Over the past several years I’ve had the privilege of teaching hundreds of people basic archery. Due to the nature of the organization I work for, the majority of my students are left-wing oriented people in their early twenties. Most have never hunted before, and some are even ardent anti-hunters! As you can guess I’ve had quite a few passionate conversations over the years.
As it turns out, the majority of the anti-hunters are regular meat-eaters. This obviously adds a lot of weight to my arguments, the most effective being, “If you eat meat then you’re directly responsible for the killing of hundreds of animals; you just hire someone else doing the dirty work for you. Hunters, on the other hand, are directly responsible for their meat.” This point usually brings the offended into the realm of reality.
The Anti-Hunting Archer
Learning archery doesn’t necessarily mean a student wants to kill anything. To them it’s just a fun activity. But I often wonder what drove a flaming anti-hunter to walk over and pick up a bow-and-arrow in the first place. There seems to be an instinctual allure to archery for almost everybody.
Historical data reveals that every civilization around the world has—at one time or another—used the bow-and-arrow for survival. I believe the reason so many modern-day non-hunters are attracted to archery is a hidden connection ingrained in their DNA. (Well, that and popular television shows.)
About 1-in-10 of my students are naturals; they shoot masterfully within minutes of picking up the weapon for the first time. The bow seems to awaken something deep inside, and they beam with excitement. For this reason, teaching archery to this new generation has been the most rewarding job I ever had. It’s my calling.
Many first-time students view bows-and-arrows as recreational toys. If I don’t insist on teaching safety first, some will just grab a random bow and start flinging arrows errantly and dangerously. I’ve even seen stragglers pick up a bow and proceed to pull the bow backwards (toward themselves)!
Before going over safety rules, one of the very first questions I ask is, “Can anyone tell me what the bow-and-arrow was originally designed for?” There’s always a short pause, and then someone sheepishly responds, “Killing???”
There’s always a few despondent faces, but they won’t be deterred.
The Truth about Hunting
City folk often have a skewed vision of hunting. They think that hunting is as easy as pulling off the side of the road and shooting some helpless creature to death. This misconception is reinforced by hunting shows that portray every hunt as a short jaunt through the woods, followed by chip shot from a blind on private property. I’ve even had people say, “How hard could it be? Heck, I saw a bunch of deer on the side of the road this morning!”
“Well, it’s spring…” (Sometimes it’s an uphill battle).
Actually, I won’t push hunting on anyone; I won’t even bring it up unless someone asks…
…but someone always asks.
Without getting too crazy, I explain how bowhunting is my greatest passion, and it provides the majority of the meat for my family. I tell them that hunting is a completely different skill than shooting. Hunting–especially bow hunting–is very difficult and takes a lifetime to master.
I go on to explain that, in the end, I really don’t want to kill anything; that there’s little glory in shooting a creature to death in cold blood. But I don’t want to starve to death either! Moreover, I really don’t want to wander down the meat aisle at the supermarket and sift through carefully packaged, hormone-infused, mass-produced, inorganic, salmonella-oozing farm garbage. My body is my temple, and the only meat I allow in is purely organic, free-range lean meat that once walked the earth freely as God intended.
For the most part my arguments are met with great respect, probably because I’m so passionate about it. I get comments ranging from, “Wow, I never looked at it that way…” or “I could never shoot an animal, but I really respect the way you do it.” Even the most ardent anti-hunting vegan will politely “agree to disagree,” and then go back to flinging arrows.
I believe these conversations with non-hunters have been mutually beneficial. On one side, I’m constantly reminded to take a closer look at the ethics and morals of my sport. On the other, I’m grateful for the opportunity to shed some good light on the delicate subject of killing.
Hopefully this article has been beneficial to both hunters and non-hunters alike. The best way we hunters can preserve our precious sport for future generations is by hunting ethically and arguing our side in a thoughtful and respectful way.
2017–the future of hunting. Having hunted deer in Utah from top to bottom for almost 30 years, I still haven’t taken more than one trophy buck out of any one unit. Instead I’ve watched area after area dry up, forcing me to move on. As a kid, 4×4 bucks lined the trees along dirt roads at night. Now it’s just trees. Fortunately my passion for chasing mule deer has kept me agile. The best advice I offer to a newbie-hunter is to keep moving. Don’t get hung up on any one area, because eventually you’ll lose it. Deer and deer habitats are cyclical and dynamic. Big bucks are constantly adapting to us predators, so we must adapt to them.
