Zen Story: The Master Archer

A Japanese archer with targets. Ink on paper, 1878.

There was once a general of war who had spent his entire life fighting in campaigns for many kings. Now at the end of his career, he became tired of fighting. He had spent a lifetime perfecting his skill in all the arts of war and his skill was famous, but he was weary and had but one wish: to spend the rest of his days studying archery, the one art of war he had not mastered.

The general did not want to learn archery in order to be a better fighter, but rather to study and reflect. He had heard of Master archers, living in distant monasteries, who spend a lifetime doing nothing else but perfecting their skill. Their life appealed to him, and so he retired from fighting and began to search for the Master archers.

After a long journey the general found a monastery where the monks were devoted to archery. He entered the monastery and begged to join them and pass the remainder of his days on this earth studying archery. For 10 years that is what he did. Then, when he had perfected his skill as an archer, the abbot of the monastery came to the general and said, “It is time to leave.”

The general was shocked and he protested, saying that his life in the world outside the monastery was over. His only desire was to remain within the monastery walls and continue to meditate on the bow, the arrow, the target. The general argued and pleaded with the abbot, but the abbot was resolute. He insisted that the general must leave. To advance his skill, it was necessary for the general to go out into the world and teach what he had learned. And so he left the monastery.

Once outside, the general had nowhere to go; he decided to return to the village of his birth. It was a long journey over many lands, but finally he neared the village. As he walked through the surrounding forest he noticed a bull’s-eye on a tree, with an arrow in the exact center. The general was surprised by this and even more so when he noticed more trees with bull’s-eyes and arrows in the center. Soon he came to the farmlands and there saw many barns and homes with bull’s-eyes and arrows dead center. He became agitated and walked quickly into the village center. There, on every wall of every building was a bull’s-eye with an arrow right in the center.

The peace he had gained from his years of monastic life was gone. He was indignant to find that after 10 years of study and reflection there lived an archer more skilled that he. Quickly, he approached the elders of the town and demanded that the archer responsible for this perfection meet him at the edge of town by the mill, in one hour. The general waited by the mill, but as the hour approached no one came.

There was, however, a young girl playing by the river. The girl noticed him and came over.

“Are you waiting for someone?” she asked, looking up at the general.

“Go away,” he said, irritated.

“No, no,” said the girl, “you look like you’re waiting for someone and I was told to come and meet someone here.”

The general looked unbelievingly at the little girl and said, “I’m waiting for the Master archer responsible for the hundreds of perfect shots I have seen.”

“Well, that’s me then,” said the girl.

The general, feeling more indignant still, looked skeptically at the girl. Finally, he said, “If you are telling the truth, then explain to me how you can get a perfect shot every single time you shoot your arrow.”

“That’s easy,” said the girl, brightening.

“I take my arrow and I draw it back very tight in the bow. Then I point it very, very straight and let it go. Wherever it lands I draw a bull’s-eye.”