One of the most difficult things about Kyudo, compared to most martial arts, is that we have no opponent to help us. There is this concept of suki (透き), a gap, opening, or vulnerability, but because we have no autonomous opponent with a vested interest in finding ours, it can be very difficult to identify and overcome them, or even to really understand what the term means.
This past weekend we had a seminar with four teachers, two from Hokkaido and two from Honshu. Part of the discussion (some practical, some philosophical) revolved around the idea of suki, and I was finally able to figure it out. The idea is that there should never be any condition of body, mind, or spirit which would permit an attack. You have to be able, at any moment, to respond without hesitation. So for example, when sinking down from a standing position into kiza, you should never let your buttocks touch your heels, because in that moment of rest, you couldn’t rise up immediately to counter an attack. Naturally this applies not just to being “too loose,” but also “too tight,” such when fixated on an idea, a notion found in Takuan’s Unfettered Mind.
But you see echoes of this in books going as far back as Sunzi’s Art of War (孫子兵法) “In ancient times warriors first made themselves invincible, and then watched for vulnerability in their opponents.” [4:1]. There are also stories and comments illustrating the importance of total commitment — no gaps — in texts by/about Japanese swordsmen like Yagyu Munenori.
But the trouble we face in Kyudo is that there’s no opponent to show us our flaws, so we may not even know we have them. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that modern Kyudo emphasizes taihai. It’s not just form and rules for the sake of form, rules, or ceremony, but a way of sharpening mind and body, forcing us to be aware of a seemingly infinite number of minute details, while at the same time reacting to the unexpected: the o-mae who makes a mistake, the string that breaks, the cat that walks in front of your target just as the arrow is about to fly. After listening to one of the teachers, hanshi, 8-dan, I wrote in my notebook, “The distinction between taihai and shooting is an illusion. Taihai is shooting. Shooting is taihai.” It’s not a quote but I think he would approve.
I’m hoping that being more aware of what’s meant by suki will help me eliminate them.
MINUTES LATER: This is cool. Just poking around with a search engine I happened upon a series of posts over at the Black Arrow blog that’s precisely on the importance of taihai. The series starts here. Enjoy!