In my endless quest for the next honey-hole, I think I’ve found one, hundreds of miles from home. In this new and unsuspecting forest I’ve come across numerous huntable bucks—not tons—but enough to put a stalk on a mature buck almost every day. The fawn crop is abundant and the herd is healthy. Best of all, there is very light hunter pressure which makes all the difference between huntable and unhuntable deer. These bucks can be patterned, even bumped around a little. Still, you won’t find a big buck near any road, so an ATV can’t help you, which is great because I don’t own one.
The Wall Buck
A few days into the hunt I spotted a giant sway-belly buck across a canyon, his sprawling antlers extending well outside his ears, then skyward. I literally ran down the mountain and up the other side, but before I could close the distance a doe snorted him out of the area. The next evening I caught up with him feeding at 60 yards. He was a real giant, an old warrior, a great wall of fur twice the size of his three- and four-point sentinels. But when he broke the tree line I paused, counting only three antler tines on one side. Not the perfect 4×4 I imagined, so I hesitated. As he turned and fed away, I panicked. The “Wall” (as I came to call him) was surely the biggest deer on the mountain; what was I thinking?! His scrawny sentinels followed faithfully behind. I began crawling towards them but was immediately picked off by a sentinel buck who quickly pushed the wall buck into the trees. That was the last I saw of him.
Before I even got back at camp I was kicking myself. Surely I’d lost my mind! Somehow I’d convinced myself that antlers were the great measure of a deer, the end-all-be-all of trophy bucks. Foolishly I’d built up a wall between me and any buck that wasn’t perfect. As I lay in my tent that night I wondered how I could be so stupid, then cursed and squirmed myself to sleep. I vowed never to make that mistake again. Deer hunting is about the experience and the challenge. Above all, it’s the sacred meat harvested in the sacred realm of Nature, where ultimately man is measured, not the deer.
After seven days afield I drove home, dropped off the wife, resupplied, and moved back to the mountain alone. I made haste to the Wall’s domain that evening, but he was still gone.
A stagnant heat wave settled across the land that week and conditions grew increasingly hot and cruel with each passing day. The dry ground was endlessly loud, threatening success everywhere I went. Even barren ground inexplicably crunched. A whole network of micro-sticks and pine needles lay hidden in the crust like miniature mine field. A twenty yard creep into a likely deer haunt turned into a ten minute, cacophonous spectacle—a full-grown, camo-clad man twisting his legs while swinging his bow around for balance like a drunken fool. I wasn’t fooling anyone.
As August gave way to September, the squirrels grew louder and more cantankerous. The high elevation wind swirled and does snorted at the most inopportune times. Worst of all, the wise bucks seemed to vaporize two hours after first light and didn’t reappear until two hours before dark, turning entire days into hot and tired dreariness. While they lay hidden in shadows—chewing their cud and staring into space—I clambered around the mountain, sweating and searching to no avail. My mind churned and theorized, planning strategies that never panned out.
Helplessness crept in early, reminding me that I could always quit and go home, maybe be productive, curate the lonely wife… Reflexively I fought back. The challenge is the reward!, I pleaded. You don’t just hunt deer; you hunt experiences. I decided to rest the area and spent the next several days exploring new places in hopes of finding another buck like the Wall. But I didn’t. Instead I found a strange transformation occurring within. With each passing day I cared less about deer and more about the process. I paid greater attention to the mountain and other wildlife. I sat longer, took more photos, and wrote often in my field journal. One morning I even left my bow back at camp–on purpose–just to experience the woods differently. I ran into a real toad-of-a-3×3 buck that morning, and was thankful he wasn’t bigger! Gradually, nagging desperation yielded to quiet contemplation.
A Different Approach
Labor Day is upon us: ATVs roar below, people yell, kids scream and dogs bark. But the masses want nothing to do with this mountain; I’m confused, but grateful. Two weeks into the hunt and I still haven’t encountered another human afield. These are truly my woods. My whole being is awash in a cornucopia of gifts: space, time, beauty, etc. A continual river of fresh air envelopes me and overwhelms the senses. It carries a constant tune of birds, squirrels, and quaking leaves all singing in harmony. A variety of bright red berries—juicy and delicious—grow in abundance across the landscape. They augment my water supply, often saving me from dehydration. In two weeks I’ve seen more gorgeous sunrises than the rest of the year combined. Time stands still. Nothing has changed since the beginning of time.
