Zen Buddhism and replica pistol shooting. Two things that you might suspect don’t have much in common, but you’d be wrong…
Here’s the situation; you have got yourself a nice, accurate shooting replica, you have learned appropriate stance, grip and sight picture and yet, you still can’t get those shots to group the way you want. Maybe there’s a bit of your technique you have forgotten to work on? The bit that lives between your ears, for example? Like most activities that require intense concentration, shooting any kind of pistol needs mental as well as physical preparation if you are going to do it well.
Image: 3.0 Brazil via WikiMedia Commons
Something that many athletes and top sports people are now using to improve their focus and concentration is mindfulness, a concept taken from Zen Buddhism. In this article I want to talk about how this relates to replica pistol shooting. OK, I know, it’s probably not what you were expecting when you arrived at a site devoted to replica guns, but bear with me for a few moments – there may actually be something here for all of us. And don’t worry, there’s no extra charge and you won’t have to shave your head or give up burgers in order to use these techniques.
Kenjuu Do – The way of the pistol
One of the reasons I enjoy target shooting with replica pistols (or any other type of pistol) is that it demands absolute focus if you are to achieve consistently decent results. You just can’t shoot accurately if you’re thinking about that proposal that must be finished for Friday or whether that strange smell in your son’s bedroom really is incense as he claims or some other less socially acceptable herbal substance. After a good shooting session I generally feel strangely relaxed and worry-free. So I was fascinated to discover something called Kenjuu Do, a precept of Japanese Zen Buddhist philosophy which translates roughly as “the way of the pistol”. This uses pistol shooting both as a form of meditation and as a practical way to learn aspects of Zen Buddhism.
The ideogram for The Way of the Pistol
It may initially seem strange to talk about target shooting with a pistol as a form of meditation, but it actually makes sense if you think about it. Pistol target shooting isn’t just a physical act. Certainly you need to get things like grip, stance and breathing right but it also involves the correct mental preparation and approach. If your mental approach is wrong, you just can’t shoot well. I suspect that this need for focus and mental engagement while you’re shooting helps to distract you from the worries and concerns of everyday life and that this is part of what makes you feel relaxed and content afterwards.
Zen provides ways to tune your mental approach for target shooting and suggests that the approaches and techniques used to improve your shooting can also be applied to other aspects of your life. I’m not a Buddhist or a practitioner of Zen or any other philosophy but I do find some of the teachings relating to Kenjuu Do fascinating and I thought I’d share them with you. Will they make you a better shooter? Maybe. Will you become a Zen Master? Almost certainly not. But you might just learn something about our hobby and why it makes you feel the way it does.
The path to enlightenment via replica guns? Take a Crosman MKI and add a little bit of Zen philosophy…
Zen: Oneness of body and mind
Zen is based on a subset of Buddhist teaching and was originally propounded in China in the 8th Century before becoming established in Japan in the 14th Century. The word Zen is an English derivative of the Japanese word dhyana which means “to think“. It’s important to remember that Zen is not a religion in the conventional sense. That is, it does not ask you believe in anything supernatural nor does it offer a set of rules to be followed in order to receive benefits in an afterlife. Rather it provides guidance on how to live a satisfying and fulfilled life. In Zen Buddhist terms this is known as reaching enlightenment. Part of this involves achieving fusion between mind and body so that the two operate in harmony.
The Horyu-Ji temple at Nara was one of the earliest Buddhist temples in Japan
When Zen Buddhism reached Japan it became integrated with the existing warrior ethos and tempered with a more practical view of how to achieve enlightenment. This often used seemingly ordinary tasks such as flower arranging or gardening and used them as arts (or “Ways”) that helped lead to spiritual growth. These activities were not done just for their physical results but also because they helped to learn mindfulness, an attitude that can be applied to other things. Archery (Kyudo) and later pistol shooting were seen as perfect Zen activities which required a combination of physical discipline and mental focus. To me, one of th e most interesting things about Zen thinking is the way in which it can be applied to almost any activity (including of course, motorcycle maintenance!).
But how, you might reasonably ask, does all this relate to shooting your replica pistols? Well, let’s have a look at four linked precepts of Kenjuu Do and see if they can be used to improve your shooting. Bear in mind that I’m not in any way a Zen expert and what you have here is simply my understanding of how some elements of Zen can be applied to our hobby. To find out more about Zen Buddhism in general and Kenjuu Do in particular, you’ll find a link at the end of the article to a website that describes all of this in more detail.
The Empty Mind
“In shooting, you learn more about yourself than any other sport.”
One of the central tenets of Zen is the ability to remain calm and retain mental balance in all circumstances. This is called achieving mushin, an “empty mind”. This shouldn’t be confused with the state of mental blankness which can be induced simply by watching back-to-back episodes of America’s Next Top Model. In Zen terms, achieving an empty mind means focusing completely on the present moment, accepting responsibility for your actions and, where these haven’t achieved the desired result, calmly trying again without allowing emotions or thoughts of success or failure to intrude. Achieving an empty mind involves removing all of the seven “defilements” which can upset mental balance. These are:
“Tranquillity in tranquillity is not true tranquillity; it is tranquillity in action that is the true tranquillity”
Extract from the Fudochi Shinmyoroku (Divine Record Of Immovable Wisdom) by the Zen priest Takuan
We all lead busy lives and these leave us constantly filled with conflicting thoughts and emotions. That’s perfectly normal. However, target shooting gives you the chance to practice consciously clearing away all of these. If you use a pistol capable of accurate shooting but you don’t achieve the accuracy you expect, the problem may lie in your mental approach. For example, does this sound familiar; you’re shooting a string of ten shots. You get to number eight, and you can see that all the previous shots are grouped nicely, right in the centre of the target. If you can just do as well with the next three, you’ll beat your own best previous effort… Except of course that you won’t. Because as soon as your mind is filled with the defilements of excitement and happiness, your shooting gets worse.
