After being away most of last week, a very inspiring tutorial over the weekend with a teacher (hanshi, 8-dan) from Aomori. I wasn’t able to actually participate but could sit in and observe. Lots of great advice, lots of energy, and a few mysteries, too. It was a two-day event so rather than be chronological I’m going to organize things according to the hassetsu, but first some themes. Keep in mind that a lot of these points were given during individual instruction, so like a doctor prescribing treatments for patients with different illnesses, the teacher’s advice to one student might be different, or even opposite to, advice given to another. So while I think the “themes” below are pretty universal, the more detailed points should be considered food for thought and exploration rather than firm suggestions.
- As I have sometimes heard from people who practice other arts, such as Tea, the teacher emphasized no unnecessary movements, no wasted energy. As an example, he pointed out that many people will straighten up their posture at dozukuri, then collapse it for yugamae (busy, busy, busy), then straighten back up again to begin uchiokoshi. This cycle of correction and collapse is counter-productive. Instead, it’s better to assume the correct posture/form at the proper time and then maintain it throughout. I suspect this promotes an enhanced flow of energy, with each step building on all that has come before.
- Relaxation within uncompromising energy. It’s hard to explain this because I don’t yet grasp it myself, but he was very clear in telling some of the advanced people, in particular, that their upper body muscles were too hard, too tensed. This idea of relaxation within intense effort is common to all Japanese martial arts, and I suspect it is something that has to be found in experience. Exactly how it is found… I wish I knew! I suspect this is the same sort of thing as the idea of humility within resolute confidence. There is a relation here to Truth in kyudo that I cannot yet fathom. Perhaps the idea is that we should call these things up within ourselves spontaneously, without artifice?
- It’s quintessentially Japanese, but he emphasized that we should accept challenges and chosen suru. He made this point mostly to the very advanced people, already 7-dan and/or kyoshi, who, perhaps due to age, seemed to have given up trying for the next level. Among other things he pointed out that they have to act as examples for their students, but I think another reason is that people are just naturally at their best when striving to attain a difficult goal. Gambare!
- Forge ki through the fundamental postures and movements in harmony with the breath. Some students noticed that as they practised these forms they actually felt hot (which is convenient for Hokkaido in winter!), and I’m pretty sure the teacher attributed this to the enhanced energy of ki flowing through the body once they moved correctly.
- When walking, push forward from the rear leg, through the hips. This is in the Kyudo Kyohon (pp. 74-75 in the Japanese edition, pg. 38 in the English one), but he emphasized it. Also he had people do one exercise where they would inhale while taking a step, then exhale, repeating this for one or two lengths of the shajo. Then once they got the idea he had them switch to the usual rhythm. Maybe doing the shorter exercise first helps.
- As an aside, I was impressed to see 7-dan kyoshi practice sitting, standing, and walking as if it were new. It reminded me of a Western student of Zen being impressed that even one of the aged masters would ask to be whacked with the keisaku during a long retreat.
- He did correct several people on this point, usually because their feet weren’t far enough apart, but as an extension of the theme about no unnecessary movements he also noted how important it is to get every stage right. Everything builds on what has come before, and at the same time, the influence of the earlier steps is felt in the later ones. So… bad foundation, shaky house.
- Stand straight, and especially keep your head straight, similar to the way it is held in meditation. When a student moved from uchiokoshi into kai, the teacher would often adjust the tilt of his/her head up/down or left/right as they looked over their left shoulder toward the target. My favourite instance of this was when he stood behind one person and pulled the man’s hair straight up to keep him from tilting his head! Very often the teacher would also reach around and press firmly on the student’s lower back (koshi) to bring it somewhat forward. I guess there is a tendency to lean back.
- He emphasized creating and maintaining the rounded enso form from the beginning. For example, right at dozukuri, the left arm (holding the bow while resting on your left knee) should be held extended yet somewhat rounded.
- Take care to twist the right hand inward (hineri) at this point, and then keep it that way all the way to hanare. I think many people do this in yugamae as a way of preventing the arrow from falling, but it also has the effect of creating the cross between the thumb and the bowstring. In particular if, coming into (or at) kai, you twist the right hand outward again, thinking that it will make the release easier (as indeed it may!) what will happen is that your right hand will fly outward at release as the right elbow goes down, ruining all the work you’ve done so far. Also the arrow will tend to go behind the target. So… many effects from one little change.
- Throughout the tutorial he put considerable emphasis on tenouchi, but here the advice was often individualized to the point where it is hard to comment. Different schools and teachers have their characteristic tenouchi forms, and some of the students seemed to have invented their own! The key point is to set, and maintain, the correct form throughout, all the way to zanshin (not just hanare!). In particular it is important to avoid the beta situation where the wrist tilts up and you lose the open space between the bow and the base of the palm.
- Important to complete the enso form at this stage so that both elbows are at the same height, arms slightly rounded.