Clarity is probably the wood’s greatest gift. All these wild things coexist in a perfect balance, all working within the generous confines of carry capacity. No single plant creates more fruit than is necessary; no animal expends more energy than is needed. So oblivious is modern man to Nature’s ways, as lost as the white rocks scattered dumbly around me. Day after day ticks by without speaking to anyone. Like a stern parent, the mountain cuts off my cell signal and any communication with the modern world. Aloneness spurs strange mind chatter, spewing forth observational phrases like “Impenetrable bows of pine keeps me safe from the storm,” or “A living, breathing forest saves me from loneliness.”
The glint of an ancient arrowhead–serrated and fashioned from pale blue flint–protrudes from the dirt. It stirs the hunter spirit, reminding me that I’m hunting the same ground for the same animals as they did. Here in the future I carry on the tradition of the bow and arrow, preying for nature’s sacred meat, just as man always has. It’s likely, too, that I struggle in many of the same ways: cursing the crunchy ground, the squirrels, and the swirling winds. I feel tied to the land, relearning what it means to be self-sufficient.
I am convinced that harvesting a trophy buck with a bow is the hardest thing a person can do. Each year I set the same goal: Harvest a 200-inch muley with my bow. Rarely do I meet my goal, but I still believe there’s a 200-inch buck living in each of Utah’s deer units. Finding him is the great challenge, and arrowing him is even greater. When I was younger I thought that hunting success was 50% skill and 50% luck. But halfway through this season I realize it’s actually 33% skill, 33% time, 33% luck, and 1% destiny. In other words, given enough time afield a skillful hunter will eventually come face to face with a trophy, God willing.
Statistically, 80% of bowhunters in Utah fail each year. Most fail because they either don’t allow themselves enough time, or they don’t understand their prey. But even the veteran hunter with plenty of time on his hands runs into yet another wall: There are simply too many variables outside his control; things like doe snorts, wind changes, inadvertent movement, squirrel barks, grouse busting out of the brush, or any combination of all these. Mature deer simply won’t tolerate human intruders, so getting within bow range means everything must be perfect. And since everything is rarely perfect, you better have luck on your side. Even with the entire 28-day season scheduled off work, the best I can do is to put myself between the buck and feed or feed and bed, and then hope for the best. Persistence is the name of the game.
Three weeks into the hunt and big bucks are on the defensive, becoming more secretive, increasingly nocturnal, and less predictable. We underestimate the mighty muley buck. He’s smart and keenly adaptable. Physically speaking, he’s superior to us in every way: bigger, faster, stronger. His senses are greater too: hearing, smell and vision. He lives in the woods 365 days a year and is permanently tuned into his environment. But he’s still an animal driven by hunger, and left alone even the most admirable buck will return to best feed, sometimes even during daylight hours. Outwitting him means identifying these feeding zones and setting up ambush there. But he knows we do this and thusly alters his routine, feeding in different locations each day. Worse yet, as hunter pressure increases—even slightly so—his priority changes from food to survival. He moves by night and wiles away his days on steep slopes in hidden places we’ll never know about.
Eighteen days afield now; long, hot, and alone. Days run together. Home life is a distant memory–the mountain is my home. Summer changes to fall right in front of me; aspen leaves yellow as velvet drops from the buck’s antlers. So far I’ve had 13 close encounters with mature bucks, but none were good enough…except for the long-lost Wall buck. Failure becomes the norm, even strangely acceptable. I compare my own failure to other predators. How many stalks does a cougar get before he succeeds? Five, ten, maybe more? Why should I be any different? Each day I climb the mountain, do my best, and then trudge back to camp. My once paradise tent camp is beginning to feel like a prison, but there’s nowhere I’d rather be. Put in the time, be patient, and persevere.
A New Hope
I had a decision to make this evening: hunt uphill or down. Four does appeared and made the decision for me. When the wind swirled they snorted and bounced uphill, so I hunted down. A while later two small bucks—suddenly alerted to my swirling scent—jumped out of the trees and bounded away. A third and much larger deer stayed put, mostly obscured by patchy trees. Was it the Wall buck? A deafening quiet stretched over the land as I tiptoed closer. I slowly raised my binos, desperately trying to identify him. To my surprise, the two smaller bucks came sneaking back in to join him. Perhaps the big buck had grown weary of fleeing his favorite feed, and the small bucks, once separated from their master, felt purposeless. Nonetheless, the air swirled and the three bucks just stared in my direction. I stood like a statue, pinned down with only thirty minutes of light left.
