Archive for March, 2009

Kyudo: A Symphony

I’d been meaning to go to the symphony for quite some time. When I heard they were playing Rimsky Korsakov’s Sheherezade, I figured the time was right.

I had never thought of this before, but several things struck me this night. Kyudo and the orchestra have much in common.

As the conductor, Maestro, stepped on his podium his demeanor changed. He exuded a presence that emanated throughout the theater. All of those he led sat erect in their chair, ready. It reminded me of omai entering the dojo.

Maestro’s eyes were intense. He was living and breathing the music with the orchestra. Ikiai. His eyes were piercing as he looked at each section cuing them. Their eyes were focused, unblinking as they played. Mezukai. They moved as one. Taihai. When their moment came, they played their solos with mushin. The music was sharp, clean as they released each note. Hanare. It was on target as it flowed.

Don’t do kyudo, be kyudo.

Put yourself into your shooting just as the musician puts himself into his music. Shoot with spirit. Use ikiai and mezukai. To paraphrase Miyauchi Sensei, move yourself and you will move the people.

Maestro entered with dozukuri and left with zanshin. It was a moving performance. Bravo!


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The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

– Shoot from the heart!-

Everywhere you go it’s Zen this and Zen that. Just what qualifies something as being Zen? Who is making the rules these days? And who is breaking them?

It’s pretty much common knowledge that Zen is a sect of the Buddhist religion. And common knowledge means that if I know it everyone else should… and probably did long before I.

But, what else is Zen?

I was helping “unload the cans” (unloading freight) the other day and a co-worker asked me, “What is all this Zen stuff you see on everything? What does it mean?”

My mind skipped a beat as I tried to come up with a plausible answer and keep my hands moving packages. “Well, I think… being in the moment.” But, I started thinking, how is a box of cookies or any other inanimate object in the moment? We talked a bit more trying to figure it out together. Finally, I left it at, “I’ll let you know when I figure it out.”

In searching for an answer for Darrell, I checked out the Zen Firefly Lights. Now don’t get me wrong, I like pretty lights and these look fun. But Zen? The ad purports that these artificial lights will recreate the nights of old, when fireflies were abundant and will add positive chi and feng shui to your backyard.

I still don’t get it…

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Kyudo Poetry

A Zen Master of the Kamakura period once described Kyudo as such:

No target’s erected

No bow’s drawn

And the arrow leaves the string:

It may not hit,

But it does not miss.

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Hirokazu Kosaka was born in Wakayama, Japan. He graduated in 1970 from Couinard Art Institute in Los Angeles where he earned his BFA. He went on to earn a Masters at Columbia University in 1980. He is an ordained Buddhist priest from Koyasan Hagyu Temple. He is currently the curator and director of visual arts at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Los Angeles, California and has practiced Kyudo for time untold. For, as he might say, time is not of essence.

At the 2008 ANKF Seminar in California, kyudoka had the opportunity to attend a seminar given by Hirokazu Kosaka. He touched on several areas in his talk entitled “Veranda: The Space Between”. The serenity with which he spoke, would put even the most tense kyudoka at ease on the night before exams.

I was fortunate enough to find a video clip on You Tube covering a small portion of his talk that evening. There he speaks on brushes. (The link may be located under “videos” to the right.)

His first brush came from his great-grandfather, some 120 years or more ago. This brush, as was Japanese tradition, was made from his great-grandfather’s first haircut. This is done with each generation and passed down to the next. He showed us the two brushes, as well, made from the first haircuts of his two sons. He points out the softness. He tells us this is due to the fact that it is from hair never before cut. The tips are soft and not blunt, as would be otherwise.

He showed us brushes made from peacock feathers, ostrich eyelashes, sheep, rabbit and more. He told of how, as a boy, he would catch rats and pluck their whiskers. He collected these over the course of a year to make one brush.

He acquired a brush that he did not know the origin of. He had a friend in a lab run tests on it to find that it was made from elephant hair. Not just any hair of the elephant, though. It was not of the tail as he had thought, but from the soft, soft hair inside the elephant’s ear. He spoke of his curiosity and how this was purely a matter of ego in wanting to know.

In speaking with him afterwards, he related this story to our Kyudo, saying …we should not let our ego enter into our shooting. Let it go!

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Archer, Archer!
Take Aim!
Knock your shaft,
bend your bow.
Become the arrow,
and with its loose,
let the string cut straight through you.
With this shot, you die.
With the next, you are reborn.

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The Shaho-Kun was written by Master Junsei Yoshimi, also known as Daiuemon Tsunetake, during the Tokugawa period. While the Raiki-Shagi deals more with ethics, such as courtesy and virtue, the Shaho-Kun relates to the issues of shooting. It is broken down paragraph by paragraph on page 25 of the Kyudo Kyohon.

It reads as follows:
“(1) The way is not with the bow, but with the bone, which is of the greatest importance in shooting. This means that when you are going to shoot, you must not lose your overall awareness and become preoccupied in just manipulating the bow and arrows, but remember that the shooting effort should also be made with yours muscles and bones.”

