Herrigel and Master Awa (An account by Professor Komachiya)

(Translated from Martin, Michel, Kyudo: Un Tir, Une Vie, Editions Amphora, 1990 (pp. 183 - 192) by Lutgard Cunningham and Charles Harper. Translation copyright 2003. All rights reserved.)


I remember it was around the spring of 1926 that Mr. Herrigel came to see me and said that he would like to study archery. He asked me to introduce him to Master Awa, the famous archery champion. I asked him the reason for this sudden decision; I was surprised that this idea had come to him: even for Japanese, archery is a difficult art. He told me that having been in Japan for three years, he had realized how much he could learn through Japanese culture. In his opinion, Buddhism, in particular Zen, had a great influence on Japanese thought, and he thought that the shortest route to initiating himself into Buddhism was to study archery.

"Since I arrived in Japan with my wife, we have lived daily with the Japanese. I think that it is very important for me to understand Japanese culture as accurately and completely as possible. One often encounters foreigners who, although they have lived here for a long time, have never been able to understand the Japanese way of life; it has seemed very difficult to compare it to the customs of their native country. 'In Rome, do as the Romans do'-- if you do not follow this maxim, life becomes insipid, narrow and impoverished. This is why I have let my wife take lessons in painting and flower arrangement. And when the professor of floral art comes to our home, I listen to what he has to say, too. Now we would like to study archery together."

Those are the motives he gave me and, turning to me, added, "When the professor of floral art comes, my friend Professor Chiba is our interpreter, and we are very grateful that he goes to this trouble. Would you perhaps be willing to act as our interpreter with the archery professor?"

These words led me to believe that the source of this sudden passion for archery was the master of floral art, Mr. Takeda, because he was a friend of Mr. Awa; and in order to explain the art of floral arrangement, one often uses expressions taken from archery: the two have essentially the same spiritual foundations.

I immediately went to see Mr. Awa at the place where he practiced, near Itsutsubashi in Higashiniban-cho, and I let him know of Mr. Herrigel's desire. Against all expectations and without beating around the bush, he refused because, he said, he had tried previously to initiate many foreigners into the art of archery, but with no success. "I am very sorry, but no," he answered. "Foreigners consider archery a sport or a gymnastic skill, they do not understand the spirit. I try at length to explain it to them, but in vain. Foreigners are certainly able to understand the true spirit, if they are patient. But they cannot wait for the right moment to come, they grow tired very early and give up. That is why I do not want to make a new attempt which also will be in vain." I agreed completely with Mr. Awa, and yet I tried to explain at length to him that Mr. Herrigel certainly had no intention of making it a sport or skill, but sincerely wanted to be initiated into the Japanese spirit. Mr. Awa fell silent for a moment, and then said, "I am willing to grant him his desire. But you will serve as interpreter and you will be answerable for Mr. Herrigel."

Naturally, I accepted his condition, first because my friend Herrigel had himself asked me to do this, and also because according to the tradition of the art, one must accede to the wishes of the master. Then I asked Mr. Awa what his fee would be. I knew this question could seem impolite in Japanese custom, but Mr. Herrigel thought like a European, and had asked me to do this. The Master responded immediately, "No, because I am very happy to teach this art to such a distinguished foreigner, a philosopher, and I am also convinced that he will understand its true spirit. However, I would sooner refuse to instruct than accept a fee."

I passed his statements on word for word to Mr. Herrigel, who seemed to be a little uneasy. I also tried to explain to him that we Japanese had a very particular sentiment on the point, quite our own, and that he need not insist on paying a fee.

Thereupon, we three went once a week, Mr. Herrigel, his wife and I, to Mr. Awa's shooting range, each of us carrying a bow on his shoulder.

It may seem a bit of a digression, but I would like to recount here several things touching upon Master Awa.

It was probably the 43rd year of the Meiji period, that is to say, in 1910-- I do not recall the exact date-- that I began to practice archery with Mr. Awa, a short time after my achieving 2-dan. In those days, he taught archery at my school, but his reputation was not yet that which he subsequently acquired. He had at that time a small plot of land in Daini-chiyokotsu-cho. He had rented it from its wealthy owner, and it was there that he practiced. Nevertheless, he always came to shoot at our school. He was at that time about 30 years old, a lively young man. He used very strong bows, sometimes the large, powerful bows resembling those kept in Shinto temples as sacrificial offerings. In those days, he taught technique more than the spirit of archery, and he was very strict with regard to form. He also attached great importance to hitting the mark: he loved to wager with us, when we shot at the target. Later, after I had left the school, I met Mr. Awa again in 1924, when I had been called to a professorship at Tohoku University. In the intervening years, archery had become very popular and Mr. Awa had many students. But his style of shooting had completely changed; it had become more concentrated and spiritually mature. The Master no longer taught technique, but mainly the spirit of the art of archery, and he attached much less importance to whether or not the arrows hit the target. "At each shot," he said, "one must be present with all one's spirit." And he deepened his study daily in this direction. In this way his pedagogic methods were gradually transformed.