Puffy clouds painted pink and yellow suddenly cast the world in a brilliant amber glow. I lifted my face and basked in the beauty of the moment. Enjoy it, I demanded, this is why you’re here. Just another night; just another failed stalk. The stare-down continued, minutes passed, and darkness loomed.
I was jolted from the tranquil scene by a scuffling sound growing louder behind me. A couple does coming to wreck my night, I figured. I slowly rotated my head to see four bucks filtering out of the deep woods and onto a flat twenty yards away. My heart jumped. The first two were small, but the rear ones were real bruisers with heavy racks. Heads bobbed and shifted side to side. In extreme slow motion I simultaneously lowered my binos, raised my bow, and rotated my body 180-degrees all while crouching to a kneeling position. These new bucks spied the other bucks across the way and paused, staring right through me. I pressed my trembling bow tightly against my leg.
Sensing danger, the bucks began shifting nervously to the left. The first three passed behind a clump of trees, and when the fourth lowered his head I loaded an arrow. He was a huge buck with tall, symmetric 5×5 antlers. I hadn’t seen him before; somehow he’d been living out a secret life right under my nose. When he passed behind the trees I drew my bow. It sounded like a train wreck—the scrape of the arrow, the rustle of my clothes. All four bucks froze and whipped their heads in my direction. A fortuitous tangle of trees at my rear broke up my outline, but the tip of my arrow danced crazily ahead of my taut bow. I squinted to hide my watering eyes. They’re too close. How can they not see me? I begged myself to calm down. A minute passed. The first buck started walking again, then the second and third followed. The biggest buck held tight momentarily before following after the others.
As he came into view I belched out a me’ya sound. He ignored it. As he quartered away I split his shoulder with my 20 and 30 yard pins and hit the release. My shaky arrow was off, streaking through grey light. With the crack of the arrow all four bucks exploded into the woods, shattering the silence with crashing timber and pounding hooves. Several minutes later, in the cloak of darkness, I crept forward. The ground was torn up where he’d stood, and a few yards away was my broken arrow covered with blood. I followed the blood trail for about twenty yards, and then it vanished. I tried following the dug-in tracks, but they intermingled with all the others, heading into the thick brush and up a steep slope. No more blood; my heart sank. A bad hit? I wondered. Over and over I returned to the blood trail and walked in circles.
An hour later I was on my hands and knees with my flashlight, carefully crawling from track to track. What I hadn’t noticed earlier was a set of tracks suddenly veering away from the rest. Gradually these tracks were accompanied by pin-head-size blood specks. Several yards later the blood increased and I stood up. I rounded a tree and there he was, big and beautiful, lying peacefully on a bed of pine needles; a perfect hit and a short run. I touched his tall rack, then dropped to my knees and sobbed.
It never gets easier—this process–the mind, body and spirit, all focused, all invested in this primal chess match with God’s majestic creature. The game plays out in a familiar way: The buck magically materializes amidst certain failure, the cold steel of my arrow cuts the distance between us, and then cuts his life short. There are rules, too: I only win if he dies; honor him or lose your humanity.
The mountain was shrouded in cool clouds as I hiked in the next morning to retrieve my trophy, a complete reversal of the last eighteen sweltering days. My body glided effortlessly up the quiet trail, falling forward into a surreal familiarity, soft and inviting, like the embrace of a long lost friend.
Heading home on three hours of sleep, my truck feels unnaturally fast, blasting down the freeway, cutting through a putrid wall of brown smog. Signs and billboards stacked infinitely on my periphery beg for attention. I’m boxed in by cars and trucks cutting in and out of the six-lane road like a swarm of bees, frantic and dangerous. But I hardly notice. I’m still on the mountain and will remain there long after returning home. So much raw beauty cannot be shaken so easily. I’m at peace and completely untouchable.
This is our sacred tradition. This is true freedom and the ticket to perpetual youth. The mountain is alive and breathing, buzzing with energy. It calls to us all year long, just as it has throughout the ages. We return each season with renewed hope and vigor, only to find the woods holding back its secrets. The buck busts out and beats us relentlessly with cunning and agility. In despair we lash out and curse, then trudge on. It’s a necessary purification process that separates the weak from the strong. The human experience is broken down to its basic elements and the trash is removed so that we might see ourselves clearly. We see that failure and success are two parts of the same whole, neither good nor bad, and all part of a greater experience. And finally, in the end–if we can endure that long–we see that we’re not really hunting deer so much as we’re hunting for ourselves.
