Buddhist Notebook: Thomas Merton

I’ve been reading a thought-provoking book with the most wonderful title I’ve ever seen, Zen and the Birds of Appetite (New York: New Directions, 1968). It contains a collection of articles and essays by Ven. Thomas Merton as well as some back-and-forth dialogue with Suzuki Daisetsu, who begins the exchange with his comments on Merton’s selection of teachings from the Desert Fathers (published as The Wisdom of the Desert (New York: New Directions, 1960)).

I’ve always enjoyed the Desert Fathers, their words, their actions, their lives… the very idea of them. Much of their wisdom reminds me of things my Buddhist teachers have also said, so long as I remain flexible and am willing to interpret references to God or to Satan a bit more metaphorically than the monks themselves would have been comfortable with. I realize that Christians could say I’m missing the main point in doing this, but I hope I’m getting at least the shape of it, and anyway, what else can I do? I feel the same way when reading Merton. Often in his writing seems so close to Buddhism that it’s a bit of a shock when he introduces God into the discussion. But the book has so much to explore that it’s worth a few shocks, and it fascinates me that despite doctrinal differences these contemplatives would say and home in on such similar things. My only regret is that Merton does not focus on what Christian monks do about it.

Anyway, here’s the passage that caught my attention the other day (pg. 120):

One has to “wish” for this one realization alone and give up wishing for anything else. One has to forget the quest for any other “good.” One has to devote himself with his whole heart and and soul to the recovery of his “innocence.”

This speaks to me in many ways, not least because lately I have been thinking about life and death and what I really should be doing with the time I have left. By recovery of innocence Merton is talking about a radical change, a “complete upheaval and transformation of one’s whole life,” a recovery of Eden, or rather, of the mind that existed in that metaphorical place and time before there was knowledge of good and evil. What characterizes that recovery is a transcendence of the self. You can see here what he is referring to (pg. 127):

The knowledge of good and evil begins with the fruition of sensible and temporal things for their own sakes, an act which makes the soul conscious of itself, and centers it on its own pleasure. It becomes aware of what is good and evil “for itself.” As soon as this takes place, there is a complete change of perspective, and from unity or wisdom (identified with emptiness and purity) the soul now enters into a state of dualism.

Soul, of course, is a problematic term for Buddhists. Just take it to mean consciousness, and then compare with the way Sonam Thakchoe describes the function of conceptual elaborations, prapañca, in his The Two Truths Debate (Boston: Wisdom, 2007, pg. 108):

Although the subjective and objective elements are interlocking and mutually dependent, the operation of prapañca leads to the conceptual bifurcation of those elements into subject and object. Just as the subject is split off from experience, and is erroneously conceived as distinct from the cognitive act itself, so also the objective element, conceived as the external world of objects, is equally divorced from cognitive experience. This error leads consciousness to view itself as an immutable ego standing against the world of changing phenomena — it solidifies the idea of the self as substantial and independently existing.

Particularly in the context of certain sutras, this recalls some of the earlier musings about feeling, which I continue to see as a critical pressure point for practice. If you look at the Twelve Links, what do you find? Contact, feeling, craving, grasping… A person can’t really do much about contact, but they can control both feeling and their response to it.

Merton continues (back on pp. 120-121):

The innocence and purity of heart which belong to paradise are a complete emptiness of self in which all is the work of God, the free and unpredictable expression of His love, the work of grace. In the purity of original innocence, all is done in us but without us, in nobis et sine nobis. But before we reach that level, we must also learn to work on the other level of “knowledge” — scientia — where grace works in us but “not without us” — in nobis sed non sine nobis.

I had a really nice summation paragraph, but WordPress lost it somehow. One thing that struck me is that, although it may seem a bit mundane at first, there is a relationship here to kyudo in that we must use technique (knowledge) to transcend technique, and in so doing to recover the innocence that comes from knowing that this concrete conception of  self is not only unnecessary (who releases the arrow?), but was never really there in any substantial way to begin with. Or at least that’s the direction my investigation is going at the moment. We’ll see.

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13 Responses to Buddhist Notebook: Thomas Merton

  1. ceterum censeo says:

    thanks for the reminder about Thomas Merton… one for the list … I feel a Christmas present coming on ; )
    When you look at religions on a philosophical level the differences seem to blur. Well, I guess the human experience and the questions we all ask ourselves are the same.