In February of 1936, Master Awa spoke about kyudo on Sapporo radio. If my memory serves me, I can give a rough summary of this talk:

The famous archer Yangyuchi hit a weeping-willow leaf at 100 paces in 100 consecutive shots. Then Confucius made 100 perfect shots, all missing the target somewhat. This shows who had the better understanding of the real spirit of archery. It is thus that the spirit fills the entire universe, and those who watch kyudo are fascinated and moved by this divine perfection.

The spirit of archery is not contained within the art of hitting the target like Yangyuchi, but in the perfection of Confucius' shooting. Shooting is a way of perfecting your character. Thus, by practicing with the bow, you can complete your character, and with each shot, the complete personality should be united with the universe.

The ancient sages, the saints, sought in kyudo the virtue of grasping their own consciousness and they thought in this way to perfect their human worth. Archery today should also be this way. To each shot, you must commit all your being, to each shot you must give yourself completely. You should not differentiate between real life and archery; for both, there exists but a single truth. In each shot, you must renew your existence and reintegrate it into the universe, because it is only in uniting your being with the universe that this being becomes real. It is for this that the goal of the archer is to elevate his character and train his spirit in aiming for himself. It is also the reason why he must stress not the technique but the spirit. The true calling of archery is therefore to acquire more influence over your own spirit, making it more knightly and so more humane, and in this fashion to produce more true sages and saints.

To cite the philosophy of Yangtzu, 'When with the bow one stimulates the spirit, and when with the arrow one concentrates the spirit, considering the target to be Truth, and when one shoots with veneration, one invariably hits the mark.' When you begin to study archery, you must train your mind so that the shot is identified with the spirit, and try hard to influence your companions by the grace of the spirit of archery, and through this endeavor to guide your fellow man.


According to Master Awa, the following are the four principles of archery:

(1) Archery should be a way, through its movements and changes, to train and perfect the whole person, body and spirit, and at the same time attain the true state of the soul that frees the body and spirit.

(2) Through the moral training of archery, everyone joins in a spiritual friendship that is the Japanese spirit, which descends from samurai virtue, and training will advance this friendship, demonstrating to the world its greatness.

(3) The archer must realize that when he practices archery, he becomes more perfect in deepening his knowledge and experience, and he should be uniquely attentive to this deepening, never taking it lightly.

(4) The archer is an embodiment of divine knowledge, so he should neither speak much nor make any unproductive effort. Practiced correctly, the tanden (that is to say, the center) should nourish the divine force which everyone carries within.

M. Martin’s note: In the Buddhist conception, the tanden is man’s spiritual center, situated under the navel (in representations of the Buddha, it is often indicated by a lotus). From this area originates all spiritual and physical force, and the basic exercise consists in concentrating on the precise tension of the abdominal muscles.

Through these principles, we can get some idea of the conception of kyudo that the Master had near the end of his life.

Each time that Mr. Herrigel and his wife came to Master Awa's shooting range, it was arranged that no one else would be there, and it was only on rare occasions that he authorized any of his favorite students to be present. Master Awa did this so that Mr. Herrigel, without distraction or embarrassment, could concentrate on shooting. In order that Mrs. Herrigel's training could be more pleasant for her, the Master's wife accompanied Mrs. Herrigel's movements in order to help her. It seems that Madam Awa had an equally profound understanding of this art.

The first day, Master Awa performed a ceremonial shooting at a straw bale, in this way beginning the training of his new student (the method is of course the same for Japanese students). Master Awa then placed him in front of this target, set his feet correctly and had him hold the bow as he should. He then taught him to regulate his breathing, to breath deeply and sense the muscles of his abdomen. After these various preliminaries, the Master let his student shoot for the first time at the straw bale. Mr. Herrigel's style was maladroit at first, of course, just as it is for Japanese beginners.

