Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Archery: Bringing Together Heaven and Earth

Vineet Lalan

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Archery is an ancient martial art, as old as the most ancient myths. We see references to the bow-and-arrow across traditions and cultures; the renowned Gandiva of Arjuna, the mighty bow of Apollo, the long Samurai Yumi or the prominent Mongolian Bow. The Zodiac sign of Sagittarius is also depicted as the mythical centaur wielding a bow and arrow. It’s appearance in symbols and mythology abound might perhaps indicate, that beyond hunting animals and fighting battles, archery might have had more profound philosophical implications relevant for us as human beings.

In ancient India, the bow symbolised the human being; each of its two ends signified Man’s higher and lower self, or his heavenly and earthly nature. There is always a string which connects these two ends which needs to be tied with just the right tension in order to use it effectively. As the archer draws the arrow, he brings both ends of the bow closer; they act as one, and enable the release of the arrow, an expression of his inner being, his Will.

Today, Archery is practised primarily as a commercial sport. As a sport, it has been reduced to the simple need of hitting the target to score maximum points. However, if we dive deeper into the philosophical background of this ancient sport we learn that this approach is but a materialistic shadow of its ancient counterpart. The Japanese form of Archery, called Kyudo for example, was practised as a way of life. The Archer needed to follow an 8-step ceremonial process before shooting his arrow, and the need to hit the target was of least significance. In fact, the Sensei never even looked at the target while teaching. Instead, all the attention of the teacher was focussed on the accuracy of the process. Therefore, even if the archer hits the bull’s eye, if his process was not accurate the shot was disqualified, and called a “Fake hit”. Furthermore, in olden days, an archer who demonstrated the correct process won competitions despite missing the target. There are a lot of values one can learn from this approach, to extract and apply as principles in life.

Let us explore some values that the art of archery may teach us.

The one thing an Archer needs to develop the most is Concentration. The word concentration is derived from Latin con centra, meaning with centre. In the myth of The Mahabharata, this principle is beautifully illustrated by the story of Arjuna aiming for the bird’s eye placed inside a tree, by his teacher for practice. By maintaining his centre, the archer guards himself from getting swayed by various external distractions, which will cause him to miss the target easily. Similarly, in our life we need to identify a centre, the essential purpose, and act in adherence to that centre without getting distracted and scattered by the various voices of our personality that pull us in different directions. Such a centre gives us an objective point of reference to rely on.

The principle of concentration also enables the widening of our consciousness. In order for a juggler to manage various pins, it is clear that if he attempts to concentrate on each pin, he will drop the others. Instead he must develop concentration on an invisible centre, by which to maintain attention over the full collection of pins. Similarly, if we are only caught up with our own self-centred and partial view towards life, we will miss the opportunity to connect with the holistic objective reality. We need to widen our consciousness in order to see the big picture.

An archer needs to be one with his target. He seeks unity with the target. This requires commitment from the side of the archer towards his target and towards the Art. Usually nowadays, we have the tendency of being “commitment phobic” in life. But in archery, it is said that touching the depth of the target and real growth only comes with commitment. An archer needs to practise 10000 times, to shoot day in and day out to perfect himself. Every time an archer draws the bow he needs the same commitment towards his target to shoot well. The success of last shot has nothing to do with present shot. Commitment is required in every shot. There is no scope of being complacent. However experienced and skilful the archer might be, he cannot take anything for granted. Commitment is therefore a powerful weapon as it can help us do things which might seem impossible at first.

The archer’s arrow symbolises the force of his Will which transforms an ordinary arrow into one charged with purpose and direction. In ancient days, it was said that only when an archer released his arrow with indomitable will, would it penetrate the enemy’s armour. Once the arrow is shot, there is no turning back. It will reach its destination by penetrating any obstacle on its way. Such is the power of will. There is no retreat and we are destined to hit our target, and fulfil our dreams.

Though it is underutilized, it is important to realize that as human beings, we already naturally possess this force of Will. By approaching our goals with strong Will we can break through obstacles and transcend the boundaries of our limitations. Sometimes when we face challenges in life we get overwhelmed by fear and give in to personal obstacles. We lack the inner conviction to overcome the challenges. We convince ourselves that they are insurmountable and self-impose limitations. During these moments we need to remind ourselves: “Where there is a Will, there is a Way.” Will directs matter and when we act with will consistently we can influence matter and make our dreams come true.

We must also appreciate that only human beings possess such Free Will. Other forms of life like plants and animals are unable to make choices as they are programmed to act in accordance to their design. But human beings have choice. This choice is to direct our actions virtuously despite the influence and lower tendencies of the personality.

An archer needs to be stable not just physically but also psychologically and mentally. Any interruption by a thought or emotion, while releasing the arrow, and he will miss his precision due to the distortion brought by his subjectivity. Beyond the technique therefore, the archer must master the psyche. Similarly, as human beings we might learn to control and direct our thoughts and emotions, and not let them control us. In Kyudo, after the release of the arrow, the last step is to see where it hit. However, it was essential to maintain a stoic attitude, without feeling happy or sad. If the archer showed even a hint of emotion his shot was disqualified as childish and disgraceful. Usually our emotions and thoughts distort reality. It doesn’t allow us to be centred as it pulls us in different directions. An archer needs a stoic disposition and can’t allow his emotions, moods, and thoughts to determine his direction.

The whole idea of hitting a specific target correlates with aligning with The Law, or Truth. To do this one needs to master oneself, and employ the tools of concentration, commitment, objectivity and stability. But above all, one characteristic of a great archer is to have a good eye sight. Philosophically speaking, this means that an archer should be able to see the truth as it is. For this he needs the ability to discern the truth from illusion, the spirit from matter.

It is interesting to note that astrologically speaking, the constellation Sagittarius is ruled by the planet Jupiter which is said to relate to the archetypes of Truth and Wisdom. This is one of the most important secrets of archery: to seek the truth within in order to align oneself with the cosmic law. The whole practice of Archery is a path of correcting ourselves every day, to move forward towards knowing our true nature. Evidently, Archery is not just a martial art, but an entire way of life. There is a lot for us to learn from this art form. For as Confucius said, “When the archer misses the centre of the target, he turns round and seeks for the cause of his failure within himself.”

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Feature Image: Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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