I knew only enough to know that I knew nothing of archery. Lessons were in order. I was grateful to at least hit the range wall (and not the ceiling) in my first practice. Initially, the only beings safe from my arrows would be the ones dozing where I centred my aim. However, each practice session opened a new and more nuanced doorway. I was not obsessed but I was determined. And so in through each doorway I walked.
Many cultures have stories centring on the subtleties of wisdom derived from the practice of archery. The Hindu Bhagavad Gita centres on Lord Krishna’s teachings of karma and duty to the powerful archer Arjuna. The Greek god Apollo was said to cure plagues with just one well-placed arrow shot. In England, Robin Hood used his archery to ‘rob from the rich and give to the poor’. Although there are countless historical references to archers, one mythology drew me into its spell over all others.
All I could say was that as parts of the world were shutting down in lurching attempts to contain the new and novel virus, I felt like other parts were speeding up
In China, long ago, ten playful suns, children of the sun god Di Jun and sun goddess Xihe, lived in the branches of a Fusang tree by the East Sea. The suns spent carefree afternoons chasing each other while their parents drove a chariot across the heavens to warm the land. Only one sun at a time was allowed to travel the sky with Xihe to help her warm the Earth and wake the roosters at dawn. Over the years however the restless young suns became bored and decided to race across the sky together, ten blazing suns at once.
The result was predictable. The excess heat from their burning rays scorched trees and evaporated rivers. Crops failed and scores of people died. The human survivors prayed day and night for deliverance. Eventually their supplications reached the ear of the great 24th century BCE Emperor Yao, a revered sovereign later praised by Confucius as the perennial model of virtue and unselfish devotion. Responding to his subjects’ cries , Emperor Yao summoned a master archer, Hou Li, and gave him ten magic arrows to tame the disobedient suns.
Hou Li was already renowned throughout China as a great warrior. It was said that he was in fact an immortal but had decided to forgo eternal life and become human to help mankind in times of need. Stories claim that Hou Li was so strong that he could draw string from a tiger bone bow and shoot arrows made of dragon tendons. He seemed to be the man for the job.
Hou Li initially tried persuasion, entreating the suns to see the damage they caused by their disregard, but the suns merely mocked his words. Hou Li then threatened to shoot them, pulling the first magic arrow from his quiver, but the suns just laughed even harder. Incensed, Hoi Lu let his arrow fly straight into the centre of a particularly boastful sun. The sun exploded and fell to the Earth, where it transformed into a large crow. Subsequent arrows felled sun after sun, fiery collisions that transformed into clouds, rivers, fish, plants, and other life supporting beings. The last remaining sun fled in fear, but Hou Li was possessed and struck out to hunt him down.
The people wanted him to stop, as the earth was now green and comfortable, but Hou Li persisted in trying to kill the last sun. Eventually a young boy stole the remaining magic arrow and, emboldened by this brave act, the local people begged Hou Li to end his quest. Hou Li was moved by their words and allowed the remaining sun to live. The sun was alone however and was fated to trudge in solitude across the sky every day for eternity, bringing warmth to the Earth, as penance for his impulsive youth.
There are many versions of this myth, most dealing with the effects of excess on the land and its peoples. In one version, Hou Li was subsequently crowned as a hero king, receiving an immortality elixir for his deeds, only to succumb to excess himself and rule the land as a cruel tyrant. His wife Chang’e stole the elixir to save the people and in drinking it transformed into a moon goddess and floated skyward. Such a tyrant had Hou Li become that he attempted to shoot down his own wife but failed. Thus is the legacy of indulgence and excess.
Our world has only one sun. Our current sufferings are of a different sort. Fracking, clear cutting, drag line fishing; they all take more than the earth can healthily provide. The solitary warrior mentality, one which once curbed the fiery excesses of burning suns in a simpler and less populated time, has been corrupted instead into a rush to conquer and a leading source of our current environmental crises.
Against this cultural backdrop, archery can be seen as a slow paced ceremony. By this measure, each arrow let fly serves as a small ritual onto itself, one that mediates a more soulful relationship between the archer and the surrounding world. Rituals, especially ancient ones, deepen such transpersonal connections through meaningful repetition. Each round of arrows requires significant patience for precise execution, the antithesis of our current fast paced and driven practices. Each round is thus a resistance against rapid-fire production and consumption. With each volley, I choose a different path.
Rituals, especially ancient ones, deepen such transpersonal connections through meaningful repetition
While I initially started my archery practice from a sense of curiosity, it eventually transformed into something different. Through time, it changed into a reflective means of slowing down and seeking the kind of knowledge that requires time to learn. My practice had become a ritual. When I tried to rush a shot, it flew afield from my target. I learned to wait and breathe, at least two full cycles, between placement of the bow and releasing the arrow. And when I did, the arrow rang more true. Yet still, something was amiss.
Every bow has its own nock point, the place on the string that centres the arrow in a consistent position so as to apply accurate force when released. Most beginner’s bows have the nock point already set with metal or plastic on the string, providing a mass-market and predetermined groove to ‘nock the arrow’. When pre-set, the nock point is close to dead centre – typically just a quarter inch above the arrow rest shelf on the bow. However, as an archer progresses in skill, the correct nock point for that archer might shift. For even the smallest places of imbalance or excess, whether in finger placement or bow tuning, are carved off as training continues and the subtleties of archery practice come to the forefront.
As I continued shooting arrows, both at the local range and on the hillsides by our rural cabin, I came to see that what I was looking for was my own nock point. In such a time of great excesses, activity, and overconsumption, archery was a practice of individuation, deceleration, and moderation. Over time, it became my resistance to an increasingly metastatic capitalism. I am still quite the beginning archer. But I am a beginning archer that now knows the reasons she practices.
Last month, at my Tuesday afternoon lesson, my teacher surprised me. Mid-way through the session, he took out some pocket pliers and pulled the nock points off my bow string. The bow looked a little naked and lost, a shadow of itself. I didn’t know what to think. Then, with attunement to my posture as I drew the bow, as well as several precise and repeated measurements, he reset the nock point. He told me that it took time and practice before a resetting was possible. Afterwards, my nock point was unique to my own body. And my arrows fell true.