Try again tomorrow—pound the trail and fight ahead. With enough time, skill, and luck, the human spirit perseveres and the wall crumbles.
It was the fifth morning into my 2015 archery deer hunt, and I was walking the same dusty trail back to camp. I left the cruel woods early that morning, chased out by the looming heat and impending failure. My head hung low as I mindlessly kicked up dirt, and was suddenly awoken by a fresh set of bobcat tracks crossing the path.
I remembered last night when I was startled awake by a high speed chase around my tent and the screeching of a squirrel. Probably a bobcat, I thought.
Now, intrigued by these delicate tracks, I pulled out my camera and knelt down to take a picture. In this moment I was suddenly gripped with clarity and crushing emotion. It was the first time in a long while that I wasn’t thinking about deer, and was just enjoying nature. In this moment I was filled with love for every aspect of the woods. Just like the bobcat, I had a place there and knew I was accepted by a greater whole. Success or failure meant nothing.
Until now I was desperately pushing a dangerous energy ahead of me, filling the tranquil forest with thoughts of killing. This, I believe, is why we often fail in our hunting pursuits. There is a connection to life that only we humans don’t understand. Our gift of consciousness gets in the way. We must conquer ourselves before we can conquer others. This is the natural order of things, and a lesson I’ve been blessed to learn over and over.
These little surprises–like bobcat tracks–add up to a much larger experience, and that experience is what I’m really hunting for. This is really why I’m there.
Like any old marriage, the woods and I have our moments, both good and bad. Sometimes we ignore each other. But once in a while I remember why we’re still together, and why I love her so deeply. In the end, I’m to blame. It’s me that fights, not her.
Now that we’ve tackled the nature of man, good versus evil, and the entire Universe, I’d like to explore another quote by Emerson:
The stars awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are inaccessible; but all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence. Nature never wears a mean appearance.
When I read that ‘nature never wears a mean appearance’, I wondered what it meant exactly. Certainly I’ve seen some ugliness in nature. I’ve seen one animal killing another, and I’ve seen many-a-decaying carcasses. Surely these are ugly things, right? But, if my perceptions of these ‘ugly’ experiences are set upon the rule of nature—the rule that states that nature is neutral and therefore neither good nor bad—then perhaps I simply failed to see the beauty in death–death being a integral part of life–and instead projected my own negative emotions or misunderstanding of death upon nature. Then I remembered a photograph I made in 2010. It is the rotting carcass of a dead pelican washed up on the shore of the Salt Lake and encrusted with salt.
When I encountered and photographed this bird, I remember feeling rather neutral about it; it wasn’t sad nor ugly, but not beautiful either. Later on I found myself admiring the beauty and composition of the naturally arranged bones and feathers. Indeed, it was quite beautiful; as beautiful in death as in life perhaps. In a neutral and open mindset, there really isn’t any meanness or ugliness in nature.
Another example is my annual ritual of butchering a deer carcass on my kitchen countertop. Some people may cringe at the thought of cutting up an entire animal in ones house, as I probably cringed long ago. But amidst the blood and guts and bones and sinew, there’s a certain admirable order of things inside that deer. Even Mother Nature, as cunning as she is, surely could not create the miraculous complexity of this animal’s internal structure on her own. From snout to tail, the intricacy of this deer’s inner workings is brilliant beyond comprehension. It continually attests to a higher intelligence.
Each hour that I dissect the sacred meat and package it for future use, I feel closer to my maker. I come away from the butcher block glowing with insight and appreciation for the food I harvest. My role as a hunter and predator becomes clearer; it is a necessary and beautiful symbiosis with the planet. It inspires me to be a better conservationist of nature and preserver of our hunting heritage. Without fail, I am inspired to be a better person. In the thoughtful killing and butchering and ingesting this deer, there is never any meanness.
In the past two years I’ve had the unique opportunity to teach hundreds of people basic archery. Because of the nature of the organization which I’m affiliated with, many of my first time students are left-wing oriented, if not out-right liberals and even anti-hunters. Although this hasn’t been a problem, I’ve had quite a few impassioned conversations concerning the morality of hunting.
