Kyudo Notebook: Aims

Shocking to see that my last note here was in August. Where did the time go? Back then it was hot and humid. Now the ground is covered with snow. I’ve been thinking lately about the aim of Kyudo practice. Why am I doing this? Why are you? What do I hope to discover or to become?

This past weekend we had a two-day tutorial with a teacher (Hanshi, 8-dan) who I’ve always been interested in. He had some great advice to help with tenouchi, and I’m going to be working on that over the next few months (or more likely, for the rest of my life), but at one point he also told us, “Hayai is not a matter of time but of depth.”

I imagine most of us have heard “Hayai!” more than once, and many are also familiar with people counting the number of seconds that we, or someone else, lingers in kai. I guess that’s understandable: anyone can count seconds. But how do you measure, or even perceive, “depth?”

I was puzzling over this today at the dojo and without even having to ask him, my teacher volunteered that it’s a matter of fulfillment: when your mind, your body, and the bow come together as one. He said this is visible to people who are watching, and it’s when they see that they will think, “Ah… that’s good shooting.”

So now I’m on the trail of fulfillment, but I’m not at all sure how to get there. Awa Kenzo said, “When you shoot, shoot for thousands; it is not just a contest. Your practice is to take on the universe. Your opponents are manifold.” [Zen Bow, Zen Arrow, John Stevens, trans., Shambhala, 2007, pg. 38].

I hope everyone is doing well!

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Kyudo Notebook: Little Things

Things have been weird lately. After a period of stability the arrows started flying all over the place, sometimes as much as one or two target-widths away. What’s going on? I couldn’t figure it out and I think my teachers were in, “Let’s see if he figures this out on his own” mode. So I tried a lot of different things. Sometimes the makiwara really isn’t much of a help because the only way to see what’s happening is to see the results at 28m.

Finally I took a look at my kake. and noticed that some kusune had built up around the tsuru-makura, creating a rough and uneven edge, so I took it home and smoothed it out with a heated nail. It didn’t completely solve the situation but it made a huge difference. Now I have to sort of retrace my steps and undo some of the things I was doing to try to fix the situation before I realized this, and after looking at video made yesterday, I see some other things I definitely need to work on. It’s embarrassing, and yet funny how different my shooting can be from the image I have of it in my head.

Step by step…

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Mind / Body / Bow

Another long delay! Maybe this is how it will be for a while? Things are happening but slowly, and in a one step forward, one step in a totally random direction sort of way. I went through a period where things were very stable, but for reasons I cannot explain, it suddenly evaporated. Maybe part of it is the heat and humidity of the summer and rainy days affecting not just me but the bow, the kake, everything? These days the giriko can almost melt, and stick your fingers together like glue.

A funny thing is that I’m only now discovering how important the fundamentals are, especially the crosses, and of those, the sanju-jumonji. I find that I have to take great care to set that during dozukuri and maintain it all the way through. There are so many opportunities to twist the torso and the line of the shoulders, and I find that makes a huge difference as far as a balanced release and the arrow going where I want it to. It’s frankly amazed that I ever managed to hit the target at all, but by watching school competitions it’s clear that there are a lot of ways to shoot and hit. Some rely just on strength, some on a variety nonstandard techniques that compensate for each other. It’s interesting how creative we humans can be when faced with a target.

But of course, that’s not all we’re after, eh?

Another oddity is that sometimes, especially in taikai, I find myself getting into kai, but then suddenly feeling unsettled/unsure. It’s a sort of low-level panic feeling: “Hey! What am I doing here? What am I supposed to do now?” The answer seems to be that I don’t need to do anything. Just maintain the crosses, and expand physically/mentally/spiritually and see what happens. Unfortunately, because the feeling only arises at times of stress, when something related to me, my self-image, etc, is on the line, it’s not something that I can easily practice. So I have to seek times of stress. Hmmm…

Then the other day my teacher told me that my expression shouldn’t change at hanare. Ha! How do you control that? I’m thinking that rather than trying to do something physically I may need more mental/spiritual focus, so that when the “phenomenon” of hanare occurs, the thinking part of my mind is as though “not there.” After all there’s no reason for my expression to change unless I have expectations, desires, etc.

