Happy New Year! These are my notes from a November tutorial with a respected teacher, hanshi 8-dan. We’ve had this every year for three years now (see 2010, 2011). Compared to previous ones it seemed like this year more attention was given to the spiritual or maybe energetic aspect, as reflected in hikiwake, but there were many points along the way so as in previous posts I’ll organize things by the hassetsu.
Apparently the ANKF have decided to be more strict about taihai, so it’s important to include this aspect in practice. Actually our teacher said that this isn’t so much a matter of becoming more strict as returning to a previous level. After this year’s All-Japan tournament, one of the judges… I think it was Yoshimoto-sensei, said that in the past he could often tell what someone’s point score would be just by watching their entry and the way they walked, which is really pretty astounding, isn’t it? We think we’re going out there to shoot, and walking is just the way we get to the shooting position, but no… there’s a far more intimate connection. And if it exists at that level then it must exist for the rest of us, too. It’s something to ponder.
One exercise this time was to walk while holding a yazutsu behind your lower back, hooked through the elbows so that the hands face forward but the elbows are pointing behind. By pushing forward on your lower back that way, as you walk, you get used to the feeling of powering the movements from the hips. He said it’s important to get this right otherwise there is a tendency for the body to tilt left-right-left-right as you alternate steps. Instead you want to sort of glide forward, keeping the body straight.
Everything essential is there in the Kyudo Kyohon. You just have to make the effort to do it as described. For example, during the hirakiashi turn, your knees should not come apart or leave the floor. Likewise the heels should be together when sitting in kiza. Of course, not everyone can easily do these things just as they’re described – bodies are different – but we should try. As inspiration he told us that we’re all human beings so if one human being can do it, we probably can, too! It helps when I think of kiza…
One of the impressive things about this teacher actually is just the way he stands and moves, even when not in the dojo. Always very straight. When he sinks down from standing into kiza, his back and neck remain perfectly straight. I’ve noticed that this is common to a lot of Japanese martial arts. At the Chiba seminar there was a demonstration by someone using a real (and very sharp) naginata, and the thing I noticed most wasn’t the flashing steel but the way his back remained so straight. I try to emulate this.
Perhaps because I had resolved to pay more attention to breathing this time it was impressive to note that the teacher synchronized almost every movement, no matter how small, with a full breathing cycle: inhalation, exhalation, zanshin. This is different from what I’ve been used to. I tend to breath more slowly, often using inhalation for one move, exhalation for the next. So I’ve been experimenting with this.
It’s important to have the feet spread the proper distance apart. Many people tend to have their feet closer together than they should, most likely for stability on slippery floors. This does indeed lead to a sort of stability while standing, and it’s easier, but it’s also inadequate as a base for hikiwake, when a lot of force will be applied. Likewise the angle of the feet. Deal with the slippery floors by tensing the muscles of the legs and lower back.
It’s also important that the toes be precisely on a line to the target. Otherwise, because the upper body will definitely align itself on a line to the target in order to hit it, what will happen is that a twist will be introduced in the body that will lead to instability at hanare, when the twist (which at this point is like a spring under tension) recoils, affecting not just zanshin but the flight of the arrow. Another way of saying it is that we have to set and maintain the sanju-jumonji.
When using the ni-soku (two step) form of ashibumi, after sliding the right foot over, straighten up and return the gaze to the bow (probably at the grip, but not sure) before lowering the bow to your knee.
Dozukuri isn’t just a matter of firming up the torso (as the term seems to imply). You need to be firm from the feet up, in particular the muscles of the upper legs and lower back, and bringing the tanden forward. It seemed like he was saying that men should stretch upward and be able to feel the koshi-ita, the board at the back of the hakama, but in practice I don’t feel that no matter what I do, so I’m not sure.
When thinking of the tate-yoko sen, the vertical and horizontal lines that are supposed to be a cross, we tend to put a lot of emphasis on the horizontal because that’s where most of the action seems to be, and of course, it’s along that axis that the target sits waiting. But the teacher said we needed to emphasize the vertical line. “It’s because the vertical line exists that we can build the horizontal line. If you don’t make the vertical line strong, you can’t make the horizontal line strong.” Thus the vertical line is crucial to the whole activity.
