A young Japanese archer took great pride in the excellence of his marksmanship with a bow and arrow. Having read a lot of pithy Zen stories and received some basic training on mindfulness, he soon came to the conclusion that he was a true master of archery. So he decided to travel to a remote mountain monastery in order to challenge an old Zen master, who was reputed to have once possessed great skill with a bow and arrow.

After having arrived at this monastery he eventually managed to persuade the old Zen master to compete against him. The old man was reluctant to accept this challenge, as he had not touched his bow in many years. He first had to dust and wax his bow before testing its pliancy, then gently brush the cobwebs away from his quiver and arrows.

The young archer set up a straw target at eighty paces. He drew back the string of his lethal-looking bow, and released an arrow that sped straight into the central eye of the target. Then, notching and shooting a second arrow, he managed to split the shaft of his first arrow along its entire length. With great pride in his prowess he turned to the old man and said, "Now let me see what you can do."

Instead of notching an arrow the old master beckoned the youth to follow him. Leading the way up a steep and narrow path they eventually arrived at the top of a narrow gorge with sheer walls. A long and springy pine trunk bridged the top of this chasm, while far below two hundred feet of vertical cliff faces enclosed the turbulent roar of a mountain river, with sharp rocks protruding above the chaos of its thundering white waters. The old man stepped lightly onto the narrow pine trunk and walked briskly to its middle. He calmly strung his bow, drew an arrow from the quiver behind his shoulder, notched it, and then let it fly straight into the trunk of a tall and distant pine tree.

The young archer felt his heart rise to his throat when he saw how the pine trunk on which the old man stood was bouncing from the momentum of his bowshot. He could hardly even bear to look as he felt the paralyzing spasms of vertigo seizing control of his body. His stomach churned, his ears rang from dizziness, and the dark shadow of oblivion was threatening to eclipse his consciousness. The old man stepped lightly back from the narrow pine bridge and said, "Now let's see what you can do. Can you split my arrow from the middle of the pine bridge, or shall I do it for you?"

By now the young archer was on the verge of feinting, with a complete lack of control over every nerve and muscle in his body. He could not take one step towards that pine bridge, which was still quivering ominously. With trembling hands he grasped the old man's shoulders and pulled him back from the edge of the precipice. Then he fell limply to the ground, his trembling body hunched in foetus posture, his heart and soul drained of all the strength, courage, pride and certainty that he always believed were his.

When the young archer had regained a bit more control and composure, the old man said to him: "You certainly have great skill with the bow and arrow. But you seem to have very little skill with the mind that controls these weapons. This is a dangerous predicament for an archer, especially when he has to face the reality of war, where violence can arise upon any kind of terrain and under any conditions. Pride, anger and fear are the inner enemies of every warrior. I have trained many young archers, and those who were afflicted with pride always tended to end up making me their target. When their arrow hit the mark they would always praise their own skill, but when the arrow went amiss they always blamed the straightness of the arrow."

The young man remained at the monastery for the rest of his days, though he no longer thought of himself as an archer or a master. In the course of time the old Zen master died and the younger man became his successor. Two unstrung bows and quivers of arrows still stand against the back wall of the monastery's storeroom, where the dust and cobwebs of many years have settled thickly upon them.

The Need to Win

When an archer is shooting for nothing, he has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle, he is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold, he goes blind or sees two targets.
He is out of his mind!

His skill has not changed, but the prize divides him.
He cares.
He thinks more of winning than of shooting.
And the need to win drains him of power.

(Chuang Tzu)

The Active Life

If an expert does not have some problem to vex him, he is unhappy.
If a philosopher's teaching is never attacked, he pines away.
If critics have no one on whom to exercise their spite, they are miserable.
All such people are prisoners in a world of objects.

Whoever wants followers seeks political power.
Whoever wants reputation holds an office.
The strong man looks for weights to lift.
The brave man looks for an emergency in which he can show his courage.

The swordsman wants a battle in which he can swing his sword.
Men past their prime prefer a dignified retirement, in which they can seem profound.
Experienced lawyers seek difficult cases to extend the application of laws.
Poets, writers and musicians like festivals in which they can parade their talents.
The benevolent, the dutiful, are always looking for chances to display virtue.

Where would the gardener be if there were no more weeds?
What would become of business without a market of fools?
Where would the masses be if there were no pretext for getting jammed together and making noise?
What would become of labour if there were no superfluous objects to be made?

Produce! Get results! Make money! Make friends! Make changes!
Or you will die of despair!

Those who are caught in the machinery of power take no joy except in activity and change.
The whirring of the machine!

Whenever an occasion for action presents itself, they are compelled to act: they cannot help themselves.
They are inexorably moved, like the machine of which they are a part.
Prisoners in the world of objects, they have no choice, but to submit to the demands of the matter.
They are pressed down and crushed by external forces, fashion, the market, events, public opinion.
Never in a whole lifetime do they recover their right mind!

The active life!
What a pity!

(Chuang Tzu - translated by Thomas Merton)

The Man of Tao

The man in whom Tao acts without impediment harms no other being by his actions, yet he does not know himself to be 'gentle', to be 'kind'.

The man in whom Tao acts without impediment does not bother with his own interests and does not despise those who do.

He does not struggle to make money, and does not make a virtue out of poverty.
He goes his way without relying on others, and does not pride himself on walking alone.
While he does not follow the crowd he won't complain of those who do.

Rank and reward make no appeal to him.
Disgrace and fame do not deter him.
He is not always looking for right and wrong, always deciding 'yes' or 'no'.

The ancients said, therefore:
"The man of Tao remains unknown.
Perfect virtue produces nothing.
'No-self' is 'True-self'.
And the greatest man is Nobody."

(Chuang Tzu - translated by Thomas Merton)

The Empty Boat

If a man is crossing a river and an empty boat collides with his own skiff,
even though he be a bad-tempered man he will not become very angry.

But if he sees a man in the boat, he will shout at him to steer clear.
If the shout is not heard, he will shout again, and yet again, and begin cursing.
And all because there is somebody in the boat.
Yet if the boat were empty, he would not be shouting, and not be angry.

If you can empty your own boat crossing the river of the world,
no one will oppose you, no one will seek to harm you.

Who can free himself from achievement, and from fame, descend and be lost amid the masses of men?
He will flow like Tao, unseen. He will go about like Life itself with no name and no home.

Simple is he, without distinction. To all appearances he is a fool.
His steps leave no trace. He has no power. He achieves nothing, has no reputation.
Since he judges no one, no one judges him.

Such is the perfect man:
His boat is empty.

(Chuang Tzu - translated by Thomas Merton)