It would be an impossible task to make a documentary on Japanese archery or kyudo and not address the book, ‘Zen in the Art of Archery’ by the German author, Eugen Herrigel. In fact our original intention was to make a documentary with the book as the central character and focus on the controversy that has surrounded the book since it’s publication. We have since changed our mind and this was the right decision.
The two main characters are Eugen Herrigel, a lecturer at Tōhoku University, who set out in search of zen and Awa Kenzo, a leading kyudo master who called his form of archery - daishadōkyō or ‘great doctrine of the way of shooting’. This was bound to get interesting from the day they met. In our research we read Herrigel’s book many times – in fact, I have owned a first edition copy for 20 years. But as our filming progressed it became apparent that the controversy is really between a handful of people that for the most part reside outside of Japan. Most kyudo practitioners are aware of Yamada Shoji’s paper, The Myth of Zen in the Art of Archery in which he seeks to debunk and tear apart Herrigel’s book. Kyudo sensei, Earl Hartman joined the argument by being the translator of ’The Myth of Zen in the Art of Archery’. Herrigel does have his defenders, the most vocal being John Stevens, recently a professor of Zen Buddhism at the same university, Tohoku in Sendai and an accomplished martial arts master.
Without being there to witness the Awa Kenzo-Herrigel classes how can we know what took place except from the book. Even the translator Komachiya, who was there during some of the classes does not offer a good explanation for the reasons behind the book’s misrepresentation of kyudo. How did Herrigel misunderstood Awa so much that he presented kyudo as Zen even though this is not correct. Considering the inaccuracies that the book contains has this done any harm to kyudo itself? That to me is an important question. During the filming of our documentary, we encountered some kyudo masters who felt that the book did little or no damage to the perception of kyudo – indeed for some it was the inspiration they needed to go find a kyudo school. We have only just started to translate the many hours of interviews so it is too early to tell what we will find. Meanwhile go read the book again. Tell us what you think. Below is the Enma dojo at Engaku-ji Zen Temple. A beautiful small 3-target dojo located in the grounds of the zen temple. If Herrigel was here today he would surely use this setting as proof that kyudo and zen are one in the same. Herrigel’s bows are hung on the wall of the dojo – brought there from Germany after his death.
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