After several shots, the first day's training ended, and each week the same training was repeated. The Master attached particular importance to the regularity of the breath. This was something very difficult for Mr. Herrigel to understand. He always said, "The breath passes through the lungs. It is physiologically impossible to press the air down from the lungs into the abdomen." But the Master often repeated that, in order to understand the spirit of the Japanese samurai, this exercise was fundamental. "You have to do this exercise without arguing from logic." Saying this, he grabbed Herrigel's bow, guided his arms through the preparatory moves, and stepped back. Herrigel was now standing, the bow strained, and awaiting a command to shoot. "Not yet," said the Master and Herrigel began to tremble from the effort that he was making. "Not yet," repeated the Master, striking him on the abdomen with the palm of his hand. "Make an effort! Tighten up the abdominal muscles," he cried. And when the bow was completely drawn, "Exhale completely, but don't inhale and don't shoot yet." Now and again, the Master approached and put his ear up to his student's nose to verify that he was not inhaling. He slapped his abdomen and repeated, "Not yet, not yet! Patience. Hang on!"

This exercise must have been very difficult for Mr. Herrigel. He complained, saying he was exhausted and absolutely at the end of his strength, unable to hold his bow. To this complaint the Master responded, "When you speak like that, it proves that you want to act, you help your physical strength. This is now forbidden in real archery. To shoot well, you must forget all your physical strength. You must shoot only with the force of your spirit."

Here, Mr. Herrigel's thinking reached an impasse. It was a critical point: he could advance no further, and when he stopped advancing, he lost ground. Herrigel thought that the bow, through the force of its elasticity, was the method by which the arrow reached the target. For it to get there, it had to use the strength of the entire body. 'When you abandon your strength,' he reasoned, "you become feeble, paralyzed. I cannot understand it differently." He was tremendously upset by this problem for a long time. When the Master ordered him to give up his strength, I translated it by ........... [M.Martin's note: left blank in the original manuscript] and we sometimes had bitter words with each other.

Shortly after the beginning of his training, Mr. Herrigel asked for a straw bale, and he began practicing in his office several times a day. Therefore he did not come more than once a week to Master Awa's; but nevertheless, he eventually made good progress. At the end of about a year, he had acquired near mastery of the tanden exercise, and knew how to shoot without using his physical strength; and at about the same time he was equally successful in performing 'hanare' without releasing, which he already did well.

Master Awa, wishing to speak directly to Mr. Herrigel, acquired a few words of German. When Mr. Herrigel shot poorly, he immediately cried, "No good!" and assumed a very irate pose. But when Mr. Herrigel occasionally succeeded in a good shot, he cried, "Great, remarkable, brilliant!" Perhaps because the first of these words seemed easier to pronounce, he adopted it and I remember that when he said it, he shook Mr. Herrigel's hand. When he was particularly happy with him, the Master, who was quite a big man, would hug his student, as large as he was, and lift him with enthusiasm in order to show how satisfied he was.

In these circumstances, if Herrigel was not all that convinced that he had shot well, he would ask me, "Was it really good?" And almost always I could concur with the Master.

Master Awa did not flatter his students and told the truth without embellishment. On the other hand, Master Awa was very amicable, and took a lot of pains in teaching them.

However, on the important points he became very serious, remembering that he had before him a foreign student, and, scolding him often, he cried in a strong voice, "No more!" On some of the same days of severity, he said very simply, "Today everything was bad. He had better quit," and he would not let Mr. Herrigel shoot any more. But Herrigel was never impatient and he did not show any annoyance at all. He never answered back or argued.

Once a student of Mr. Herrigel's came to the training hall, and the Master gave him a lesson and a demonstration of the exercise. After he had shot three or four arrows, the Master suddenly slapped him across the face. The student turned very pale and tried a shot once more, and this time the Master cried, "Good!" And thereupon the Master and the student finished the practice in a jovial, a very merry atmosphere.

Mr. Herrigel had observed this scene with great attention, so I asked him, "Does there exist in Europe any equivalent? Can you understand such an attitude?" He answered, "Actually, nothing like this exists in our country, but I understand very well this sort of rapport between master and student."

If sometimes the Master said, "Today nothing has been good, he had better quit," he always waited calmly afterward for Mr. Herrigel to put away his equipment, and then said patiently and amicably, "Archery is not just a technique, it is outside logic. Waiting for the shot, the self should unite with the universe. Each shot one must shoot with his entire being. Each archer must arrive at a point where he tries so hard that all his being depends on one shot. That is why each shot is a 'shot to the death'. To attain this, one is at his highest, one must give the most he has." And he ended solemnly, saying that to shoot correctly is the true way of Zen.