- As you lift the bow, the motohazu (bottom of the bow) should be aligned with the middle of your body.
- This is not specific to uchiokoshi, and indeed it may be a matter of different schools or of styles, but this teacher emphasized zanshin at the end of each step of the hassetsu. This not to say that they would stop moving. I’m pretty sure he wanted us to always be moving internally, but from an outside perspective it might appear that there was a pause. I should clarify this, but he talked about sae, or clarity, not just at hanare but seemingly everywhere. Be clear. Be firm. No equivocation. No suki. That was my impression.
- From daisan into kai, he emphasized using the whole body in the draw, the elbows, the lower back… having the image of the shoulder blades becoming flat, bringing oneself inside the drawn bow. It’s hard to describe in words what he showed with gestures. 「体を使って弓を引く」
- At daisan the target should appear over/beside the left elbow. It may be individual, but in any case it is important to always draw the bow so that the target is seen at the same point in relation to the left arm. That way even if you are shooting at an angle from the target, rather than head-on, your aim will be true.
- From daisan to kai, the movement should be slow at first, then fast, and then slow again. I am not sure at what point the transitions in speed are to be made, but my guess is that the “fast” part begins shortly after the initial drawing begins equally from both sides, then slows down again as you are almost to kai. One reason for this may be to reduce any shaking that begins as power is poured into the draw. I’ve noticed that some advanced people will show some shaking as they draw, but then settle down completely once they are closer to kai. Perhaps by drawing faster, this can be minimized? Must experiment.
- This in particular was the point where he emphasized keeping the upper body relaxed and “soft” while (I think) the muscles of the lower body, especially the backs of the legs, were taut. I need to verify the part about the legs.
- Very often the teacher would have people enter daisan at a point higher than they were accustomed to. Often this was very subtle, but still there. Beginning the draw high and “large” seems to be characteristic of this teacher’s method.
- He also put great emphasis on pushing forward with the oshi-te, really all the way. It seems like that should be the primary force involved, even while there is an even balance between left and right. It is not merely formal, though, as will be seen in hanare.
- The left pushing action that began in hikiwake should never stop, but rather continue into and through kai. He would shout Oshinagara! Oshinagara! Tomanaide! Push! Push! Don’t stop! Except you have to imagine an Aomori accent.
- Maintain the vertical line (tatesen). It’s as though energy is flowing up from the tanden, through the lower back, up between the shoulder blades, and then on to infinity, I suppose.
- The arrow should touch the cheek at the same moment that the string touches the chest, and then nobiai begins. There is no stopping.
- Hanare… it goes without saying that he would chide people for releasing the arrow rather than creating a natural release. Also I am pretty sure that, as with Yoshimoto-sensei, he likewise felt that other people were merely enduring the tension of kai until hanare occurred, whereas what they want to see is something more active. Hard to fathom this one, too.
- A signature point of this teacher’s presentation was that the left hand should not need to (and indeed should not) move at hanare. The bow turns in the hand, but the hand neither changes shape, nor moves up or down, left or right. He demonstrated this several times and it is very impressive to see. The tateyoko cross is truly maintained, all the way.
- Interestingly, he did not give any guidance about how to make that happen except the note that appears under zanshin, below. Talking with S-sensei at lunch on the second day, I asked if the way to accomplish this was to keep the left hand very taut and hard, essentially preventing it from moving, but she said no, the reality is just the opposite. You need to be relaxed. Apparently achieving this kind of release relies on having tenouchi and (I presume) everything else in just the right balance, so that it occurs naturally. This is quite fascinating and a real challenge for an engineer accustomed to fixing problems by doing something. Of course, even this does require doing something, but the spirit of the doing is not the same. It’s as though, rather than hitting a nail with a hammer, you instead arrange the entire universe so that it will happen naturally. Or something! It’s a mystery and yet so simple, so obvious to anyone who watches.
- As mentioned above, this teacher sometimes emphasized zanshin at every stage of the hassetsu, and I think this all builds toward the final moment.
- Very often he would shout at people to maintain/extend zanshin, even if the difference was only subtle. Something that happens often, even with highly advanced people, is that once the arrow hits the target, they visibly relax (many people relax even sooner if they miss). It should not be this way. You should shoot as if the target is miles away, and you have to maintain zanshin, with that energy propelling the arrow, until it finally does hit. Maybe it is just an image, and the real target is internal, but I find it an effective image nevertheless. I wonder if this is one of the keys to achieving a release where the left hand does not move or change shape?
I found this whole tutorial very exciting, and if nothing else will carry me through to 5-dan, the prospect of being able to participate in these kinds of tutorials will. This is also the first time I’ve felt like part of a lineage of a some kind in kyudo… it is clear that my main teacher bases his teaching on many of the same ideas that this hanshi does, and the influence is probably quite direct. This changes things somehow, though the real test starts at tomorrow’s practice, assuming we’re not snowed in. Winter has definitely arrived.