As it turns out, many anti-hunters are regular meat-eaters. In conversations about the ethic of hunting, the very first point I make is: “If you eat meat then you are directly responsible for the killing of hundreds of animals. You just have someone else just does the killing. I prefer to take that responsibility into my own hands.” This almost always brings the “offended” into the realm of reality and diffuses any potential negative redneck argument.
Learning the art of archery doesn’t mean you’re suddenly expected to go hunting. It’s just a fun skill to have. But I have to wonder, what drives a flaming anti-hunter to pick up a bow-and-arrow in the first place? In my studies I have learned that almost every culture around the world has used the bow and weapon as their primary source of food and protections for thousands of years. The reason—I think—that so many people from so many diverse backgrounds are inclined to pick up a bow-and-arrow is because it’s already deeply ingrained in their bodies, minds, and instincts. In fact, one in ten of my students becomes masterful at archery within five minutes of shooting, as if they’ve been shooting their entire life, but having never picked up a bow before.
Many first-time archers view bows and arrows as recreational toys. Often times, if I didn’t insist on teaching safety first, people would just grab a bow and start flinging arrows. Consequently, at the beginning of every session I stress the importance of safety. One of the very first sentences out of my mouth is, “The bow-and-arrow was designed for one thing and one thing only—killing!” At this proclamation you can see the slight discomfort in a few faces, but it never deters a person from shooting.
At the same time, I never push hunting on anyone; I won’t even bring it up unless someone asks—but someone always asks. Without getting too much into it, I explain how bowhunting has always been my greatest passion, how it provides the majority of meat that my family and I eat, and that shooting a bow-and-arrow proficiently has nothing to do with hunting well.
Many people from the big city have a skewed view of hunting. They are conditioned to believe that killing an animal is as easy as pulling off the side of the road and shooting some helpless creature to death. And so I go on to explain that hunting is a completely separate skill from shooting, and the hunting aspect requires a lifetime to master.
In the end, I don’t want to kill anything; I don’t glory in shooting some poor creature to death in cold blood. But I don’t want to starve to death either. Nor do I want to wander down the meat aisle at the supermarket and sift through a pile of carefully packaged, hormone-infused, mass-produced, inorganic farm-garbage-salmonella-burgers. What I prefer to eat is purely organic, super-lean, free-range, healthy meat that walks the earth freely as God intended. NOW, I digress.
Overall my arguments for hunting have been met with surprising respect, even from those who “agree to disagree.” Even more, the relationships I’ve developed with many anti-hunters have been mutually beneficial. I’ve been forced to honestly and deeply consider the ethical and spiritual nature of the sport I love so much, and at the same time I’ve witnessed a change in the hearts and minds of those who were previously misinformed about the evils of hunting.
By now you probably have a pretty good understand of what Zen is. But how does a person go about channeling Zen-energy?
Students in traditional Eastern Zen generally spend many years in painstaking study to learn how to achieve Zen. But since most of us don’t have the resources to travel to Japan for a formal study in Zen, my goal today is to sum up some of the key steps the best I can:
Concentrate on your breathing. When you concentrate only on breathing, you are brought into the moment. I’m not talking about shallow breathing, but deep breathing to the bottom of you stomach. Since breathing happens in real time, focusing on it will bring you into the moment, which is the only thing that is real. To make way for Zen you must not let your mind wander, neither into the future or the past. This is the key to meditation.
Make your activity a ritual. Whether you’re sitting down to play the piano or picking up a bow to shoot, take your time and make each preparatory movement deliberate and meaningful. Break it down into many, small steps and concentrating solely on each step. Think of nothing else. By making a ritual out of your activity, you are preparing your mind for greater awareness.
Practice makes perfect. Think of Zen as pure inspiration. Inspiration is useless if you don’t know the fundamentals. In archery, for instance, you shouldn’t pick up the bow for the first time and riddle the target with arrows until you hit the bulls-eye. Instead, practice nocking an arrow, setting your feet, breathing in while drawing, exhaling during the shot, and making a surprise release. Then shoot at nothing. For the beginner archer, there should be no intended target, just a blank bale of hay until the basic foundation is firmly set. Another example is a musician. The first time you sit at a piano you should not expect to play a symphony, but a single note. Zen will happen ONLY after hours and hours of practicing the basics. Only then can you conduct pure, enlightened inspiration.
