…and the art of ballistics

by Ngak’chang Rinpoche

this article first appeared in vision magazine, issue 3, autumn 1996


… all you accomplish with this training,
is to give yourself a better environment in which to find the empty moment
– in which the form moment explosion could be the experience of rigpa.


In the early 1970s a book was published. Some people over the age of fifty may remember it – if only by its title. It was hyped. Even though I never bought or read the book, I remember the cover design to this day: a lotus emerging from a spanner. I learnt—from discussion with others—that it contained scant information on either Zen or motorcycle maintenance. Some thirty years on, I thought it might be charming, to some degree, to follow the same pattern – but without recourse to publisher’s hype, or the image of a lotus growing from the barrel of a .500 Linebaugh. I have little to say in the field of ballistics, and even less on the subject of Zen. I know little of either. But what I write may have some strange bearing on the népa and gyowa which are spoken of in the four naljors of Dzogchen sem-dé. Dzogchen sem-dé is the first of the three series of Dzogchen. Dzogchen means ‘great completion’ or ‘utter totality’ and is the ninth of the Nyingma vehicles. Sem-dé means ‘series of the nature of Mind’. The preparation for sem-dé is the first set of practices to which Aro gTér students are introduced.

Buddhists involved in recreational sport may well have come across ‘inner skiing’ or ‘inner tennis’. There may well have been books on all manner of ‘inner’ approaches: wine-tasting, cooking, horse riding, billiards, or taxidermy. For anyone with a healthy obsession with an activity, there would seem to be a way of furthering it:

He plays by intuition, he never sees them fall,
that deaf, dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball.

This is nothing new. People in all walks of life seem to be open to the idea that there is a level beyond skill and excellence which can be explored. So what can be said about shooting a hand-gun? Maybe a book on ‘inner hand-gunning’ would be worth writing, even though it might be likely to offend two different groups of people at the same time – members of the NRA who are averse to Eastern religions, and those who espouse Buddhism who are opposed to firearms. Let both eat cake – and thoroughly enjoy it.

Maybe Vajrayana hand-gunners will always be thin on the ground, so I thought I should write something for them in particular – just to reassure them that they are not as isolated as they may have thought themselves to be. Intrinsically, the book on ‘inner hand-gunning’ has already been written – it is called ‘Zen and the Art of Archery’. Everything in that book applies to hand-gunning in one way or another apart from the specific physical handling of the bow. Everything that concerns meditation and the mind in that book, could make you a better meditative shot with a six-gun. Add to ‘Zen and the Art of Archery’, Elmer Keith’s ‘Sixguns by Keith – the standard reference work’ and there would be nothing further to read or know. Those who have read both books will have nothing to learn from me on the subject.

I realise that there are those who might have their sensibilities offended by this topic; and for that I would like to apologise, but only feel the slightest velleity so to do. Neither Khandro Déchen nor I are politically correct. I suppose archery is ‘spiritually correct’ – the number of people who regard the bow and arrow as a lethal weapon on this planet must now be fairly minimal. But for anyone who thinks the bow is peaceful in some way – I have just two words for you: ‘Remember Agincourt.’ My apologies to the French for that reference – but it is a workable example of large numbers of people being slain with the use of bows and arrows.

The bow and arrow certainly no longer figure as a military weapon. Neither do they register in the field of criminality or police action. No one suspects a person of violent intention if they take up archery or darts – but the lot of the Buddhist hand-gunner is a beleaguered one. No one would suspect a person who played darts of having some ulterior motive which involved dipping the point in poison in the style of the South American jungles – but mention handguns, and people either become decidedly uncomfortable or self-righteously irate. As I said before: let them eat cake – and thoroughly enjoy it.

As I said, the book on ‘inner hand-gunning’ does not need to be written – but maybe the subject could be introduced, in order to widen people’s horizons by a narrow margin. Maybe something could also be said about the æsthetics involved in the choice of one’s method of physical meditation – I will however, leave that discussion to the end of this epistle.

…there is a moment there that you have to find.
It is a moment that is wide, and equally as long – but it is gone in a fraction-of-an-inch / millisecond if you fail to recognise it.
If you recognise it, everything goes into slo-mo… you reach out and touch the target with your sights…
there is no distance between the sights and that inner circle.

