In Mundaka Upanishad, one of the Vedic scriptures of ancient India, there are a couple of verses that use the analogy of the art of archery to attain bliss. The verses go like this:
“Take the great Bow of knowledge
Place on it your lower Self as the arrow ;
Then draw the bowstring of meditation
And aim at the target, the ultimate Self.
You become one with the self” (Essence of Verses 2.4.3 and 2.4.4, Mundaka Upanishad )
Here, the analogy of the art of archery is used to explain how to realize your true Self. The Bow is the tool for self-realization. We cannot shoot the arrow until we are aware that there is a bow that can be used as a tool to realize our true Self. If we do not see the Bow, which is the knowledge that we can realize our true Self, we will remain mediocre in life. A happiness seeker cannot live a mediocre life. Average life never dwells on lasting happiness.
In the next step, let us look have a look at the arrow. In the Upanishad verse, the arrow is compared to your lower Self, which dwells in the material world.
So, to shoot the lower Self to the true or higher Self, the first step is to sharpen and straighten the arrow.
The Upanishad verse says that you can sharpen your arrow by “upasa nisitham” – Upasana means meditation. We can sharpen our arrow, the lower Self, by meditation and constant practice of taming the mind. Sharpening and straightening the arrow is the deliberate practice of freeing the Self from all the negative and unwanted thoughts. If the arrow is not sharp and straight, it would never hit the target but sway away.
Sharpening the arrow means to direct your consciousness towards your true Self. This is an ongoing process. You cannot say that your arrow is sharp and straight enough to shoot at one particular point in time.
Every action of yours should have the higher Self as the target. It is an elevation towards your higher Self.
During this phase, you will have to clean up your karmic warehouse.
A karmic warehouse is where all your past karma is stored – both good and bad. When you are on autopilot, you are driven by past karmas. The only way to clean up your past karma is the realization that you are not your true Self. In the true Self, there is no dirt. You cannot realize the true Self even with a speck of karmic muck in your system. Straighten the arrow means cleaning the karmic dirt. One of the most effective to clean your karmic dirt is to clean your thoughts. The first step is to catch your thoughts as and when it arises. Most of your thoughts have their origin at this karmic swamp hidden in your mind. It carries with it lots of negativity. Identify your thoughts and cleaning it up is equivalent to sharpening and straightening your arrow.
A sharp and straight-arrow get you into an effortless flow. When you do work without expecting results, there will be minimal efforts to get the work done. The results then flows effortlessly into you.
Once the arrow is sharpened and straightened, the next step is to draw the bowstring back. It is called ayamya in the Upanishad verse. We need to take a step back from the daily routine. Do an audit on our wants and needs. Do an audit of our emotions. Drawing back is similar to looking at you from a neutral vantage point. From this point, you would see the Dhara, the flux through which your life energy flows. To have this view, we need to have some practice. We have to continually filter all the stimulus that hits our sense organs, discard the unnecessary ones, and process the useful ones. For this, we need to practice selective attention. The next step is to align the refined thoughts with the Dhara. Once your thoughts are in the dhara, the actions which follow would naturally be in the Dhara.
Let us take a pause here and look into the Zen analogy of archery.
“When we face the target, it is like a mirror that reflects our heart. We must confront
ourselves in this mirror” – Takeuchi Masakuni (Archery Master)
“Put the thought of hitting right out of your mind” - Eugen Herrigel (Zen in the art of archery)
The Japanese Zen teaching of archery is called Kyudo. In the Kyudo practice, the target is not relevant. Kyude instruction have only three steps : (1) Pick up the Bow (2) Place the Arrow,(3) Draw the Bow String back. That is all. Releasing the arrow is not taught in Kyudo.
The arrow is released only when the Archer, the arrow, and the target are perfectly aligned. Eugen Herrigel, the author of Zen in the art of archery who spent years under a Kyudo master to learn the art of archery, says that his master even closes his eyes when he releases the arrow. Here the target becomes one with the Archer – equivalent to the Upanishadic teaching we have seen above. Here also, the path is more important than the skill.
So, let us try to list down the lessons we can learn from the Art of Archery from both the Indian Vedantic and Japanese Zen streams of knowledge.
1. Hitting the target is not a one time action. Every action, however small it is, is to be done with utmost diligence.
2. Always be in the path of no resistance. The longer you stay in the path, the shorter the time to the Goal
3. Success happens effortlessly. Be patient and be surprised by the success.
4. Follow the Zen Adage, “How you do anything is how you do everything."