Zen and the Art of Workmanship.

I got a couple of nice e-mails from you, its always nice to get responses even if its stuff I don’t want to hear. I got a couple of you that didn’t like “the travelogue”, my trip to Japan, in my last noooz, telling me that what you wanted to hear was about tools and the workshop and all that stuff. Which is fair. However I am not allowed out much these days and I was struggling with an idea. You know how it is you feel there is an association but you cannot quite strike it, you just feel its there. That is where I was with Zen and Japanese gardens, meditational stuff, Zen archery and and workmanship. So I put it in the Nooz to help me unravel it.

I sent a similar “travelogue” of my trip to Japan off to Nick Gibbs my editor at British Woodworking Magazine and he sent it back “not good enough do again” You see he knows me well enough I have worked with Nick for years and we had discussed the trip and my reasons for going, he said, “this is fine but it does not do what you were telling me about “. So I sat down and thought about it. At that time Greg Marquez another Noooz reader sent me this: “Thanks David, for the fine photos of Japanese architecture and the equally interesting commentary about them. “I was especially struck by your observation about Zen and the practice of  meditation, the heart of which you have intuitively grasped”. Greg at that moment had opened the door for me, because until then I had not pinned it down to Zen, thank you Greg.
I blather on about Zen when I am teaching I say that you must “Zen that saw down the line” its about Non Directed Focus. If you attempt too much control it goes to hell, keep it loose and focus and its fine. A bit like bringing up a child, or serving a tennis ball, oh hell maybe that’s two metaphores too many. But it led me to write this for Nick Gibbs…..


Nowhere perhaps told me this more powerfully to me than the Zen Garden of Ryoan-ji. This is a place of apparent utter simplicity. A courtyard garden with a walled background topped with a low shingled roof, surrounds a white raked gravel garden. In fact the term garden seems inappropriate for the only green is the browny green of moss around the base of some, not all, of the 7 outcrops of stone rocks that appear to be growing through the raked gravel surface. That’s it. Nothing else. Nowt, Zippo. Two walls, a gravel surface and a few rocks. Yet the more that one sits there and looks at this, even with a crowd buzzing around you, the more there is to see. First the placing of the stones, the interval between them, then the variance of the colours of the wall behind. Then the shaping of the stones marking the gravel, the colours of the shingle roof. All of these things seem to acquire a focus, a clarity. Variance of colour and shape. The rocks themselves begin to have definition, their colours seem to sparkle and change.

All this is to do with, not what is changing within the garden, but what is changing within ourselves. By looking, perhaps we are seeing more. Perhaps our perception is altered, our capacity to see enhanced. I asked my colleague whether the young Japanese who are visiting this garden today really got it, in any way understanding the ideas of Zen Buddhism and the purpose of this space. ‘Nah’ he said, ‘not a chance’. Workmanship requires meditation, requires focus, requires 10,000 hours of application.

japananese archery


I saw this again at Sangesendo, though it was perhaps not what I was brought here to see. This was the temple of 1,000 Buddhas, yet my fascination was not with the many Buddas but with the building itself, and it’s history as a centre of archery and swordsmanship. There was a gallery on the outside of the building where archery competitions took place, where the archer would either sit or stand. The target was at the end of the building, some 200 yards away.  The archer would extend his left arm holding the bow above his head. The bow would be held in his hand in a horizontal position. He or she, for there were female samurai, would observe the target in a casual manner, reach up and fit an arrow to the bowstring, draw the bowstring down vertically to just below one’s chin and then smoothly oh so smoothly with one sweeping action bring the bow down until the arrow was near horizontal and loose it at the target. That target would be waaaaaay down the end of the building. Zen archers have the reputation of drawing the bow and loosing the arrows without consciously observing the target, they did it without looking at the target. Having been there, having seen the place and experienced it’s atmosphere I do not doubt that for one moment yet I find it quite extraordinary.

What think you has this got to do with woodwork. Well quite a lot really. Workmanship at it’s very essence, where true craftsmanship is involved, is a meditative process. Time and again craftsmen are doing work just for it’s own sake, “to get it right”. Taking hundreds of hours more just to get it right. They, like the Zen archer are totally focused not on the target, the end result, but the journey the process We craftsmen and women are totally disregarding the end and learning to, “think with the whole body” to quote Taisen Deshimaru

I should credit “Zen and the Art of Archery” by Eugen Herrigel isbn 0-140-19074-0 Penguin Books
Also British Woodworking Magazine British Woodworking Magazine.




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