It is in this way that the Master pursued his teaching. In each exercise, he went over the principle that the art of archery is not a technique, but a way of attaining illumination. And he also often used in his teachings epigrams that he took spontaneously from Zen. When he became passionate, he suddenly began to sketch with chalk on the blackboard hanging on the wall of the training room, in order to try to explain something to Mr. Herrigel. Once, he sketched the silhouette of an archer inside a large circle. "This archer, Mr. Herrigel," he said, "must tighten his tanden in order to attain the circle of 'muga', his not-self, and become one with the universe." However, it sometimes happened that the Master expressed contradictions. In these cases, I remained silent, not translating anything of what he had said. This silence was enough to attract Mr. Herrigel's attention, and he asked me, very curious, "What did the Master say?" This sometimes embarrassed me.

Feeling extremely guilty, I answered, "Nothing in particular. He only stressed his remark that a shot is one's complete being; that to shoot a hundred times is a holy action. He is just repeating." I sometimes tried to avoid embarrassment with such responses. In my opinion, the Master gave at these times poor enhancement to making the spirit of archery comprehensible, and in his eager willingness to express the eternal Way, he employed conflicting Zen thoughts without realizing it; he practiced in contradiction to his own words. I therefore hope that my politics of silence will be excused by the Master as well as by his student.

The training at Mr. Awa's home consisted most often in shooting at the hay bale; but each time that Mr. Herrigel made some progress, the Master let him approach the real target. At the beginning of his training, Mr. Herrigel was perplexed and impatient when set before the target. Although the Master had said, "Let the target alone for the moment", Mr. Herrigel often asked him, "Why, with the skill that I have acquired, do I not shoot at the target?"

The Master answered each time, "It is necessary to practice first before shooting at the target. One cannot move from the practice bale to the target without long preparation."

When Mr. Herrigel was allowed to shoot at the target, Master Awa always said, "You should be cautious. You should not aim to hit the mark. You should not think about the mark when you release the arrow." He never forgot to issue this warning before the student addressed the target. And often he added, "To hit the target a hundred times is banal. But in shooting a hundred times, shoot well a hundred times: this is a holy act. With this, you can say that when you succeed in a hundred shots, you have done it with the spirit of archery, that is, shooting like Confucius." Such an idea was incomprehensible to Mr. Herrigel. For him, the bow was a means of hitting the target. The target is an object. When a person shoots, he must think that he can hit this object. He must always have a determined intention in shooting. But when we say that a shot exists without an intention, a point of departure that does not point toward the target, this cannot be a result of miscommunication. For this reason, Mr. Herrigel said to me, "The Japanese manner of thinking is completely opposite to that of the European. For the European, all this is incomprehensible. To accept Japanese thought, one must completely revise his own conceptions." And he wondered whether this fundamental difference did not partake of the remarkable Japanese intuition.

It may be that Mr. Herrigel, from this moment, abandoned his previous way of thinking, to give himself over to intensifying the spirit of archery. Until this, he had regarded everything from the European point of view. Now, he took pains to see things from the Japanese viewpoint. At least, I had this impression of him. And from this time, the Master more and more often used the word, 'impressive' when Mr. Herrigel was in front of the hay bale or the target. At this time also, Mr. Herrigel less and less frequently said, 'incomprehensible' or 'incredible'. Little by little, his understanding deepened, and he began to find relationships with the mystic tradition of the European Middle Ages. He often spoke to me about this, and acknowledged that the bow and the mark were in fact only a means of illumination. "The bow does not exist for shooting at a target. When one shoots at the target, it is as if one shot at oneself."

As a Christmas gift, he had a famous picture of Saint Hubert shipped to the Master from Germany. The picture represents a knight accompanied by a hunting dog which, at the edge of a forest, has come face to face with a stag bearing between its antlers a cross surmounted by a golden halo. The knight is kneeling in front of the stag. Hubert was a nobleman in the first half of the 18th century who like the other feudal lords of his epoch led an idle life and loved the hunt. When he encountered the sacred stag, he had a vision of God, renounced his life of debauchery and entered a monastery. He was eventually canonized as Saint Hubert. The picture in question represented the crucial moment in St. Hubert's life. I think that Mr. Herrigel gave this picture to the Master believing that the instant when St. Hubert sees the stag relates to the moment when the archer comprehends the spirit of his art. The Master seemed to be very proud of it and lost no time in hanging it on the wall of his training hall.

As soon as Mr. Herrigel began shooting better, his interest deepened and his ardour intensified. When leaving for his holidays, he took his bow and his hay bale, and the friendship between master and pupil solidified over time.

The Master felt that Mr. Herrigel, although a foreigner, had understood the spirit of archery through the medium of his philosophical thought; he was profoundly impressed and showed that he held him in the utmost regard. On his side, Mr. Herrigel honored Master Awa as a unique and incomparable teacher, and he always remained a loyal disciple. The summer that Mr. Herrigel spent his holidays at the beach at Takayama, the Master took the trouble to join him, and in front of the hay bale they discussed archery in broken German and Japanese.