In fact that’s been a theme of some other reading that began with a book by the Dalai Lama, The Heart of Meditation, on the Nyingma practice called Dzogchen (Great Completeness). But I have to let all that simmer for a while before it’s clear enough to write something. I see connections there to mushin and the kind of practices that are discussed in Buddhist texts like Takuan Soho’s Fudouhishinmyouroku (The Unfettered Mind), as well as hinted at in the Kyudo Kyohon and some works by Awa Kenzo. Lots of work to be done there…

Anyway this weekend we have a two-day seminar to indoctrinate us into a lot of new ANKF lore. I’m not sure what it’s all about, to be honest, but there’s even a textbook. If it seems interesting/useful I’ll write something. Oh, and it’s a ways off yet, but the All-Japan tournament will be in Ise this year, 21-25 September. It’s worth the trip if you can make it, and a bunch of the Hokkaido crew will be there.

Posted in buddhist practice, dozukuri, kai, kyudo, kyudo notebook, mind | 3 Comments

Kyudo Notebook: New Shinsa Questions

So the shinsa season is upon us. Our first local one is tomorrow. Maybe everybody knows this, but just in case, the written test questions have changed ever so slightly, mostly, it seems, just to make some questions more clear. As of 10 January 2017 there’s a new document (PDF) available at the ANKF site with both Japanese and English translation.

Posted in kyudo, kyudo notebook, shinsa | 1 Comment

Kyudo Notebook: Rain

So many things have been going on, not least of which has been unexpected travel, but there is no letting up with practice! I want to record some notes made at a tutorial some time back with a favorite Hanshi (8-dan), which turned out to be the day before I had to leave. It’s been long enough that I have a hard time recalling the context for everything, so I’ll just make a list of advice and other things I put down in my notebook at the time. My little comments in brackets.

  • He began by quoting Awa Kenzo: Throw away the target / Throw away the self / Infinitely far off (mugen no kanata)
  • Treat your equipment as part of your own body
  • Getting advice is good but you need to experiment for yourself
  • It’s good to have 5-6 bows, each about 1/2kg apart, so you can match your bodily strength on any given day. [Our teacher at the 2016 seminar in Nagoya said the same thing. Of course, few people could afford to do that all at once, and it probably wouldn’t be good for the bows if you did! But if you keep practicing for, say 20-30 years, I could see ending up with that many]
  • You can do weight training to be able to draw a stronger bow, or learn to draw “with the bones.” [But don’t obsess about this,] there is no taikai where the prize is given to the one who can draw the strongest bow.
  • There will always be better people than you. You should never be satisfied with where you are in your shooting. If you do, you’ll stop making progress. Always go forward.
  • [People practice kyudo for all sorts of reasons, but] shooting to “polish the self” (jibun wo migakitai) is best. But it entails a lot of suffering.
  • Never run from a challenge. Once you are in the shajo, wherever it is, put everything you have into it. This is the meaning of “Kyudo is a fight with your self” (jibun to no tatakai). The enemy is your own desire (yokubukai jibun). [I would say fear also plays a role]
  • You learn through failure. It’s not fun, but necessary.
  • You should always engage all of your effort/energy, even in practice (not just events like shinsa).
  • There is only the shahou hassetsu. It’s simple. There is no difference between the hassetsu of a beginner and the hassetsu of a master. It’s the same. No more difficult. And therefore… difficult.
  • Budo is “martial art” but it takes time for it to become art.
  • It is important to strengthen the lower body. You should strengthen your tanden until someone pushing or pulling at the point the hakama knot (for men) cannot move you. [Normally when we watch people shoot the focus is on the upper body because that’s where most of the action appears to be, but sometimes I watch the person’s legs. Of course, you can’t see well because of the hakama, but sometimes you can see a person’s legs expand just before hanare. It’s interesting]
  • Nobiai should extend to infinity, with the image of the shoulder blades moving apart.
  • Some people have a problem where, because the target is essentially at the level of their feet, they push down on the bow. This causes the bow to drop at hanare. Don’t do that.
  • Don’t pull the bow… push it from daisan to kai.

