This past weekend we had a two-day tutorial. The teacher a real powerhouse, hanshi, 8-dan, who taught last year as well. Strange to think I’ve been writing stuff here for over a year.
This time there were about 45 participants ranging from freshly minted 5-dan to veteran 7-dan kyoshi. Most of the instruction was highly individual so the points he raised were all over the map, depending on the needs of the student, but I’ll try to organize them according to the hassetsu for clarity’s sake. There were also some general recommendations that I’ll put at the end.
The first lesson I received was actually the moment I arrived on Saturday. I had missed the beginning of the seminar due to the snow and ice on the roads, and walked in just as the teacher was finishing the yawatashi. Since I was late, I stayed in the room behind the dojo, which he would enter after leaving the shajo. And he did enter, very, very concentrated, still in full shooting mode, proper toriyumi no shisei. He walked through the door of the shajo and then a good four meters before turning back around and bowing. Then he set his bow down, and sank down to kiza to remove his kake. He had obviously put a whole lot into the yawatashi. He was breathing so hard. It’s difficult to convey. He was like someone who had just run a marathon. And it was just the beginning of the day.
One warning: most of what I’m recording here was not said directly to me but to others as he was helping them. Nevertheless I felt that I understood him pretty well most of the time, but there’s a good chance that I misheard or misinterpreted now and then, so any faults in the notes below are mine.
More than just a simple “too wide” or “too narrow,” the main point here was that you can often diagnose and correct problems of posture at ashibumi. For example, if a person has a habit of leaning or shifting their centre of gravity to the right, they will often splay that foot outward beyond the nominal 60 degree angle in order to brace themselves. So you can tell, just by looking at their feet, what otherwise might not be observable due to clothing. Likewise you can often correct such problems by having them turn that foot inward, to an angle less than 60 degrees. By doing that, the lean to the right will become unbalanced and the person will naturally correct themselves. Pretty elegant.
There was a lot of this sort of advice over the weekend, things useful not just for the person involved but for people to use when teaching others. Most participants were already renshi or kyoshi, so this makes sense.
The only other point I recall on ashibumi was that people who use a ni-soku form should not tilt their head over too much to look down at the feet too much when moving the right foot. Turn the eyes down if you must but try to keep the head vertical. The fact that issoku people do this without looking at all means it’s obviously possible.
Along those lines, one thing that he pointed out very often was keeping the head and neck vertical. I’m sure this followed through to the rest of the back (as is true in meditation), but with the head in particular he would tell people to basically assume the correct vertical posture at dozukuri and then not change it. So, rather than tilt the head up and down for tsuru shirabe, you just use your eyes. Rather than looking down at the bow for yugamae, just use your eyes. And he practiced what he preached. I watched video afterwards very carefully. He doesn’t move his head away from vertical at all. Of course, you do rotate your head toward the target, etc, but all the while maintaining the vertical line. He was very, very careful about this, making small, subtle corrections to almost every person.
What seems to happen is that the orientation of the head and neck has an inordinate influence on all the rest, especially hikiwake, and thus zanshin. Not only can having your head and neck properly oriented help create a balanced zanshin, but again, if there are particular problems, you can sometimes correct them by changing this orientation. I was not exactly clear on the mechanics, but sometimes he would have someone tilt their head/neck away from vertical to see if it helped them, and it would. So then he would tell them to investigate further on their own. Fascinating stuff.
Sometimes he would also make adjustments to the person’s back (upper or lower), usually to bringing it forward somewhat. This went along with another very common recommendation about stretching/leaning forward that I’ll mention in hikiwake. The tanden needs to be somewhat extended and down, while the iliac crest of the pelvis tilts forward and up. Sometimes (at least with men) it looked like he would pull forward and down on the knot formed in front by the hakama ties. Either that or he was checking breathing. It was hard to tell.
There is a tendency, even among high level people, not to take on a posture that might be interpreted as too assertive or prideful. No doubt this has a lot to do with Japanese cultural heritage, but the teacher stressed that this is budo. Confidence, no weakness, no fear… stand up straight. Especially with shomen, where you’re directly facing the shinsa judges, the attitude has to be one of confidence. It’s power, though, not pride. And it can’t be faked.
