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Zen and Kyudo are One

by Uozumi Bune

Lately you can often hear lovers of kyudo say that "Zen and Kyudo are one." I think that peoples' understanding of the contents of these words differs considerably depending on each person's way of thinking.

I have no experience with zen training, nor do I understand the essence or meaning of zen. The dictionary explains that zen in Buddhist teaching is "a state in which the mind is stable and not caught up in evil thoughts. It means to sit quietly and practice awakening the mind directly." According to my way of understanding, this could be thought to mean to unify and concentrate one's spirit, and to become awakened to universal truth and humanity.

The ultimate purpose of kyudo is to continue in training to shoot in order to develop one's humanity and improve one's character.

Even those who begin kyudo as a sport or pastime will, through repeated practice and improvement, finally approach the original essence of kyudo, and distinction will become evident in their shot. Distinction in a shot comes through refinement of physical movements and technical skill, and furthermore is the grace that exudes from a well-rounded human character. One who has only mastered shooting technique will not have a distinguished shot.

In these terms, kyudo and zen are united, and the reason why kyudo is called "standing zen." Below, I will discuss the gist of my own opinions regarding the true essence of kyudo.

It is said that kyudo begins and ends with "rei." (etiquette, ceremony, politeness). This "rei" is not simply the etiquette and ceremony in entering and leaving the shooting area and preparing for making the shot. It is the larger meaning of "rei" as explained in the saying "correct comportment as humans should behave." Here are some familiar examples of how kyudo is connected to "humanity." (the way or path of being human)

A. Revere etiquette and ceremony
1. Become able to perform taihai (all of the physical movements leading up to and off of the shooting area) that accords with rei. (lack of etiquette in one's movements violate the principle of "rei.")
2. Be careful not to disturb others
3. Keep your promises, obey rules, be punctual (breaking promises is rude)
B. Reflect and cultivate a progressive spirit
As it says in the meaning of shooting in the Book of Rites*; "Seek correct shooting in oneself. Make oneself correct and then release the shot. If you shoot and do not hit the target, do not resent the person who beats you, but rather only seek (the fault) in oneself." You must always acquire the habit of continually reflecting and correcting oneself.
C. Respect others, be trusting, and cultivate a cooperative and harmonious spirit.
"Harmony " is very important when shooting. When you shoot it is of course necessary to harmonize and balance the power of both your arms, but one cannot achieve a good shot only with this.
There is an oral teaching among the doctrines of the Bishu Chikurin School about "mutual overcoming and mutual generation." There is also an oral teaching related to the five movements, which is about the five elements that are the source of all things. This "mutual overcoming/mutual generation" is composed from tree, fire, earth, metal and water as follows:

A tree defeats the earth
The earth defeats water
Water defeats fire
Fire defeats metal

This is called "mutual overcoming." In other words, things that disappear in a struggle with something else.

Fire is born from a tree
The earth proceeds from fire
Metal is born from fire
Water is born from metal

This is called "mutual generation." In other words, things when harmonized give birth to a good result.

If you think about the five movements in terms of kyudo equipment, " mutual overcoming" occurs under the following circumstances:
A heavy arrow with a weak bow
A thick string with a thin and weak bow
A thin and light arrow with a strong bow
A stiff kake with a weak bow

"Mutual generation" occurs under the following conditions:
A light arrow with a weak bow
A thin light string with a thin weak bow
A soft kake with a weak bow

Moreover, there are many things necessary to harmonize the shooting of one arrow. Here are the main points.
1. Harmony of equipment (as described above)
2. Harmony of movement of left and right arms
3. Harmony of vertical and horizontal axis
4. Harmony between strength of bow and physical strength
5. Harmony between breath and comportment of shot
6. Trinity (unification of body, mind and bow (skill)
As stated above, if the entire body is harmonized then a sharp, lambent release will be born as expressed in the saying, "as rapid as when rock and iron clash and sparks fly out." The arrow will pierce the bulls-eye with a force able to penetrate rock, and one's zanshin will be bold and austere as expressed in the saying "the white western half moon of the golden body."