The tutorial ended with a torture session. I mean hitotsu-mato sharei, but with a twist in which the younger people were asked to do the gensoku form. This is the longest of the three timings, where you remain in kiza until the person in front of you has backed up to the honza and begins to sit down. Agony. But occasionally, perhaps when only a couple of candidates pass the first part of the renshi exam, people are asked to do it, so I want to record some notes on that, as well as sharei in general:

  • Just as with the monomi-gaeshi timing, where your actions standing up are in time with the movements of the person in front of you. In gensoku the following actions occur simultaneously, using #1 to be the person in front and #2 the next person to shoot. When #1 brings his feet together as the final step of moving back to the honza, #2 brings his right hand to the hazu. When #2 rises onto his knees, #1 takes the half step back (before starting to sink down into kiza). When #2 starts to stand up, #1 matches that pace when sinking into kiza. Note that in the very first of these three, #1 is the leader, but in the 2nd and 3rd, #2 is the leader. So each needs to be careful and considerate of the other.
  • When backing up to the honza, o-mae must take great care to return to the same spot (honza) from which the group began, because it affects everyone else.
  • In the torikake timing, you wait until the person in front of you finishes torikake before you begin the process of standing up. Thus it is not the same as the shinsa-houshiki timing where you stand at the tsurune of the person two people ahead. There’s a delay.
  • O-mae especially must ensure that each move finishes with zanshin so that the others can stay synchronized. However zanshin does not mean stopping. Movement is still continuous.
  • Likewise, on the entry, o-mae should maintain the normal walking rhythm, but use smaller steps so that the people behind can keep up. Tall people in particular must match the stride length of shorter people in order to achieve a harmonious result. [In theory shorter people could take big steps but it doesn’t look good]
  • Especially at higher levels (I think he meant kyoushi), it’s best if everyone in the group shoots using the same form (reishakei or busshakei). Likewise you should pay attention to the angle and placement of the bow when you stand it up in front of you, and the angle of the arrows as you are waiting to stand, to make sure they’re all in a line from the perspective of the kamiza.
  • The correct footing at the exit (taijou) in sharei is not the same as for shinsa. In a shinsa you would turn toward the kamiza, bring both feet together, and then bow (yu), then turn to leave. But in sharei you use footing similar to that of the entry, where you turn toward the kamiza, then bow (yu) at the same time that you bring the feet together. Then turn to leave. [This was controversial, but after a while the consensus was that this is correct. The reason is that, when you are leaving the shajo in a shinsa, there is nobody behind you, so there is no reason to rush. But in sharei there will be someone behind you, therefore it is important to complete the action without delay.]
  • In the bow (rei) at the sadamenoza, you must maintain the toriyumi posture throughout. In particular this means that the arrows should stay at the same angle as the bow, and be pointed at the urahazu. Likewise when sitting in seiza at the sadamenoza, your buttocks should not rest on the heels, but be held above (just as with kiza).
  • In hitotsu-mato sharei, each person must be sure to shoot at the same spot as the person in front just did. What often happens is that each person stops a bit short of where the person in front was standing, and as that continues, one after another, the shooting location moves further and further back (away from the kamiza). Not only is this noticeable, it means that people end up standing at an angle to the target, which means they either have to alter ashibumi to shoot on a diagonal or keep their feet perpendicular to the azuchi and twist their upper body to achieve a proper aim. So don’t do that.