The recommendations here were highly individualized, dealing mostly with tenouchi, but sometimes also the placement of the fingers and thumb of the right hand. It’s hard to generalize here, but one common recommendation was more of a twist (hineri) on the right, which was good to hear since that’s what I’ve been doing lately. Also he would emphasize again not to tilt the head down to look at what the hands are doing. Use your eyes (me-sen).
Also as one of the people commented a while back when I was talking about “Doing the Twist,” the right hand should be quite relaxed, though you do still need the proper amount of twist/hineri. That seems very important.
One point that illustrates what is undoubtedly a general principle is that you should often combine movements. For instance, just before torikake there is a shifting of the bow to the right. Beginners will do that, then move the right hand from the hip up to the string. What this teacher suggested is that these two movements should be done simultaneously, so the string and the hand meet at just the right place. It’s similar, I think, to the way the bow and the right hand come together in mid-turn during hadanugi and hadaire. I’m not sure what other moves should be combined this way, but perhaps there are some.
Another practical thing is that, with a three-fingered mitsugake, the thumb should be pointed more or less directly forward, parallel to the arrow. With the four-fingered yotsugake, it needs to be pointed down slightly. This has important ramifications at hanare because the thumb, of course, is what’s in contact with the string and where the reaction to the release will be felt first. There was more detail here but I have to talk to one of the people involved to make sure I get it right.
All but one of the participants used a shomen form, so there is that big uchiokoshi move. Here he recommended not just raising the fists, but also stretching forward/outward at the same time. The example was sashiageru, the kind of movement you’d use when giving something or making an offering to someone/something of much higher status. Picture making an offering to the gods. You don’t just raise the offering up, you stretch forward and up. This has an positive effect on both the shoulders and the scapula. The stretching forward actually keeps the shoulders down, which seems counter-intuitive at first, but try it. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Beyond this he would sometimes correct people’s arms to maintain the rounded enso form, but didn’t seem particularly concerned with how high people raised their fists, or the angle. I think one reason for this is his view on daisan, below.
He mentioned once that uchiokoshi has its own nobiai. You start there, drawing 大きく、大きく, from the tanden and koshi (lower back), and then just keep going all the way through kai to zanshin. It makes sense. Each movement has its own identity, in a way, but they are all part of the whole, too. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.
So again, with shomen people all have this move from uchiokoshi to daisan, where among other things the bow is rotating in their left hand. He emphasized that point very strongly, though: it’s the bow that does the rotating. You don’t change the conformation of your wrist or hand. And then, for many people he made small corrections of the angle of the wrist. Usually people were extending the wrist a bit too much (hairisugi), and here again it was interesting to see how this would play out all the way through to zanshin.
He demonstrated by doing this himself. There’s that exercise you do where you pull the string back to about the elbow and then release, as a way of checking yugaeri. So he would do that, first with the wrist oriented correctly,and the bow would turn powerfully in the hand. Then he would do it again with the wrist extended (back of the hand moved toward the back of the forearm), and the bow would both tilt and drop in the hand. Interesting. Going the other way, flexing the wrist, no doubt also has some consequences but he did not demonstrate. Something to experiment on.
Regarding daisan itself, he said that each person needs to find the right height and angle for themselves, the position that allows them to properly draw the bow into kai. A lot of times he would recommend that people use a somewhat higher daisan, and closer in toward the body. I found this helpful because it’s what I’ve been doing lately, and I suppose I never felt completely comfortable because it’s not the “canonical form,” the 45 degree angle described in the books. It’s good to know that there is a spectrum of correct answers here.
From daisan into kai he emphasized using the muscles and power all the way from the feet up through the tanden, up along the underarms and out. To do that right it seems like you couldn’t really have the arrow too far away from the line of the shoulders. Speaking of which it is at this point that he emphasized using the whole body in the draw. This came up last year as well but he was more explicit this time. He would often demonstrate by leaning forward with his whole body, from the feet up, actually rising up on the balls of his feet, and tell people to have the feeling of entering the space within the bow and the bowstring.
