The following is a Tale that I heard from one of my martial arts instructors many moons ago when I was just a Padawan. I later read a version of it in a book called Myths and Legends of The Martial Arts by Peter Lewis. And much later on I read a couple of other versions of it online, scattered across several different sites. So the tale may be just an apocryphal, Zen (or Taoist) fable. So bit it. I don’t know which version is the “correct” one, but they all convey the same message. So here is my version of the tale of the Archer and the Monk.
In the time of the Southern Song Dynasty, during the reign of Emperor Guanzong, there lived an archer by the name of Lu Sei. He was renown in his province and in fact, was famous far and wide across the empire. He had won countless archery competitions and had won the Imperial contest in archery for 10 straight years. Many considered him to be the best archer of his time, perhaps even the greatest of all time.
Yet he had not become an official in the Imperial Army. He instead wanted to teach what he knew to a growing throng of students who respected him and sought to emulate him.
One day, while performing a demonstration for a new group of wealthy potential students, Lu Sei noticed an itinerant monk in the crowd of onlookers who had gathered to see the demonstration. While all the other spectators were duly amazed and “oohing” and “aahing” with each of his shots – some as tricky as shooting three arrows at once or shooting backwards at a target – Lu Sei noticed that the monk seemed not impressed.
Lu Sei began to get a little annoyed at the monk, and a little bit at himself for being annoyed at the monk. Who was this beggar, with no home of his own, going from village to village asking for alms, who was this person to upset him so?
Once the demonstration concluded, he noticed the monk had not left while the rest of the spectators had all gone away. Lu Sei walked over to him after he concluded his business with the new students – all who had been suitably impressed.
“I see that you have watched my demonstration but you look unimpressed,” Lu Sei challenged the monk. “Who are you and why do you look at me so?”
“Who I am is unimportant. I am just a traveler going through China and life simply seeking enlightenment,” the monk replied. “However, I do have a question for you.”
Lu Sei was intrigued. “Go ahead.”
“I have heard that you are best archer in this province. Is this true?” the monk asked.
“I am. In fact, I may be the best in the entire empire. I have won the Imperial archery competition 10 years in a row,” Lu Sei boasted, proudly.
“I see. Can you hit any target you see?”
“Yes, and even targets I can’t see. In the last Imperial competition I hit a bird that the eunuch released while blindfolded,” Lu Sei replied, with a big smile and a bigger chest.
“Then why have you not become a military official?” the monk asked.
“Oh, I don’t want to do that. I just want to teach my students and practice my archery.”
The monk stared into Lu Sei’s eyes with a penetrating look that unnerved him. Then he asked, “So all of your accomplishments have been on the provincial and imperial competitions?”
Now Lu Sei was becoming both annoyed and disturbed by the monk’s questions. Who was this person to interrogate him so? “Why yes, I have won every single competition I’ve ever entered since I was a boy. In fact, I learned to shoot the bow and arrow as a child while hunting and I’ve been perfecting my skill ever since and I can hit anything, anywhere,” Lu Sei snapped back.
“Have you ever shot an arrow in anger? While under duress?” the monk ignored Lu Sei’s irritation.
“Now I don’t know what any of this has anything to do with my skills as an archer. I am the best archer there is in China and unless you know something that I don’t, which I doubt because I have sought out other teachers to learn their skills and none matched mine, then this conversation is over!” shouted Lu Sei.
“Just one more thing,” the monk implored.
“Yes?” Lu Sei wondered why he kept humoring this nobody.
“I would like to place a wager with you. That you shoot and hit a target, say a bird, in a place of my choosing,” the monk proposed.
Lu Sei thought for a second. Seriously? This monk, who didn’t look like he had two coins to rub together, with no home and no archery equipment, was proposing some ridiculous contest for…what? Lu Sei was more curious now than annoyed.
“Alright, I’m game. What’re the prizes?” Lu Sei asked.