    The central theme in the Merton excerpts of innocence, unity, duality,… is just conditioning your mind to naturally want what is good I felt.
    Duality is a world in which divine and worldly desires exist. Both exert a pull on the individual. To get past our worldly desires we work at doing right until we become right.
    You become what you do. In a word, do good and you become good.
    It is a little different from your ideas I feel, the principle is to use the knowledge (scientia) of good to guide your actions until you loose any sense of there being anything else (innocence) and goodness works though you naturally (grace).

    All religions agree that we are more than the sum of our bodily functions.
    Trying our best (at whatever) is what elevates us beyond a base animal existence where we only seek to gratify our needs and wants.
    Merton tell us to wish only for good but he also tells us that good does not come from wishing for good but from doing what is good. Only when we try does grace begin to work through us.

    If you must apply this to archery…

    Shoot correctly and you will become… a good archer… well, actually you’ll become more than that, the goodness will become a part of your nature. In its ultimate form it will find expression through you in your shooting. Goodness/divinity will be working through you naturally – in nobis et sine nobis – you as instrument not actor.
    Can’t believe I am mixing Kyudo and Christian mysticism… : o

    Yes, you are right we use “technique” – or more to the point, the continuous exercise of technique (scientia?) – to get from the (worldly) duality to (divine) unity.
    It does not need to be a religious experience – through continuous practice you become what you do – a dancer, a stone carver, an archer…
    Anyone who dedicates his life to the study of an art and strives for perfection will eventually find that the art is within him and elevates him.
    The point here is that it is the striving which forms and improves us.
    The quest for perfection is what makes us complete as humans. We’ll always fail somewhere but not trying is letting yourself shrink as human beings.

    I am afraid not being a Buddhist I am with Nietzsche some of the way where buddhism is concerned… be careful it does not turn into an escape.

    The teaching of kyudo is very clear, you execute each step of shooting accurately and consciously, form setting your gaze at the target to kai, hanare,… you aim, you draw, you shoot,…
    What would be the point if YOU do not shoot… if there is no you, no arrow, no target?

    Shooting (anything) can become a metaphysical act if it becomes a part of your nature and as such finds expression through you (as distinct to by you).
    Whatever your world view is, shooting at your level is a conscious act of will. Maybe you hope to loose your sense of self through shooting – fine. That can happen through a lifetime of studying the bow. Meandering around in you mind over self and what is or isn’t there will only serve to give you license to shoot without trying – thus missing the point of both kyudo and of Merton and making your practice a waste of time.

    Shoot with all the sincerity and clarity of intention you can muster or don’t bother drawing your bow at all.

    Happy shooting and please excuse my rudeness but I do so love a good rant ; )

  2. karamatsu says:

    Definitely a good present for yourself! We disagree right now about the meaning of the excerpts, but of course I’m looking at them in context, and all you have to go on are the excerpts themselves, so it’s not really fair. At this point in the conversation Merton is responding to some of Suzuki’s criticisms and I think they might surprise you, so I don’t want to spoil it.

    What would be the point if YOU do not shoot? Perhaps to reveal the absence of just that YOU?

    • ceterum censeo says:

      …”What would be the point if YOU do not shoot? Perhaps to reveal the absence of just that YOU?”…

      That’s what troubles me: it is all about “YOU”- you are not even there and it is still about you. What it should be about is the study of the BOW.
      How are you going to learn to shoot, and you are still learning aren’t you, if you are staring at our own navel?
      You are on an archery field holding a bow and a long pointy thing ; ) do you really think letting an arrow fly is a sensible thing when you are not fully present?
      Seriously, there are many for whom shooting is about just about everything else but the shooting – the robes, ceremony, meditation, spirit,…
      You can usually recognize them by their shooting – they are the ones that don’t aim and have no control of the bow. The bow drops in the hand, swings this way and that, the arrows rarely hit. They then tell you it is about meditation not hitting…
      Does saying it isn’t about the shooting not negate the point of training to shoot? Does it not impair training at the very least?
      If your shooting is about revealing the absence of you what ultimately is the point in doing it? You could just meditate on doing it rather than take up a teacher’s valuable time.