Although normally he recommended keeping the back, neck, and head straight, sometimes, especially for some of the older participants, he would recommend leaning the head/neck back a bit. The idea is to get a fuller draw by a means that would still work for them. Otherwise what would happen is that the power of the bow would draw their arms forward, making them seem smaller. I wondered if dropping a kilogram or two from the strength of the bow wouldn’t work as well, but of course they’re pricey. Often he would suggest — sometimes forcefully — that a person use stronger bows, but I don’t recall him ever recommending a lower draw weight to anyone.
The arrow should be parallel to the line of the shoulders at daisan and then draw it in closer to the shoulders at kai. Many people would shift one shoulder more forward more than the other, so he would correct that.
If you’ve done all the other steps well you are in kai, and the real work begins. The physical expansion here is a bit different from what came before. It looked to me like, daisan into kai, the energy is coming up and under the arms, but once in kai, it’s a matter of expanding the chest from a line between the scapulae. This was that move he would often demonstrate by rising up on his feet, leaning forward, and expanding his chest forward/outward. Gyu! Gaa! He had a lot of untranslatable expressions all conveying the idea of powerful, uncompromising expansion.
In virtually all cases he encouraged people to put more energy into nobiai, being careful to make the distinction that this is not a physical drawing of the bow but a continuation in ki of the physical draw that has already reached its maximum. “Nobiai is kyudo. If there is no nobiai, it’s not kyudo.” A couple of times he said, “You draw the bow as far as you can, and when you can’t draw it any more, then you use something else to go even further.” This is very tasty… I suspect the “something else” is what we have to discover for ourselves. He can hint, maybe show by example, and assure is that it’s there, but it’s really up to us to go beyond what we might even have thought was possible. This is reminiscent of Kaminaga Hanshi‘s description, as well as some of the comments from Awa Kenzo that Herrigel recorded.
Our teacher today also said something like, “You expand and expand and you reach the point where you think, ‘I can’t draw nobiai any more!’ and then you have to give it even more effort. That’s when you get a true hanare.”
He mentioned that sometimes people make a mistake and try to continue the physical draw too far, thinking that that is what is meant. What this leads to is that they will end up trying to pull the string upward with their right hand and forearm and/or extending the wrist of the left hand, which are perhaps the only two physical ways to get a wider draw. But neither is correct. Maybe you can say that it’s not a wider draw that you’re after, but a “fuller” one. It’s important not to confuse the two.
You see a lot of different patterns in kai, even at this level. Some people, especially the younger ones, were quite fast, possibly due to nerves. The teacher can be a little intimidating. Others exhibited some slack (yurumi) that he said often occurs when someone is used to hitting, once they have found “the right point” where they habitually release and get a hit. Because they’ve “found it,” they stop working, and that leads to yurumi. Sometimes it also happens when someone decides to simply “wait” at kai, counting off the seconds. Form versus content. Because they’re “just waiting” the effort slacks off, and then also there is yurumi. At the level these people were shooting at it sometimes wasn’t obvious to my eye, but I guess it was there. The teacher often made the point that hanare should occur at the point of maximum tension, maximum effort. It’s when your physical and mental/spiritual strength is at its utmost. You don’t “reach the point” and then release. The release happens in the midst of unending effort that carries through to zanshin.
This is very consistent with what I observed of him in his own shooting on that first day, at the yawatashi, and then again today when he did another demonstration. I happened to be close by after that as well, and not only was he breathing hard, but sweating profusely. It was about 18C in the dojo, maybe less. So much effort! You could really imagine that this was “one shot, one life,” because with effort like that you could imagine someone actually dying in its midst. I can’t help thinking that it would be a fantastic death… as long as it was a good shot! He mentioned that it doesn’t always happen that way, though… it’s part of the battle you fight with yourself… every single arrow.
Although he said that you can’t simply “wait” in kai, he also mentioned that, practically, you need 5-6 seconds at a minimum. It’s not a matter of the ticking clock so much as (my guess) you simply need at least that much time for the requisite forces to play out. But inevitably some people will count. One bit of practical advice he had early on was that, if you are going through a period where you release too soon (ahem), then you can count as a training exercise, but instead of counting 1, 2, 3, try counting 8, 7, 6, 5… It seems to be more effective. There are some other techniques, too, but I want to write those down later.
