Awa Kenzo


(C) 2005 by Richard Katz



I've been shooting a bow since I was twelve, and I had read Eugene Herrigel's book "Zen in the Art of Archery" when I was in my twenties, about thirty years ago.


I've never been bowhunting. One time we had a raccoon out in the backyard who was acting irrationally, overturning our pet turtle and wandering around randomly in the daytime. Finally one night he was standing there snarling at me. I went upstairs, got the bow and quiver of arrows, and when I came back, the coon was standing by the turtle, again. I told him to be gone, and he snarled some more, so I shot him; then he charged at me, gallumphing along with the arrow through him, and foaming. Probably rabid, I thought, as I debated whether to turn and run, or nock another arrow and shoot him again. I didn't actually think about it at all; by the time I had thought it through a little bit, the arrow was already notched on the bowstring and I was aiming at the moving raccoon who was hissing at me and dragging along his body with the first arrow through it. The second arrow pinned him to the ground, and he was still.


Something had always bothered me about Herrigel's book: If archery is about hunting and killing, and the Buddha proscribes killing, then how could Zen Buddhism and archery get together?


Maybe this Herrigel character didn't know what the hell he was talking about.


I've been to Japan a few times, but had never actually seen anybody shoot a bow of the type Herrigel had learned how to use, the Japanese longbow. So on my last trip, a few weeks ago, in July 2005, I thought I might check all that out, about Herrigel, and Japanese archery, and Zen in the art of archery.


According to a couple of pages on the web*, Awa Kenzo of Sendai was the archer under whom Eugen Herrigel had studied archery, and whom he was referring to in his book "Zen in the Art of Archery" as his master. One thing about Herrigel's book always seemed out of joint: If archery is a martial art, then why didn't Herrigel come out and mention, proudly, who his master was? That's your lineage, in the martial arts: Who's your master? That's your school. In Japanese the technique of archery is kyujitsu; kyudo is the art of archery, or the way of archery, and your sensei is from some school of archery. Whatever you want to call it, in English, kyudo is a martial art, and always referred to as the oldest martial art.


I had been to half a dozen bookshops in Kyoto looking for anything written by or about Awa Kenzo. In Kyoto, bookshops seem to specialize according to the district they are located in. A bookshop in the textiles district had stacks of books with cloth patterns, yearbooks of kimono pictures, and even books with swatches of dyed silk. A bookshop in the antiques district had books with pictures and text about old furniture and scrolls. I went into one bookstore near a stationery store that had philosophy books, mostly about Buddhism. Nothing by or about Awa. The booksellers were surprisingly definitive about it; "No, nothing," was the usual reply, when I inquired, in my ungrammatical Japanese, "Hon-ga Awa Kenzo chosha-no arimasu-ka? Dozo." I went to the big Kinokuniya bookshop, and the computerized search didn't have anything for me either. Neither did Maruzen. Dead end.


A friend of mine who is a college president in Shiga, Tanaka Hirokazu, said to go to the Kyoto Prefectural Library. My wife and I went there, but it was a Monday, and the library was, of all things, closed. My wife lectures at a graduate school in Kyoto, and is more familiar with the town than I am. Based on a suggestion from the police, she suggested to me that we go to the Budo Center, just a stone's throw from the Prefectural Library. The Kyoto Budo Center turned out to have a pavilion for sumo, a building for judo, and an archery range for kyudo.


I have been to a few archery ranges in the USA, but it never occurred to me that at this Japanese range there would be a gallery to sit and watch the archers. So my wife and I stood around at first, for a few minutes, ignorant but polite, looking fairly awkward. Then a man in a robe came over to us, asked me to take off my hat, and instructed us to go through the door over there and take a seat, in the gallery. There were a half dozen archers practicing. The fellow who had seated us came over to the gallery after a few rounds, and told us that his master, who was the white haired archer just over there, was a fifth degree black belt, the highest level of anyone living. We watched him, and the others, for another half hour or so.


Watching archery practice is at best about as interesting as watching paint dry, unless you are an archer, and even then it's a stretch. Watching this master was just fascinating though. I had no interest in exactly what he was doing; I'll never shoot one of those bows, so the details of how to shoot one aren't of any practical use to me. But make no mistake, this was a lesson in how to shoot, from a master. This guy was smooth; and that breath he took just before he raised the bow was not something he was thinking about, particularly.


It seemed like there was a break in the shooting, so we left the gallery and went back to the atrium and started putting on our shoes. Our host asked if everything had been okay, and we thanked him, and got ready to go. Just before leaving, I asked him, "Do you know of Awa Kenzo? The archer?"


He replied, "Awa Kenzo? You know Awa Kenzo? Come with me."


He led us over to the area, where novices stand a few feet from their straw targets to practice their shot, before they can take to the range. He pointed upward, to a picture of an archer, mounted up twelve feet or so, near the eaves. "That is Awa Kenzo," he said.


I took my hat off, turned fully toward the picture of Awa dressed in a robe and releasing an arrow, and bowed pretty deeply.


As we were walking out the front of the building, I asked our host, "Did Awa write anything, anything I could read?"


"No," he said. "There is nothing. And that German fellow, is a bad, very bad influence."


We bowed to each other, and my wife and I left.


Richard Katz, July 2005, Richmond, California, USA. Richard808 AT gmail dot com



*YAMADA, Shõji, "The Myth of Zen in the Art of Archery", Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 2001, 28/12, available at


has a lot of the background and detail you'll need to grasp fully the cultural significance of Herrigel's buffaloing.

which has a picture of Awa Sensei home on the range.

this document on the web