      It all seems just an exercise in self exploration.
      That is the bit that bothers me and that is why “kyudo-as-meditation” is such a pernicious idea.
      It gives people license to ignore correct technique, to excuse themselves from trying and to get wrapped up in the narcissism of experiencing their own glorious self (or lack thereof) through shooting.
      It renders the shooting pointless and it negates the potentially beneficial effects of the exercise.
      What are you hoping to find? One day an arrow will hit. You will have let it fly without thinking. That will be proof it works, will it?
      I have had to read thee most toe curling twaddle about this experience before now, about how shooting is “re-experiencing” this that and whatever, the “wind the sun, the air”. Why does a person choose a bow to experience the wind, sun and air when a bicycle is so much more a appropriate?!
      Everyone feels it is their privilege to make up what shooting is about and it is always an exercise in looking at yourself, never hard critical study of the art of shooting the bow.

      The point of doing something so simple yet endlessly refined as kyudo is to refine the person doing it.
      Unless you really try to learn, to feel, to live the act of shooting you are totally wasting the opportunity on offer.

      Just my take on it of course. I am usually wrong – I am especially wrong for getting worked up about it I know. Not kyudo-like to disagree… but then it is only the internet and what would be the point if everyone was so polite they never shared anything… I read your stuff, it is engaging so…

      Finally, the Merton thing… it was a slightly silly and frivolous exercise to interpret the excerpts in that way. I do not know the context, I just made the assumption that the meanings of the terms are used in their “standard” sense.
      Merton was, of course, an avid student and admirer of eastern philosophy so the meanings here may well differ.
      My take on it probably just reflects my views.
      I feel we become what we do. We grow by trying our best. If we continually strive, we are not only fully human but also as close to the “divine” as we’ll ever be.

      Anyway, good luck exploring whatever it is you feel you need to. I hope I did not give (undue) offense.

  3. karamatsu says:

    No worries. I’m not always sure what you’re reacting to, though, since I wasn’t a part of those previous conversations, and don’t want to guess what people may have meant. The important thing is that we agree that the point of “doing something so simple yet endlessly refined as kyudo” is to refine or to develop the person doing it, rather than just, say, punching holes in paper at a distance. Where we differ may just be in our notions of what that refinement entails, or leads toward… our image of what we are after.

    As far as the self, who or what is fully present (or not), I think we are getting tangled up because these are technical terms in Buddhism. It’s an error to assume that the absence of a self implies not caring, not striving. Buddhist practice isn’t about losing the self in the sense of forgetting something that is there. It’s a recognition that the self we conceive and defend does not exist at all, and never has existed. So if good shooting exists now or ever has existed, then it, too, did so without the existence of a self. So I think there may be a misunderstanding.

    Here, though: “Does saying it isn’t about the shooting not negate the point of training to shoot? Does it not impair training at the very least?” notice that you’re make a possibly unwarranted substitution of “shooting” for “hitting.” Many people say that the point is not hitting, but I’ve never heard anyone say that the point is not (right) shooting. That right shooting should serve purposes besides hitting certainly does not negate its value. Even at tournaments like the All-Japan it’s rarely the ones who hit most reliably who receive the highest scores. The masters are looking for other things.

    But of course, they are not looking for sloppy shooting, or for someone who doesn’t care. Buddhist teachers aren’t looking for that, either.

    • ceterum censeo says:

      Thanks for the explanation.
      I do appreciate the effort. And I am glad you kept your sense of humor about it too. Buddhism must be working ; )

      I have my opinions about archery and meditation and as there is so much written in support of the concept I just like to add my caveat every once in a while.

      Interesting you picked up on the “hitting”-“shooting” variation. I considered whether to put “hitting” again or generalize to say “shooting”. To me not caring if you hit is tantamount to not caring about the technique of shooting. The point (not the only, but A point) of shooting is to hit, else why bother hanging the target. A hit shows you something is right. Many things may still be wrong of course but not hitting and not caring about it is doubly wrong. Using correct technique would result in a hit, not caring therefore indicates a lack of interest in the technique of shooting.
      From reading what you actually write most of the time I can see you do not fall into that camp anyway. You do compete and you seem to be ambitious to improve your hit rate.
      I just have a thing about kyudo and meditation appearing together and people getting too wrapped up in the whole self-exploration. As soon as the shooting hits a dry patch – which it inevitably will – there is a strong temptation to use that as an excuse… “well, it isn’t really about that anyway…”
      I just would not encourage that kind of thinking in someone trying to learn it.
      The point here is that worrying what shooting is about “really” is the domain of masters not students. This refers to the “spiritual” stuff not the form just to be clear. Form is the vessel that carries the knowledge about shooting technique. Form is technique.
      I appreciate your point on correct form and I agree with you.
      On competitions etc… not that different here from Japan I think. Well, the scale may be but you need to aim and shoot correctly and marks are awarded for form as well as hits.

