The Target

 by Jeff Martens

sarvahrthataikahgratayoho kshayodayau cittasya samahdhi-parinahmaha

Inner wholeness dawns when the mind’s many wanderings collapse into one-pointed focus.

Yoga Sutra 3.11

The Zen Master Rinzai was known far and wide throughout the land as the greatest living archer.  Bowmen of all levels would come from great distances to be near him and perchance, to see him practice his art.  But a great puzzlement came to those who actually witnessed Rinzai releasing his arrows.  Often they would leave scratching their heads, muttering how did this man come to have such a Master reputation?  For Rinzai never pierced the bull’s eye when he let his arrow fly, and many times he failed completely to hit the target at all!

In spite of this troubling detail there was another respected archer known for his extreme accuracy and technical merit who very much desired to study under Rinzai.  “What?!” his friends exclaimed.  “You hit the exact center every time.  How can you be learning from a man who cannot even hit the target?  That is outrageous!”  Still the young archer felt the need to go.  “This man holds a secret.  He has something to teach me beyond my mechanical skill.”   But his friends all laughed behind his back as he set off in search of the Master.

It took much convincing, but finally Rinzai agreed to teach the student what he knew.  Every day the two would go out and aim at targets together.  And it was quite true what his friends had warned him about — many times the Master missed the mark completely.  Yet there was such a beauty, a mystery and presence to the way Rinzai drew his bow that the student could not help but wonder if he wasn’t missing something about the Master’s technique.  Watching secretly from the bushes at times, everything seemed to slow down when Rinzai breathed and raised his arrow.  Desperately wanting the Masters approval of his own great skill, without fail the student would strike the center of his own target.  But no matter how often a bullseye was scored, Rinzai would only watch quietly, obvious disapproval creasing his features into a huge frown.

After a month of practice, Rinzai seemed to grow impatient with the student.  The Master developed the very distracting and then highly annoying practice of soundlessly sneaking nearer when the student’s eyes were on the target in order to tap the student’s arrow just on the verge of release.  One month turned to two and two turned into a whole season.  Still Master and student would come out for their daily practice, the teacher’s unexpected and unpredictable tapping of the strung arrow hindering the student’s view of the target at the most inopportune of moments.  Soon the student began to feel anxious whenever the Master was near.  Yet in spite of all this distraction the student continued to hit the bullseye.  If anything though Rinzai’s frown grew even deeper as the seasons turned into one full year.

Then on a cold Fall morning when even the grace of the Master drawing his bow was beginning to falter as a motivation for staying in the student’s eyes, Rinzai and student drew their arrows side by side.   If he taps my arrow one more time, the student thought, his breath misting the space between him and the bullseye, maybe I’ll just shoot him!  The student’s eyes locked in on the target far beyond the tip of his arrow.  Just as he was about to release, the master tapped the arrow in the usual way near the locked and drawn thumb.  Instantly the student felt the hot rush of anger at having his concentration on the target broken yet again, and in this moment the master tapped an unheard of second time even harder.  A triple-tap that drew the student’s focus away from the distant target and right to the arrow in front of his eyes.

And then the student realized that Rinzai wasn’t tapping, he was pointing.  Pointing to the arrow.  Suddenly the student’s frustration vanished.  He saw the guide-feathers and all the faint pits and notches on the arrow’s smooth straight shaft.  He saw his own markings trailing into the arrowhead drawn still, the bow string arcing away from his eye, the slightest tremble of reserve strength quivering a deep and steady draw.  He could feel the pull down into the souls of his feet and smelled the gut and wood and stone and hide of his weapon and he could hear the steady strain of cord stretching taut against bowed wood.  How could I have missed this, something so obvious, the student thought, feeling more alive then he had ever felt before.  Everything seemed frozen and yet somehow vibrantly fluid and alive.  Involuntary laughter welled up around his ears.  The sensations of life were so deep and profoundly direct that when the student released his arrow he could not bring himself to focus on its path, his entire being utterly mesmerized by the echoing thrum and the surrendered feeling of release.  The spent bow collapsed into stillness.  Vibration pulsed up his arm.

Only after his joy bubbled into outright laughter did the student look up and see that his arrow had pierced dead center.  Rinzai’s arrow, as usual, stuck up from a clot of earth at a sharp angle off to the side of both targets.  “What happened?  How did I do that?” asked the student, wanting to repeat the whole mesmerizing event over and over again.

“The bull’s eye is here,” Rinzai said, pointing to the student’s bow, “anywhere else and you have already missed.”

The student expressed his endless gratitude towards the Master and offered a deepest bow.

“You are finished here,” Rinzai said, turning to walk away.

“Tell me Master,” the student called after his teacher, not wanting the moment to end.  “Can you really hit the target if you want to?”

Rinzai smiled.  “Where is your arrow?” he asked the student.

“Why, it’s right there,” the student answered, indicating the bullseye.”

“You go and look a little closer,” Rinzai encouraged, chuckling now as he continued on his way.

The student walked up to the target, his laughter returning.  Pulling the arrow out of the bull’s eye he saw not his own markings but the markings of Rinzai.  Laughing deeper now, the student wondered if he could ever worry about a target again.

Jeff Martens is a teacher, writer and co-owner of Inner Vision Yoga.  This story is inspired by an ancient parable.  All suggestions are voluntary.  Consult a qualified teacher, your heart  or your physician before you embark on any practice in which you are unfamiliar.