Shi-nè and lha-thong—stillness and change—are the two major considerations, whatever the activity in which you engage. In terms of ‘inner’ anything, emptiness and form must dance in terms of what one is attempting to accomplish. Within Dzogchen sem-dé there is a set of preparation practices called ‘the four naljors’. These practices are designed to help develop the experiential knowledge required in order to recognise the nature of Mind. Concentration is obviously something that is connected with silent sitting meditation of various different kinds – but within Dzogchen sem-dé one has to go beyond concentration. If one does not have the ability to concentrate, that faculty needs to be developed. Once developed, that faculty becomes redundant. The same is true of firing a handgun. At first you need to be able to concentrate – but after that you need to discover the empty space of effortless attention.

Shi-nè is the practice of emptiness – the practice of letting disturbances fall away. In the language of the four naljors of Dzogchen sem-dé, this is the practice of finding presence of awareness in the dimension of the absence of thought. This is crucial in the attempt to achieve tight grouping. Whatever may be said to the contrary, I do not see how anyone without meditative ability could achieve anything as a marks-person with a bow, dart, rifle, or handgun. One cannot engage in thought stories and maintain one’s aim. That is where one has to begin. There is a certain empty point at which the trigger is squeezed; and one has to know when that moment has arrived. One has to know it without knowing it – which means one has to know it without thought. There has to be bare recognition.

There are many variables. If it was just a matter of pointing the gun and shooting, there would be no problem – but keeping still is not easy. Keeping still is not difficult either – it is merely that no-one can remain physically still for very long. In the short period of time when you find yourself physically still – it is simply a matter of knowing that stillness.

Everyone wobbles. If you hold out your arm with three or four pounds of revolver in your hand, you are not going to be able to remain motionless – no-one can. One can certainly train in stillness in order to remain still for longer periods. One can also develop arm strength in terms of getting used to holding one’s arm up at an unaccustomed angle. These efforts will help. But all one accomplishes with this training, is to give oneself a better environment in which to find the empty moment – in which the form moment explosion could be the experience of the nondual state.

At that point everything happens by itself. There is no self-conscious sense of having made anything happen. One’s finger pressure simply increases. It is not an intellectually considered act. The point at which the gun fires is always a surprise – but it is a surprise that does not come as a surprise. It is not a shock, because one knows that it is going to happen. It is simply pure sound and the fragrance of cordite. If one finds oneself in that perfect moment – one knows exactly where the bullet has been placed. It is no surprise that it is in the inner circle of the target – hopefully, with all the others. Elmer Keith, a great sharp shooter of the latter part of the Old West said:

You will not be able to hold steady – no-one can. When the sights swing squarely on the bull, increase the pressure on the trigger; when they swing off target, hold what pressure you have; when the sights come back, increase again until the gun is fired.

I found this to be sound advice; but something was missing – something I only discovered because I recognised it as identical with aspects of the four naljors. It is not simply waiting until the sights swing back across the centre – there is a moment which you have to find. It is a spacious moment – but gone in a fraction-of-an-inch / millisecond if one fails to recognise it. If recognised, one can reach out and touch the target with the sights – there is no distance between the sights and the inner circle. It does not happen every time – but when it happens there is no doubt.

In terms of ‘lack of doubt’, the Tsig-sum né-dek (tshig gSum gNad brDegs – Hitting the Essence in Three Words) are the perfect guide to shooting. One has direct introduction – the perfect image of the sights, together with the decisionless decision in which the trigger is squeezed. One remains without doubt – the sense in which there is no distance, together with an absolute intimacy between the sights and the inner ring. One continues in the state – in which shot after shot goes exactly where it is placed, as if one were making the marks on the target with a pen.

There are many aspects of hand-gunning that are reminiscent of silent sitting. The posture needs to be correct. One needs to feel one’s feet on the ground – balanced in a way that is not entirely dissimilar from performing a ‘hill-start’ in a car. The whole body is involved. There is the hand position – the grip-mudra. With small calibre firearms it is not so crucial, but as Elmer Keith points out: ‘The larger pistols are as sensitive to a change in grip pressure or position as the strings of a violin.’ Then there is the breath. Breathing is important. One takes a long slow breath as one’s arms raise, as the sights of the gun arrive on the target – but then one breathes out slightly. There is no holding of the breath when firing: the breath is simply suspended. The eyes can be focused in one of two ways. One can close the eye that is not on the sights – which is what most people seem to do. Elmer Keith however, recommends keeping both eyes open: one on the sights and the other on the inner circle. That is obviously lha-tong; the method beyond the shi-nè of shooting.

