Zen in the Act of Pernicious Pedagogy

Philip Toshio Sudo’s Zen Guitar[1] uses the word “training” thirty-seven times, but almost all occurrences of the word refer to one’s training in “The Way of Zen Guitar” and not to the development of the foundation of prior knowledge that should be seen as prerequisite to mastery. His well-intentioned book seeks to create in guitarists a sense of being present in their work, to help them remain focused, and to help them transcend their egos. It recognizes that when one is able to reach this state, one’s sense of time disappears and one loses oneself in the art. All of these are true, but Sudo’s book consists of a compendium of room-temperature statements without reference to the technical and artistic training that can make them true.[2]

In many ways, it is a faux-zen[3] version of the all-too-common anti-intellectual solipsism that many take comfort in. Sudo writes, “Some questions no one can answer but yourself. Practice properly and the answers will come to you in time. The only route to understanding the Way is through your own experience”[4] This immediately prompts the question “What is proper practice?” but it appears beneath the directive, “Don’t ask, practice,” which is actually a direct quote from Eugen Herrigel’s archery teacher as quoted in Zen in the Art of Archery.[5] More about this below.

Trying to discover the best way to practice is a legitimate and necessary question. Geoffrey Colvin spends the entirety of Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else exploring the question of what constitutes proper practice: “Critical questions immediately present themselves: What exactly needs to be practiced? Precisely how? Which specific skills or other assets must be acquired?”[6]

Or consider this: “Do not allow knowledge to interfere with the naturalness that music demands. One can easily overthink a part. Just play. If it feels right, it is right”[7] [Italics original.] This is true, except that it is backwards: a thing feeling right is a result of physical, artistic, and mental techniques working together harmoniously. Students often will need guidance in purifying their physical sensations, which can become contaminated and unreliable through bad habits and misuse, so they can emerge as reliable guides. I explore this tenet of the Alexander Technique at length in Mastering Guitar Technique.[8]

And finally, “With the proper mental attitude and training, what you play should come out as natural as the call of a bird in the wild. There is no thought, not even so much as a word in your head—only the song of the heart. The instant that discrimination and calculation enter the mind, the truth of the moment is lost. To play the truth, you must already have the correct attitude. When you look for it during the moment, you will still be looking for it when the moment has passed.”[9] It is true that if one becomes too self-aware, a different part of the brain takes over: it is the part of the brain that relies on conscious control, which functions much slower than the cerebellum, and the moment you need to be in will have passed you by. But how to acquire the mental acuity and security to let go is not addressed. Simply having the proper attitude will not provide liberation. This echoes the “nothing is needed” doctrine that we'll look at below.

The prototypical “Zen [insert activity]” and “Zen in the Art of [insert activity]” books—and there are scores of them—is Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery from 1953. Herrigel (1884–1955) was a German philosopher with a special interest in mysticism, especially the writings of Meister Eckhart (c.1260–c.1328). Herrigel wished to learn about Zen while he taught at Tohoku Imperial University from 1924 through 1929 and chose archery as the means to do so.

What he didn’t know was that his archery teacher, Kenzô Awa (1880-1939), may never have practiced Zen and it is difficult to detect Zen elements in his teachings.[10] Not only only is Zen in the Art of Archery a misrepresentation of Zen, it is not even an example of good teaching: in the 1936 article[11] that served as the basis for his book (and which doesn’t mention Zen), Herrigel relates that for the first three years of his training he was allowed only to shoot at a cylinder wrapped in straw from a distance of about two meters.[12] Three years is a long time to spend learning to draw the bowstring and release the arrow. Only after these three years was he allowed to shoot at a target. The student was either extraordinarily slow, or the teacher unable to guide his student properly.

Harold McCarthy, who reviewed Zen in the Art of Archery in 1955, wrote:

First, to associate Zen with the art of archery is (so far as many Westerners are concerned) to run the risk of romanticizing Zen in a rather unfortunate fashion. In this present century, there is (Herrigel contrary) nothing mundane about archery; rather, it is a special skill, art, and discipline which is added to without growing out of the matrix of daily life. But when Zen is divorced from the usual activities of daily life, it ceases to be Zen altogether and becomes a cult for those who are preoccupied with mysticism rather than with the living of life. Second, too much is made (for this reader) of Zen as “completely in bewildering,” “wrapped in impenetrable darkness,” and lying behind “impenetrable walls of mist.” The Western reader may be intrigued by such language if he is looking for mystification, but he is not significantly helped if his ultimate goal is that of gaining some insight (however partial and incomplete) into Zen. Third, Herrigel seems to write with a dedicated seriousness which leaves little place for humor; and where humor is not, Zen is not—for one who has really tasted Baso’s kick cannot help keeping up his laughter.[13]

D. T. Suzuki (1870-1966) relays the story of Baso (709–788), an influential Chinese Zen monk,[14] whose kick to the chest of a student after a question resulted in the student falling to the ground and experiencing sudden enlightenment, after which the student said, “Ever since the kick given by my master, I cannot help going on laughing.”[15] One of the doctrines of Zen is that we are already enlightened but need a sudden awakening, such as that prompted by Baso’s kick. However, we are not already trained in any specific skill or art, and when this doctrine of Zen teaching is applied to learning a skill or art—as noted in McCarthy’s review—the results can be bewildering.

