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Zen and the Beholder

Zen and the Beholder

Shoji Yamada, professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto, takes a closer look at Japan, Zen and the West.

By Lorena Olvera

People will refuse the distorted culture for its inauthenticity while they accept inauthentic culture as authentic under certain conditions

Images of Zen Buddhism made popular in the West do not always match up with tradition. For a Nov. 2, 2009, colloquium sponsored by the Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies, Shoji Yamada, author of Shots in the Dark: Japan, Zen and the West, investigated two questionable examples of Zen culture. Sometimes outsiders succeed in developing their own independent notions of Zen, he said. More remarkably still, their visions occasionally win acceptance in Japan.

In Japan, "people will refuse the distorted culture for its inauthenticity while they accept inauthentic culture as authentic under certain conditions,” Yamada said.

For example, Ryôanji Temple hosts Japan's most famous Zen rock garden; and yet, prior to World War II, the garden was not famous.

“We don’t really know for sure when it was built or what the designer and builders intended," said Yamada. An early description found in a guide to Kyoto's temple gardens, compiled in 1799 by poet Akisato Rito, makes no mention of Zen. A photo from 1918 shows a very different garden, with possible foot prints and the stones in disarray. Diagrams by Japanese scholars exhibit how the stones were shifted, and while many Japanese scholars believed the garden beautiful, prior to WWII, they were cautious about labeling it “Zen.”

Instead, a western scholar first tied the garden to Zen in 1935 with her book, One Hundred Kyoto Gardens. The scholar, Lorraine E. Kuck, repeated this claim more strongly in her much more influential book on The Art of Japanese Gardens, published in 1940. In it, she hails the garden as "one of the world's great masterpieces of religiously inspired art."

In the 1950s, the garden attracted foreign tourists and was for the first time featured in Japanese middle school textbooks. “The view of the rock garden as representing 15th-16th century culture became an unquestioned part of Japanese understanding," said Yamada. In the decades after the war, Japanese scholars revised their view of the garden and hailed it not only as beautiful, but, like Western scholars, considered it Zen. Today the temple is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Distorted Culture

A web search of “Zen and the art of” will produce a list of English books juxtaposing Zen with screenwriting, motorcycle maintenance and poker. Yamada pointed out that such understandings of Zen might have their origin in a simple mistake.

Eugene Herrigel, a German philosophy professor, helped introduce Zen to Europe with his 1948 book Zen in the Art of Archery. Herrigel traveled to Japan in 1924 to study Zen, only to be discouraged from doing so. He was encouraged, however, to take up related activities and chose archery. Under Awa Kenzo's instruction, Herrigel developed the concepts "it shoots" and "the target in the dark." They remain the central teachings of Zen archery and yet Yamada believes the concepts were products of miscommunication.

In the interest of time, Yamada focused on “it shoots.” For more information on “target in the dark,” please consult his book.

“There is no record that Awa taught it shoots to any of his disciples other than Herrigel. Even though it shoots is a teaching that cannot be found anywhere except in Zen in the Art of Archery, it has spread all over the world as a central teaching in Japanese archery,” said Yamada.

As the story goes, one day Herrigel asked the master how an arrow could be loosed if he did not do it, to which the master replied "it shoots." When Herrigel asked what "it" was, his master told him "once you have understood that, you have no further need of me... So let’s stop talking about it and go on practicing." And one day after a particular shot the master ended the practice and told Herrigel, "Sou deshita," or "That's it!"

Yamada observes that "sou deshita" is commonly used to praise students when they perform well and that Japanese doesn't have a pronoun for "it." In translating the phrase to German, the "it" may have taken on the role as subject. "Herrigel understood it to mean something which transcends the self. If that is what happened then the teaching of it shoots was born when an incorrect meaning filled the void created by an instant of misunderstanding.”

Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies

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