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Shots in the Dark

Japan, Zen, and the West

Translated by Earl Hartman

In the years after World War II, Westerners and Japanese alike elevated Zen to the quintessence of spirituality in Japan. Pursuing the sources of Zen as a Japanese ideal, Shoji Yamada uncovers the surprising role of two cultural touchstones: Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery and the Ryoanji dry-landscape rock garden. Yamada shows how both became facile conduits for exporting and importing Japanese culture.

First published in German in 1948 and translated into Japanese in 1956, Herrigel’s book popularized ideas of Zen both in the West and in Japan. Yamada traces the prewar history of Japanese archery, reveals how Herrigel mistakenly came to understand it as a traditional practice, and explains why the Japanese themselves embraced his interpretation as spiritual discipline. Turning to Ryoanji, Yamada argues that this epitome of Zen in fact bears little relation to Buddhism and is best understood in relation to Chinese myth. For much of its modern history, Ryoanji was a weedy, neglected plot; only after its allegorical role in a 1949 Ozu film was it popularly linked to Zen. Westerners have had a part in redefining Ryoanji, but as in the case of archery, Yamada’s interest is primarily in how the Japanese themselves have invested this cultural site with new value through a spurious association with Zen.

304 pages | 8 halftones, 6 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2009

Buddhism and Modernity

Asian Studies: East Asia

History: Asian History

Religion: Comparative Studies and History of Religion


"A very enjoyable meditation on the curious thing called ’Zen’ —not the Japanese religious tradition but rather the Western cliché of Zen that is embraced in advertising, self-help books, and much more. . . . Yamada, who is both a scholar of Buddhism and a student of archery, offers refreshing insight into Western stereotypes of Japan and Japanese culture, and how these are received in Japan."—Alexander Gardner, Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly

Alexander Gardner | Buddhadharma

"A powerful critique of the process through which Zen was imported into Western cultures. . . . This is a worthy addition to the literature."


Table of Contents

Preface to the American Edition


1. Between the Real and the Fake

            The Kitschy World of “Zen in/and the Art of . . .”

            The Rock Garden in New York

            The Moving Borderline

2. The Mystery of Zen in the Art of Archery

            The Beginning of the Story

            Spiritual Archery and Herrigel’s Meeting with Its Teacher

            Becoming a Disciple


            The Release

            Purposefulness and Purposelessness

            The Target in the Dark

            The Riddle of “It”

3. Dissecting the Myth

            The Spread of Zen in the Art of Archery

            The Moment the Myth Was Born

            What is Japanese Archery?

            The Great Doctrine of the Way of Shooting

            What Herrigel Studied

4. The Erased History

            The Blank Slate

            Herrigel’s Early Years

            The Japanese in Heidelberg

            Homecoming and the Nazis

            From the End of the War to Retirement

5. Are Rock Gardens Really Pretty?

            From the “Tiger Cubs Crossing the River” to the “Higher Self”

            The Neglected Rock Garden

            The Rock Garden in Textbooks

            Unsightly Stones and a Weeping Cherry Tree

            Shiga Naoya and Muro Saisei

            Are Rock Gardens Pretty?

            Popularization and the Expression of Zen

            Proof of Beauty

6. Looking at the Mirror’s Reflection

            Another Japan Experience

            Bruno Taut and Ryoanji

            The People Who Introduced Zen and Ryoanji to the West

            Isamu Noguchi

            How Zen in the Art of Archery and Ryoanji Were Received

            Does Zen Stink?

            Kyudo, Zen, and the Olympics

            I Knew It! It’s Zen!


Translator’s Afterword

Appendix: Herrigel’s “Defense”

Kanji for Personal Names

Kanji for Japanese Terms



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