“If you win, then I agree to clean your house and tend your garden for three years, no questions asked and for free,” was the monk’s offer.
“And if you win?” asked Lu Sei.
“Then you must apprentice yourself to a master of my choosing to truly learn what the martial art of the bow and arrow is about,” came the monk’s reply.
Lu Sei was both insulted – how dare the monk imply that he, Lu Sei, the greatest archer in all of China, had anything to learn! But the offer was also enticing. His house was a mess and he would like to grow his vegetables and flowers more consistently….
“Alright, deal!” And with that, Lu Sei agreed to the monk’s ridiculous wager. Lu Sei had never missed the target in nearly 20 years to shooting arrows from a bow and he wasn’t going to miss now.
With the agreement, the monk motioned for Lu Sei to follow and off they went down a path that took them out of the village and on a trail that lead up the mountain that lay behind the village. For a good two hours they trekked up the trail in silence. Lu Sei was ready to hit any rabbit or bird or even a deer. He was ready to even hit a bear, although bears hadn’t been seen I the mountain for over a century. He noticed that the monk was taking them on a path up the mountain to a point with less trees. The path curved around the side of the mountain until they were at least a good thousand feet above the village itself. Finally, the monk took them to a spot on the path that was blocked by a large boulder that seemed to be on the verge of falling over the edge.
The monk bounced up the boulder until he was standing at the top, just inches from the edge. He was surprisingly spry for his age and decrepitude. Lu Sei was not so spry. In fact, he could feel the butterflies in his stomach summersaulting, and was starting to get dizzy from the view looking down the edge of the mountain. Now this crazy monk wanted him to get on top of a boulder on that edge? The monk lent Lu Sei a helping hand, and not to be outdone by the old man and with his pride on the line, Lu Sei climbed the boulder.
Standing there, he looked past his toes and saw a thousand foot drop in front of him. Behind him stood the monk, sitting in a lotus position without a care in the world. He noticed numerous birds flying overheard, and the sun was behind the mountain, giving him a good view of the vista.
“My wager, master archer, is for you to shoot any bird in the sky. You can pick the bird,” the monk told Lu Sei.
The archer swallowed hard and pulled out an arrow with a trembling hand and nocked it. He raised the bow and tried to pull the string but his hands were slippery and clammy from the sweat. In fact, Lu Sei was sweating profusely despite the cold and the wind. His knuckles were white from clenching the bow so tightly and his legs felt like jelly, giving him no stability in his stance. His vision started to narrow and he felt dizzy.
He put his bow and arrow down and sat down next to the monk. He gripped the rock for dear life as he tried to lower himself down onto it.
“I can’t. I can barely stand,” Lu Sei admitted.
The monk nodded and jumped off the rock, and then helped Lu Sei down.
As Lu Sei sat on the side of the trail, catching his breath, the monk began to speak.
“Master archer, you indeed have great skill with bow. That is without doubt. However, you have no skill with the arrow. You see, the true archer is able master not just the skill of pulling the bow and putting the arrow in the target. This is a skill that anyone can master given enough practice. But a true master of the art is one who has mastered his mind. He must master his focus, control and narrow it to a point like the point of the arrow that penetrates the target. You have never fired on the battlefield, and you have never fired under duress. You have learned only to fire under the best conditions but not under the worst ones. The true master of any art is one who is a master of his skill and himself no matter the environment, no matter the distractions to his focus. Do you understand?”
Lu Sei nodded. He was ashamed. He had been so proud of his abilities that he did not realize that what skill he had was so narrow in scope, so imperfect in range.
“You have won, master monk. I will do as you say. I want to learn to master my mind,” Lu Sei spoke softly.
The monk clasped Lu Sei on the shoulder and said, “My son, realization of where one needs to improve is the first step. I will gladly help you with the next.”
And with that, the monk gave Lu Sei the name of a master to seek out and walked down the mountain trail.