Beyond Effort

With his archer’s skill, the archer hits the mark at a hundred paces,
But when arrow points meet head-on, how could it be a matter of skill.
Jewel Mirror Samadhi

Continuing to discuss effort and effortlessness, I like to use this example from the Jewel Mirror Samadhi.

Japanese archery is considered an Art, a way of life, and a spiritual practice. The archers study for many years. I suppose we could call that great effort. Practicing over and over. Through personal effort, through practicing, they can fairly easily learn to hit the target at a hundred paces. Anyone can do that, if they practice very hard.

But for two archers to aim at the sky, and for the arrows to meet head-on, that is something that is way beyond skill. It is beyond the mind of discrimination. It is beyond the body of practice. I think this might be congruent with the idea of forgetting the self. In letting go of “trying”, in letting go of any intellectual idea of how archery should be done, these archers are simply totally, wholeheartedly merged with their activity. The years of practice in a very easy way, in a relaxed way, comes through. The archer, the arrow, the other archer are all one movement and one whole. Subject and object merged. This is what one might call effortless effort.

From Reb Anderson’s book, Being Upright,  page 23-24:

The famous Zen example for developing the practice of renunciation is pulling a bow, practicing archery. One of the first books I read about Zen Buddhism was Zen in the Art of Archery, by the German writer Eugen Herrigel. His archery teacher explained that you take the bow, pull the bowstring back, and just hold it. This is like normal human life: you’re holding on to something and it’s a strain. His teacher told him to hold the string until it was released, but not to release it.

Herrigel held the bow for many hours of practice, and he got really tired of holding it – just like we get tired of holding on to body and mind. Then he got the idea that he could let go of the string without letting go of it by just holding it half as tightly. So he held it half as tightly, and half as tightly again, and kept halving his grip until, finally, the string went without him letting it go. He had figured out a way to let it go while he was still holding on.

The teacher saw his clever trick and kicked him out of the school. Herrigel begged for years to come back, until finally the teacher agreed. He went back to the practice of pulling the string and just holding it. No more tricks. He just patiently experienced the suffering of being a human who thinks he’s holding something. One day the string released, and it was as if it passed right through his fingers, just as his teacher had described it. He didn’t let go of the string: it went.

The string is already released, but we don’t generally understand that. You have to pull the string as a metaphor for your delusion until you understand that the string is already released. You have to sit with your life and feel how you hold it, and be willing for the release to happen. It will happen spontaneously, because it’s already so.

This is an aspiration for my practice — that I can be open and relaxed and the years of practice will just come through. In the Fukanzazengi, it says that we should look for a teacher that is beyond effort. What does that mean? I think that means that the goal and the cause have merged, that our minds are calm enough to receive the moment as it is, and our reaction of generosity, patience, acceptance, integrity are so practiced that they have become our norm.

It is no longer a strain to receive the moment. We no longer have to try to practice. We can surrender to the life force of the moment and let it bloom.