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Friday, 18 September 2009


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I have a part-time nature & landscape fine art photo business (I am a Respiratory Therapist in a hospital full time) selling my work at Art & Craft Shows. I practiced archery for about 20 years in a "previous life". A critical part of successful archery is "sight picture" awareness. Many times when I am out photographing I recall my archery days and the sight picture. Archery has helped me to have better viewfinder awareness and reflexes to capture the decisive moment. By the way, I have and enjoy reading "Zen and the Art of Archery".
I am especially interested in the aesthetic, psychological and philosophical side of photography as opposed to the technical side. Your site, refreshingly, has a very good balance of both. Mike, thanks for a great blog site, in gratitude, I have started using your site to connect with your advertisers when I purchase equipment.
In case anyone is interested, I use: Canon 40D, Canon lenses- EF-S 2.8 17-55mm & EF-S 10-22mm & 2.8L 70-200mm, PS CS4 (RAW) & Epson Stylus Pro 9900 (no RIP necessary). I use strict image capture discipline, mirror lock, tripod, etc.
I sell up to 40"X60" images on canvas with this setup.

Hi Mike,

About bikes: if you're looking at Pashleys, you should also look at Batavus:


They're not quite as elegant (no sprung Brooks saddles), but they're very practical, and their city bikes use the *much* more widely used 700C tire size, so you'll be able to get the best current tire technology whenever you tires wear out. There are other nice touches, like stainless-steel rims on some models. The one I have (a 7-speed that I bought on a trip to Denmark and had shipped to the US) is a joy for around-town riding.

It seems that the idea was forwarded by Henri Cartier-Bresson (in the "Decisive instant"), were he described the photographer as a japanese riding archer, visualizing the target in his mind while his torso was completely still and his body below the waist in continuous movement, following the horse in galop...

Then maybe we should start with the "classical" zen archer :-)

You should be looking at the Flying Pigeon. Millions of Chineese cyclist can't be wrong. Though I have to say I do love the Pashley. Cycling is similar to both photography and archery in that form is everything. Poor form will destroy your knees, image and shot with equal ease. Some archery inspiration.

'Zen thought' has had a great impact on my photography over the years.

Carl Weese said: "Marksmanship training western style, without a Zen component, can be a great physical and mental aid to the physical aspects of shooting pictures."

An interesting comment, with which I completely agree -- but Zen itself is not so much a distinct thing (IMHO) that you can say that Western marksmanship training isn't Zen. A few western things -- marksmanship, archery, certain aspects of different sports, certain pottery-making styles, some levels of gardening, etc., seem to me very much Zen both in training and effect. What's missing in the West is the Zen literature around them, and the intellectual dissection of the Zen state. When a great quarterback or a great wide receiver do their work, there's always a long history of the same kind of highly focused, long-term training that you see in Zen, complemented by a level of concentration that even Zen warriors would approve of. Think about Joe Montana standing back there with three-hundred pound giants crashing down around him, trying to knock his head off, while he's picking out a 10-second hundred-yard dash guy running diagonally down a field, being pursued by other people just as quick, and yet being able to throw a football forty or fifty yards into a three- or four-foot space.

I read some place (maybe here -- I can't remember) that great photographers notice things. Combine that ability to notice, with the level of focus needed for serious marksmanship, and you really have something special.

In the same vein, I'd suggest Alan Watt's classic "Beat Zen, Square Zen and Zen"

With all the posturing and staking out of positions on photography (as well as thousands of other topics...) on the net these days, it's an invaluable lesson on finding and concentrating on the thing itself as opposed to all that's being said and written about it.

The practice of Zen Photography has long been a hobby of mine. One empties the mind (fortunately for me, this doesn't take long) and then visualizes a photograph. No camera necessary, because the act of actually taking a photograph would interrupt the visualization and attainment of the image in the mind.

Saves wear and tear on my camera, too.

