In the last post I talked about a word called, “sutemi” (捨て身) which translates as “throwing away the body.” In that post I talked about the “cool” sutemi, which talks about overcoming the trials of the body to achieve something greater. It’s the kind of thing you want to hear when you read about martial arts, or budo (Japanese martial arts), but you know what? It’s only the tip of the iceberg. And all that other stuff you don’t see underwater is where the real hard work goes, and is a lot less interesting.
Furthermore, just “throwing your body away” in technique is one way to injure yourself or justify making some really bad habits.
Technique-wise, if you’re embracing “sutemi” and ignoring technique, you’re probably going to end up ignoring the signals of your body that are trying to tell you what you’re doing hurts and is unnatural, and your technical ability will plateau. Ideally, we should have a teacher that can help guide us, strengthening our spirit and technique together. But if we don’t happen to have a teacher we can access regularly, we should be researching, reading, and experimenting as much as possible so that we can continue to evolve, instead of just wallowing around in our own brown mud.
Back to the injury side of this, I have two injuries that were made a lot worse because I “threw away the body” and just pushed through the pain. A long time ago my skin tore at the base of my thumb where it makes contact with the bow in the left hand. I just taped over it and kept shooting, but it got worse and became a huge clump of scar tissue. I think maybe it’s gotten a little smaller over time, and I’ve learned to deal with it, but if I had just taken some time off to let it heal and then find out how to properly use my left hand, then I wouldn’t have a big bump to deal with now, which I can’t help but feels like it gets in the way of my grip (tenouchi).
Then there was my right shoulder which hurt because I tried to pull a bow that was too strong for me while using bad technique. It hurt, so I took about a week off, when it should have been a lot more, and then spent the better part of a year shooting on and off, putting up with the pain, which only made it worse. I’m now 7 months into rehabilitation and taking medicine and it looks like my shoulder will finally be healed in about another month. If I had gotten my shoulder checked out earlier and figured out what I was doing wrong with my shooting, I would have saved myself a lot of time and money.
On the bright side though, both of these injuries have given me invaluable wisdom towards how not to shoot the bow and how to deal with injuries.
So, “throwing away the body” is an important part of martial arts and budo sometimes if used the right way, but if taken too far, can lead to injuries and failed technique.
The real important part of “throwing away the body” may perhaps better be explained by “throwing away the ego.”
The really difficult parts that require discipline, patience, and throwing away the ego are found in all the little things we do in our practice of kyudo. This can be found in listening to others, waiting for others, practicing what your teacher tells you to instead of what you want to, taking care of your equipment, keeping good posture, getting along with others, cleaning your practice area, attending meetings for your dojo, not shooting when you don’t have time, etc.
Basically it’s all the stuff that you should do, but don’t want to because you just want to shoot the bow.
My first year with the bow was full of this. All I wanted to do was learn how to hit the target, but I felt like all I was doing was waiting for others, taking care of equipment, and learning how to walk and sit. The next couple years I was finally learning how to hit the target, but every shot was followed by comments from my teachers about stuff I felt like “I already knew” or thought I was doing but wasn’t. This on top of taking care of all the other stuff made for a really frustrating time. The next year I was learning to deal with all the frustrating sides of kyudo, but starting to be able to put up with it without stressing myself out or being an asshole.
Finally now, for about the last year, I’ve learned that all of these annoying things have meaning and are more important than hitting the target, because I can’t hit the target without them. Also, learning to take care of all these annoying little details builds habits of discipline and focus within me so that I can learn to better shoot the bow.
If I don’t take care of my equipment or facilities, then I won’t be able to actually use the bow and target. And you know what, taking care of your facilities and equipment will make you a better archer.
If I don’t take care to watch how to sit, stand, and walk properly, how can I possibly expect to learn the complex movements of shooting the bow? And you know what, learning how to sit, stand, and walk properly will make you a better archer.
But those are just tiny fragments compared to the people.
You know what the most important part of kyudo is?
It’s taken me a long time to understand this. It’s made worse because I’ve never thought of “people” as being my favorite part of the world. But you know what? The art of the bow and arrow have been passed down through human history by people, and we can now shoot the way we do because of people. If you want to walk into the woods, try to forget all about the bow and arrow, and try and come up with the idea on your own and then make your own, then that’s fine. That can be your art. I like some of that, actually. Maybe I’ll try it someday. But, if you’re practicing kyudo, and want to improve, understanding that all of this was made by people in history, and you are now allowed to do so today because a lot of people have taken a lot of time to make it happen is really really important. We don’t have to reject these people, or go off on our own, but instead make efforts to show respect, and help others.
This is where the real shin (truth) zen (goodness) and bi (beauty) is. Shooting the bow is only one manifestation, which is created by a base of respect and humility. If you don’t have the base, then all your shooting will end up being just about … shooting. Might as well go and do something else, like eat ice cream or learn how to shoot a gun.
Show respect, and help others. This is why there are so many rules of etiquette in kyudo. We don’t have to like them at first, but if we can use sutemi and throw away our ego, perhaps we can learn to understand the depth of this ancient art, and learn how to physically “throw away our bodies” in the cool way we see in all the movies.
I’m not sure I’ve explained this well enough. All the annoying stuff and etiquette may seem like meaningless torture, but most of it has meaning. How to react to it is researching the why, and asking lots of questions, and just putting up for a while if you’re unsure instead of whining and making a big fuss. In the end, if it really has no meaning and you don’t like it, then you can throw it away and do it your way. But I’d be sure to keep an open ear in case you missed something.
Onward and upward, even if it feels like untangling a giant ball of yarn.
Throw away the ego.