Shi-nè is the moment of silence – the moment of stillness in which there is no distraction. Lha-tong is the moment in which the practitioner integrates with movement – the movement in which the trigger is squeezed. The two cannot be divided. If one waits for the perfect space, and then conceptualises about firing – the shot will not be fired with awareness. The shi-nè and lha-tong have to be unified. The empty-moment of the minute but perfectly still sight image, and the non-referential movement of the trigger – need to have the same taste.

In terms of the ‘inner game’ of everything, there is no difference whether you find nyi-mèd (Nyis ’med – the indivisibility of shi-nè and lhatong) on skis, with a bow and arrow, or whether you find it sitting in the shrine room.

Nothing replaces silent sitting, especially for those who are new to Buddhist meditation. But as an adjunct to silent sitting, it would seem that archery, hand-gunning, or some similar form of hand-eye co-ordination is valuable in terms of integration – of integrating the meditative state with everyday activity.

Rig’dzin Chenpo Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche encouraged interest in archery amongst his students. He also encouraged dressage, ballroom dancing, and Japanese flower arrangement. All these endeavours have the same quality in terms of practice. I imagine that my interest in hand-guns offends people, and I suppose that I could have chosen archery – but the bow never really ‘spoke’ to me with the superb fluency in which a six-gun speaks to me. And when I say ‘six-gun’, I mean a revolver – a real old-fashioned hand-gun. I have no interest at all in automatic or semi-automatic weapons. These slab-sided pieces of modern technology that combine metal and advanced plastics, have no beauty in my eyes – and beauty is important. There must be many people to whom a Glock pistol is the finest thing on this earth, but for me there is no character in something with a hidden mechanism. There is also no interest for me in the ability of a semi-automatic pistol to fire off a far greater number of rounds without re-loading. I love re-loading. I do not want more than five or six shots, and I do not mind having to break a ten-shot string to insert another five cartridges.

Here, we come to the idea of æsthetics, with regard to one’s choice of meditative discipline. I would rather shoot a LeMat or a Smith and Wesson Schofield than a semi-auto. Basically the chosen instrument has to have integrity in terms of the æsthetics of the individual. The Zen bow has its history and its very particular qualities which will be appreciated by those who are drawn to it. The same must apply to darts, javelin, or hand-gunning – there must be an æsthetic, a history, and a level of integrity.

There is a man in Texas called Bill Grover – a unique individual who founded Texas Longhorn Arms. He decided to build the best single-action revolver ever made. He decided to build the gun that Elmer Keith wanted Colt to make, but which they never made. Those at Colt never listened to Elmer Keith in his day. In the 1920s, Elmer Keith set out to modify a Colt Single Action Army with all the custom features he felt a hand-gun needed. Part of a Bisley grip frame was joined to the Colt trigger guard for an improved grip design that would handle the recoil more comfortably. Adjustable sights were added – the fine old ‘Micro’ that is so perfect for target shooting. He redesigned the base pin, base pin latch and added a Bisley spur. Elmer Keith called this his No 5 Colt, and once it was made, it was his favourite gun. It is perfect in every way, and glistening with the history of a man who was dedicated to the creation of the ideal single-action revolver. Elmer Keith was a left hander (and so by coincidence was Samuel Colt) so Bill Grover designed the new No 5 for right handers. It is hard to convey the æsthetics of a Colt – either the click of the action spelling out ‘C–O–L–T’ sings to you as wonderfully as the twang of a Zen bow string – or it does not. Either the way that it sits in your hand paupers description – or it does not. Either the weight and balance of it, and the way it up-turns on recoil are delicious – or they are not.

My concluding remarks are that if Zen archers did not love their bows—if there was no rapture in the feel of the string tension—there would be no ‘Zen’ in the art of archery. All this being said – I know that with an 8 inch Colt Python .357 Magnum in my hand there is the possibility of rigpa in the art of the revolver.