You may well have read the comment about "noticing" here, but I got it from David Vestal, the great photo writer now in "very late middle age,"* who once said that photographers are "professional noticers."


*Classic Vestal. He's 88.

Mike, The article by Robert Smith, is actually by Roberta Smith.

Zen and the typo.

What, art degrees worthless??

"Zen and the typo."

Oops. She (not he) must be used to that. But oops.

Thanks for the catch.


Trek: No; Pashley: Yes.

Certainly awareness helps you notice things, and awareness is sharpened by practising zen, but neither noticing, keeping cool, nor kyudo is zen.

Zen is the anglicized version of a Japanese word interpreting the pronunciation of the Korean word Seon, via the Chinese word Ch'an, itself a mispronunciation of the Sanskrit word Dhyana, meaning meditation.

Zazen means sitting meditation. You practise zen by sitting.

What you do with your spare time is your business (photography, football, archery) but it is not "zen". Neither is carrying out your business in "zen-like" fashion. What zen means to impart is that you carry out your business, practise it, in its own fashion.

And how do you get to Carnegie Hall?

“An artist without a graduate degree is like a fish without a bicycle.”

I fell down when I read that.

There is never a safe time to visit TOP. The book was only $13.35 with shipping so impulse buy it is.

I read it ages ago, before I took up photography; it'll be interesting to read it again.

"Zazen means sitting meditation. You practise Zen by sitting."

Any idiot can sit. There are even idiots who can sit for a long time. Zazen is just one possible way of getting to the peculiar state that is sought by practitioners, but, often that state does not occur because the mind won't release. Football isn't formally Zen, but what happens when Joe Montana completes a long pass under chaotic conditions (which is something that goes way past mechanics) may represent the peculiar state sought by Zen practitioners. The same is true of archery and photography. In the West, the state is sometimes referred to as "flow." I believe they are identical states, without the Eastern literature to accompany the Western concept.

Despite the title and the wide distribution of Eugen Herrigel's book "Zen in the Art of Archery", the fact is that Aza Kenzo, Herrigel's archery teacher actually had no experience in Zen nor did he unconditionally approve of it.

What is clear is that Herrigel couldn't speak Japanese and that he misinterpreted much of what was said by his idiosyncratic teacher who was trying to make archery into a new religion called Daishadokyo, which Herrigel mistook as being Zen.

I would recommend reading the excellent academic paper "The Myth of Zen in the Art of Archery" by Yamada Shoji which appeared in the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies and is available online as a free PDF download:


I beg your pardons, but while the original idea of Zen was from India, each country added their own interpretations. In China, it's infused with the native Taoist practices. In Japan, it's infused with their national characters. The point is, the path to personal attainment is an evolving process. The Zen in America is different from the Zen in Japan, and different from Ch'an in China and so on.

If Kyudo is practiced for spiritual reasons only after WWWII, then so be it. Spiritual Buddhism is about being pragmatic, the Now of Now. The dust does not collect on the mirror as there is no dust.

Be well. We now return you to the regular TOP programming.

Despite its small size, Herrigel's text has exerted tremendous influence on western perceptions of Japan, and "Asian" spirituality. I confess it affected me as well: I read it in 1981 while a freshman, subsequently practiced kyûdô for two years, and trained as a monk in a Japanese Zen school monastery for another five.

In _The Hero with a Thousand Faces_, Joseph Campbell offers a cross-cultural comparative study of spiritual treks as described in religious lore and myth. Herrigel's story fits into this pattern. He is a seeker who drives himself along a dark path in search of peace. He must walk it alone, but his archery teacher Awa Kenzo, pushes, pulls and guides him on the quest.

It is moving as a story, but is it "true" as a biographical account? According to the most recent research by Yamada Shoji, there are many holes in the narrative, and Herrigel's tale changes rather dramatically over time. Even Awa's other (i.e. Japanese) students did not recognize the sayings and teaching methods that Herrigel attributed to Awa Kenzo. And, as another commentator notes above, Herrigel had an "iffy" relationship with the Nazi administration--hardly the actions of a dedicated Buddhist.

