Mastery / by gene talbott

Some time ago I came across a reference to a little story or koan about a great Japanese master of the art of archery--who had never in his life hit the bulls-eye. I like this of course because, as a painter striving for some sort of mastery, I feel that I have never hit the bulls-eye in my work. It's never quite what I imagine it will be. It usually feels fairly wide of the mark. But I also like that koan because of the obvious question: why is he a master, then?

Once, when I was much younger, I and a friend were walking in the woods and we climbed a huge oak and stepped out on a large, high branch. It was a little bit scary. We'd been talking about spiritual matters, and so my friend speculated, If you were enlightened, you wouldn't fall off. Instinctively seeing it differently, I replied, If you were enlightened, it wouldn't matter if you fell off.

In my youthfully naive way, I believe I was suggesting the same thing the Japanese story is: that mastery is not directly a matter of skill, but of quality--the quality of consciousness and presence you bring to your process, the quality of engagement. The Japanese archer was a master because of how he did everything. The bulls-eye was an important part of his process, but paradoxically not an important result. Devotion to hitting the bulls-eye is everything; hitting the bulls-eye is nothing.

Our culture is obsessed with mastery over the materials, mastery of the medium. Perfect, or at least awe-inspiring, performance. And truly, I think we are born to realize our wills, our intentions, more and more effectively in this life of material existence. The koan merely suggests that something else is more important: the presence of yourself, fully and without ego.

I am certain that this quality, this intensity, this absolute wholeness of engagement and presence is a key aspect (but not the only one?) of doing anything, and all of life, as something of an art.

Perhaps I should say I'm almost certain. I could be missing the bulls-eye.