Let go. The Zen-masters will encourage you to stop trying. In archery, stop aiming. If you believe the skills you’ve acquired after countless hours of practice resides inside of you alone—internally rather than externally—then you can learn nothing more. You’ll fall into ruts. Your progress stifles. Zen happens by letting go of your ego and allowing a stronger, greater, faster force to take over.
Is that all there is to it? Did I miss something? Like I said from the start, Zen isn’t something to be explained, but experienced.
Practical Zen doesn’t always require you to go through a specific ritual and meditation. These are just guidelines to help expedite the process. Zen is actually more common than you think. In fact, I am certain that just about everyone has experienced Zen at one time or another. Have you ever said to someone, “Man, I’m really in the zone today?” What you mean is, you’re really in the Zen today. For unknown reasons you suddenly feel unconquerable, like you can do anything. But it’s fleeting. The problem is that most people don’t reflect back on what factors led up to that moment of fleeting enlightenment, in which case they can’t repeat it. Or they call it ‘luck.’ But luck can’t be repeated so it’s dismissed.
The goal of Zen enlightenment is to summon those powers at will and use them to our benefit. The famous virtuoso guitarist Steve Vai explained it like this: Every once in a while a person latches onto a fleeting moment of inspiration. For no conscious reason, he can suddenly play guitar beyond his normal abilities—beyond anything he’s ever practiced. But a moment later it’s gone. Vai states that his unwieldy virtuosity is the result of learning how to hold onto that moment—to summon it and use it at will. Incidentally, Vai is also an adamant student of Eastern philosophies. He is speaking of Zen.
Unlike specific religious practices, Zen is universally available to everyone. It’s your birthright. It comes with the gift of consciousness. Personally, I only at the beginning of Zen understanding. But lately I find myself making more frequent, conscious, ritualistic efforts to channel those forces. I can also recognize it when it happens and hold onto it longer.
What I’m attempting to do here is share this understanding with you. Through Zen practices we can achieve more in whatever art we wish to explore.
Trying to explain Zen to people has been difficult, not just for me, but for all Zen teachers, even the Japanese Zen-masters themselves. Reason being, the meaning of Zen is not something you can just tell someone, but rather something that must experienced. In Western culture we expect things to be tangible and definable. But in Eastern culture some aren’t explained with words, but experiences. If you ask a Zen-master to explain what Zen is, he’ll likely turn his back on you. Zen is a sacred art, and not something to be handed out to the unworthy. Its power is beyond meager words, even beyond the teacher’s range of understanding. It is something that is earned through hard work, humility, and sacrifice.
If you haven’t read the epic novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, you should probably be deported. It’s an important and powerful Western perspective of Zen. It also predicts the downfall of Western civilization via our own greed and self-centered world perspective. As time passes, especially in recent decades, the Western business model increasingly dictates the West’s values. The fallacy of the Western business model is this: If a thing or idea cannot be quantified, monetized, or assigned a tangible value, it must be dismissed. Why do you think society hates religion now more than ever before?
Like it or not, this bias is the driving force behind all decisions regarding Western business, values, morality, emotions, decisions, relationships, the stock market, the government, etc. Have you ever noticed that every elected official is a living pile of crap, and the “good guy” politician always loses and no one knows why? He loses because his truth and his goodness can’t be quantified. The dirt bag politician, on the other hand, wins because he tells so many lies, and lies are data which can be added up and quantified. So he wins by numbers. But I digress.
Pirsig was a great prognosticator. He understood that the fallacy of the Western business model would inevitably lead to our destruction. He foresaw it very clearly, but felt so helpless in preventing it that it drove him certifiably insane.
What proved Pirsig’s theory was simple: The word QUALITY was indefinable in Western Culture. Everyone he asked seemed to have some vague idea of what Quality was, but couldn’t really define it. They couldn’t define it because Quality can’t be defined. Quality can’t stand on its own. Quality is only useful for comparing two objects. For example, this toothbrush is better than that toothbrush, so this toothbrush has quality.
Quality is very similar to Zen insomuch as it’s something to be experienced, not explained. You know when you have a quality experience–like shooting a giant buck or watching your son being born–but trying to explain why it’s a quality experience is impossible without comparing it to something lesser. And since it can’t be defined, it must be discarded by Western culture. Now, more than ever, it’s easy to see what Pirsig predicted 40 years ago is coming true: quantity over quality in all things. Don’t believe me? Just look at Walmart!
