Zen Bow, Zen Arrow: The Life and Teachings of Awa Kenzo, the Archery Master from “Zen in the Art of Archery”, by John Stevens. Boston/London: Shambahala, 2007, 104 pp. with photographs, $12.95 (paper).

Archery, or kyudo, “the Way of the bow,” has a venerable Asian history. Confucius recommended it as one of the Six Arts, Siddhartha (later, the Buddha) was an adept who used the “bow of meditation” to draw the “arrow of wisdom,” and Japan’s Amaterasu, the sun goddess, was said to have carried a bow along with quivers containing a thousand arrows.

In Japan, it was the civil wars of the 13th century that emphasized mounted archery training and this led to further specialization and a number of schools. Their teachings were both refined and elaborated upon and certain schools were strongly influenced by Zen Buddhism.

Among these was the Heki school of archery, established by Heki Danjo Masatsugu (d. 1502) and continuing to today. Among the many master archers produced during the following centuries, outstanding was Awa Kenzo (1880-1939), the subject of this interesting and enlightening study by John Stevens.

Kenzo was by 1917 widely recognized as the finest bowman in the country. And it was shortly after this time, on one moonlit night, that he experienced an illumination while at a practice in the dojo. It was, he wrote in his journal, “a great explosion,” the arrow flew to the very end of the universe — time and space disappeared.

He called his new system of bowmanship Shado, the “Shooting Way,” dismissing the established system of technical archery and arguing that the true purpose of archery was to perfect the human spirit.

His ideas met with considerable opposition from other teachers and from the students themselves. He was always telling them that, if their form and mind were correct, it did not matter if the target was or was not hit. Yet Kenzo himself never missed — so what did that say about Shado?

Part of the problem was the way in which the new wisdom was imparted. Kenzo was demanding, critical and impatient. During practice he would roar so loudly that people ran away. He was known as the demon in the dojo.

It was during this period that occurred one of those fortuitous happenings that change history — in this case the history of Zen-inspired archery. Kenzo was petitioned by a visiting foreigner, a German, to be allowed to study under him. The teacher believed, and wrote, that “Western culture is too materialistic, and foreigners have no tradition of practicing the Way.” Still, the foreigner, Eugen Harrigel, was tenacious. He joined the class, studied hard and in 1953, long after the death of his sensei, produced “Zen in the Art of Archery.”

This small volume, still widely read and revered, changed all accounts of kyudo, not only in the rest of the world, but in Japan itself, where the book has been translated and still informs whole generations of adepts.

It is this story of Kenzo and his inspirational life and teachings that John Stevens, author or translator of over 30 books on Buddhism, Zen, aikido, etc. and himself an expert budo practitioner, here gives us. He is also an excellent writer who in such works as “The Sword of No-Sword” has given valuable insights into the spiritual nature of the military arts.

Here included are translations of the master’s maxims, his aphorisms, poetry and calligraphy, all revealing the Zen-spirit that Kenzo came to typify.

He used the bow and the arrow as a dual metaphor through which he challenged the student to look deeply into the true nature that is at the center of each of us.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.