Kyudo Notebook: The Show Must Go On

I haven’t written anything in a while because I’ve been struggling on various levels, and it’s hard to write when the conclusion still seems far away.

It all began a few weeks ago when I happened to manage the best two shots I’ve had in a long time, with a kind of electric feeling in the tanden. There were two small problems: (1) I didn’t know how I’d done it, so my mind got in the way, trying to recreate them, and (2) the string would hit my face just at the right eyebrow at hanare. The rest of that practice session went OK, but the eyebrow thing continued, and over time it started to affect my shooting. I could tell I was starting to flinch or squint (it is a shock when the string hits) just before the release occurred, which probably means it was no longer natural. Instead of focusing inward I was preparing to be smacked.

This has continued for a long time. Some days it was almost every arrow. Some days not at all. What seemed to fix it was making sure I drew fully and, more recently, taking care to tilt my head just slightly anti-clockwise/left so that it’s out of the way. This, however, shifted the aim, and I’ve had to adjust for that, too. But there’s some other effect as well. I now find it very difficult to get a clean release. My suspicion is that the bow is also rolling slightly clockwise, and I’m increasing hineri on the right to compensate, and that’s what’s making the release difficult. Change one thing and everything else changes… a familiar story. But I have to keep at it because I’m headed to a tutorial/shinsa next month and want to at least have stable shooting form.

The other struggle is academic. In preparation for the written exam I’ve been re-reading the Kyohon again, trying to go deeper into things I’d glossed over before. To do that I find it helpful/necessary to read the English and Japanese side by side, because in some places they’re quite different. Some of that may be due to the fact that O’Brien-sensei translated the 1953 Japanese edition, while I have the new one.

In any case, the main focus is on the fundamentals. One interesting statement comes in the introductory discussion of the Fundamental Form: “These postures and movements are essential for realizing the qualities that make Kyudo more than just a means for hitting the target.” [English, pg. 27]. I don’t find that statement expressed in such a direct way in the Japanese, which would have been on pages 57-58, but even if it were, what does it really mean? I have a certain grasp of how there is more to this than simply hitting the target, yes, but how is it that the way you stand and sit, stand up, sit down, turn, and bow are essential to realizing the essence of Kyudo? Are they serious? I have to think so, but it turns out that the reasons are hidden within an implicit world-view that goes back thousands of years.

A hint of this is found in the following statement: “The purpose of the shooting is to express naturalness in the movement.” [English, pg. 28]. In the Japanese [pg. 59] this reads, 「射の眼目は、自然の理を動作の上に表現することである」, which has more going on than the English would suggest. What it seems to be saying is, “The purpose of the shooting is to express natural 理 through movement.” This 理, in turn, is a key term in Chinese Buddhist and Neo-Confucian thought, and is usually translated as “principle” or “essence,” and in this one short sentence the Kyohon is raising ideas that imply very deep metaphysical commitments.

You see hints of it elsewhere, too, when the Kyohon goes to some lengths to clarify that what we are trying to do is move “naturally” but that this “naturally” doesn’t mean just, well, “naturally.” Rather it’s the outcome of long and diligent practice. “This [“natural” movement] does not mean simply movement that is free and undisciplined, or instinctual movement, but the naturalness of movements created through conscious discipline of regular practice.” [English pg. 28, Japanese pg. 59].

To a Western reader this may seem contradictory. We usually take “natural” to be precisely that which is without artifice, much less the conscious discipline of regular practice. It’s the “natural” shape of a pine tree growing unmolested on a high mountain slope versus the painstakingly “artificially natural” shape a bonsai pine, with everything just so.

This is where 理 comes in. The idea seems to be that reality is informed by pairs of interpenetrating opposites (“opposites” not in an absolute way but in the sense that one coin has two sides). Most people are familiar with yin (陰) and yang (陽), but in this case we’re dealing first with li (理) and shi (事) [Japanese ri and ji], terms that were used by early Huayan Chinese scholars to translate/appropriate Buddhist notions of the two truths. In that reading (which later influenced Chan, the Chinese roots of Zen), li/ri (principle, essence) corresponds to ultimate truth (shunyata, emptiness) while shi/ji corresponds to conventional truth. Later on, Neo-Confucians like Zhuzi and Wang Yangming developed a Neo-Confucian analog of this same idea, speaking in terms of li and qi (気) [Japanese ki]. So you see right away that we’re dealing in bedrock concepts.

In One Arrow, One Life, Kushner talks about ri as the underlying principles of the universe:

    It is as if there are invisible creases in the universe. These creases correspond to ri, principles. To do something that is in accordance with principles is to fold neatly along the creases. To do something that is muri [anti-ri] is to force a fold against the lines of those natural creases. [pg. 64]

Although Kushner learned these concepts in the context of Zen, both here and in Kyudo it seems here to be something more in the Neo-Confucian spirit given that the emphasis is on performing specific physical actions (standing, sitting, turning, bowing…) in accordance with ri. Furthermore in Buddhism shunyata is a non-affirming negative that doesn’t imply any positive phenomenon, much less the principles of the universe. And indeed when you read the Kyudo Kyohon you see frequent references to Confucius and Confucian scholars (remember the Raiki Shagi is from a Confucian text), but (at least in volume one) few direct references to Buddhist doctrine.

