Sun sprinkled on the train heading from Osaka to the holy mountain on the southern Kansai region. Later a cable car ride hoisted us higher into the trees to a little town on Mount Kōya where a room in a Buddhist temple had been reserved.

I was in my mid-twenties and visiting Japan for the first time. Saturated with hopes of touching the hem of Zen Buddhism, I drifted between conjectures of breathtaking success and anxious failure.

A few months before, I’d picked up a copy of Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery (1948) and read it with a type of warm satisfaction that I had always associated with Buddhism. My interest in the subject had burgeoned through a small selection of “western” texts on the topic of Zen — by the likes of Alan Watts, Christmas Humphreys and D. T. Suzuki — that had simultaneously prompted a new perspective on the world and also generated more questions than I had ever thought to ask.

Zen in the Art of Archery gives an impeccable narrative of spiritual insight. The ‘story’ tells of a 1920s a western academic traveling east. He takes up a Japanese art, and by exposure to the methods of the art, undergoes a profound insight into a deep, mysterious religion.

Herrigel paints an uncluttered picture. His tone is eloquent and frank. Above all, he keenly wants to understand the “Great Doctrine” but soon realizes that his eagerness will only be a hindrance. The lessons he learns about archery are all about patience, waiting, letting go, relaxing, and above all, about not aiming for the target — the very target he wrongly assumes is the whole point of archery. Thus, the technique of the sport, “to exercise perfect control of the various ways of concentration and self-effacement” (p.63), become metaphors for the manner in which Zen should be approached.

“Bow, arrow, goal and ego, all melt into one another, so that I can no longer separate them. And even the need to separate has gone. For as soon as I take the bow and shoot, everything becomes so clear and straight forward and so ridiculously simple…”

It is a very seductive text, beautifully written (English translation by R. F. C. Hull) and highly suggestive of the ineffable yet always near-at-hand nature of spirituality.

On reflection, concerning Buddhism doctrine itself the book has surprisingly little to say. In this way it fosters one of the enduring tropes of Zen, that it does not belong to an institution but is in the world directly — manifested through its arts — there to be experienced rather than elucidated.

In spite of its alluring facets, Zen in the Art of Archery has suffered at the hands of some critics for the same shortcomings as many other western texts on the topic — written by non-natives whose perspectives dwell wistfully on the mystical aspects of the Zen rather than on it’s more difficult, complex doctrines.

Despite living and working in Japan for six years, Herrigel was never naturalized into Japanese culture and had to rely on an interpreter communicate. The historian Yamada Shōji demotes Herrigel to a “credulous enthusiast who gloried Japanese culture”, coaxing him to offer a romantic and misinformed vantage on his subject.

Further controversy surrounds this little text, partly because recent scholars have suggested that Herrigel’s tutor — “the celebrated Master Kenzo Awa” (p.28–29) — was neither a teacher nor an adherent of Zen Buddhism, and also because Herrigel later joined the Nazi party on his return to Germany. In such ways, the sense of calm emanating from the text is inevitably disturbed.

It can be agitating for a western reader (such as myself) to hear these criticisms, especially when the text has chimed so harmoniously on first reading. One has to wonder: do I carry around immature expectations of the aspects of Buddhism? Is this book I have in my hands a true articulation of a deep idea, or is it an idealistic fiction which speaks without authority? If the latter, then where else to go other than to more western texts who may share the same defects?

This problem for western readers is perennial, and most of the sources of Zen instruction I’ve looked at repeat the same tenet, that their authors cannot claim to ‘speak’ for Zen nor can they define it in any material way. Instead, they dwell on the same principle warning, that the western mindset — characterized as rational and empiricist — will likely find the eastern mindset an alien place to occupy. We are too rigid in our approach and may find the ideas of Zen more like riddles than truths.

Many writers on the subject treat this paradoxical aspect as both the bolted-door of Buddhism and also the key that might unlock it. This very conundrum was indeed the method by which I was able to take my first steps towards an understanding of Zen’s potency.

I happen to think that Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery is a very beautiful book. For me it’s very elegance opened a gateway, and I expect I am not alone in judging so. It began a journey of profound change for me. Perhaps it might for you too…?