Also during this tutorial I got some advice for me personally. I know for sure that others received exactly the opposite advice, so it depends on the person and I’m not sure what led the teachers to recommend one way for one person and the opposite for someone else. That said, I was told that in yatsugae I should line up the edge of the bow just behind the tenmon line of my left hand. The idea is that when the bow rotates in my hand from uchiokoshi to daisan, the outer edge will move into the tenmon line. So in the spirit of “you need to experiment for yourself” (above), try it different ways and see what works. I suspect that this has to do with the size of the grip versus the size of a person’s hand. I was also told that I needed to bring the right hand closer to my head at daisan (a perennial problem). But after a couple of months of trying/experimenting, these changes have worked well, especially when combined with a change of attitude regarding what I’m doing and why.

Oh, and I should say, the other thing that has changed in the past month or so is that my teacher took a look at my bow and said it was getting out of shape (nari), so he showed me how to fix that, and returning it to the correct shape over time seems to have helped a great deal.

Finally, I’ll be going to Kyoto again this year with the usual suspects from our dojo. If you’re going and want to catch up, just let me know!

Posted in hanare, kai, kyudo, kyudo notebook, mind, sharei, sharei | 3 Comments

Kyudo Notebook: Practice, Practice

It’s been a long time, and what can I say? The election. But while all that was going on, practice continued, we had some really good tutorials, a lot of great yumi conversation over the New Year holidays… One of the nice things about being in Japan is that US politics rarely come up. Some people ask, “What is the matter with you people?” But then, Japanese politics, Korean politics, Chinese politics… nobody seems to be having a very smooth time of it these days. Fortunately Kyudo is an oasis that never runs dry. Frustrating maybe, but never dry!

At a tutorial back in November, I was taught a different way of forming tenouchi, the important points being to keep the left hand completely relaxed into daisan, and to make sure that at that time (and from there into kai) the outer edges of the bow fit into the grooves in the hand created by (1) the tenmon line and (2) the inside of the third (distal) joint of the lower three fingers. Beyond that the hand is just receiving the bow.

It’s taken me quite a bit of time to learn how to do that, with many ups and downs. In addition, I was told that I am indeed overdrawing the bow. Part of that is because, while my usual bow is being repaired, the one I have is a little weaker so I feel like I need to draw it more in order to feel like I have the right amount of resistance. But… this isn’t the way! Instead what I’m trying to do is draw in a fairly (but not entirely) relaxed sort of way, and only once I reach kai, begin expanding left/right up/down. This harks back to something Usami-sensei would tell us in Nagoya, but which I didn’t really understand until now (assuming I’m getting it now): the need to sort of have some “space” or “energy” in reserve when you get to kai, otherwise there won’t be anything you can do and you’ll be stuck there like a statue unless you make some unnecessary movements to force the release.

And then… I’m learning the fine art of not shooting too fast while continuing to expand (rather than just waiting). This seems to come down to some fairly subtle mental practice, because sometimes it’s hard to recognize that I am, in fact, releasing on purpose. Usually the tsurune is a clue after the fact, but I need to comprehend it mentally/spiritually, by feeling.

I also had a chance to talk with one of the hanshi about mushin. He said, if I understood correctly, that you develop this simply by concentrating on the shaho-hassetsu. That one-pointed concentration, focusing only on what you need to be doing, seems to be the path. So I try to do that.

At the same time, I realized recently that I’ve completely lost touch with my breathing, so I’m trying to find that rhythm again. And kiza… yes… kiza. Over the holidays that was my teacher’s main complaint. I need to be able to sit that way and stay still, no matter what it takes. So… practice.

One interesting side-note about kiza is that recently our heating stove broke and we had to call a repairman. It was -18 outside so yes… we really needed the repairman. He got it working, but I noticed that the entire time he was working, he sat in kiza, as if it were the most natural and relaxed thing in the world. Half an hour… maybe an hour… and he was still in kiza. Very impressive! True, he didn’t have the ikasu move, and he was moving around a bit, fixing one thing, checking another, but clearly (a) I have a long way to go, and (b) it is possible!

We have another tutorial next weekend with a hanshi from Aomori, and I’m hoping to get more feedback. Winter is good for that.

Oh, also, I’ll be going to Kyoto again this year, so perhaps some of you will, too?