Before we continue on I want to make it clear that I am not a Zen-master; not even close! In reality I’m still a traveler along the Great Path. I only happened upon Zen because of the meditative rituals that I fell into while hunting. At the same time, I believe that the purpose of life is to follow the one true path, and that is the path leading to enlightenment. If I have a degree of higher understanding of Zen, it’s only because I’ve traveled farther along the path. And if this is true, then I can help others.
Are you seeking Zen in your life, or are other forces (dogmas, hope, ignorance, etc.) guiding you? Can the ancient art of Zen really be used for hunting? Is God and Zen really the same thing? These are all questions that I ponder and study every day, and hope to answer in future posts.
As of now, we’ve only scratched the surface. For the final piece of the puzzle, see
You must feel the Force around you. Here, between you…me…the tree…the rock…everywhere!– Yoda
Zen in Hunting Part 1
Where do you think the idea for ‘the force’ came from? When you first saw Star Wars you probably knew it was fiction, but did you also feel some familiarity with the concept of there being a ‘force,’ and that there might be some validity to it? When you were young, did you ever point at an object and command it to come to you? The idea of the force–in many ways–parallels the very real concept of the Zen-force.
For me, the familiarity of the force makes up a three-part triangle: 1) The fictional/fantasy/magic force that exists in movies and our imagination, 2) the religious force that we learn from our parents and society, and 3) the Eastern Zen Buddhism force (or just Zen) that exists universally but which we are vaguely familiar with. In this article I’m writing strictly about the Zen-force as understood by Western culture.
For more than a decade I’ve been researching and implementing Zen into my life in a practical way. Specifically, I discovered a general Zen-force via hunting and my deep connection with nature. Today, I continue to use the Zen-force in archery, bowhunting, and almost everything else I do. For all intents and purposes, Zen is similar to religion, but at the same time, far from it. Zen is NOT in conflict with religion. Zen is simply a higher level of consciousness which can coexist with any religion.
To give you a better understanding, think of Zen as a natural force that flows through all natural things…just like Yoda said. Then, think of life, or “the miracle of life,” that exists in all living things. No one can really explain where life came from (outside religion). For the most part, we just accept it and then take it for granted. So why would ‘life’ and the ‘life-force’ be separate or any different? In this respect, Zen is no more a religion than is the mysterious power that we call “life.”
Have you ever noticed that Yoda looks similar to an old Japanese Zen master? Do you think it’s a coincidence? Zen Buddhism originated in China in the 6th century A.D. and was later adopted, perfected, and practiced in for centuries in Japan. Zen is continually taught through various meditational methods including swordsmanship, calligraphy, dancing, and even flower arrangement. And surprise, surprise, one of the most revered Zen disciplines is archery. But what is Zen exactly, and what does it have to do with archery?
In 2002 I had a major paradigm shift. A few days after harvesting an impressive trophy deer, I had a sudden realization that my success came neither from my hunting skills nor luck. It felt as if some kind of unknown force was guiding me on my hunts. Years later I learned about Zen and was amazed at how perfectly it fit into my routine meditations and practices preceding and during every hunt.
For today, think of Zen as a oneness with the Universe. Oneness comes from humility. Zen can only be achieved through humility. Humility comes from realizing you are infinitesimally small relative to the infinite universe. You are not an ocean, but a single drop in a vast ocean. The ocean you are part of is unfathomably large and powerful. At the same time, your thoughts and feelings and the life you are living might seem big and powerful, but it’s really a tiny part of the whole. And that’s where Zen comes in: If you can take your tiny, insignificant piece of life and harness the infinite power of the whole universe, then there is nothing you can’t accomplish. Zen simply provides the keys that unlock this immense power.
On a final note, Zen is far easier to achieve in Nature because there are no distractions. Zen is associated with meditation because meditation is a practice of quieting the mind. In my early years of hunting, I couldn’t quiet my mind. I spent the days frantically flailing around the woods looking for a deer to shoot before I ran out of time. Consequently, I achieved low success. In later years I spent more and more time hunting (alone). I also spent a lot more time just sitting and breathing. I noticed after about three or four days my mind-chatter would quiet down enough for me to really be in the moment; the infinite now, as they call it. It was only then that I had wonderful success in the woods.
Nowadays, my spirit goes into the woods far before my physical body. My physical body is here, working, driving around, answering calls, etc., but I’m just going through the motions of a modern man. In reality, I’m already gone. My energies are focused on the impending bowhunt. I am living in a continual state of meditation and mental preparation; I am preparing the way for Zen in hunting.