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Zen in the Art of Archery, Bodhidharma and the Shaolin Temple: Martial Arts Fact or Fiction? (Part 2)

Zen in the Art of Archery, Bodhidharma and the Shaolin Temple: Martial Arts Fact or Fiction? (Part 2)

Continued from Zen in the Art of Archery, Bodhidharma and the Shaolin Temple: Martial Arts Fact or Fiction? (Part 1).

There were fighting arts in China before Bodhidharma, and there was Buddhism in China before him, too. But as Robert W. Young pointed out in the September 2001 issue of Black Belt magazine, it’s likely that warriors came to Shaolin Temple looking for sanctuary or redemption and brought their fighting skills into the religious life there. The truth in the Bodhidharma myth is that, through his insistence on mental and physical discipline tempered with wisdom, the Indian monk is more the father of the modern martial arts than the people who invented the techniques of fighting are.


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The other myth that is dear to many martial artists is that of Zen in the Art of Archery. That’s the title of a classic by German philosophy professor Eugen Herrigel. It’s about learning kyudo in 1920s Japan from an enigmatic archery master named Kenzo Awa. It’s probably the best story of a martial arts teacher/student relationship ever written, but at least one scholar has made a good case that it’s a myth.

In the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies (2001, 28/1-2), Shoji Yamada published a paper that argued convincingly that Herrigel misunderstood a great deal of what was being said. Yamada claimed that Awa used the language of Buddhism to express ideas about archery that were unique to him. The master archer never studied with a Zen priest and was unusual among his peers in that he experienced a religious conversion through archery.

Exchanges between Herrigel and Awa were often confusing — even when an interpreter was present — because Awa used Zen terms liberally to express his idiosyncratic ideas.

In short, Yamada argued that what Herrigel learned was not Zen and was not usual in kyudo instruction.

Does that mean Herrigel’s classic is a sham? No. It’s a myth in the best sense of the word.

Awa really was a master archer. He really did undergo a spiritual transformation that he called a “great explosion,” and it came through archery. Herrigel really did try to get at that experience through archery, too. His book carries the meaning of those experiences and delivers it to martial arts students in a way that only well-crafted literature can.

In other words, it shows an ideal of martial arts study and insight, but it’s not the best source on combat Zen and it’s not pure history.

Some people do not like this easy acceptance of myth in the martial arts. They like things to be clearly separated: Facts are here, lies are there and fairy tales are somewhere else. But it’s natural to blend truth and fantasy to demonstrate an ideal, and without those ideals, we have nothing to strive for. Myths may not be history, but they change history by compelling us to reach for an ideal. And they show us why the martial arts are worth practicing.


About the Author:
Keith Vargo is the author of the book Philosophy of Fighting: Morals and Motivations of the Modern Warrior, a collection of a decade’s worth of his thought-provoking Way of the Warrior articles from Black Belt magazine. To learn more about this martial artist, visit his website at keithvargo.org.

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Posted in General Martial Arts History.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. How to Escape from Duct Tape, Longsword Fighting & More: This Week in Martial Arts | Adam Bockler linked to this post on February 6, 2015

    [...] Fiction: Black Belt Magazine’s Keith Vargo tackles three myths in the martial arts both here and here. My favorite is the one about Bodhidharma, from which many martial arts trace their lineage. “The [...]

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