The Heart of the Matter
June 17, 2013
The Best Archer in All of China


All of us try so hard to DO stuff, to accomplish things, to leave our mark. We sweat, we strain, we hustle -- all in an attempt to get a result we can feel really good about. That's all fine, of course, but sometimes, in the act of accomplishing our goal, we lose touch with who we are. The following story, adapted from an old Zen tale, elaborates on this curious phenomenon.

Once upon a time there was a man named Wu Li, a most gifted archer. Time and again, Wu Li would enter archery tournaments and win. He won so often and so convincingly that word of his accomplishments soon spread throughout the land. By the time he was 22, Wu Li was known as the best archer in all of China.

One day, upon returning home from yet another victory, Wu Li found himself rushing through a marketplace and bumping into an old man carrying a basket of potatoes. Potatoes went flying everywhere and the old man fell to the ground with a thud.

"Old man!" shouted Wu Li, "Get out of my way! Don't you know who I am?"

The old man looked up, squinting.

"Oh yes. I know who you are," he replied. "You are Wu Li. Second best archer in all of China."

"Second best?" bellowed the gifted one. "Second? Ha! I am the absolute best. There is no one in the world who can beat me."

The old man smiled and stood as he slowly gathering his potatoes.

"Yes, you are great, Wu Lei. But there is someone even greater than you!"

Wu Lei was silent, his whole being like an arrow about to be launched.

"Who is this impostor? Where does he live?"

"Oh," the old man said slowly, as if entering a temple. "His name is Master Po. He lives many miles to the North -- high atop Mt. Chi Han."

"Then I will go an challenge him!" the young archer exclaimed. "I will put an end to such nonsense."

Pushin past the old man, Wu Li stormed off into the night.

For 60 days he walked.

When he finally arrived at the foot of the mountain the young archer could not believe his eyes. The mountain was sheer rock face, covered with ice, and pitched at a 90 degree angle straight to the sky, hidden by clouds.

A lesser man would have ended his journey then and there. But not Wu Li.

He climbed. And when he was done climbing, he climbed some more.

On the 8th day of his ascent, the Wu Li saw the crest, grabbed on, pulled himself up, stood, and found himself looking at what appeared to be a little old man sitting on a blanket.

"Welcome wayfarer," the old man said, "I have been expecting you."

Wu Li took a deep breath.

"I... am... Wu Li... best archer in all of China and I... I challenge you!"

The old man, as motionless as the mountain itself smiled, bowed once, then looked to the sky.

"Very well, as you are my guest, please go first."

Without a second's hesitation, Wu Li grabbed an arrow from his quiver, notched it on the string of his immense bow, closed his left eye, tilted his head, looked up, drew the string back and with all of his might, and let the arrow fly.

As it neared the top of its flight, he pulled a second from the quiver and shot it high, halving the first in two and, in a rapid succession of ten, continued, each arrow splitting the one before it, arrow halves landing in a perfect circle around the seated Master and, upon entering the ground, made the ancient sound of Om.

"Hmm," said Master Po. "Impressive. Most impressive. Now, I believe, it is my turn."

Reaching behind him (where there would have been a quiver if he had a quiver), he pulled what would have been an arrow (if he had an arrow), notched what would have been a string on what would have been a bow, closed one eye, pulled slowly back, paused for what seemed like eternity, and then -- in slow motion pantomime -- let go.

Smiling ever so slightly, he turned to the puzzled challenger.

"You, my friend," said Master Po, "have mastered the art of shooting with a bow and arrow. I... have mastered the art of shooting without a bow and arrow."

Excerpted from Awake at the Wheel.


Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at June 17, 2013 10:27 PM

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