      When I read what you (and so many others) write there are two points I can never reconcile …
      Detachment is one and what actually constitutes meditating is the other.
      Aside from not understanding why you’d want to relinquish ownership of your own actions I also fear having an ulterior aim or motive for learning Kyudo may hinder training. Detaching your intention (or dividing your intention) form your action is bound to.
      Kyudo is an activity where every slight lapse of concentration, every hesitation, every imbalance will lead to failure. Isn’t a desire to do it and to succeed at it essential to learning? So you want to learn – to be skillful – for that you need to be ambitious for control – skill is control.
      How can you learn without wanting control, ownership, the power to determine at will what your equipment does?
      If the whole idea is not to care, to “own” or to control, why then invest time in training to do just that?
      Why do something if doing it for the base enjoyment of it (fun and success) is supposed to be “wrong”, if the ultimate aim is to feel nothing – no joy at a good shot, no sense of anticipation or challenge every time you draw the bow? And if you no longer feel those why would you carry on? Then you really are just perforating paper for the hell of it. Hard to put this into words… but isn’t doing archery to stop caring about being good at it, about your friends there, about the thrill and the love you have for doing it a complete nonsense? Or is the nonsense purely in my jumbled misunderstanding of it?
      And what of your teacher, I am assuming he/she is trying to pass on the joy of archery and train an archer not a monk?
      Nothing wrong with being a monk but why is kyudo practice “meditation” at all…?
      Meditation to me is work. Sitting staring at the wall trying to control your thoughts is meditation (and hard work).
      Learning archery with my friends is fun and a hobby, it is challenging but not work in the sense of being something you only do for its spiritual benefits.
      Can you seriously tell me it isn’t just a lot of fun and that you do not just want to shoot an arrow and another and another…
      I do aim to shoot correctly, I try to control my emotions, breathing, concentrate, all that. But when I do it it is fun and when you do it it is important spiritual work?
      Isn’t that a bit of a cop-out, to use something that to you is obviously a lot of fun too and act like it is work… like you want the fun to go away?
      You meditate to free yourself from the terrible suffering of doing something enjoyable with your friends? Really?
      If any thing I do for the love of it is meditation so long as I concentrate and don’t speak while doing it then there may be meditative potential in all kinds of things – Zen in the Art of eating gourmet food perhaps…? Just really slowly and quietly savour every last nuance of it and imagine it all wasn’t there…
      Am I getting this completely wrong? I must be…

      I’ll have to keep reading along and try to understand better.

      Thanks for your indulgence.

  4. ceterum censeo says:


    well as usual I went over the top…

    I just rattle these comments off quickly. I frequently get frustrated when I can’t really get across what I mean properly so I tend to go on a bit… well more than a bit…
    It sounds aggressive – it’s not really meant to.
    I am sure you are sick of me by now – so, last and final attempt… honest ; )
    It absolutely isn’t my place to tell you what to do, I know that. Still I dug myself this hole so I’ll have one more try… I’ll try not to get lost in facetious nonsense this time.
    I tried to explain in your terms, it does not seem to be working for either of us. I’ll try using my own…
    After this you won’t hear from me again, other than by your expressed invitation.

    So here is where I come from, I’ll give you a little look into my world…
    a lot of these guys are people I know, some are friends,…
    One of them described me (very kindly) as “one of the UK’s most significant makers”. I am no longer in the UK, I never was significant, but I am a maker. Health etc permitting I make stuff every day – all kinds of stuff, for work, practice, relaxation,… it is what I do and what I am.
    If you look at the people in the link index above, what do you think they are like?
    All passionate about what they do, all working 10-20-30 years, all refuse to say “that will do” to any job that can be done better,…
    The are authentic, unpretentious, the are what they do. Intent is matched to execution – hand to heart…
    So how do you become an engraver? By willing yourself to be one? By reading all about it? By doing a course? By working,… a year,… two,… three,…?
    You can understand what an engraver is in a second but you only become one by doing it all your life.
    You work – every day of your life until eventually engraving will be what you do and an engraver will be what you are.
    If along the way you have honed your sensitivity and your creative eye you will be more than a good technician, you’ll be an artist.
    Your work will speak through you and you will speak through it.