Posted in kai, kyudo notebook, tenouchi, tsurune, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Kyudo Notebook: Arrow Lore

This past weekend I was in Tokyo for work, and a friend wanted to check out Hasegawa Kyuguten, a shop I’d never been to, and which is known for take-ya, so off we went. The idea was to drop in before moving on to another destination, but we were caught in a tsunami of arrow knowledge, and didn’t get out until late in the afternoon. In particular we learned about various ways that bow strength, arrow length, arrow weight, (bamboo) arrow wear over time combine with arrow stiffness, feather stiffness, type, and size… all the factors that need to be properly balanced to get things just right. Well, at least the equipment. The shooting (in particular the draw and, of course, hanare) are up to us.

But how to record all that? On the one hand maybe I don’t have to because there is a book, 「矢の知識」. If you click on the link (it’s to an Amazon page) you’ll see it’s not available online, but they had it at the shop. This is one of those books that has a sort of legendary status… I’d seen photocopies taken from it, but until now, never the book itself. Once it gets here (it’s big, so I mailed it) I hope to dive into it more. About 2/3 of it is photographs of birds and feathers.

One important point that I do remember from the marathon session is that, in the traditional view, what happens at the moment of release is that, essentially, the barbs of the fletchings “lie down” due to both their inherent flexibility and air resistance as the arrow shaft accelerates forward. Then at some point in the brief interval between the sha-i and the target, they rise back up. As you’d expect, while the barbs are lying down flat, they don’t contribute much to the stability of the arrow’s flight. It’s only as they stand up that they interact with the air stream and cause the arrow to spin around its long axis. However there’s a cost… when the barbs stand up, the increased air resistance causes the arrow to slow down.

This is where the stiffness of the feathers comes in. If you want the barbs to stand up quickly (or maybe not even lie down very much to begin with), you use feather that is stiff and perhaps a bit large. In this configuration the arrow’s construction will compensate for small errors in the shooting, such as a less-than-smooth hanare, so this is commonly what people in-the-know will use during taikai, shinsa, etc, when they want an extra margin of safety/stability. And indeed, it seems like most arrows are made like this. Certainly the turkey feathers used on aluminum arrows are quite stiff.

On the other hand, if a person wants the arrow to fly fast, and to be extra sensitive to errors in shooting (in order to make them visible, so you can learn to overcome them), they might choose feathers that are soft (so they remain lying down longer), and narrow. This explains, for example, why the fletchings on enteki-ya typically are made from soft feathers, and they’re much more narrow than in regular kinteki-ya. You can think of it as the difference between a passenger car and a highly responsive racing car. The first is comfortable, flexible, forgiving. The second does exactly what the driver tells it to do (for better or worse).

One recommended strategy was to start with relatively stiff feathers, then once you reach a kind of stability, switch to softer/narrower ones so that shooting errors will become more apparent. Then after you regain stability with those, you could try something even softer. And so on. I’m not sure how many people really do that, though. It’s psychologically difficult to give up stability once you’ve found it.

There was also something about the shafts and the shape. The most common these days are essentially straight, but at various times there have been variations: tapered so that the arrow is narrow at the front, thicker at the back (by the hazu), tapered the other way, or even tapered at both ends (chukurin). This, too, has an effect on flight and stability, as well as the center of gravity of the arrow. Also it was recommended that take-ya be taken in for a “tune up” every six months or so, especially at the beginning, to make sure they don’t warp, and to compensate for the wear at the forward end of the arrow caused by repeated abrasion as the arrow penetrates the azuchi.

Next time I go there I’ll try to record more of what was said.

There were some things that I’m still not sure about. For example, because my arrows are long, they also have to be heavy (or they’ll bend too much), and as a result I was told I really needed to be using a bow with a draw weight of 20kg or more. But my arrows fly just fine as it is, and my teacher sees no reason for me to jump to a stronger bow, so maybe this is just a case where a “rule of thumb” is only that, and there has to be some adjustment, plus or minus, for individual differences? Tempting to order another bow though…

Posted in equipment, kyudo, kyudo notebook, Uncategorized | 8 Comments