When you take up your stance for shooting, you should consciously try to practice ensuring that you don’t feel excitement, concern, stress, worry or anything else. Instead, focus completely on the present shot without thinking about previous or subsequent shots. It’s not easy, but if you can do it, this will almost certainly help you to shoot better. It’s the fact that accurate pistol shooting demands that you clear your mind before and during the activity that has led some people to describe this as a perfect example of Zen standing meditation.
One shot, then die
“When you do something, you should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.”
Shunryu Suzuki, Sōtō Zen master and teacher
The Japanese phrase “Issha Zetsumei” is sometimes used in Kenjuu Do. The direct translation is something like “one shot and then die”. The concept comes from the idea of a dying soldier on the battlefield who has only a single shot left. This soldier will have no other opportunity to leave his mark upon the world other than through this single shot. Zen teaches that there are no second chances in life and that everything you do should be approached with 100% focus and attention, just like the dying soldier. Each thing you do, no matter how ordinary it may be, should be approached as if it is the single most important thing in your life.
If you are not completely focused on what you are doing, or if you start thinking about what has gone before or what may happen in the future, it distracts from the here and now and your performance suffers. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you should literally approach each shot as if it were your last, but rather that you must take each shot separately and individually. Zen teaches that people often spend too much time thinking about the past and planning for the future. If instead you focus completely on the present moment you will achieve more satisfactory results. When you are shooting, don’t be distracted by what has gone before or possible aggregate scores. Don’t get angry if the previous shot was bad or excited if it was good. Instead, remain calm and try to bring all your attention and focus to the present shot. Like achieving an empty mind, this isn’t easy and it takes conscious effort.
Focus on the target
“Right concentration keeps the mind and body working together properly… They will not miss the target, nor will they be deluded or distracted from the Right Path of Life.“
The teachings of Buddha
One of the things that Buddhism teaches is the importance of focus or “right concentration.” To whatever you are doing, you should give absolute concentration and avoid distraction or irrelevancy.
One of my favourite Zen parables concerns a Japanese Zen master archer. While teaching his young pupils, one day he told them that he wanted to demonstrate an important lesson. He had them cover his eyes so that he could not see, then he took aim and shot an arrow towards the target. The pupils were embarrassed to note that he completely missed the target – they had imagined that he would somehow use his Zen skills to shoot accurately even when he could not see the target. He removed the blindfold and explained that he wanted to illustrate that, if you want to succeed, you must always focus on the target.
OK, Duh! If you want to shoot accurately, you need to focus on the target. Who’d have guessed? But actually this idea links closely with the first two ideas. To shoot well, you must be completely focused on the target. If you allow yourself to be distracted by anything else you will shoot less accurately.
“Thousands of repetitions and out of one’s true self perfection emerges.”
Another precept of Zen Buddhism involves attaining what is called an “intuitive understanding” of any activity. In part, this is achieved through frequent repetition. If you do something often enough, you cease to think about it consciously and instead it becomes understood at a much deeper level. This true of any activity but particularly those which require mental and physical co-ordination. Multiple world champion racing driver Ayrton Senna spoke about how, on a couple of occasions, he was able to set his fastest laps after attaining a state where he was no longer conscious of driving the car and instead seemed to be watching himself from outside. The same things apply to more mundane activities that we all undertake. When you drive to work in the morning, you almost certainly aren’t thinking about gear changes, braking points and steering. You have done these things so often that instead they become fused into a single activity which you do for the most part without conscious thought leaving you free to focus on the whole process of driving safely.
The same things apply to target shooting. If you are consciously thinking about your stance, grip, breathing, sight picture, score or any other specific element, you will not shoot well. If you practice often enough these things will become intuitive and automatic and you will reach a point where you will be able to focus instead on the process of shooting as a whole rather than thinking about its individual elements.
“The shooting practitioner does not look at the target for the result of his or her practice, but inward, for the target is not a target – it is a mirror. And if the heart is right, each shot clears away some more of the obstacles clouding the vision of one’s true nature.”
Zen in the art of pistol shooting website
If you can apply these four techniques to your shooting, you may be on the way to what Zen describes as “shooter, bullet and target as one.” If you achieve this, shooting ceases to be composed of several different activities and becomes instead a single, intuitively understood process where the shooter, the gun and the target are all involved. Zen also suggests that the mental disciplines and techniques developed for target shooting can be applied to everyday life – that’s one of the reasons that both archery and shooting are used as a part of the teaching of Zen philosophy.
This has been a very quick look at Zen as it relates to replica pistol shooting. I hope there is something here you may find useful and that may even help to improve your shooting. In shooting, as in many other activities, mental preparation and training can be just as important as other techniques. Zen thinking is one way of approaching this. And if anyone accuses you of wasting your time playing with toy guns in the future you can explain that you’re actually exploring the precepts of Zen philosophy!
May your aim be true and your shooting free of defilement.
If you’re interested in learning more, here is a website that provides much more detail about both Kenjuu Do and Zen Buddhism:
Many of the images used in this article come from a collection of photographs of real Samurai taken in Japan between 1860 and 1880. You can see more of the collection here: