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Zen in the Art of Archery

Reading this book, first published in about 1936, I can see that the writer, or speaker – it was, first of all, a presentation – is in love with Japan. He is a japanophile and he reads into the culture a depth of correctness that he believes is unique to Japan. He believes that the Japanese method of instruction, whereby the teacher does without explanation, and the student copies, assiduously, without question, is superbly effective.

He might be right.

But I disagree.

Sure, we need to learn fundamentals. Sure, repetition grinds away the superflous. And yes, there comes a point where, to excel, we need to be able to execute a task without conscious thought. But blind copying isn’t learning. And even if it is a form of learning, doing something that way because you’ve always done it that way can easily miss the point. Just ask the hedgehog how well curling up in a ball works on a busy road.

An example: aikido is a martial art based on a distilled essence of jiu jitsu, and practiced by many as a method of improvement and self-defence. It’s beautiful to watch a practitioner performing the movements, throwing a uke time after time in a seemlingly effortless blur.

But it doesn’t work. Even though one of my favourite ever books is about a man learning aikido, I have to accept that as a method of combat, it doesn’t work.

No amount of diligence on the part of the student will make aikido work as a fighting system. No amount of mystic interpretation will allow the aikido-ka to block a punch or kick.  And to adapt it into a form that would work, you’d have to discard everything that makes it akido. You’d essentially be reinventing BJJ or judo.

Maybe it did work, a long time ago.  But blind obedience to traditional forms hasn’t translated to effective application over time.

So I’ll finish this book. I admire the writer’s diligence, his application, and his journey. But I disagree with his message.


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