Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersections between Buddhism and Kyudo. There are many, of course, but one of the more central has to do with the notion of 自然の離れ, a natural release. Dan DeProspero says it’s in hanare that Kyudo reveals its mystery. Some hanshi here say that hanare isn’t an action, but 現象, a phenomenon. When Herrigel was struggling with how to shoot without shooting, Awa Kenzo told him to put the action of shooting out of his mind. “It shoots.” Es schießt.
What all these expressions are dancing around is the nature of causation, or in the larger Buddhist view, dependent origination, 象因縁生起 (innenshouki), pratītyasamutpādaḥ. When fully elaborated, it’s the very core of Buddhist philosophy. Without it there is no Buddhism. And so at the critical moment Buddhists and kyudoka (with emphasis there on the dō: obviously it’s possible — even kind of enjoyable — to shoot arrows at targets without this concern) find themselves confronting the same problems, both practical and (if they so choose) philosophical, because after all kyudō isn’t just a matter of long-distance hole punching, even when accomplished through a natural release. It’s life.
So what’s the deal? Who, or what, shoots? Conventionally, of course, we do, but ultimately, no. To really explore the Buddhist side of this coin you have to go back to Nagarjuna, then skip forward half a millennium to Chandrakirti, but Awa-sensei seems to have circled around it quite a bit, too, telling Herrigel that he had to let go of himself, completely and utterly, and his insistence that “It” shoots. Ultimately the agent, the object, and action; the cause, the effect, and causation are all empty of essence or inherent existence. You can’t find what you’re looking for , what you thought was so vividly over there. And in fact, the deeper you look, the less you find, until in the end all you come up with is the absence of what you sought. Its emptiness.
This is hard. The mind plays tricks: going too far, not going far enough. As one of my Buddhist teachers said, emptiness is easy to understand but difficult to practice. But being able to practise it is there for us, too, at the sha-i. Are you going to be able to let go of yourself to the extent that a natural release really occurs, or are you going to fake it? Even if you don’t fake it, will some conscious or subconscious thought intrude to “colour” the release?
The fascinating thing is that all releases are natural. There never was, and never will be, an essential self who makes the release on purpose, never was or will be an essential cause followed by an essential effect. But still it seems that somehow we get in the way. At a certain point the idea that we could have an unnatural release is even more astounding than the apparently natural hanare that we all experience from time to time. How could that happen? Well, more dependent origination, of course. Subtle factors in play. One of my teachers says he’s happy if a truly natural hanare occurs once in a year, though I’m sure that at his level, the notion of such a phenomenon is far more subtle than what I imagine it to be.
Still there have been times… I still remember my 2-dan shinsa. The blissful feeling that arose when I shot the first arrow lasted for two weeks. It don’t remember if it hit the target, but the feeling!
Anyway the reason this is titled “Training” is that all this came up in the context of another discussion about free will. In a nutshell my position is that the philosophical controversy over this is misplaced: free will exists conventionally but, as with everything else, when you look for it, it’s empty of exactly the kind of inherent existence you were looking for. The End. What gets us into trouble on this subject is when we don’t see the compatibility between conventional existence and emptiness. But so there is this question: how do we get better at kyudo? In the absence of an inherently existent self, or an inherently existent will to improve, all we are left with is training: repetition, as Herrigel says, followed by repetition of the repeated.
We get better at what we practice, and this is important, not just for kyudo but for life. What we do repeatedly, we get better at. If you repeatedly act from wisdom you get better at being wise. If you repeatedly act from stupidity, you get better at being stupid. This is hard, too, because we’re conditioned to be stupid… most of the political and economic output of our societies depends on people being stupid, but make no mistake: it’s not their fault (pick any they) because they are just as caught up in it as anyone else. We do it to ourselves. Likewise if you repeatedly open your right hand to force the release when in kai, you get better at an unnatural release. People can get so good at the unnatural release that they think its natural. Choosing, and sticking with, a different direction is difficult. It goes against the grain. It’s even scary. You must, as they say in editing, kill your darlings.
But what matters is that repetition, the training. Doing, doing, doing, but crucially, doing all that doing in the right way. Because despite all the stupidity, doing things the wrong way lacks, as Buddhist texts explain, a valid foundation. It can’t be developed to completion. Wisdom, on the other hand, does have valid foundation, so it, and acting with it, can be developed to perfection. So it’s just a question of motivation, repetition, and time: training.
Beyond this what I started out also wanting to say was that you should set yourself a goal that is infinitely far away. Yes, in order to get there, you need to take every step along the way, but if your eyes are on the prize, so to speak, then the steps are just steps. So think about that as we start into shinsa season, and also at the sha-i. The target isn’t the circle of paper 28 meters away. The target is infinitely far away and to get to it you shoot through the circle of paper. Take that same attitude with you into everything else, and kyudo really does start to become life.
Time for the ofuro…