Yamada's research is now in English:

That being said, is the book "wrong" or "false" as a spiritual guide?

I would say "not necessarily" to that question. One can accept the story's ideas as expressions of faith, and as an inspirational model. It is more like a hagiography (the tale of a saint or religious figure) than a biography (ostensibly a verifiable historical narrative), and should be read and used as such.

How does this relate to photography? Zen training requires years of mental discipline to teach the mind to engage the the world and its transient dualities directly, yet without attachment. We are speaking of decades of effort.

But anyone, including photographers, can receive inspiration from accounts of such training. For example, Zen koan (religious training questions) and other stories of past monks often express the religious experience through sensory perceptions. Here is the key. The statements that include "see," "hear," "smell," "taste," and "touch"--these are all references the experience of "becoming one" with existence. For some photographers, the act of shooting can include such a moment of mental engagement. Either David Ward or Joe Cornish expressed this in their book _The Landscape Within_: when shooting, the author became so involved with view and the process that everything else fell away. Of course, that kind of experience itself is transient, and perhaps more like the "zone" as described by some athletes. Nonetheless, that level of interaction between the photographer and the process/subject can make the overall experience more meaningful, and enhance one's photographic vision.

(Please note that I am not saying Ward and Cornish read Asian religious texts--I am drawing a parallel between their book and texts like Herrigel's to show that one might read Herrigel as inspiration for a similarly dedicated approach to photography. )


mike, if you haven't found them yet, ANT bikes would seem to fit you pretty well. check them here: http://www.antbikemike.com/bikes.html

Another myth the archery zen and HCB the only NO myth is work 98% inspiration 2% nothing more NO leica etc etc.

Ha! I know hunter who uses photography as analogy to teach others how to shoot game using a firearm.


Here's a very short story by the composer John Cage, written sometime in the 1950s:

“Four years ago or maybe five, I was talking with Hidekazu Yoshida. We were on the train from Donaueschingen to Cologne. I mentioned the book by Herrigel called 'Zen in the Art of Archery.' The melodramatic climax of this book concerns an archer’s hitting the bull’s eye though he did so in total darkness.

“Yoshida told me there was one thing the author failed to point out, that is, there lives in Japan at the present time a highly esteemed archer who has never yet been able to hit the bull’s eye even in broad daylight.”

Having actually studied Kyudo I can indeed see the parallels. Bravo to your instructor for including this in his curricula!


You probably want a steel bike. The smoothness in the ride quality doesn't really show itself in a test ride around the block, it takes much longer living with the thing to figure it out.

Good luck with the bike purchase. Whatever you get, I'm sure you'll love it this time.

Thanks for your editorial skills Mike. You're the best. And the only.

Controversial little book! I would not have thought so. I read it as required reading while a photo student at Ohio University, in about 1972. It continues to influence me to this day. I still have my copy. I'll have to reread it.

A new book (2005) which perhaps could be considered a companion book is Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell. I haven't finished it yet but so far it is a secular western look at the near instantaneous perceptive power of the subconscious. It is full of examples from all walks of western life.

Google recumbent bicycle.

The big difference between this and all the modern uses of the Zen idea is that this is the original meaning. Archery and sword fighting were two practical zen applications. Practice till your fingers bleed. Practice till everything becomes automatic. Practice till there's no consciousness invested in technique.
It has everything to do with photography. We could say it has to do with Leicas, since the topic seems to be so hot these days. If you love the tool, and you consecrate yourself to learn to use it, you'll get amazing results. Related to the fixies post too, no zen bowman would use a compound bow. In essence, it's about learning to squeeze every drop of effectiveness out of a simple tool.

I studied eastern philosophies before discovering photography, and what is described in this book is exactly what attracted me to photography. Now I am a poor excuse for a Buddhist, a lousy photographer, and an avid collector of expensive photography gear.

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