Although a much shorter form of this story is posted widely across the Internet (spiritualminds.com), I have yet to find one that names the source for this tale. Whether ancient or modern, at least there appears to be little argument that it has earned a place within the Buddhist tradition.
Spoiler Alert: This is one of the stories found in When It Matters Most.
A boy once trained under a master archer. When he first arrived at the dojo located at the forest’s edge, he was clumsy and timid. Over many years of study, though, the novice grew familiar with all aspects of the art. He learned to shoot, of course, but also turned his hands to the making of his equipment. He was particularly adept at crafting a traditional bow, the yumi, splitting the bamboo and then shaping it with binding and shims. In this way, every detail of the process from the initial selection of bamboo to the final release of an arrow became second nature to the archer, now a young man.
In shooting, he surpassed the other students. He would first release one arrow into the centre of the target and then let fly a second, which would split the first in two. His confidence increased, but so did his arrogance. He became dismissive of the efforts of other students and bragged about his own accomplishments. He spoke openly about having learned all there was to learn in the dojo.
Then one day, the Master, a venerable monk in his seventies, asked the young archer to join him in the dojo for a private session. Once they prepare, the Master moved the sliding doors of the wall, revealing the open grassy area with targets in the distance.
Signalling that they would share one target, the Master raised his bow, hands above his head, and then drew the bow by lowering his arms. Released, his arrow found the centre of the target.
The young archer perfectly reflected his Master’s technique, drawing his bow and releasing an arrow. It split his Master’s in two.
“My student,” the Master smiled, “you have indeed learned how to control your bow. Let us go for a walk.”
Taking their equipment, the two men headed out of the dojo and into the forest. Intrigued at first, the young archer soon grew frustrated with the silent wandering of the old man. Finally, the monk stopped at a deep chasm. A single log stretched across its width.
The Master signalled for his student to wait. Taking his bow and two arrows, the old man stepped onto the log and walked to its midpoint. There, he stood for a moment before nocking his arrow and raising the bow. Lowering his arms and drawing the string, he held the arrow steady before its moment of release. It struck the centre of a tree, far along the other side of the chasm. He took a breath, adjusted his feet. Nocking his second arrow and drawing the bow, he let it fly, cleaving his first in two. The Master’s face expressionless, he returned to the student, silently inviting him to shoot.
Having watched his Master’s success, the student quickly mounted the log and moves to its midpoint. He raised his hands above his head, ready to draw his bow. He felt a wind pushing against him, testing his balance. Worse, the log swayed gently under his feet. His eyes caught sight of the jagged rocks far beneath him. Shaking, he let the arrow fly before finishing his draw. It fell well short of the target. Fearing for his life, he called out, “Master!”
The old man walked out to the young archer, took his hand, and led the student to safety. No words were exchanged during their return to the dojo.
Once they arrived and stored their equipment, the Master and the young archer sat across from each other on the dojo floor.
The student lamented, “Master, I am ashamed of myself.”
The old man let the words rest in the space between them. Eventually he asked, “What causes you to judge yourself in this way?”
“When I stood on the log, I missed the target entirely.”
Again, the Master allowed the words to sit. After a while he probed, “What did you notice when you stood on the log?”
“The wind, the movement, the rocks — my fear. My entire focus was on these.”
“And this causes you to feel shame?” The old monk smiled, “Perhaps you simply have more to learn.” Without articulating a lesson, the Master left the student to contemplate his own thoughts.
In the days that follow, the other students noticed a shift in the young archer. Not only did he practice his art, he paid full attention to the words of their Master. He spoke little of his own accomplishments and over time began to take pleasure in those of the other students. Instead of arrogance, he came to be known for his humility, becoming a famed teacher in his own right. Eventually, the Master died, leaving the dojo to his student.
With each new group of youth, the archer sat with them in a circle on the floor. The first words of the lesson were always the same. “It is one thing to control your bow. It is another to control your mind.”