In all cases he would tell people to focus one a balanced release left and right from the centre, cleaving the chest.
Actually he didn’t have much to say about this beyond what was there above. With some of the very advanced people he would talk about the quality of the tsurune, but honestly that was beyond me, and since I didn’t record audio while people were shooting it’s hard to go back and see what he was talking about.
He did emphasize, though, that hanare needs to come from the centre. Big and powerful, even to the point where the hands fly back behind the line of the shoulders. But they must not drop.
Very often he wanted people to expand even further at zanshin. In effect, the expansion that begins at kai (or really before) should never stop. That there should be a “perfect cross” at zanshin seems pretty much a given, but if that didn’t occur he would tell people to expand into it anyway. Training. With one person he joked that when she was at home she should practice “air kyudo.” Like meditation (or any kind of practice, for that matter), perhaps it is a matter of changing mind and body through repetition and familiarization with the correct form.
In the first round of shooting by participants everyone shot using shinsa timing, and in his comments afterwards one of the first things he said was that many people didn’t seem to have the taihai quite down, and that this was not good. He said many people at shinsa have the idea that if they hit with both arrows they will pass and so taihai isn’t so important, but this is not the case. You can hit with both and still fail. You can hit with only one and still pass. This echoes some of the commentary about the most recent All-Japan tournament. Maybe the hanshi as a group have decided to emphasize taihai. Likewise the hassetsu. There are allowances for the level, of course — nobody expects a beginner to shoot like a master — but at the upper levels everything has to be right. At 7-dan they expect technical perfection.
Regarding the common problem in which trying to hit the target adversely affects form and function, as a corrective he recommended that each day when you go into the dojo, you shoot the first ten arrows just trying for correct form… the full draw… zanshin, in front of the target but without worrying about whether you hit or not. Once that stabilizes, see where the arrows are going, and then adjust your aim (rather than modify the shooting form) so that the arrows hit the target. It seems like excellent advice.
Each movement has its own rhythm. Very often this should be slow-fast-slow, and then zanshin. All of this, too, in timing with the breath. This weekend’s tutorial was good for following this because, with the snow wall up, the acoustics of the shajo were such that the teachers breathing was audible. Also he said that high level people, especially, need to make each movement carefully. Each movement has a purpose, its own life, its own zanshin. You must not rush them (although of course, you must maintain harmony with the others in your group: the grand dilemma).
Several times he mentioned the value of watching others, both people better than you and those who are just getting started. Watch and think, whether you think someone is really good or that something is missing, “Where does that kind of yumi come from?” He also mentioned that by watching you can see into the core of a person, see what they are thinking. I checked. He meant it literally.
As an aside, I’ve found it useful to go back and look at the notes from last year’s tutorial as well. This year the emphasis was pretty much the same, but there was more individual work and perhaps more explanation, with less spent on demonstrations by the teacher. Perhaps it was a function of the number of people.
The final bit of wisdom he had for everyone at the end of the weekend was to work on correcting one thing at a time. From his own experience, this is the best way, rather than trying to correct a bunch of things at once. This makes a lot of sense to me from my own experience in which “everything is connected to everything.” Changing even one thing (say, the tilt of the head) will have ramifications all down the line, so it doesn’t make sense to try to change more than one thing at a time. Although… I wonder if this implies that we should work on first things first? That is, first ashibumi, then things in dozukuri, etc? Otherwise, if you have to go back and correct those things later, the changes you make will affect everything that follows. Hmmm…
So much to ponder, again, and much to practice. It seems unfortunate that the tutorial was limited to people at 5-dan and above. Surely people at lower levels could also have benefited by having interaction with someone like this early on, before any bad habits are created. But I can see the logic. He was here to teach the teachers, and now it’s up to them. I expect my own teachers will be extremely strict today, having just received this jolt of inspiration. We’ll have to give them all our energy but it will surely be worth it.