    You can learn the basics of engraving in a few weeks, but does that make you an engraver?
    You can learn the bare bones of archery in a few weeks too…
    Kyudo looks deceptively simple but (I don’t need to tell you) is actually very complex – just like scratching lines into metal with a sharp steel point…

    So, can a beginner just decide that his engraving is “about” something, that it has spirituality for example?
    I don’t think he can. The concept may be there but the artistry won’t, the sensitivity, the ease of expression and the spirit won’t.
    For spirit to be there your heart, your mind and your hands have to work in complete unison. That comes only through endlessly working and refining your sensitivity and skill.

    I’ve trained a fair few people, few understand it when they start. Learning a physical skill is very different from learning academically and you really can’t expect to be able to do something merely because you understand the concept.
    Take the concept “hammer” for instance… so, a hammer, there you are: a handle, a head… pick it up… handle + head + hit = hammer
    For me “hammer” is a whole world. Infinite forms, weights, uses, to bend, stretch, compress, straighten, to drive tools, to move metal in any direction I choose, each one different of character, weight, balance, dynamics. I have literally hundreds of them, no two are alike and depending what I am like I may chose a different one for the same job from one day to the next.

    I approach kyudo in the same way – infinitely nuanced technique, each bow different and different every day…
    I don’t claim this is the only way, just that learning a physical skill is “understanding by doing” and that it requires infinite control and sensitivity.
    To me this is what is at odd with the meditation idea.
    If you never stop learning how can you get to meditation?

    Sure, anything can be meditation – kyudo too, but when does it become meditation?
    Take Graham Short (http://thehandsofgenius.com/) for example, he cuts lettering down to 1/10mm in hight.
    The work is so fine he needs to control his heart rate because the changing pressure of blood pulsing through his veins causes the tool to slip. To do this he learned to control his heart rate at a steady 30bpm resting and to engrave his strokes in between the heartbeats.
    It seems meditative – quiet, controlled breathing, heart rate, absolute concentration on the activity you are engaged in. Meditation to some… or just a way of life to the craftsman.
    Is that meditation or just infinitely learning – honing your sensitivity and control? Can it be meditation when it it is never the same and you react millisecond by millisecond – in less than a heartbeat – to what your tool and material tell you?
    Kyudo is like that too.

    You can easily meditate on something simple like sweeping a floor or breathing because you already do it naturally and without thinking. To meditate what you do is to do it REALLY without thinking and voila! meditation…
    Meditating through kyudo I feel will only happen to one who does it as naturally as breathing. That is not you (or me).

    The point of all this is that deciding you want your kyudo practice to be this, that or whatever is a nonsense.
    As long as you are practicing and having a hard time getting it right you are doing no more than learning your trade.
    Wanting it to be meditation does not make it meditation. It may even make it a total wast of time. That was my caveat to you…
    Wanting to be a master is like ordering up a fancy kimono and striped hakama – they don’t not make you a master either. That was the point of the mirror comment in the beginning.
    Willing something to be leads to play-acting, dressing up, pretending.

    That is the central point of my message to you – authenticity and aspiration – authenticity results from doing without aspiration. Aspiration beyond one’s capabilities results in pretension.
    Do not worry about the “self” and what is “real”, worry about your aspiration and the distortion it is causing to your own view of your practice.

    You can’t decide that an activity is spiritual any more than you can decide to produce a piece of engraving that has merit, let alone spirit.
    You can work towards it but you can not decide to start at the top and shoot meditatively any more than you can decide to produce great art.
    With kyudo you are trying to start at the top I feel – to do the work of a master (and coveting the clothes too) before you were even an apprentice.
    It simply isn’t possible to learn such a varied and complex skill and meditate doing it at the same time.

    Maybe this makes sense now.
    Perhaps you do work as an artisan, perhaps you are a musician then you’d know what I mean. I suspect you do not.
    I respect your enthusiasm but you’d be the first person I’ve ever met who has mastered a physical skill by aspiration and conceptualizing and without the clarifying effect of time – a lot of time…

    My personal passion lies in the culture and tradition of physical arts and that is why I write here.
    Kyudo to me is a hobby not what I “do”, certainly no “religion”.
    The only reason I care about what people do with it is because it is an ancient physical art.
    There is so much knowledge and culture in the art of shooting which is slowly being stripped away and lost. That is what upsets me.
    Kyudo is becoming all ceremony, all aspiration – hollowed out from the inside without any real content.
    A hundred years ago kyudo was kyujitsu – bow skill. Each ryu had its own specific technique, often even a preferred style of bow.
    Now we all use the same bland bows, do the bland unified taihai, worry more about how to most gracefully get out of our kimono sleeve than about how we shoot…
    Now it is all about “spirit” we are told. To me this “spirit” is no more than another word for “aspiration”.