I have looked at this, read it and re-read it, trying to put it in words of my own. I came up with “Put yourself into your shooting.” This is possibly an over simplification. With more background information, things come into better focus.

In The Bodhisattva Warriors by Terrance Duke, on page 465, he states:
“Long before Western medicine had arisen, the Ksatreya Vaidya (healers) taught that the elements of Fire and Air combined in the marrow to create, or revitalize, the blood. The marrow was therefore considered to be an important source of life energy.

If the marrow became imbalanced, the balance of the body’s elements (dhatu) would be thrown out of order and , in turn, all the bodily functions suffered. In addition to the blood, the physical vital energies also were held to “mature” within the marrow, and thus the marrow was a point of contact between the different energy systems of this, and other, worlds.

So, here, we draw on the Five Element Theory that Miyamoto Musashi writes of in his Book of Five Rings. If we think of the aforementioned energies in terms of kyudo, we can refer to this as ki.

With this in mind, I take this to mean that we put ourselves into our shooting by extending ki through our arm and into the bow. In addition, I would also think this is one of the reasons tenouchi of the left hand is of great importance.

Therefore, we mustn’t think solely of technique (the bow) but hold in highest regard the spirit (bone) as well.

This leads us on to part 2, which begins with “Placing the spirit (Kokoro)…”

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I recently ran across a blog regarding Kyudo entitled The Death of an Art by Miles with Meaning. For those that know me well, you know that nothing will get me on my soapbox quicker than someone wanting to do for kyudo what was done for karate in the West.

He makes some valid points in his writing. He begins by extolling the beauty of kyudo. I don’t believe anyone could argue with that, although there are those I am sure that cannot appreciate this beauty.

He goes on to say:
It is a dying art and one that may not be around in 20 years or so.

Why would an art that has been around for thousands of years, be on a path of extinction? The answer is a lack of instructors. . . or so it appears on the surface. The real problem is with the teaching and ranking system of Kyudo.

Most other arts require 4-7 years to achieve black belt level. After another 2 or so, one can achieve second degree status. It is usually at the 2nd or 3rd dan that individuals begin to teach. Not so with Kyudo.

Kyudo requires that one achieves 5th dan status. . .before they begin a program to learn how to teach. By the time the smoke clears, one is looking at nearly double the lengths listed above. As such, they are basically killing their own art via their requirements. Even worse, they are at the point whereby no one even cares if such happens. It reminds me of the person who sells 8-track tapes in 2009. Maybe a collector or 2 will purchase “The Doors Live at the Hollywood Bowl” on 8 track but basically, no one wants this format.

From the rest of the article, I gather he asked to study kyudo repeatedly and was turned away. While this is regretted, I don’t believe in changing the format so that we wind up with a watered down version of kyudo. He states that after asking 40 to 50 times, by the 60th time the person has given up . He sees that in the past, instructors have kept the “secret” of their art to themselves and and that art has died with its Masters.

Several points should be made here. Firstly, the time frame for advancement in rank is different for karate and kyudo. If you are on the fast track in karate, you may achieve black belt rank in as little as three years. In kyudo, with hard work, one may achieve shodan after one year. This fast progression tends to slow as rank increases and the judges are looking for more depth and precision in your development.

Federation kyudo is governed in Japan. They send a select group of Hanchi-dan to countries around the world to conduct testing, or one may travel to Japan. This ensures the standards of the art are upheld. While there are other styles of kyudo that do not adhere to the policy of testing, which I respect, testing in this fashion helps to make sure the true spirit of kyudo is not lost.

Karate has no governing board. Those signatures on the black belt certificates may or may not mean anything. Whose standards are you living up to when you received it? The person that trained you and maybe the instructors that he trained? Granted, I am sure there are good schools out there that haven’t let the draw of promoting students for cash blind them, but then again, way too many have.

I have often thought of writing an article on The Raping of a Martial Art. I have debated whether this is a little harsh. I don’t think so. So, many schools have become little more than baby sitting services. Don’t get me wrong, even at the worst, it is probably a good thing. It keeps the kids active, it is a good social network, and they have fun. But are we teaching martial arts? Are we creating a false sense of confidence in many students that the techniques they are doing will work in a real life situation? Are we teaching the heart of the martial arts? Or, have we let the draw of more money darken our hearts? When the term McDojo becomes part of our language, then we have a problem!


As with most things, there are many considerations and these need to be addressed. Yes, we need to promote kyudo. In Japan, it is taught as a class in the high schools. No, not all of the students will continue with it, but at least they have that opportunity. It is sad when you see someone that would like to pursue the art and is refused. If they turn away, it would be preferable that they turned away of their own accord. If not given the opportunity, what talents are there that may remain untouched? What if the Michael Jordan’s of the world had never even seen or picked up a basketball?

There are those that care deeply. The answer lies in the delicate balance of promoting kyudo without destroying its purity. If we westernise kyudo, as karate has been, kyudo would become little more than Western Archery. This, to me, would be the true Death of an Art.

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