Kyudo

Kyushu Bike Explorations & the "Raiki-Shagi"

On this Sunday day-off I did what I haven’t done in what feels like years, just ride the mountain bike into the unknown. Over the past couple years, bike rides have been dominated by great plans in search of high mountains leaving the apartment early in the morning. That is good, and usually where you find the really epic spots. But on this Sunday I took advantage of being in a completely new place and the jewels that are revealed in merely cruising around with no plan.

I rode west to the neighboring town of Buzen and then headed towards the hills where I thought I may find temples, hidden roads, and onsen. As you can tell by the pictures it was a dreary day. Partly rainy on this morning, the clouds hung low and it was cold enough to warrant a coat and hat with readied gloves and scarf in the bag. On this first of December, the shape of winter is almost completely upon us, with the last of the autumn colors hanging on before their eminent fall. These days are quiet. Many complain or stay indoors. However, this is where I thrive.

These days are quiet. When I ride, I feel isolated in the mist. The people are all indoors and the mountains are hidden behind thick veils of white and grey. Nothing but me and my thoughts, and those small treasures in the mud I normally wouldn’t recognize. A big part of the move to Kyushu was about simplifying a lot of things in my life, and being able to marshal all of my concentration into the few things I decided to keep. That’s the image, and it’s a peaceful one for me: quiet, clean, focused. But the reality has felt a little more hectic, getting the new apartment together, getting adjusted to the new environment, trying to get in a routine with kyudo. Looking at it, I have all the right parts, but there’s been a chaotic sky over it all. Why? Why does it still feel like the apocalypse? Why do I still feel failure and urgency grating beneath my skin?

Let’s take a look at Kyudo.

I’m ready to focus all of my energy into this physical art, but have been plagued with blisters opening on my left hand. First I got a blister, the next day I tore it, took three days off and went back, wasn’t enough time so it tore open again, I took a week off to make it heal, it was barely enough but I still kept doing the same things that make the blister in the first place and it tore open again. The good thing is, I finally talked to someone who told me why this was happening and what I need to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again. I think I’ve got it and I’m dying to get back. I finally have a Monday off and want to go at night when most people practice, but the blister isn’t completely healed and I’m afraid it will just tear open again if it’s not 100%. I’m still not sure if I’m just going to go anyway tonight, or wait until it’s 100%.

Point is, my experience in kyudo here hasn’t been settled yet, and is usually just leaving me infuriated. With this time away from the dojo, I’ve been revisiting the “Kyuu-hon” official Kyudo Manual. It’s main sections are posted in all kyudo dojos everywhere, in written tests they take questions from which all practical answers can be found in its contents, and it’s the one thing all teachers will ask you if you have and tell you to read it over and over again. I received a copy from a friend last year and read through it fairly quickly.

The thing with kyudo books, is that they’re not so easy to read cover to cover. One could divide most kyudo books into these sections:

-Introductions written by authors which can be often be subjective and superfluous.

-Descriptions of ettiquete and movements unrelated to shooting, which are just stone-dead boring and useless without physical instruction.

-Descriptions of technique which are good, but also worthless without physical experience or direct help from a teacher.

-Short sections of interviews or classic texts written by the masters, which are the gold gems of these books.

Wow, the descriptions of those first three sections were really negative. I guess that’s the impression left with me from the few kyudo books I’ve read. On the good side, those subjective introductions can entice people to the art of kyudo, which is largely misunderstood. As to the technical descriptions, I suppose they should be referenced when one has a specific question. For example, if you can’t remember exactly what angle or when to bow in a certain procedure, or how to properly pick up an arrow dropped mid-shooting, it can be a helpful reference. As for shooting technique, things can get very complicated and confusing after a long time of practice, and by returning the the texts you can be reminded of the essential basics involved.

Generally, I suppose a kyudo book should be bought and read cover to cover at first to get as much information as possible to help your practice, though it will probably require a large amount of discipline and intoxicating drinks. After that, they should be put away and picked up again for reference when stumped by a question.

But what I really want to talk about today, is the very first section of the “Kyuu-hon” (Kyudo Manual) and one of the main texts (sayings, documents, ?) the Raiki-Shagi, “Record of Etiquette-Truth of Shooting.”