    Ok, that is all from me.
    I’ll leave you in peace now.
    press (Post Comment)?
    Oh what the hell…
    here we go…

    • Zen says:

      This writer sound familiar…

      I will have to read this whole play in depth during some free time at work Sat. Most interesting, reMarkably so .

  5. karamatsu says:

    Thanks! And sorry for the delay. Your notes are very engaging. Please feel welcome anytime. I just had a bit of a computer disaster at work yesterday (my fault) and had to focus on cleaning that up before I could sit down and write, or even think about, anything else. Still made it to kyudo practice, though 😉

    Your intuition to write about things from your point of view was a good one, otherwise I would end up writing more about Buddhism than you want to know. The key things there, I think, are (1) that detachment doesn’t mean indifference. It’s just the opposite of attachment, and has a very specific meaning. Likewise (2) the reason someone relinquishes ownership of this or that is because the self which appears to own (again a very specific meaning) does not, and never has, existed, yet the misconception of such a self is the root of so much suffering. As for meditation (3) there are many kinds, so it’s hard to generalize, but certainly all involve being fully present. It may be work. It may be terribly difficult or disturbing. Or it can be extraordinarily blissful. It depends on the mind of the person doing it. Ultimately it’s a technique for transforming the mind. If you had to be a Buddha before you could meditate, there would never be Buddhas, so of course you can meditate while you are still learning. There’s no other way.

    I think we agree about many things. For example, that the whole idea of “hitting is not the point” doesn’t suggest indifference, but just a shifting of emphasis from the external sign to the internal mental and physical processes that bring the external sign into being. Likewise I agree that this can be misunderstood and even abused, though I’ve never run into anyone who did that. Buddhism is similar in many ways, really… it’s a “middle way,” but people are often extreme and go off the deep end one way or the other, missing the opportunity that exists right in front of them. A lot of times it’s due to preconceived ideas: thinking rather than doing. So I’m sensitive to this idea of focusing on the doing and letting the experience come from that, but I need to spend some time mulling over what you’ve said here in this latest note. There’s much food for thought in both of them!

  6. karamatsu says:

    So I’ve been reading and looking at engraving. Thank you for the introduction to your world. I have a lull right now but it could disappear at any moment. Let’s see how far I get…

    About meditation, the thing is, as I kind of implied in the previous note, for Buddhists, meditation isn’t something you wait to do after you’ve completed your learning. It’s the way you learn, the way you do, the way you transform your mind into what you’ve decided you want it to become. Likewise Buddhist teachings themselves are largely just instructions, and like all instructions, they only bear fruit for the people who put them into practice. In this way it’s exactly like what you have described of engraving and kyudo except that in Buddhist meditation there is little need for external materials: you work primarily with (and entirely upon) your own mind. In fact… I have on occasion felt a similar frustration when talking to academic Buddhist Studies people. “Do you practice what you study?” “Why, no. That would interfere with my academic objectivity and I would have a hard time getting published.”


    Well, actually the last part is true. Practitioners do have a harder time getting taken seriously by academic publishers, so the system breeds non-practitioners… people who know Pali and Sanskrit and know the words of the texts way better than I do, yet they have no idea at all what the words are for… what they really mean. It’s a bit of a trip sometimes, talking to them.

    But in any case, I don’t worry about whether kyudo is or is not meditation. I’m not sure that’s the right question. For me everything is ideally an opportunity for meditation, so naturally, kyudo is, too. For the friend who beat me at the taikai last weekend, it may just be competition and a way to release pressure. But again, there are many kinds of meditation. People have some preconceived ideas from the media or books. It’s not all mushin. Some traditions give pride of place to analytical meditation, for example. Others, not so much. I’m not sure how much can be said about whether this or that activity is or isn’t meditation, or if we should even try. What for?

