I don’t have 36 views of Mt. Hachimen here, but somebody would definitely do well by painting 36 views of the iconic mountain of Nakatsu. Looming over the town it is everywhere the same, its shape unchanging from every view, and yet completely different with each disparate foreground.
Today May felt like unarguably the best season to be in Japan, like a summer day in the pacific northwest. On this day as I rode through Nakatsu to an onsen at the base of the mountain, I thought of many kyudo things.
First, what is happening in my kyudo now:
The stupid simple details:
-keep the right hand higher than the left when raising the bow in uchiokoshi
-when moving into the daisan (2/3 draw) focus on pushing with the meat at the base of my thumb, instead of the thumb itself
-don’t change the position of my left hand in the transitions of daisan and the draw
-flare my right elbow out in daisan
-push the string with my right elbow
-twist my left shoulder and elbow in the draw
-keep my head turned fully to the left
The building blocks above:
–keep “on top of the bow” with my left hand, which is my own phrase which basically means build and maintain a strong structure in the left hand so that the bow doesn’t pull against your thumb making you weak
-relax my left hand
-push with the point on my relaxed left hand straight towards the target, instead of falling to the left
-relaxing my right hand in the draw
-pulling the bow while maintaining the integrity of my straight spine keeping good balance
-drawing the shoulders down and using my back to pull the bow
The big stuff:
–Nobiai: don’t stop in the draw, but extend further outwards and upwards in every direction, eternally, so that at any moment the arrow could release and it would be perfect. Extend in that period of non-waiting so that I can feel my chest expanding to the point of exploding, while standing straight up extending to the clouds and down through the earth. Extending in the draw so that I can feel the arrow drawing milimeter by milimeter against my cheek.
-Follow through. At that moment of release extend through it with a follow through where you continue to expand in every direction even though the arrow has been released. Both thumbs should be pointing through their relative targets (left to the real target, right to the imaginary target just behind you). Imagine shooting through the real target to one that lies behind for thorough impact.
-Focus on the target. At that moment of the release, instead of finishing and forgetting everything, send your arrow to the target with every single cell in your body. Watch the arrow leave the bow and go straight into the center of the target. Not anywhere, not just in the vicinity of the target, not just in the target, but right to the very center of it.
The first little steps are stupid little things that take as much as remembering and doing. If you forget them, all else will crumble. Those practical little details are the base on which all else can build. There are no masters of kyudo that ignore the basics. All are pyramids based on time and solid basics.
The middle details are those that are of course absolutely necessary to good technique, but are often forgotten by practitioners. We obey the basics and follow our intuition, but for some reason we start making kyudo comfortable for ourselves, and we forget these small details which are the bridge to greater technique. For me they require a lot of concentration and are not used all the time. Even though I focus on them, I can’t necessarily do them. I want them to work, but they are not maintained in a day.
The big stuff, nobiai, follow through, focus … I believe these are the core principles of kyudo which mark greatness in pulling the bow. It doesn’t mean it has to take forever to experience them. I felt success in each of them at various points, but making it consistent, making it nature, is what takes a great amount of time.
But more than that, these are the points that perhaps can’t be fully learned to instinct. Maybe they can … I don’t know. I’m very far away from that. To me know, it seems that these are the parts of kyudo that keep it forever difficult. No matter who you are, true success requires one’s ultimate effort. It never gets easy, it’s never earned in any other way than maximum effort in that moment. What masters do is not just get good at kyudo, they get good at focusing and expressing their effort to the maximum when called upon. At that point it really doesn’t matter whether you’re pulling a bow, swinging a sword, painting a picture, teaching English, or eating an ice cream, it’s all just you in the world expressing yourself they way you are, they way you want.
I have never felt so frustrated by an art before, and at so many times it wasn’t my first choice. And yet, here I am now, climbing this mountain, and I wouldn’t want it to be any other way.
Making this list of things I’m doing in kyudo, I understand why I’m so frustrated at times with kyudo. It’s because I’m trying to do all of these various things at the same time in that 30 second period.
Is it really possible to do all of those things? Am I arbitrarily giving myself an impossible equation? How do the masters do it?
It seems the common denominators are time and effort.
We practice often, we practice with intent, and magically we get better.
Looking at each day it doesn’t feel like that. We experience the waves, the storms, the beautiful days which come at the call of nature, not our desire, and everytime we show up with our own moods and preferences and sicknesses, and we practice with all others who have their own. It’s a big giant smoldering gurgling consuming forgiving forgetting world that is kyudo, and we are a small beast moving through it.
We try and try and use our intellect and our character to progress. We are all so different. I do so many stupid things that are unbelievable to others, and yet I have magic abilities that others could never summon. It is a mass of ridiculous detail. It is important, but I can’t see it all. All I know, is that the end result of great consistent effort is the same, what you truly want.
When we finally get what we want, I wonder if it looks the same as it did from afar.
Good luck to us all on the path.