Thursday, July 23, 2009

One Arrow, One Life

[The following essay was written by my daughter Sarah four years ago, as a college sophomore. It was a book review assignment in her Asian Philosophy & Religion class. I thought she did a good job, and I found the topic to be interesting. Maybe you will, too.]

The arrow of experience–a fluid succession of “nows”–should be notched on the bow of discipline and aimed at the target of one’s own heart and mind. Such is a distillation of the themes expressed in Kenneth Kushner’s book One Arrow, One Life: Zen, Archery, Enlightenment. Kushner, holding a PhD in clinical psychology, is a member of the educational staff of the Institute of Zen Studies in Honolulu. His book describes various experiences he had in Hawaii and in Japan while studying kyundo–the art of Zen archery. In addition to merely educating the reader about technical aspects of oriental archery that differ from the Western form, Kushner’s project is to impart the profound spiritual value that lies at the heart of this practice that might affect our daily lives.

My first reaction to the early chapters was a slightly negative one: there seemed to be something almost neurotic about this psychologist’s obsession with martial arts in general and kyundo in particular. That is until I reached page 40, which contained a photo of master Suhara Koun Osho drawing his bow. Master Osho’s poised image communicates something visceral yet calm, overriding my tendency to search for cosmic meaning. It seems that any activity done with deep seriousness will layer in a new, positive dimension to how we experience reality. Having finished reading Kushner’s book, the tables have decisively turned: his search for Zen truth in archery no longer seems neurotic, and my own interest in television and movies now appears to be darkened by the shadow of something more solid and real.

One Arrow, One Life, part biography and part explication, deals mainly with Kushner’s time spent at the kyundo training center Chozen-Ji (Hawaii). His encounters with the resident master, Tanouye Roshi, enriches his dry description of training principles with personal anecdote. As readers, we accompany the author while he learns to mesh the technical aspects of archery with the subtler spiritual aspects of Zen. The early chapters expose us to the ritual (“sharei”) of shooting an arrow, as well as how the individual mechanical steps are infused with psychological and physiological energies. Special emphasis on proper breathing, posture, and thoughtless concentration (this triad is referred to as “mushin”) combine to differentiate kyundo from ordinary Western archery. The middle chapters move from an explicit focus on archery to the more general aspects of Zen spirituality, such as breathing control and maintaining awareness against delusions, and how they might inform day-to-day existence. Finally, the book delves into finding and maintaining oneself in the universal “creases” of nature, entering the flow of deep energy that puts us into harmony with all of life.

“One arrow, one life” is a phrase the author chose to emphasize that each action in life should be done as if that active moment encompasses the extent of one’s life. “The saying conjures the image of the last act of a dying man” (42). This approach of seriousness carries over into the art of Zen archery and is embodied in the formalized procedure called “hassetsu,” the ritual eight steps of kyundo. Here, various postures and bow manipulations come together with breathing control to allow for the released arrow to follow its Zen trajectory. The most difficult part of the process has to do with the art of the release. Having properly channeled one’s breathing from the “hara” center below the navel, as well as completed the body-cross of opposing left and right arms, the moment of proper Zen release occurs on its own when breath and tension reach their peak. The arrow releases itself, rather than the hand letting go.

The author struggled to achieve such a state or ability, and it appears that this involves tapping into the hidden energies and “will” of being. To me, this idea conjures up the idea and importance of intuition and gut instinct–calming the mind and body in order to become receptive to the universal “now.” Another interesting kyundo principle is “zanshin,” which “means that the state of mind and body used in executing an action is not dissipated by it, but is carried over into the next activity” (73). This notion of combined equipoise and carryover allows one to accept an outcome and move ahead into the next opportunity. It also is a principle of concentration, wherein one is enabled, whether in archery or in conversation with another person, remain awake and focused with seriousness from one flowing moment to another.

A striking aspect of this book is the cultural dislocation the author experiences when confronting the Japanese psyche, as manifested by various Zen instructors. It’s like an alien encounter, an otherworldly contact with beings whose mental fibers are rooted to apparently deeper and richer spiritual soil. In Chapter 5–“The Naturally Correct Way”–Kushner describes the day he and others were at work on the grounds at Chozen-Ji clearing boulders to make space for future construction. The author struggled to relocate some large boulders by rolling them until Tanouye Roshi explained to him, “You have to learn to push the rock where it wants to go” (62). One must follow the natural grain or crease in any endeavor. By discovering the natural planes on a boulder’s surface, one might roll the rock in agreement with them. In archery, one learns to align the grain of one’s being with the universal orientation of nature. One must conform the “ji”–technique–with the “ri”–underlying universal principles. “Ri is formless and unchanging. Ri is ineffable” (15).

As the reader moves into and through these interesting anecdotes and information, there is also a downside: Kushner’s prose is, for the most part, stiff and dry. A certain monotony sets in, with too little variation in sentence structure. A bit more eloquence would have made for a richer reading experience and been more fitting for the exotic subject matter (a better editing job to catch typos would also have benefitted the book). Despite this drawback and whether or not one might be interested in kyundo, this book has its strong points. As mentioned earlier, the photo of Suhara Koun Osho drawing his bow (reproduced below) provides a visual confrontation with spiritual depth.

For the most part, we Westerners stumble through our psychic lives, jostled by one association after another. Rarely in daily living do our physical or mental movements glide according to the deep rhythms of nature. Master Osho’s serene, celestial countenance, on the other hand, suggests there might be another “do.” As Kushner remarks, “Do is an important word in Zen. It is the Japanese translation of the Chinese word, ‘Tao.’ ‘Do’ is usually translated as ‘Way’” (5). One begins to wonder if an absorption with television shows and movies might be the wrong kind of “do”.

One Arrow, One Life not only introduces the kyundo aspirant to basic methods and principles, it offers the general reader an alternative lens through which to view reality. Even if one chooses not to become a Zen archer, one takes away from the book a subconscious enrichment: when caught up in life’s stresses, there will now be the sense that a saner version of living is possible. Coming to this book with no interest in archery, I was prepared to be a bit bored and unaffected. Now having realized certain undercurrents moving below the overt theme, I acknowledge their importance and recommend this book to other Westerners needing a breath of fresh Zen air.

One Arrow, One Life: Zen, Archery, Enlightenment
Kenneth Kushner, Tuttle Publishing, 2000, North Clarendon, Vt.


  1. very discerning essay... I am not much of a Zen analyst but I do appreciate the fine points involved in this school of philosophy. Sarah's done a good job!

  2. Thank you very much. Sarah will be tickled to read your reaction.

  3. a fine book essay ... I feel wiser from reading it

  4. Hey, Mike. I'm glad you read it.

  5. Excellent review!
    I am wondering about the possibility of permission to re-publish the post in "Journal of the South Carolina Kyudo Renmei". Kushner sensei will be our guest speaker at the November Kyudo Alliance seminar in Atlanta. We are trying to encourage everyone to read his book prior to the event.
    I may be reached @
    Many thanks!

  6. Thanks, J.

    Yes, please do use my daughter's (Sarah Buck) review of One Arrow, One Life. She will be pleased. I'm also sending you a separate email to confirm permission.