    But that said, a while back my teacher gave me a copy of an article in which the author talked about using kyudo to work on the mind, and one of his points was indeed that, before someone can really focus on developing their mind/spirit, they need to get the technique down to the point where it can be done without the need to think about what you are doing. This, of course, makes perfect sense. If you are thinking about how far to let the bow turn in your hand into daisan, you can’t be fully concentrated on watching your mind at the same time. But that said, you can use a corner of your mind to observe the mind while it is doing other things. I’m sure most meditators have this experience and will know what I mean. And the author wasn’t saying, “Wait until you can do this.” Only that, for the beginner, attention will necessarily be divided.

    Likewise in Illuminated Spirit, Onuma Hideharu responded to the idea that one should develop technique alone first, and leave spiritual development until later by saying, “If, someday, you want to have a strong, beautiful pine that towers above your home and garden, when do you plant the seed? Do you wait until you are old and feeble? I think not. You must plant the seed early and nurture it carefully over the years. It grows as you do — stronger and grander each day.” [pg. 27]

    Nevertheless I do appreciate what you are saying and am not dismissing it. You are serious and I take you seriously. But I’m out of time right now and must run to catch the bus to the dojo. First things first!

  7. ceterum censeo says:

    thanks for your reply.
    You are right in most things.
    I am sure I just don’t understand meditation as you do. How could I, I only have second hand experience of it. And as you say, many who write about it may well have, and therefore present in their writings, a distorted view too.
    Zen and kyudo do go together very well. My problem really is that it is very often done so toe-curlingly badly, as a result of which practice turns to pure pretension. (eg here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w6iNiTZktPc – complete with plastic water feature and bad pipe music…)

    There is a meditative element in kyudo of course and working on that is a good thing. My caveat was only about high aspirations leading to pretension and a distortion of ones practice. I once read a description of a kyudo session where members sat in meditation for a number of hours and then each shot one arrow. The aspiration was of course spiritual shooting so the “kyudo practice” was distorted to exclude any meaningful shooting practice… was it more spiritual for it? I doubt it. In the minds of the practitioners perhaps…
    There will be people who watch the above youtube clip or read that kuydo is sitting cross legged for 3 hours and they will take this to be fact. People look for the spiritual in kyudo and the often find it in pretentious nonsense like this. I just try to present another side of it.
    That does of course in no way negate what anyone else likes to do.

    And we can, of course, do more than one thing at any one time.
    Kyudo does teach us mindfulness among other things and as we are mindful of those around us while still concentrating on our practice there should be room for a bit of introspection too.
    I am sure there is. You are right.
    And for you that is easier as you practice meditation. You most likely have better control of your mind already and are more able to “compartmentalize” in that way. Me, I spent decades training my hands so that is my way of experiencing the world and communicating with it.
    I can see the balance between your spiritual and “technical” quest in kyudo. It is good.
    And you are more “cerebral” than me so for you what you do is absolutely correct and authentic.

    excuse my abusing your hospitality in this way but I must say hi to my old sparring partner Zen.
    Hi Zen
    so, we meet again ; )
    the internet is a small place
    hope you are well.
    Yes, new name…
    I feel a bit like Cato the Elder, hence the new alias. He is said to have ended every speech he gave in the “ceterum censeo…” – “Furthermore…”. Cato’s “furthermore” was a call to destroy Carthage, mine is to focus on studying the bow.

  8. karamatsu says:

    Thanks! As you say, some of this may just be a matter of what works best for different people. We all have different histories, abilities, preferences, ideas. Your intuition about me is correct. In my work I live in a world of thought and logic for the most part, so much so sometimes that it’s difficult to return to the world of human beings. I sometimes call it to a form of temporary autism. Both Buddhism and kyudo have been profoundly important discoveries for me, much more important to me now than my job, which probably means I’m doing the wrong thing. But that’s a topic for another time!

    Also there is something completely different that I wanted to ask: have you ever done much with gold leaf on detailed metal surfaces? One of my non-work tasks involves putting gold leaf on a bronze statue of Shakyamuni. It’s a task my teacher gave me, for reasons known only to him, but I’m essentially on my own, trying to figure things out as I go. I wondered if I could ask for some pointers now and then?

    Meanwhile I’ll look at the YouTube video. Fortunately I don’t remember linking to any with pipe music, good or bad!

