. In response, Awa orders Herrigel to turn out on all the lights in the shooting gallery, and then to set a target up at the opposite end; finally, he tells Herrigel to position a candle directly in front of Awa’s face so that he is, in effect, blinded.
Awa then releases two arrows into the dark space. When the lights come up, Herrigel sees that the first arrow has hit the bull’s-eye, and the second arrow has split the first in half. Awestruck, Herrigel asks the Master how he did that. Awa answers by refusing to take credit. Instead, he insists: “It Shoots.”
After the English translation appeared, a lively controversy emerged over what Awa actually said in Japanese, and how Herrigel may have misunderstood and mistranslated him. I don’t want to become involved in that. Instead, I want to talk about how we might adapt “It Shoots” to our own lives.
American mass culture insists that each person is or can or should be the master of his or her own fate — a fantasy that can mask the predatory power of privilege while fueling in every class the engines of consumption.
But, what if we resist that fantasy and reverse its argument? What if — instead of seeing life coming from us — we see it coming toward us and through us? In other words, what if for “It Shoots” we read “Life Shoots”? What would your life feel like, how would you live differently, if you started from this radically altered point of view?
This may seem an impossible prescription in an age and culture of apps, which encourage each individual to believe he or she should be able to summon without effort and instantly everything he or she desires, from Uber to entry into the upper-middle class. Nevertheless, I’d urge you, at least tentatively, to explore this version of “It Shoots”; it contains, I think, an extraordinarily liberating and life-enhancing potential.
You can begin with a short exercise. List all the things in your life that have come to you or through you but not from you — both good and bad. Where in your life have you found “It Shoots”? Where in your life has your life found you?
Almost everywhere, right?
But as you answered that question, you probably also encountered one or more of the following attitudes, stances that seem to hallmark contemporary life.
1. Anything in my life that I didn’t choose is an imposition on that life.
2. My needs and desires should not be affected by any limit on supply or availability.
3. Good things that happen to me happen largely through my own efforts.
4. Anything that goes wrong or comes up short in my life is the responsibility of those nominally in charge. If they were doing their job, I wouldn’t be disappointed.
5. I should be able to do what I want in my own time and in the space I choose.
6. I ought to be able to enjoy both now and hereafter a prosperous, successful and fulfilled life. It’s my right as a human being.
All of these positions subvert “It Shoots,” because “It Shoots” has to mean, most fundamentally, that the undesired things in our lives — not of course the evil or the criminal — equal in validity the desired. Life is what is. And everything else is not life but — well, a kind term would be fantasy.
JOHN GLAVIN (COL ’64) is a professor of English and director of the Georgetown Office of Fellowships, Awards and Resources for Undergraduates. From January to December 1963, he was editor-in-chief of The Hoya.