Suzuki, whose books spread interest in Zen and Eastern Philosophy to the West, wrote the introduction to Zen in the Art of Archery, but he later wrote, “Herrigel is trying to get to Zen, but he hasn’t grasped Zen itself.”[16]

Shoji Yamada claims that Kenzô Awa misunderstood the doctrine of “nothing is needed” as it appeared in the archery manual Yoshida Toyokazu Tosho (The Book or Toyokazu Yoshida’s Answers). Shoji quotes the relevant passage:

As for the stance, the positioning of the body, the positioning of the bow, the grip on the bow, the grip on the string, the raising of the bow, the drawing of the bow, the draw length, the extension, the tension, the balance of hard and soft, the stretch, the rainfall release, and the morning storm release: I see that none are needed.[17]

But immediately following this sentence is this:

“Not being needed” does not mean that they are unnecessary from the beginning. At the beginning when one knows nothing, if the beginner does not first completely learn the proper stance, then his torso and hips will not become settled.[18]

Yamada’s analysis should be familiar to anyone who has successfully trained a student or who has been taught and trained by a good teacher. Yamada writes, “In short, Yoshida Toyokazu taught that in the beginning one must learn proper shooting-technique, and then after sufficient skill is acquired one will be able to shoot naturally without thinking about it. Awa, however, extended the concept of ‘nothing is needed’ to an extreme by interpreting it to mean that from the beginning no technique is necessary.”[19] [Italics mine.] In other words, for Awa, a foundation of prior knowledge was not relevant. And this should sound familiar to anyone who has been confused by teachings that try to teach the means using only the language of the ends.

Rather than being faced with a blizzard of attitudinal directives from the start, students need to know how to work in a way that allows them to transform a foundation of prior knowledge and a foundation of prior skill into effortless artistry in order to create the conditions of flow in performance.

Finally, I am not at all against Zen-like or poetic language that serves to help students escape what William Blake called "mind-forg’d manacles” and move to a different level of consciousness or towards the sudden shock of understanding, but there must be some level of consciousness and understanding present to begin with. Ensuring this is developed is the responsibility of all good teachers. No amount of “letting go” before acquiring the skills and experiences provided by that of which one is trying to “let go” will help. But once these skills and experiences are developed, it is in the space left open by “letting go” where the highest levels of creativity and fluency will flourish.

  1. Philip Toshio Sudo, Zen Guitar (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1996). ↩︎

  2. For an outstanding study of the state performers of all sorts reach in their optimal states, see Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper Perennial, 1991). ↩︎

  3. I use the term faux-zen to denote an attitude that allows teachers and artists to abrogate their responsibility to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills. ↩︎

  4. Sudo, Zen Guitar, 44. Statements such as this are often a way for teachers to avoid the labor of offering their students advice containing specificity relevant to their students’ development and the problems at hand. This is not a recent development. Read what pianist Amy Fay wrote in 1874 contrasting the vagueness of advice offered her by Theodor Kullak and the specificity of that offered by Ludwig Deppe in Christopher Berg, Practicing Music by Design: Historic Virtuosi on Peak Performance (Routledge, 2019), 105. ↩︎

  5. Eugen Herrigel and R. F. C. Hull. Zen in the Art of Archery (New York, N.Y.: Pantheon Books, 1953), 59. ↩︎

  6. Geoffrey Colvin, Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else (Penguin Group US, 2010), 7. ↩︎

  7. Sudo, Zen Guitar, 51. ↩︎

  8. Christopher Berg, Mastering Guitar Technique: Process & Essence (Mel Bay Publications, 1997), 19–23. ↩︎

  9. Sudo, Zen Guitar, 111. ↩︎

  10. Yamada Shōji, “The Myth of Zen in the Art of Archery.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies Vol. 28, No. 1/2, (2001): 1--30, 11. ↩︎

  11. Eugen Herrigel, “Die ritterliche Kunst des Bogenschiessens” (The chivalrous art of archery). Nippon, Zeitschrift für Japanologie 2/4, 1936: 193--212. ↩︎

  12. Yamada, “The Myth of Zen,” 16. ↩︎

  13. Harold E. McCarthy, “Review of Zen in the Art of Archery By Eugen Herrigel; R. F. C. Hull,” Philosophy East and West Vol. 5, No. 3, (1955): 263–264. ↩︎

  14. Baso was his Japanese name; his Chinese name was Mǎzŭ Dàoyī. ↩︎

  15. D. T. Suzuki, “Zen: A Reply to Van Meter Ames,” Philosophy East and West Vol. 5, No. 1, (1956): 350. ↩︎

  16. Daisetsu [D. T.] Suzuki & Shin’ichi Hisamatsu, “Taidan: Amerika no zen wo kataru.” Zen Bunka, (1959): 14. ↩︎

  17. Quoted in Yamada, “The Myth of Zen,” 8. ↩︎

  18. Quoted in ibid., 9. ↩︎

  19. Ibid., 9. ↩︎