Mr. Herrigel left Sendai in August 1929. At that time his shooting was already very impressive. His form in front of the target had maturity and he was approaching perfection, as he had before the hay bale. Master Awa was quite delighted because he had a chance to spread the spirit of the bow overseas as far as Europe; and Mr. Herrigel promised not to abandon his training once he returned home. He also wanted to make known in Europe the profundity of the Japanese spirit which he had acquired from his understanding of archery and from the grand master of that art. Master Awa awarded Herrigel a 5-dan certificate, the level, he thought, of his mastery of the art of archery. This judgment he conferred unreservedly, although it was upon a foreigner, and without having to modify in the least the scale that he used. The fifth dan reflected exactly Mr. Herrigel's ability.

Master Awa and Mr. Herrigel felt a great sadness at the approach of their separation, and the Master made a gift to his student of his favorite sword, in memory of the ties that bound them. He offered him this very precious sword as a sign of the pleasure of meeting a foreigner who understood so well the true spirit of Japanese chivalry.

After his return to Germany, Mr. Herrigel often wrote to me and he always reminded me of the fine keepsake from Master Awa, and sometimes he added a word which he asked me to translate for Master Awa. He told me that he was continuing his training without interruption. Gaining more confidence in himself, he began to shoot better than in Japan. He wanted to know whether Master Awa would have an opportunity to travel to Germany. These last years, he wrote me that he was afraid to be too sure of his own judgment and therefore to be mistaken about his ability, having practiced such a long time without the critical observation of his master; in Germany, no one could criticize him as had been done in the past, and he dreaded going astray into a method of his own invention.

This translation by Mr. Shibata is the text of a lecture that Mr. Herrigel gave to the German-Japanese Society at the request of the Berlin chapter. He had a copy sent to me via Mr. Furuuchi Hiroo and asked for a critique from Master Awa. He also wished to know my opinion. Master Awa informed me that he saw nothing to criticize in the text, and that he was delighted to know that Japanese archery was presented in such a remarkable manner to foreigners.

I immediately transmitted this message to Mr. Herrigel, who responded that he was relieved and more confident in his own judgment. I have always been of the opinion that the 5th dan, at the time of his departure from Japan, corresponded precisely with his capacity, but I never imagined that he had penetrated very deeply into the spirit of archery. I looked through the text of his lecture. Just as with Japanese, it is not at all easy, after such brief training, to grasp the true spirit of archery very well, and it required the spirit of a philosopher trained in logic in order to describe very clearly the account of his training. I gave him my opinion on this point. Perhaps he was not satisfied with my letter, because he wrote to me to find out what criticisms I was expressing. Surprised by his seriousness and passion, I responded that my previous letter contained all that I thought on the subject. After a short time, he wrote again that his lecture had been intended for a wide German audience which wanted to get an idea of what archery was, but that he proposed sooner or later to write a large work for initiates. With this intention, he had made contact with an editor: regarding this book, he spoke in detail of his venerable master and he also mentioned the effort that Mr. Komachiya had made in serving as an interpreter between them.

In Mr. Herrigel’s lecture, there is an episode in which the Master illuminates the darkness with a small stick of incense, then shoots two arrows, the second of which hits the end of the first, and he mentions some comments that Master Awa makes about this. That night I was not present and so could not serve as interpreter. I think that Mr. Herrigel, with his slight knowledge of Japanese but in real empathy, had understood the Master; and I am amazed that without interpretation one could understand things so difficult to explain. It is undoubtedly in this lecture that he made an allusion to this experience for the first time, because he had never before spoken of it to me. Later, when I read the text of the lecture, I spoke of the incident with Master Awa.

He answered with a very subtle smile, “Yes, miracles really happen. Unforeseeable chance produces such things.” I was strongly impressed by the calmness with which he assumed that it stood to reason that he had never mentioned this to me, neither he nor Mr. Herrigel, until the moment that I had the translation from Mr. Shibata.

When Master Awa died on March 1st, 1939 at the age of 59, I informed Mr. Herrigel immediately. This news affected him deeply, and he said that with all his heart he regretted this loss to Japan; he asked me to express his profound sympathies to the deceased’s family.

It was on the occasion of the Shibata translation that I noted down these few thoughts that had come to mind and that I express in this narrative. I have forgotten much, so many years have since gone by. I have not retained anything except what has left a deep impression on me, and I am transmitting such things as have presented themselves to my memory, without any well-defined order.

Sozo Komachiya

Sendai, December 1940

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