By cultivating the spirit of harmony, requirements of human morality will also be fulfilled.
D. About unifying one's spirit
In kyudo doctrine there are legends and sayings such as "one sliver, three worlds," "the snow gaze," and the legend of Ji Chang Guan Shi in Liezi that teach" one must see the target large and clear by unifying one's spirit"
One sliver, three worlds
This means that one should open one's eyes so that one sliver (3 mm) appears as large as three worlds (universe)

This means that one should aim only for one spot in the middle of the target.

1. The "snow gaze"
This teaches one to aim at the target with the same concentration as if one concentrated on following with one's eyes all the way to the ground a single snowflake from among the countless snowflakes falling from the sky.
2. The legend of Ji Chang Guan Shi
In the first volume of the Chikurin treatise in a section on "the pulse of the bow" is written the legend of a famous Chinese archer, Ji Chang, who pierced the center of a louse. According to this legend, in ancient China there was a famous archer named Gan Fei. When he pulled a bow, even before he released the arrow beasts would crumple up and birds would fall from the sky. Gan Fei's disciple was Fei Wei, and his student was Ji Chang. When Ji Chang began studying under Fei Wei, he asked how he should train. Fei Wei replied, "first, practice not to blink no matter what happens. When you can do that come back and report to me." So Ji Chang went home and sat beneath his wife's loom, practicing not blinking even when the shuttle went right in front of his eyes. After two years of practice he was able to refrain from blinking, so he went to Fei Wei to report this. Then Fei Wei said, "practice making small things look big." So Ji Chang went home and tied a louse to hair, and hung it from a southern window, practicing glaring at it. After one month, it began to look a bit bigger, and after three years it grew to look as large as a cartwheel. So he became able to have anything he looked at appear as big as a mountain. With a horn bow he was able to shoot the louse with an arrow of mugwort. This legend teaches us that through unifying one's spirit small things can appear large.
3. Regarding "No thought no imagination" and "one shot extinguishes life," these two sayings can be regarded as teaching the same thing.
"No thought no imagination" means not that that one is lost in a daze, but rather that all thought and imagination are ultimately unified, with one's entire body and spirit poured into the task. "One shot extinguishes life," means the same thing.
By training in the kyudo doctrine related to the unification of one's spirit, one can expect to cultivate fortitude and correct judgment.

E. Regarding Kyudo's aesthetic sense
Kyudo is also called an art, and gives people who watch it a sense of beauty. This is why clean and simple clothing, proper comportment, and a mature and elegant shot are required.
In the first volume of the All Japan Kyudo Federation Instruction Manual, it is written that the highest goal of kyudo is the pursuit of truth, goodness and beauty.
Truth means the search for truth and seeking a correct shooting method, striving to attain a correct hitting of the target.
Goodness refers to the morality of kyudo by practicing such things as etiquette guiding one's life path, concentrating one's spirit, exercising great power through cooperation and harmony to create a practical life path with relevance to kyudo and to life in society.
Beauty comes from the aforementioned truth and goodness. For example, if the shooter and his helper harmonize well in a formal shooting ceremony than this will appear beautiful. And a team that works in harmony well to achieve a high score in a competition will also give the audience a sense of beauty.

This reminds me of reading Kant's "Sense of Beauty" in my youth.

There is a sense called the "exquisite"
This is
A sense of scarcity
A sense of embellishment
A sense of limitation
A sense of quietude
A sense of formality

There is a sense called the "sublime"
This is
A sense of grandiosity
A sense of simplicity
A sense of unlimitedness
A sense of grooving
A sense of vigor

If one thinks about these aesthetic senses in a shooting ceremony, while one is still immature one will not impart to viewers a sense of beauty. But if one practices quite a bit, works on breathing and timing, and if all the actions leading up to and following the shot, shooting technique and accuracy are well harmonized, then the viewers will be given a feeling of beauty. And a person who refines this even further to the point of mastery will not have any decorative feeling to his shot, but rather a bland taste and a feeling of power, which is the aesthetic sense of the sublime.

Finally, I would like to repeat that kyudo is about practicing shooting a bow and arrow in order to pursue one's humanity, and it has things in common with Zen.


Published on Nagoya University Kyudo Club Website



* Book attributed to a Chinese philosopher who lived ca 5th century b.c.

essay translated by Michael Rich 10/2009