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Evola on Zen & Everyday Life


Japanese Tea Garden, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

1,657 words

Translation anonymous, edited by Greg Johnson

Eugen Herrigel
Zen in the Art of Archery [2]
New York: Vintage, 1999
[Zen nell’arte del tirar d’arco (Turin: Rigois, 1956)]

Kakuzo Okakura
The Book of Tea [3]
Stone Bridge Press, 2007
[II Libro del Te (Rome: Fratelli Bocca, 1955)]

The first of these little books, translated into Italian from German, is unique of its kind, as a direct and universally accessible introduction to the spirit the fundamental disciplines and behavior of the civilization of the Far East, especially Japan. Herrigel is a German professor who was invited to teach philosophy in a Japanese University, and decided to study the traditional spirit of the country in its most typical living forms. He took a special interest in acquiring an understanding of Zen Buddhism, and strange as it may seem, he was told that the best way to do so was to study the traditional practice of Archery. Herrigel therefore untiringly studied that art for no less than five years, and the book describes how his progress therein and his gradual penetration into the essence of Zen proceeded side by side with archery, conditioning one another reciprocally, leading to a deep inner transformation of the author himself.

The essence of Zen as a conception of the world is, as is known, its special interpretation of the state of nirvana which, partly through the influence of Taoism, is understood in Japan not as a state of evanescent ascetic beatitude, but as something indwelling, an inner liberation, a state free from the fevers, the ordeals, the bonds of the ego, a state which may be preserved while engaged in all the activities and in all the forms of everyday life itself. Thanks to it, life as a whole acquires a different dimension; it is understood and lived in a different way. The “absence of the ego” upon which, in conformity with the spirit of Buddhism, Zen insists so strongly, is not however akin to apathy or atony; it gives rise to a higher form of spontaneous action, of assurance, of freedom and serenity in action. This may be compared to a man who holds on convulsively to something and who, when he lets it go, acquires a higher serenity, a superior sense of freedom and assurance.

After calling attention to all these points, the author notes the existence in the Far East of traditional arts that both arise from this freedom of Zen and offer the means for attaining it through the training required to practice them. Strange as it may seem, the Zen spirit dwells in the Far Eastern Arts taught by the Masters of painting, serving tea, arranging flowers, archery, wrestling, fencing, and so forth. All these arts have a ritual aspect. There are, moreover, ineffable aspects thanks to which true mastery in any of these arts cannot be attained unless one has acquired inner enlightenment and transformation of ordinary self-consciousness, which makes mastery a kind of tangible sacrament.

Thus Herrigel tells us how in learning to draw the long bow, little by little, through the problems involved in this art as it is still taught in Japan, he came to the knowledge and the inner understanding that be sought. He realized that archery was not a sport but rather a kind of ritual action and initiation. To acquire a thorough knowledge of it one had to arrive at the elimination of one’s ego, overcome all tension, and achieve a superior spontaneity. Only then was muscular relaxation paradoxically joined to maximum strength; the archer, the bow, and the target became one whole. The arrow flew as if of its own accord and found its target almost without being aimed. Stated in these terms, the mastery attained is a degree of spirituality, or “Zen,” not as theory and philosophy but as actual experience, as a deeper mode of being.

By describing situations of this kind, based on personal experience, Herrigel’s little book is important not only because it introduces the reader to the spirit of an exotic civilization, but also because it enables us to view in a new light some of our own ancient traditions. We know that in antiquity, and to some extent in the Middle Ages also, jealously guarded traditions, elements of religion, rites, and even mysteries were associated with the various arts. There were “goods” for each of these arts and rites of admission to practice them. The initiation to crafts and professions in certain guilds and “collegia” proceeded along parallel lines with spiritual initiation. Thus, to mention a later case, the symbolism proper to the mason’s art of the medieval builders served as the basis for the first Freemasonry, which drew from it the allegories for the proceedings of the “Great Work.” It may therefore be that in all this the West once knew something of what has been preserved to this day in the Far East in such teachings as “the way of the bow” or “the art of the sword,” held to be identical with the “way of Zen” in a singularly positive form of Buddhism.

The Author of the second little book, to the Italian edition of which we now turn, is a Japanese interested above all in aesthetic problems, who has studied the modern schools of art in Europe and America but has remained faithful to his own traditions and has engaged in a resolute and efficient action in his own country against the introduction of Europeanizing tendencies. His Il Libro del Te confirms in the central part devoted more closely to the subject under consideration, what we have just been saying.

There have been close connections in the Far East between Zen, the “tea schools” and the “tea cult” (the term used by the author to designate this is “teaism,” an infelicitous word given that “theism” indicates in our countries every religion based on the notion of a personal God). Indeed it is claimed that the tea ceremonial as elaborated in Japan in the 16th century was derived from the much more ancient Zen rite of drinking tea from one single cup before the statue of Bodhidharma. Generally speaking this ceremonial rite is one of the many forms in which the Taoist principle of “completeness in the fragment” is expressed. Lu-wu in his book Cha-ching had already asserted that in preparing the tea the same order and the same harmony must he observed that from the Taoist standpoint reigns in all things.

The author adds that it is part of the religion of the art of life. “The tea became a pretext for the enjoyment of moments of meditation and happy detachment in which the host and his guests took part.” Both the site and structure of the rooms built for this special purpose—the tea-rooms (sukiya)—follow the ritualistic principle; they are symbolic. The variegated and partly irregular path that, within the framework of the Ear Eastern art of gardening, leads to the tea-room is emblematic of that preliminary state of meditation that leads to breaking all ties to the outer world, to detachment from the worries and interests of ordinary life.

The style of the room itself is of refined simplicity. In spite of the bare and poverty-stricken appearance it may offer to Western eyes, it follows in every detail a precise intention. The selection and the use of the right materials call for infinite care and attention to detail, so much so that the cost of a perfect tea room may be greater than a whole casement. The term “sukiya”—the author says—originally meant “the house of imagination,” the allusion being not to wandering fancies but to the faculty of detaching oneself from the empirical world, of recollecting oneself and taking refuge in an ideal world.

Other expressions used by the Masters of Tea rite are “the house of emptiness” and “the house of asymmetry.” The first of these expressions traces back directly to the notion of the Void proper to Taoist metaphysics (and here we may recall also the part played by this notion, almost as a key or background in the “aerial” element of Far Eastern painting). The expression “house of asymmetry” refers to the fact that some detail is always intentionally left unfinished and care is taken to arrange things to give the impression of a lacuna. The reason for this is that the sense of completeness and harmony must not arise from something already fixed and repeatable, but must be suggested by an exterior incompleteness which impels one to conceive them inwardly by means of a mental act.

The author deals also of the connections existing between the art of tea and that of selecting and arranging the flowers in the sukiya, here again in conformity with symbolism and a special sensibility. Often one single flower rightly selected and placed is the only ornament of the “house of emptiness.”

Lastly the author reminds us that a special philosophy of daily life is accessory to the tea ritual, so much so that in current Japanese parlance a man lacking in sensibility to the tragi-comical sides of personal life is said to be “lacking in tea,” while those who give way to uncontrolled impulses and feelings are said to have “too much tea.” This brings one back to that ideal of balanced, subtle, and calm superiority, which plays so large apart in the general attitude of the man of the Far East.

If we think of the wide use made of tea in the West, and of the circumstances of this use in our social life, more especially among fashionable circles, it would be natural to draw comparisons which would show that, even in this seemingly commonplace field, as on the plane of ideas, all things of the Orient are diminished when imported into the Western world.

East and West, vol. 7, no. 3, October 1956, pp. 274–76