Fundamentally the marksman aims at himself and may even succeed in hitting himself.
— Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery
If you find yourself reading this and have not, peradventure, looked at the previous post (Dads in the art of archery, Part 1) and listened to the three-minute story there, I suggest you go back and do that before continuing. Otherwise you can safely skip this post, as reading what follows here will both spoil the story and in any case have little resonance.
So the king shoots his arrows and the royal target painter follows him around and paints a target around each spot where an arrow lands. The king, you find, has tricked you into thinking he’s a master archer. It’s slightly like the emperor and his new clothes, in that once again a monarch has perpetrated a fraud.
I brooded long and long about how to explain this story’s power over me, how to convey the sense of sheer joy and release it gave me when I first heard it. I thought, what a wonderful way to raise a child, especially a young child. Let him shoot his arrows, then paint targets around them.
Perhaps you had a similar feeling when you heard the story. Or perhaps you experienced the opposite, as Nora did—a sense of distaste and even disgust as you might feel when you learn someone you admired has cheated. And yet Nora, too, was drawn to the story and couldn’t forget it.
We had an argument about it.
Nora’s reasoning was this: Life is very easy if you’re a king. You set the rules. If only you were a king, you could do whatever you wanted and it would be the right thing. But you’re not a king. You can’t do anything you want. If you want to hit the target, you must learn to shoot a bow and arrow.
This is what I said: What if you really are a king and don’t know it? What if you really do set the rules? What if you’re really just aiming at yourself? If you want to hit the target, wouldn’t it be better to study your own rules?
My head began to spin. I decided to ask a Zen master what he thought.
“Nick, would you listen to a story?”
As I talked, he began to doodle with a paper and pencil.
“You’re doodling,” I said.
“This is how I listen.”
I told him the story.
“Awesome story,” he said. “That’s so cool.”
“What’s awesome about it?” I said.
“I’m busy now,” he said. “You can have what I drawed.”
He showed me the drawing.
“The target has three dimensional ellipses,” he said.
“So it does. Amazing.”
“Two bucks,” he said.
Nick is a guy who shoots a lot of arrows. He says things like, “Dada, let’s make a sailboat,” and while I’m pondering the problem, he starts taping and pounding.
Sometimes he’ll dash something together in the blink of an eye and pronounce it perfect in all its imperfection. Other times, if it looks like he’s falling short of his expectations, he’ll abandon an effort in despair. It’s those times I wish for the royal target painter, who seems to be illustrating that imperfection is no great sin—is, perhaps, the way to art.
The word sin, by the way, was originally an archery term. It meant “off the mark.” In the beginning, there was nothing laden about sinning—no Hell and damnation, no exile from Eden.
You were just off the mark.
. . .
This is the concluding post of a two-part series.
Read: Dads in the art of archery, Part 1
YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY:
The Archery Library — Charming old archery books, articles and prints
Art Passions — The first illustration above (The Emperor’s New Clothes) is taken from this lovely website, which warehouses and merchandises public domain art from some of my favorite artists. Among them are Rackham, Maxfield Parrish, and the Preraphaelites.
Did you know that archery, when it first appeared thousands of years ago, appeared not in one place, but everywhere over the whole earth at once?
. . .
Are you with Nora or me—or somewhere else? I invite, bestir, and exhort you to add your comment below. I always respond here.