Kyudo Notebook: Thoughts on the Renshi Shinsa

I spent my last day in Kyoto sitting at one of the shajo, watching 1/4 of the people testing for renshi. When I got up that morning I halfway wanted to sleep in, then go sightseeing, but it turned out to be worthwhile, if a bit mysterious, to go back to the shinsa.

I don’t have my program with me but if I recall correctly there were about 700 people testing, divided between the four shajo, each with five hanshi as judges. Within the groups testing at each shajo, it seems like there was a full range of kyudo “ages” (years since 5-dan or 6-dan) from people taking the test for the first time to veterans with more than 20 years under their obi. As usual, there was a first round in which people used the normal shinsa timing (with hada-nugi and tasuki-sabaki). Then after a delay there was an announcement of those who passed the first round, which was then followed by a second round in which those who passed performed mochi-mato sharei.

Of the 175 or so people assigned to the shajo I was watching, a fair number [I’m being intentionally vague here] passed the first round, and about half that passed the second round. As I watched the first round I made notes about who I thought might pass, based on memories of other shinsa.

You have to make some allowances here. First, I’m not a hanshi, so in kyudo terms, I can’t see what they see. Second there is the viewing angle and the fact that nobody can watch ten people at once, so even physically, in an ordinary sense, I couldn’t see what those five people saw. And then, as you’ll see, I’m not even certain what they’re looking for, what the priorities are. So with those grains of salt, I thought two people would pass the first round, plus maybe a couple of others who I was on the fence about, usually because they shot well but maybe missed one arrow.

It was a surprise to see more pass that first round. At one of the recent seminars, the teacher (hanshi, 8-dan) said that in order to pass renshi you had to (1) make no mistakes, (2) beyond that be excellent. I thought, “since renshi is a teaching level you would want this person to be a proper model… you should wish that this person’s students will shoot the way they do.” The two people that I thought would pass were indeed among those who did, but several of the others, for example, shot very quickly, about one second in kai, and I thought, “They won’t want students shooting this fast.”

Since time in kai is more or less objective, this must mean that the judges were seeing, or valuing, something I wasn’t. There must be something extra these people had to compensate for what is, I suppose (possibly in arrogance), a bit of a technical problem. So it was very interesting. What were these people doing?

Looking back at video, the one thing that stands out to me is that, at the release, their left and right hands/arms went straight out, with no extra up or down, no extra left or right. In particular the hands never dropped below the horizontal line of the shoulders. This seems obvious by it can be a bit subtle because at the moment of hanare, the tensions built up in the body at kai will unwind in milliseconds, coming to a complete rest after about one second (you can tell if you watch 30fps video frame-by-frame). This means that people using a mirror to check their form at zanshin will not see the movement that occurs during that one second, but instead see things after everything has settled down, and in many cases that “ending” form looks pretty good.

But that first one second is crucial. People who passed didn’t seem to need much unwinding. Their hands and arms just extended out naturally into a good zanshin form, without requiring any compensating movements. Many others would, say, have both arms drop below the line of the shoulders, then raise their arms back up. Or one arm would go up while the other went down, then both returned to a supposedly good zanshin form. I wondered if, in a way, people had learned to force it?

Another common problem is that people open their left hand at the release. Most likely this is in “sympathy” with the right hand, and is an indication of an intentional release. With video you can see that most clearly with people who wince or blink at the release. If the wince occurs a split-second before the release occurs, they’re anticipating. Whatever brain signal is going out to trigger the release reaches the face/eyes first.

Mind you, I’m not being critical. In video I’ve seen of myself, I’ve done all of these things, often for long periods (and probably still do!). I’m just pointing out how subtle it all can be, that a lot happens in those 1000 milliseconds after the arrow flies, and that it’s all but invisible to the person shooting (although you might feel it, or see the result in the flight of the arrow, the tsurune, etc). But the shinsa-in can see it, and I suspect that’s why more people passed than I expected: those people had solved the conundrum of the release, even if maybe they had some other issues.

I have no idea if this is accurate, but it fits some other thoughts that have been percolating since my practice sessions shortly before, and while in, Kyoto.

As for the ni-ji shinsa, likewise when I watched, I honestly thought that nobody would pass. Everyone either made taihai mistakes or again, had that super-fast kai. But it turned out that several did pass, and as I thought over the differences, again it seems to me that the shinsa-in were either seeing different things, or valuing them differently.

In this case, I think what mattered most is whether people were able to truly act in harmony with the other members of their group. For example, in one of the sharei that I watched, people really were in harmony, better even than I had seen in some of the hitotsu-mato sharei for the kyoushi exam. So even though there was at least one significant taihai error, some of that very fast shooting, and three people only hit with one arrow, they passed. In another group, where the harmony was notably lacking, it seemed like one person did OK, but then failed because of a taihai error at the last minute. As a result, it seems to me that harmony counts for an awful lot and will offset other problems. It’s still possible for a person in a group that lacks harmony to do OK on technical grounds, hitting twice, etc, but a taihai mistake can still cancel all that out.

