After winning several archery contests across the land, the young, supremely confident champion filly challenged an old Zen master renowned for his skill as an archer. The new champion demonstrated great technical proficiency when he hit a faraway bull’s eye on his first try. He then split that arrow with his second shot.
“There,” he said smugly to the old master, “See if you can match that!” Unperturbed, the master did not draw his bow. Looking up at the looming mountain, he motioned for the young archer to follow him up the rocky trail.
Curious about the master’s intentions, the champion followed him high into the mountain until they reached a steep gorge. A stream roared turbulently by far below, with only a flimsy, shaky log spanning the chasm. And it was this unsteady and perilous bridge that the master stepped calmly onto, walking right to its middle to take position.
Picking out a distant sapling as a target, the old man calmly drew his bow, sighted meditatively down the arrow and fired a clean, direct hit. “Now it is your turn,” he said to the champion, stepping back gracefully onto safe ground. One look at the target and then down the gorge, and the young man was seized by an overwhelming terror. The stream could hardly be glimpsed, so deep it flowed. He could picture the jagged rocks lurking underneath the wickedly frothing waters. The ceaseless roar reverberating around the abyss deafened him. There was simply no way the young man could force himself to step out onto the log, much less shoot at the target.
“You have much skill with your bow,” said the master, sensing his challenger’s predicament, “But you need to work on the mind that lets loose the shot.”
The champion now saw the long road stretching out before him. Years of constant practice would pass before he would cease to be conscious of himself when sighting the bull’s-eye. Empty within and rid of the self, he would learn to flow unconsciously with his skill.
The target and he would become one, once he learnt to aim by deliberately not taking aim. For the ‘artless art’ of archery is ultimately a contest between the archer and himself.