Having written about some of the practical books I’ve found useful, I thought I would have a go at some that focus more on the depths, and what, for lack of a better term, might be called the spiritual side.
If the world didn’t already have enough books named Zen and the Art of this or that, this book might well be subtitled Zen and the Art of Archery. Fifty-five years after Eugen Herrigel travelled to Japan and began practicing kyudo as a recommended way of approaching Zen, Kenneth Kushner began practicing Zen, and shortly thereafter, kyudo as an explicit part of a Rinzai tradition (Chozen-ji) emphasizing integration of zazen and martial arts or fine arts. Chozen-ji was founded by Omori Sogen Rotaishi, who practiced at Tenryu-ji, on the southwest side of Kyoto. Kushner’s main kyudo teacher was Suhara Koun Osho, from Engaku-ji in Kita-Kamakura. Coincidentally Tenryu-ji and Engaku-ji are both temples that I know well, and it was watching practice at the kyudojo inside Engaku-ji one afternoon that finally convinced me to take the plunge and begin practicing kyudo myself.
Kushner’s first Zen teacher, Tanouye Tenshin Roshi, recommended kyudo to him (rather than, for example, aikido) because he thought it was too late for Kushner, at the ripe old age of 29, to master the more physically demanding arts. And so the story begins.
But I don’t want to spoil it! So I’ll just outline.
This book is interesting in that it blends descriptions of kyudo with descriptions of Zen practice, which is only fitting since the two were integrated at Chozen-ji, each reinforcing and amplifying the other. Although the book does have sketches and brief descriptions of the hassetsu, the intention isn’t to teach kyudo but merely to give those unfamiliar with it a little background. Likewise with zazen. A little background. What Kushner builds on top of these foundations are chapters on:
- Breathing, posture, and concentration
- Koan Zen
- The naturally correct way
I have to be honest and say that I don’t completely agree with the author on several points, mainly related to the way he interprets Buddhist philosophy, but that doesn’t detract from the book and the words of a true practitioner are not to be taken lightly. As is typical of Zen, Kushner uses examples from ordinary daily life and his own experience to illustrate the principles he wants to discuss. This makes the book immediately accessible.
On a practical level, the topics that have made the greatest impression on me have been the focus on breathing, posture, and concentration (all obviously of great importance in both kyudo and zazen), and, in his treatment of koan practice, revealing the emphasis on the “perfect cross” that is the goal of the “inner aim” of kyudo. Probably I’m not at the point yet of being able to appreciate some of the other material. But step by step…
On a philosophical/spiritual level, what has had the greatest impact was the discussion of zanshin. I’m torn about whether to write about it or not because I don’t want to ruin it for anyone. For now let’s just say it gave me a new and larger perspective on my kyudo practice, something that I’m still trying to work out, and might well, for all I know, take a lifetime.
Intrigued? Well, for all that the book only runs about 100 pages. It’s available from Tuttle Publishing, US list price $16.95.