But again, I have no idea if these impressions are accurate. Next time I have a chance I’m going to check this out with teachers who act as shinsa-in, and see what the story is (if they will tell me). In the meantime, it’s just stuff to think about, and to practice. And in the end we need all of those things (clean/unimpeded release, harmony, technical excellence) no matter how long it takes, so there’s no harm done if I’m wrong. I suppose I’ll get my answers one way or another soon enough!

Two More Thoughts (Later)

If, in order to pass renshi, you need to make no mistakes and be “excellent,” what’s left for kyoushi and the levels above? I can only imagine (after a hint from one of the hanshi), that it’s the spiritual aspect. Technically you’re there. In terms of performance, there. But spirit… maybe that’s the work?

And then, I thought about some of the older people testing, still trying after many years. I wondered if allowances would be made for age and physical difficulties? It seemed to me that, with the exception of people who have no choice but to shoot rissha, no special allowances were made, but it was a small sample size.

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3 Responses to Kyudo Notebook: Thoughts on the Renshi Shinsa

  1. Rick says:

    I really appreciate all of your blog posts. Thank you for sharing your insights and observations.

  2. Paulo says:

    Hi, has been quite a pleasure to read your posts in the last 2-3 years. On being “excellent” and what’s left after that to achieve. Being “excellent” doesn’t mean perfect. My shajo in the last 3-4 European seminars has been just next to the shajo where were the European 6-7th dan (Renshi and Kyoshi), so I heard a few times the Japanese hanshis making their remarks to them and I must say that almost of their remarks fall into what we can call “technical/performance” corrections. Little or no trace of spiritual aspects, that I heard. At least on what is usually considered as spiritual.
    Personally I think that for the Japanese hanshis the spiritual aspects is not detached from the “technical” aspects. Is the ability to keep and deepen the fundamentals of shooting that gives the own’s character that they talk about as important in the higher grades.
    Also personally, I think that thinking that around renshi/6 dan your are already “there” in technical/performance terms can be a trap.
    In a 7th dan examination I saw someone hitting haya and otya and still failing. During the shooting I notice a “little” failure regarding one fundamental thing, small disruption of vertical line (tate sen) during the transition from uchiokochi to daisan, just a few centimetres but it was there. I thought to my self “maybe is going to fail” (I expected not of course, I have plenty of consideration on him). And it happen, failure. Later, I heard him saying that on the hall one of the hanshis on the jury told him that one of the failures was forming daisan.
    I’m with you, I know that what I’m able to see is for sure quite distant from what the hanshis see.
    It’s quite rewarding reading your observations. Most of them I heard them also here in European seminars, but having in different words helps quite a lot, sometimes translations here are a little bit … quicker/trickier so it’s quite useful to have the same thing with your different words.
    Also you speak about things you are fortunate enough to hear 4-5-6-… times a year, while in here (Europe) I can only heard them once a year, twice if I’m lucky. So the way you put them and the context you give are also a source to reflect upon, and a good example.
    One last thing I just now remember from 2015 seminar. One of hanshis just told us that the only and single reason why one person is better in kyudo than another person is because he/she keeps the basic body form (tate-yoko seen) better than the other. He emphasized that 2-3 times saying that it applies either to a 2dan-4dan comparison as to a 6dan-8dan comparison.
    Thank you and regards.

    • karamatsu says:

      Oh, thank you, too! Those are very good observations. I think you’re right, and it’s a mistake for me to separate technique and spirit. All along the way there are physical and spiritual challenges that have to be faced together. As you say, when going to tutorials and the rest, 99.99% of the instruction is on technique. Any kind of reference to spiritual matters at all is so rare that I once told a friend that it’s like finding diamonds. But I wonder if that’s just because the spiritual training is unspoken, transmitted by the spirit of the teacher himself/herself or, for example, when you watch someone shoot and you feel something electric, or think, “Wow! I want to shoot like that!”
      It’s still possible that the shinsa-in are looking for a kind of spiritual maturity. Awa Kenzo wrote something like, “Each shot shows what you have suffered through, what you have practiced.” [Zen Bow, Zen Arrow, pg. 45], but one of the interesting aspects of Japanese Budo is the idea that a person’s spirit is revealed in their form. Teachers often say that they can see your spirit when you shoot. It’s a bit frightening, really!
      There’s always some kind of mental/spiritual effort, but I think it changes over time and with practice. Or can. Right now I’m trying to work some of that out myself so I’m not sure where it’s going, but will keep trying!

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