This is one of those super-important sections written by the masters that should be revisited from time to time to remind oneself of what may be at the core of the art as a whole. It’s one of those texts that both beginners and masters can read and benefit from, though what each individual finds may be completely different from others.

So without further ado, the Raiki-Shagi:

“The shooting, with the round of moving forward or backward can never be without courtesy and propriety (Rei).

“After having acquired the right inner intention and correctness in the outward appearance, the bow and arrow can be handled resolutely.

“To shoot in this way is to perform the shooting with success, and through this shooting virtue will be evident.

“Kyudo is the way of perfect virtue. In the shooting, one must search for rightness in oneself. With the rightness of self, shooting can be realized.

“At the time when shooting fails, there should be no resentment towards those who win. On the contrary, this is an occasion to search for oneself.”

What do you think?

When I first started Kyudo I was drawn to its spiritual emphasis. However, I had just been training in aikido with a teacher who was most concerned with technique: once you have technique you can start experimenting with the more abstract phenomenon of the art. With that, I was very concerned about quickly learning the physical basics of the art. Here and there I’ve enjoyed the more nebulous sides of Kyudo, but for the most part of been concerned with the physical technique.

In the move I had about a month off from Kyudo and have been reacquainting myself with the artistic expression of shooting the bow, and have been very excited to get back to the art and see how I can express myself better through the practice.

However, when I came back I started doing really weird things with my hands, and realize that I had forgotten how to do a lot of it. I’m revisiting old injuries and failures, ones that I supposedly overcame a long time ago. How is it that all of these old problems are coming back to haunt me? Why do I need to learn these things again?

When I first went back to kyudo I think it was alright, but after few days the techinique crumbled considerably, and the last day kind of went like this: I went in using the stronger bow I’ve been using lately, but my left hand won’t let the bow rotate properly in the hand, which causes injury and bad technique. I start focusing entirely on this and forget the other hand or anything else I should be doing. I can’t do what I need to do with my left hand, so I start making small “cheating” adjustments to fit to the form. In those small cheating adjustments, I change the technique making it weak. I can’t do it perfectly on the makiwara (practice haybail), and go to the target anyway with a weaker bow. I try my best at first to breath, relax, and understand it won’t be perfect, but I enter the malformed technique and have a horrible shot. I become angry with myself and kyudo, and start focusing only on the target. In that thought it’s like if I just hit the target it will be OK, but I don’t. I start rushing through the movements, which makes even worse technique. My body gets hurt by the mistakes in the technique. And I start to resent or envy the others around who are “succeeding” and not telling me what to do. I leave the dojo early and am propelled into the world with great confusion and frustration.

I believe there are two parts to this:

First is a matter of physics. I need to do what I need to do correctly in my left hand. If I can’t do it I need to ask for help. Then, I can fix the technique and resume proper kyudo. Also, I need to not practice if I’m injured, because even if I do correct technique with an injured hand, it will continue to get worse.

Second is a matter of spirt. This is finally where the “Raiki-Shagi” comes into play.

I began with good intentions, but somewhere along the way dirt has gathered where I can’t see, and demons have been breeding while my attention has been away. All of a sudden I’ve found myself obsessed with things outside of myself: success and stuff. I’ve been following bread-crumb trails left by society that have pulled me so far off center that Kyudo is no longer a practice of life, but a tool I use to assert my ego in the world. I use kyudo to dominate others and legitimize myself as a success in the universe. Perhaps that plays a part, but it is not the whole. It is the failure of technology in man, a tragedy because the intentions were good.

I don’t know.

Knowledge is the gift of practice.

But before that practice, before the knowledge, we still exist. We exist, and must choose to live right in order the complete the world. Though I’m lacking, I still live, and must stand up straight and accept it all with the grace and composure of the Gods.

Shooting with perfect virtue for me is doing your very best while accepting your own mortality.

Going over all of these thoughts, the frustration returns and I want to quit and find another budo. But I know if I do I’m running away from this puzzle. There are small bits of sunshine hope through the clouds, and I know I must go on. I’ve wanted to quit so many times before, but in continuing I’ve reached new levels in this art of Kyudo. I know that if I continue I will succeed, but there is a fear that doesn’t believe the equation and just wants it all to end.

If we continue something will happen.

If we quit, there is nothing.

I don’t know.

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