I remember coming across these terms when reading about traditional Chinese martial arts and meditations many moons ago. I can’t quite remember the details of the specific practices, but the ideas came up the other day during kyudo, traditional Japanese archery.
When I started kyudo I was told by my first sensei in Toyama to always do zassha to begin and finish a day’s training. Zassha is a kind of sitting form in which you shoot two arrows with the formal taihai (entering and exiting the dojo) and sitting preparation form, which itself is referred to as zassha. Zassha is used during tests and other formal shootings. The process takes quite a bit longer than just going to shoot two arrows normally, but it has a special feeling, and kyudo without this zassha wouldn’t quite be the same kyudo. Personally I really like doing zassha because it slows the whole practice down and really allows you to focus on the movements and breathing. Zassha also brings a bit of seriousness with it and is a chance to try and fully embody the practice in all its beautiful warriordom.
I’ve usually done a good job of starting off with zassha, but have to admit the times I used to do it to finish practice was extremely rare. Even with that, I would often go to the makiwara (practice hay bail) to practice a few shots before going into zassha at the beginning of the day.
This is less than ideal, I think.
A while ago my current sensei here in Nakatsu noticed I always started out with the makiwara, and he said I should just go straight into zassha. I didn’t ask why, but he sensed my inner wheels turning and explained that often when going into some of the most important practices of kyudo, like tests and tournaments, you might not have a chance to use the makiwara, and so one should get used to going straight into zassha without the need of the makiwara. I have to admit I didn’t like it at first, feeling the need for those initial practice shots at the makiwara to get warmed up, but he is totally right. When I went into my nidan (second degree blackbelt) test, makiwara weren’t available and we shot our two arrows before the judges with zero practice. My shooting was weak because of it, and now I’ll never forget to practice my first shots of the day in zassha.
But it’s much more than that…
Often times we go into practice with certain goals or points of focus for the day. We have our worries and our dreams and everything else, and that’s natural, but the less we allow the gargantuan weight of our thoughts to interfere with our shooting, the better it will be. In the past I would usually come into kyudo with a focus point or two in my mind and get straight to them with my first few shots at the makiwara. By doing this right off the bat, I would focus only on one thing, ignoring the rest, which made my entire form fall apart. By going to the makiwara I actually succeeded in dismantling the positive progress my body had naturally made. Then I would bring that shabby form to the target and be in desperate need of help from a teacher, or be left to downward spiral.
Zassha has a way of cancelling out our thoughts. We must focus on the proper entry to the dojo, we must coordinate our breathing with our movements, we must slow, or speed up our movements to the proper timing, and go through all of the movements before, between, and after our two arrows which takes a considerable amount of time. Along with this, there is a gravity to the procedure that I think clings to us from our past experiences. It’s like when we start zassha we are naturally transported back to all of our tests and ceremonies, watched by the apparitions of our peers, and are so propelled by their weight.
In zassha the extraneous tinkerings of our mind flee, and all those technical details make way for the practice of just doing it.
Zassha is ourselves in a pure form before we go and fight all of the monsters.
After taking a trip back to Toyama and visiting my old sensei, he asked if I am doing zassha to begin and every practice like I’m supposed to, and I said, “Of course!” When getting back to Nakatsu I decided I should probably back up my words and start finishing my training each day as I was taught. So, I gave it a try and am now a believer.
During our practice each day we are trying to work out the magic equation of better shooting: “What am I doing wrong?” “How could I do this better?” “How do I shoot like sensei?” etc. If we just leave the dojo with this, the obsessions of our practice will invade our daily lives, and never end. It’s great to think of kyudo outside of kyudo … but not like that. Also, we often want to end practice on a good note. I don’t know how many times I’ve told myself only two more arrows, only to be dissatisfied and continue on, chasing for better form, or at least a hit. This thinking will most likely send one astray, and frustrated, making you feel like a loser when you finally need to leave the dojo.
Zassha however can cure all of this. No matter how good or bad of a day you’ve had, when you finish you tell yourself that these are the last two arrows of the day, and you’re going to do the best you can. No matter the outcome, when you leave the shooting area, the day is done and time to move on.
But that’s only one small part of our finishing zassha. Like I explained earlier when doing zassha to start off the day, magically a lot of our meddling mind monkeys flee and we’re left with a kind of setting sun. When doing this, I can feel the history of the day. My muscles are sore and my focus more tired than before. Regardless, all of my power is mustered to this moment of two last arrows, and the result is epic. It feels good, and my shots are often some of the best of the day.
Before I am born into practice, I sit and shoot, zassha.
After everything, in my last moments, I sit and shoot, zassha.
with a lot of magic.