In any case, this is what seems to be lurking in the background, very deep and ancient ideas about the metaphysical structure of the universe, all concealed within in one word (理) that didn’t even make it into the English translation. Fascinating stuff.

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6 Responses to Kyudo Notebook: The Show Must Go On

  1. f says:

    Hi, very interesting reading. IMHO:
    As 理 can express “arrangement, truth logic”, translating “自然の理を動作の上に。。。” by “naturalness though the movement” is not unreasonable. A more literal translation would be “natural arrangement through the movement”. One could even say “logic nature of the movement”(pushing it a bit). They all mean that the movement is like it is because this is its natural (instinctive, logic, essential) form, 1+1=2 and that’s that :).
    I doubt that the original author went as far as to imply something religious through the usage of理.
    Maybe you went a bit too far, leaving the natural 😉 translation behind you?

    • karamatsu says:

      Well, I do have a habit of over-thinking things, it’s true, but I still suspect that this runs deep. What makes a particular way of doing something the “logical/natural” way? I suppose there are objective things we can point to: economy of movement, economy of energy. Yangai Soetsu said something like, “If there are several ways to do something then it stands to reason that there’s a best way.” That’s been sort of my touchstone when considering all the details of kyudo postures and movements, but in thinking about what the Kyohon has to say I can’t help wondering if there is more.

      For someone steeped in the world view of the Chinese classics (as many of these old kyudoka seem to have been) the answer could have been 理: the “creases” (to use Kushner’s term) along which reality naturally folds. And there is also that part where the Kyohon says the “natural” way isn’t the “instinctive” way (本能に依存の上に態度することではない), but more.

      Anyway there’s a lot to dig into, but at the same time, perhaps, even more to just DO, and then see what happens. But for the written exam I still have to put something in words.

  2. Zacky Chan says:

    Very interesting! I love these puzzles, trying to discern what exactly the writers were feeling, and what exactly they are trying to communicate. But like our practice, perhaps we can’t have specific answers without specific questions. When I started kyudo all I wanted to do was figure out the spirit, but maybe I’ve gotten too used to training in Japan and such puzzles are kept in the nebulous spaces of my mind. I focus on what I can, and that is the specific techniques I employ. Each specific movement has it’s meaning, and the purpose is to do it the best way possible … but what is “best” takes us back to that place of ambiguity, intuiting kanji and obscure phrases to the best of our abilities. Perhaps I’m just not that good at kyudo, and all I can do is work on the dumb simple stuff first.

    I have to say, going through a phase of the string hitting my face has to be one of the most unpleasant experiences I’ve ever had: a great painful, shocking, demoralizing event, that seems to happen again and again. It’s been many months since the last time it happened, but I never forget it and am very wary to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

    Great post.

  3. karamatsu says:

    I’m sure you’re right and the “way” to the answer is really just through practice. It was only reading the Kyohon and thinking about how I would something like, “Why is the fundamental body form important?” that these issues came up. I suppose I could just regurgitate what the book says, but this is Kyudo, not school 😉 I really want to understand. Or try to!

    But yeah, the string hitting thing certainly isn’t fun, and unlike other parts of your body, there’s no protective covering to wear. Great motivation to solve the problem though!

  4. Karolus says:

    Bonjour !

    I also find this post very deep. All the books have several lectures, that adapt themselves to the level or the reader, from very basic information to higher sometimes mystic level. Your experience in tan t’ien open a gate that naturally widen your scope to another level.

    About the interesting question of string hitting the face, I had the same problem, until I finally also made karahazu twice and broke my bow, 10 years ago… I can tell you it took me some time to gain confidence again in shooting, relaxing gake hand, enter the bow and so on.
    Now, when I see someone facing the same problem, I recommend them to protect their face using a kind of protection we put under motorbike’s helmett. Yes, it looks funny on the shajo, but at least one can overcome that very difficult problem, without going back home with bloody head…

    About the question of what I will name “pure” movements, I like to refer to this publication:, and my personal experience in a kind a martial gymnastic, where our strength in stability is tested by our teacher by little or sometimes strong pushes. Whenever our body is a little bit misaligned, the teacher can make us move our feet by very small pushes. Whenever our posture is correct, even very strong pushes, wont make us move at all. So again, I think they are multiple level in reading, but this basic simple one is probably part of it: The body form is of very high importance, as well as keeping is in the move. And if your shinsa is for renshi, I guess the masters don’t expect you to enter in very mystic explanation…

    Have fun !

  5. karamatsu says:

    Wow, I never expected to be reading a patent application! It is interesting, to see what can be deduced from physical measurements. I’m not trying to mystify things… just understand what the authors of these texts, and our teachers, have in mind. The Kyudo Kyohon is a great book, but there are parts of it where concepts are just stated without explanation and so can be a little unclear. So as Zacky says, a puzzle. But as you say, and as I’ve found in other pursuits, with experience some things become clearer, and other things that I thought were clear turn out to be less so!
    By the way here is a good paper presenting background on the concept of 理 as it evolved in China, and then in Korea. I’m still looking for sources on how the idea evolved in Japan.

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