    • ceterum censeo says:


      Yes, you are ok with your own links ; )
      The clip I posted just illustrates the pretentiousness so beautifully I felt.
      One the one hand I feel terribly mean being mean about it. Part of me goes kyudo in Equador! how cool is that!?
      Still,… meditating in front of plastic fountain, striding around in a darkened dojo in fancy white kimono, the ghastly pipes,… I guess to some this is kyudo.
      …just like your kyudo training? I thought not ; )
      The shooting, what little you could see of it, was atrocious (in my never very humble opinion), and the bow – aaarghh, the poor bow – at around 7:00 (and in the stills after 10:30) you see a bow that looks like it has never felt the hand of any person who knows how to shoot it – totally out of balance, the shape has degenerated to a point where it might snap off any minute. Thank god for heavy arrows…
      Oh well… so long as the spirit is there the bow will probably hold too.

      Ok, sarcasm aside…

      Most of what we do is done on jewellery so can most effectively (and durably) be done galvanically. That just takes a small transformer but also a bath of cyanide solution – so not something for home use.
      Historically what was used on bronzes was fire gilding (ormolu). Today in Europe there are only 2 companies that I know of that still do it. The technique entails spreading mercury-gold amalgam onto the object and burning off the mercury. Again definitely not one for the stove top at home.

      Gold leaf can be used but we would normally use it only for wooden objects or masonry.
      There are two types – easy and complicated.
      Complicated entails applying the old leaf to a gesso (plaster and rabbit glue) base. This can be sanded very smooth and the gold can be polished (burnished with an agate or hematite burnisher) afterwards. That is the type of work you’d see on antique frames, in churches etc.
      The easy method entails painting the object with a size (like a varnish) and once that size becomes dry applying the gold with a fine paint brush. You can’t really touch gold leaf with fingers it just disappears so you pick it up with a brush. Picking up and smoothing on with a brush is quite straight forward you can not polish the gold afterwards though unless the base is appropriate.

      For artists’ use you can get gold leaf in books of 25 leaves usually. The leaves have tissue paper between them and are about 8x8cm. You get loose and “tranfser” – transfer is stuck to a backing so can be applied easily to flat surfaces. Loose leaf is better for detail.
      Our supplier stocks some 20-odd colours and also “thick” varieties for more wear.
      As it happens “our guilder” (http://www.atelier-bleninger.de/) is currently gilding a large golden cabinet for our shop – it will look like a 100 x 150cm gold egg on legs. If you have very specific questions I can ask him, he does nothing else. I’ve only ever done gold leaf on frames and furniture I made for our home so I am no professional.

      Anyway, if I think about it I am not so sure your teacher even means any of the above methods.
      Maybe you should ask.
      On the large buddhas in Thailand etc the leaf is just laid on without any adhesive. You need a lot of gold and wear resistance is poor but gold is soft enough you can just rub it onto the metal surface and it will adhere.
      I guess it all depends on wether you want to be able to handle, clean, move,… the object frequently.
      If you are just laying on the gold, all you need is a small artist’s paint brush (very flat and wide would be normal but may not suit very small detail) and a knife to cut the leaf into small bits which are easier to place without loosing half of it in crumbs that flake off.
      For cutting, gilders like to use a kind of three sided box (base and three sides) which keeps draughts away from the leaf. The base is vellum or something leathery. You can easily make your own.
      To use, drop a leaf on it, lay it roughly flat with your knife, blow on it (just a light quick puff in the middle),… the leaf should now be flattened against the pad and easy to cut with any thin flat knife – need not be sharp (just a polished edge is actually better – like on a palette knife).

      Anyway, if you haven’t already you could just get a book of gold leaf and just try – does not cost the earth, should be about 3,500¥ per book and a book will give you a nominal 40 x 40cm.

      Anyway you probably knew most of that already, there are losts of good on-line resources for this kind of stuff.
      If there is anything else I’d be glad to help of course.

      • karamatsu says:

        Thanks for the information about gold leaf. The way my teacher started out was to use leaf over a layer of gold size, so I thought that’s what I would do as well. The statue probably will get moved now and then, and in fact already had some scrapes and scratches that I tried to smooth out, with varying success. It’s difficult to know how far to go with abrasives. Too little and the surface is rough. Too much and the art work could begin to suffer. Anyway I will try to formulate some specific questions.

        With the video it’s hard to say. I kind of go along with your first instinct: Kyudo in Ecuador! I hope they win the IKYF tournament in France and in 7 years we all end up in a dark cave, listening to trickling water! I hope they get a brighter place to practice before that, though.

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