As before there was much discussion about the differences in the way you set the thumb with a three-fingered (mitsugake) and four-fingered (yotsugake) glove, but since I’ve never used a four-fingered glove and the explanation always involved the teacher moving the fingers of the person, it was difficult to really see what was happening. My sense is that with the mitsugake the thumb needs to point forward straight, while with yotsugake it points down somewhat. This makes sense, of course. He attributed problems that a few of the advanced people had to switching glove types yet continuing to use the old thumb position with the new type of glove. Old habits die hard…
There was a lot of emphasis on hineri, the anticlockwise twisting of the right hand so that, at daisan, the back of the hand (where a lot of people have their family crest embossed) is facing upward, parallel to the floor. It doesn’t have to be a big movement, and (I think) needs to involve the whole forearm, not just the hand/wrist, because the wrist has to stay relaxed. It’s something I need to experiment with but right now have a bit of an injury in my right elbow so have to take it easy. Still this was probably one of the top five corrections.
Another of the top five was tenouchi. Here, of course, there are a lot of variations, but an important point is that, the top of the left hand, the V formed by the thumb and the part of the index finger that is enclosed within the palm, needs to be a flat surface parallel to the floor. If you let this turn clockwise, so that this surface “tilts” downward to the right, it will have a big effect later on. You need to set the correct form at yatsugae and not let it change. From uchiokoshi to daisan the bow rotates in the hand, of course, but the hand itself must not change shape or orientation. Likewise the wrist must not be allowed to hyper-extend so that it bends into plane between the bow and the string.
Frequently he would have people try moving their fingers further back on the thumb (middle finger for mitsugake, ring (“kusuri”) finger for yotsugake. He seemed to recommend that the fingers be moved back far enough that you think you’ll have trouble making the release. I suppose this allows the hand to be more relaxed since there won’t be as much energy needed to hold the string in place. It also makes it harder to just open the hand and force the release. He was surprised that some people didn’t use giriko. Apparently some women don’t like to use it because it discolours on the tasuki.
A side issue popped up during the period of individual instruction, which was done rissha (standing form) to save time. He pointed out that these days the recommended way to do yatsugae in rissha is to bring the bow up so that the top of the grip is at shoulder level, rather than eye level (which is what I’ve always done), so that’s a change for me. Also he emphasized that before bringing the bow up from toriyumi no shisei, you rest the upper tip (urahazu) of the bow on the floor and then simply let the bow rotate in your hand (so the string drops down) without moving the hand. Some people had a more elaborate (and unnecessary) movement of the whole hand there.
It’s standard stuff but remember to pull the arrow back slightly so that the fletchings clear the bow. It seems I fail to do that sometimes and you can always tell because the inside fletching (yuzuriba) gets bent at the point where the bow presses against it.
Another point regarding tenouchi is that there is usually some space between the tip of the middle finger and the pad of the thumb. If you find that they actually come together, then probably the grip on the bow is too narrow and needs to be fattened up a bit.
At one point he was talking to a few of us about his kake, which he said he’s used continuously (with repairs) since 1955. “Your kake”, he said, “is more important than your wife.” Be sure she’s in a good mood before bringing up this idea at home.
Most of the instruction here was individual, so it’s a good place to introduce another of the key points, which has to do with movement. As I mentioned above on breathing, the way he did uchiokoshi was to begin the movement with an inhalation and then continue with a much slower exhalation. Perhaps only 1/5 or so of the movement was done on the inhalation, followed by the rest on exhalation, and ending with zanshin. But beyond that he made a point about rhythm, that each movement, or perhaps most especially the longer ones, should have a pace that goes: slow, fast, show, zanshin. You could see this even in his taihai, for example when moving from standing position down to kiza, he would start to sink down very slowly for about the first 1/5 or so, then move rather quickly for the next 3/5, then slow again for the final 1/5. Interestingly some Buddhist texts recommend the same sort of movement. It’s compared to a grain of rice: thin at the top and bottom, but thick in the middle!
One advantage of this rhythm is that, in movements like hikiwake, it conserves energy. If you draw the bow slowly and evenly, all the way, there’s energy expended in that middle 3/5 that (depending on the person) may not really be doing much. Of course, if you’re constantly doing something like checking the hands or that the arrow is level, that’s another matter.
This was sort of the theme of the weekend, but as you can see if you’ve read this far it pulls in many other aspects. He wanted us do draw the bow with our entire bodies, not just the hands, not just the arms, not just the back, but everything, down to our feet. Perhaps it even extended further than that! He would often say, “The movement needs to be hikiwake, not hikiotoshi,” which is to say, “it’s a matter of dividing or opening (wakeru) your body and the bow from the center, not simply pulling the bow from side to side then dropping it (otosu) down to your shoulders. To illustrate he had a movement that is hard to capture in words, but he’d straighten his whole body upwards then lean forward slightly while separating his hands to the side. The gesture involved his whole body – torso, hips, legs, feet, and not just the hands or arms. So this really begins with ashibumi (if not before), putting lots of energy into all these foundational moves so that you can carry out a smooth and powerful hikiwake.
The other time you can see hikiotoshi is when someone has an otherwise good hikiwake, but then rushes at the last minute to find the aim. They’ll drop the bow down in those last seconds rather than expanding into kai. This is subtle and there were times when he would point it out to someone when I couldn’t see it at all.
Another common pointer was to avoid nokudo, one of the five types of dozukuri (Kyohon 109, English 62), when shooting at 28 metres. Many people lean their bodies back somewhat, keeping the left hand still while putting most of their effort into a pulling action from the right, as in archery. Hikiwake needs to be an equal effort left and right, as if spreading the bow apart so that you can enter the middle. There is no resting anywhere. When people would start to do this, he would shout Oshinagara! Oshinagara! “While pushing! While pushing!”
A good way to get used to the correct way of doing hikiwake is to use a mirror while practising with a makiwara, but instead of turning to face the makiwara while drawing, keep facing forward, checking the mirror, to see if you’re getting an even draw in all directions.
Daisan is quite variable and depends a lot on a person’s body type. It’s difficult to offer fixed ideas about it beyond what’s in the Kyohon, but stretching upward at daisan does help to reinforce the vertical line. Once that’s accomplished you begin to draw the bow from your lower back (koshi).
In hikiwake the draw should be in three dimensions, not just one, and the right forearm in particular should be relaxed. Draw with your body, not with your hands.
The shoulders need to be up close to the line of the arrow, but this should happen naturally. That is, don’t intentionally push the shoulders forward, which will lead to strange effects at hanare, but instead stretch the left forward, the right backward, so that the shoulders are brought forward as a consequence of tsumeai. This is point is the same as what I found as the solution to the problem I’d struggled with earlier, where the string wasn’t touching my cheek or my chest at kai.
Speaking of that, he emphasized that the arrow must come to rest against one’s cheek. If not, then not only is it a sign of incomplete draw, but your shot will be unstable. I can definitely confirm that!
Given the above it should go without saying that kai is an active process! He would often encourage people Nobiru! Nobiru! Tomanaide! (“Expand! Expand! Don’t stop!) He was also quick to criticize any slack (yurumi) that entered the picture. In truth I often had great difficulty seeing this a lot of the time, though it became more obvious as the days wore on and people got tired.
You need to continue the movement all the way because if you reach the physical limit and stop, some slack will inevitably creep in. Likewise if you reach the point where you think to yourself (either consciously, semi-consciously, unconsciously) “Now I’ve reached the point where I can hit the target,” then yurumi will occur before the release, even if it happens so fast that only the masters can see it (they will).
On the other hand, although the body and spirit must always be active and making an effort, the body needs to stay relaxed rather than “hard.” It’s a bit of a paradox. Herrigel talks about this.
Another somewhat paradoxical point is that, although you can’t be captured by the target or the desire to hit, you must nevertheless concentrate your aim at the target centre, or ideally a point far beyond and through it. Some people, it seems, don’t do this, perhaps with the idea that hitting isn’t important, but whether your mind is focused on hitting or not, your body will be aiming somewhere, in the sense of pushing the bow in that direction. If that direction isn’t the centre of the target then at hanare there will be a jolt when, as before, the coiled spring created by tension directed at a different point is unleashed.
And yet another paradox is that he would often advise people to make a special effort to essentially punch the target. Push the left hand forward from your shoulder on out (not just the hand), toward the centre of the target just at the moment of release, combined (it seemed) with a degree of closing the left hand at the same time. But if hanare is, as they say, a phenomenon and not an action, then obviously this could only be done instinctively. It’s not clear to me how to train in this.
So three paradoxes all at once. Kai is a busy time.
The left hand pushes against the bow at three points, not just one. The Kyohon sort of punts at this point and recommends that you need to study tenouchi from a teacher, but you do see it diagrammed in books like Yumi no Michi (pg. 88), where the bow contacts the left hand at the head of the metacarpal bones of the thumb, index finger, and little finger.
And then there is sae (clarity). He emphasized that at the higher levels this is a necessity, but what is it? The shooting should be “clean,” it should be “clear,” no unnecessary, careless, or confused (zatsu) movements. The release must be sharp 「スカッ！」, one of those Japanese onomatopoeic terms that is perhaps best likened to the explosive release of a cork from a bottle of champagne. He emphasized that to do this requires not just body and spirit but contributions even from the equipment. It has to be the right bow, the right arrow, the right string, the right kake, and of course, all of that has to be right for you. Only then will the shooting have flavour (aji).
Hanare, well… it’s the effect of all that came before. He didn’t really have much to say about it but put all the effort into creating the right causes, something also familiar from Buddhist teachings. Naturally he would chide people for opening the right hand intentionally.
One thing that I think he said but didn’t quite get was the idea that the moment of hanare comes from the back of your legs: 「足の裏から離れの瞬間。」I’m not exactly sure how to interpret that and may simply have misheard, but it sounds interesting and “whole body” enough that I want to record it and experiment.
There wasn’t a lot to say here except that it’s a necessary component of each movement, not just the finale of the hassetsu. Sometimes it requires some imagination to discover what a given movement’s zanshin really is. For example, I’ve found it good in uchiokoshi to continue the movement (in a spiritual or mental way) upward (and downward) to infinity, not just stop when the hands reach the correct height. It really does help, because if you pause at completion of the physical movement, some slack enters that affects the move into daisan. This needs to happen with all of the movements.
He also stressed that zanshin is important whether you think the shot was a success or a failure. Some people get to be discouraged when they don’t hit the target, or things don’t go as they wish, and quickly drop their arms down, but will linger in zanshin if they get a nice hit. It is perhaps a sign of ego, and it seems to me that the idea that you need a full zanshin regardless of these results may be an important lesson for life.
Of course, zanshin also reveals much of what went on before hanare but was concealed within the opposing tensions at kai. Dropping of the hands, for example, is a good sign that you’ve slacked off. The force of nobiai should propel the hands forward and backward straight in the direction that you’ve told them to go. If they just fall downward, then essentially you gave up in kai and weren’t directing them anywhere at all.
He wanted to see more energy. He said we should practice until we sweat as a way of stimulating a source of energy that comes from the core of our bodies. He used this phrase, 「気を沸かす」(ki wo wakasu) “bring your ki to a boil,” which is interesting given that one of the concrete meanings of ki is just “steam.” Likewise during a little one-on-one talk he recommended practising every day. “That’s the way to make real progress.” So I’m looking at ways to set up a makiwara out in the snow. Or something. The ceilings are too low to draw the bow indoors.
When instructing a friend who’s been practising since her student days, he pointed out that her hassetsu were mostly good but that they were too distinct, too separate. That is, she would do uchiokoshi, then daisan, then hikiwake… each as a separate action instead of having them flow together as one unified process. You do see this a lot in students, usually with very fast, dramatic movements punctuated by pauses, and since she’s been successful with that over the years it’s probably become a habit.
All of the moves need to be carried out with continuous energy. There is no resting of any part of the body, left or right, upper or lower, even when most of the body may not appear to be active.
Sometimes he would chide people (especially men) for using bows that were too weak. My sense is that he felt it was necessary to challenge yourself. A bow that is comfortable and easy to draw may not provide the resistance (recall that the resistance of the bow is the first of the five fundamental principles of shooting: Kyohon pp. 99-100, English pg. 56) needed to produce internal results, and to create the kind of sharp release and flight of the arrow that the masters seem to value. In the April, 2007 issue of Kyudo I noticed there’s a discussion in which Suzuki Mitsunari (hanshi, 9-dan) suggests that 20kg is the minimum. More work for me…
Strong movements are good. If you have a problem with balance where, for instance, the left is strong but the right is weak, then instead of weakening the left, you must strengthen the right. He praised some of the women for gentleness (sunao) in their movements, but said that although this was good, hanare has to have spirit.
Participants at the tutorial ranged from 5-dan to 7-dan kyoushi. The “youngest” in kyudo terms had probably been practising 8-10 years (sometimes with a gap), while the “oldest” already had many decades under her obi. The teacher pointed out that changing one’s habits and rhythms after all that practice is extremely difficult and would take considerable time and effort, but again, if one human being can do it, so can you.
From that perspective, those of use on the “young” side of Kyudo (regardless of chronological age) are in a good position because we have less to “unlearn.” But we have to focus now.
Finally, as usual, most of these points weren’t addressed to me directly and I may have misunderstood or misinterpreted. Some of the finer points, in particular, were made while moving the person’s body so that they would be able to feel what he was saying, while I could only watch and listen. Still I hope the ideas are useful catalysts for 2013.