Once upon a time there lived a highly acclaimed archer who was renowned for winning every archery contest he would participate in. He was young but boastful. Drunk on arrogance, he decided to challenge a Zen master who too was known for his skill with the bow and arrow. The master accepted the challenge.
During the contest, the young man displayed superlative adeptness when his first arrow hit the bull’s eye, and then he split that arrow into two with his second shot. Highly pleased with his own performance, he dared the old man to match it. The master remained calm and instead of drawing his bow he motioned for the young archer to follow him up the hill. Curious about what the old man was up to, the young archer followed him near the peak of the mountain. There, they confronted a deep gulf, bridged simply by a flimsy trunk of an old tree. The master stepped on the wobbly log and walked to the middle, picked a far away tree as a target, drew his bow, and fired a clean, direct hit. He stepped off the log quietly, looked at the champion archer and said, “Your turn now.”
As he stared into the terrifying chasm, the young man trembled and couldn’t even step onto the log, leave aside attempting to shoot at a target. Sensing his predicament, the old man looked at him lovingly and, without a trace of superiority, said, “Young man, no doubt you have great skill with your bow and arrow but you have little skill with the mind that controls these weapons. Shooting arrows in contests is not that same as firing them on the battlefield, where violence can arise upon any kind of terrain and under any conditions. If you want to be a real champion, go and become the master of your mind.”
For me, the lesson in this Zen story runs deeper than the abyss that terrified the young archer. All my life, I have been taught to focus on learning new ways to succeed, on acquiring knowledge, on gaining technical “expertise”. After all, these qualities are valued in the world. But when disaster strikes, when I am confronted with an unexpected crisis, or when life throws a curveball, no amount of expertise and knowledge comes in handy — unless it is also accompanied by a tranquil mind. Only an undisturbed mind can face real challenges. And yet, learning worldly skills is given prominence everywhere with hardly any emphasis on the importance of training the mind for peace and calmness.
But then, life is the greatest school with the most unsuspecting teachers on its roll. And my teachers have come disguised as unexpected difficulties — challenges and problems that have stumped me and made me realise that what I most need at that moment is unwavering composure; nothing else matters as much.
Mastering the mind
I rate the ability to stay calm and peaceful as greater than any other material accomplishment. Without composure, I cannot help myself or another. But if peace is my constant companion, regardless of how hard the challenge, how demanding the situation, how dicey the problem, I know I can deal with it. This is what the Zen master implied when he urged the young archer to become the master of his mind.
I understand that steadfast equanimity requires great practice and dedication, especially because it is not given priority in a world that is smitten by material wealth and sense pleasures. But, like the Zen story teaches us, skill — or for that matter riches, fame or power — are of little use without a calm mind. That’s why I consider the ability to stay peaceful and calm under all circumstances to be the greatest quality. And I am committed to cultivating it.
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