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Nonduality: The Mindset Secret of Zen Archery


Zen and the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel’s account of his instruction under the great Japanese archery master Awa Kenzo, is one of the great spiritual classics of the twentieth century. Now, Zen Bow, Zen Arrow by John Stevens compiles Kenzo’s teachings in a simple and accessible way.

The hallmark of Kenzo’s teaching is the use of the bow for spiritual cultivation. But understanding what that cultivation consists of can be difficult. It certainly was for Herrigel, who mistakenly thought that he was there to hit targets until Kenzo demonstrated that he could easily hit targets without even seeing them. The target was not the point because the target, the bow and the archer are one. To recognise that truth is the purpose of Zen archery.

This is the state of satori, literally “removing distinctions.” In ordinary life, we make distinctions, we grasp after material gratification, we objectify others, we become self-conscious and show off under the gaze of others. This is the state of dualistic view, which in Buddhism is the origin of suffering. Kenzo’s method of archery is a vehicle for letting go of that duality. Consciousness without duality is oneness with all things.

Here are a few elements of the method:

Nonattachment and Single-Minded Attention

“Human beings always cling to things. Practice begins when you stop clinging.” Kenzo insisted that his students release desire, worry and attachment and be fully present when practicing kyudo. He was even known to scare anyone whose mind wandered with a loud kiai. Kenzo practiced according to the words of Chinese Song Dynasty archer Chen Yuanliang:

“Aim with your mind, shoot with your hands.
Do not let your mind wander.
Do not let worries distract you.
Do not be in a hurry.
Do not be intoxicated.
Do not be hungry.
Do not overeat.
Do not be angry.
Do not shoot when you lack enthusiasm.
Do not shoot obsessively.
Do not compete with others.”

Ultimately, the student should be able to take this attitude of single-minded attention with them into daily life. As Kenzo said with characteristic bluntness, “Be in the dojo wherever you are. It is your choice- live like a sage or exist like a fool.”


Other than the necessary basics, Kenzo was not interested in technique, as many of his students discovered when they began either showing off or using tricks to hit the target. This defeats the purpose of mindfulness, because it comes from dualistic thought, preferring one outcome over another and awareness of appearances. “Technical tricks,” Kenzo said, “ultimately lead nowhere. Shoot without shooting.”

Chen Yuanliang wrote, “When you hit the target, do not be elated. When you miss, do not be crestfallen. Concentrate naturally on the target and use your mind to shoot.” It should be noted that Kenzo himself always hit the centre of the target.

To teach this lesson to some of his students, Kenzo would berate them no matter what they did until they decided to ignore him and just shoot. Just shooting was the point. As Kenzo said, “With no set form, pull the bow. Release the arrow with no intent.”


Kenzo turned holding the bow at highest tension into a meditative exercise, combining single-pointed attention, proper breathing (“Belly breath is healthy. Chest breath is ordinary. Shoulder breath is sick.”), and nondual awareness. “When the bow is fully drawn,” Kenzo writes, “you and the bow should be one.” Oneness with the bow and with the target becomes oneness with nature and with the Buddha mind.

At this point, there is no objective but to be one with all things. If the bow shoots, it is not by the will of the archer. The enemy is not the target, but one’s own dualistic thought and grasping mind.

Inner Alignment

The power of the archer is built up by cultivating the tanden (dantien in Chinese), the energy field below the navel. To “aim at the target with your belly” means to align all one’s energies behind single-minded attention and oneness with the target.

The Aim

As with all the Japanese hara arts, the cultivation of single-pointed attention and inner power, transferable to any activity, is an important element of Kenzo’s archery: “Shoot the big bow in whatever you do.” But there are deeper dimensions, using the practice of satori to refine the spirit and the character. “A practitioner must be unshakeable in intent, fearless in spirit, full of compassion,” but he must also strive for oneness with heaven and earth and with the nondual Buddha mind.

It should be noted that Kenzo was persecuted in Japan for his fusion of archery and Zen practice, even though the idea of spiritual archery had a long history, especially in Chinese Taoism. Yet many people around the world have found inspiration in his method, a classic of Japanese simplicity.

-Dr. Symeon Rodger






Cutting Through the Confusion of Life

“Half-hearted training will never do;

Half-baked philosophy is of no value;

Be sincere and creative in all you attempt;

Establish yourself physically and spiritually.”

~Awa Kenzo (d. 1939) Zen Archery Master

These words of great wisdom don’t come from an armchair philosopher. They are the fruit of sweat and blood – that’s why they have deep meaning. Their author was a true warrior. Not a soldier; a warrior seeking to perfect his own life.

What does it mean, “Half-hearted training will never do”? What do you do half-heartedly? Learning the skills you need, your workout at the gym, your spiritual life, your family relationships…?

In the mind of the man who wrote these words, every moment of your life is training… because your every thought and act conditions you to get certain results. If you give more to everything you do, you WILL get more back – more energy, better results and more satisfaction. Your cannot advance your own life or the lives of those you love by doing the minimum. And when you start to train whole heartedly, always stay focused, seeking to know yourself, to build harmony and balance into your life.

The man who wrote these words is Awa Kenzo (d. 1939), the Zen Archery master who taught professor Eugen Herrigel (author of the very popular “Zen in the Art of Archery”). You may remember Herrigel and his master from my best-seller, The 5 Pillars of Life. Kenzo was a typical warrior – he never did anything half way. Find someone who’s really happy and successful at anything, and you’ll notice the same trait. Might there be a lesson here…..?

Now let’s have a look at the rest of the passage…


You may be thinking, “Philosophy is for geeks. What’s this got to do with me or my life?”

What if “philosophy” here is a metaphor for your entire belief system, for that invisible “software” you use to run your life? Do you suppose if that software were wrong, your life could go off the rails?

The fact is, your results in life are largely governed by your beliefs, and most people’s belief systems are a conglomeration of unproven assumptions they’ve uncritically absorbed from their parents, teachers, the media and their society in general. What kind of a basis for personal success or happiness is that????

These hidden assumptions are all around you. They apply to politics, religion, health, money, moral values, what it means to be human and to the very nature of reality itself. My parent’s generation believed that all the food at the grocery store was either good for you, or at least not dangerous. Millions of them paid with their lives for that false assumption. Many a soldier has paid the same price for assuming his political and military leadership is both intelligent and honest. I’ve seen many a martial artist put on his ass because he assumed his martial art gave him an accurate paradigm about how real combat works.

Real life has a way of trashing our assumptions. And if we survive the fallout, we owe it to ourselves to ask some hard questions. When we teach people the ancient art and science of Warriorship, we show them they have a choice. They can build their life on a web of a thousand unexamined assumptions about life (most of which are plain wrong), or they can DECIDE what “software” or “philosophy” will run their life. Since the state of your health, the quality of your relationships, the size or your bank balance and your overall happiness are hemmed in by your belief system, do you suppose you should reexamine yours from time to time? How many unexamined assumptions about every area of life can you spot today? In yourself? In the media? From people around you?

Master Kenzo had no room in his life for unexamined assumptions. What about you?


We live in an age of unprecedented confusion. Some would say it’s a spiritual confusion. Really, it’s a confusion about who the human person is and how he/she is put together.

Kenzo wasn’t confused. Nor were other ancient traditions. They knew that training the mind begins with the body. Do you want to make meaningful changes to your mindset? Then train your body. Get in shape. Look after your health. Your most direct access to your mind and consciousness is through your magnificent physical form. What? It doesn’t seem so magnificent when you look in the mirror? That’s largely within your power to change.

And establish yourself spiritually. That, too, is within your power. Know the principles you stand for. Make sure they are noble, time-tested, spiritual principles that go beyond you and beyond your earthly life. Refuse to beat yourself up for your failings, but at the same time be definite and decisive with everything in your life. Be strict with yourself and indulgent toward others. Train your body and mind rigorously if you want to know inner peace and real happiness.

Do this, and you will understand the essence of Warriorship, the fastest route to personal RESILIENCE and astonishing results ever discovered.

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger 🙂