|In the 1920s the German academic Eugen Herrigel went to Japan in search of the Zen experience. He had studied theology and then philosophy at Heidelberg University, and through his interest in Christian mysticism (Eckhart), he became interested in Zen, which he thought of as one of the most mystical of religions. He wanted to find a way of directly experiencing living Buddhism, which he understood could be found in the practice of Zen Buddhism.
He was advised that as a foreigner with no command of Japanese, he would be better off if he first of all studied an art form (geido) that was related to Zen and through that to gradually find a relationship to Zen Buddhism. On this recommendation he took up the practice of kyudo, the way of the Japanese bow, and wrote about his experiences in his now famous book Zen in the Art of Archery. With the publication of an English-language edition in 1956, further publications followed in many languages, including Japanese. This book helped to popularize an interest in Zen and kyudo and to establish the notion that they are in some way intimately connected.
Herrigel took up his kyudo training under Master Kenzo Awa. He came from the Japanese archery tradition that evolved historically from two main lineages, the warrior tradition (bushakei), which used the bow as a weapon of war, and the ceremonial tradition (reishakei), with its emphasis on ritualized shooting form. When the bow became obsolete as a weapon, it continued to be used for competition and ritual ceremony. Eventually its use became a way of moral and spiritual training.
Awa was considered an expert and was well known for his accuracy. He was capable of hyappatsu hyakuchu -- 100 shots, 100 hits -- and in his earlier period as an instructor he emphasized accuracy. But at a point in his kyudo career, he is purported to have had doubts about his shooting and about Japanese archery as just excellence in technique. He adopted the view nani mo iranu -- nothing is needed -- and held that practice goes beyond technique and that there is a need to create a 'spiritual' release with absolute, deepest effort issha zetsumei -- one shot, one life. It would seem that Awa had some insight or awakening in his own practice, upon which this was founded. Awa's kyudo became more of a spiritual way, almost to the extent of being considered a religion by some of his critics. At this time, Jigoro Kano founded judo, whose concept was opposed to the purely technical jujitsu. At the same time, kyudo was evolving from kyujitsu (Japanese archery) as a way of moral training and cultivating the character. Awa's creation of his own school of the 'great shooting way' (daishado) reflected this shift of focus, but to his own extreme of spiritual intention.
Kyudo practitioners at the time considered Awa unorthodox, if not eccentric. There may even have been some who thought he was mad. He definitely did not represent the mainstream of kyudo. Also, his relationship to Zen practice is not clear. He had a 'brother' student, with whom he had undergone training, in Zen Master Umeji Roshi, who was also considered unconventional in his teaching of kyudo and who used Zen approaches in his teaching method. It is known that he was greatly admired by Awa and that they trained together even after they had established their own training practices. But it seems that Awa never actually formally adopted Zen training or practised sitting meditation (zazen). His approach was to use kyudo as a way of transcendental experience, and he used Zen concepts and terminology to illustrate this, but that is as far as the connection seems to have gone.
For Herrigel in his own quest for insight through a Zen practice, Awa was custom-made. He must have fitted completely Herrigel's romantic notion of the mysterious and mystical master. As was mentioned earlier, Herrigel did not speak or understand Japanese, and this would not have helped him to understand that Awa never considered himself a proponent of Zen and that kyudo and Zen were not in some way synonymous. It would seem that he constructed his own interpretation of his experiences with Awa so as to re-enforce his own romantic view of kyudo as a form of Zen practice.
One example of this can be found in Herrigel's book, in a passage which he asks Awa what is needed to hit the target. Awa is reported to have said that we do not need to think about hitting the target. We do not need to aim at it. Herrigel challenged this by declaring that if the target is not aimed at it cannot be hit.
Awa ordered Herrigel to come to the practice hall that evening. In the semi-darkness, he placed a stick of lit incense in front of the target so that only its light was visible (the target butts are usually 28 metres from the shooting line). Awa shot his first arrow and it was heard hitting the target. He then shot his second arrow (arrows are shot in pairs), which also hit. It would seem that the first arrow hit the centre of the target, and that the second arrow did so too, having split through the shaft of the first.
According to Herrigel, Awa said that through experience it was acceptable that the first arrow hit, but that the second arrow was evidence of shooting without self and that this shot was not created by him, as if something mysterious had taken place. Herrigel states in the passage relating to this incident that Awa said, '"It" shot and "It" made the hit. Let us bow to the goal as before the Buddha.'
However, other sources reported Awa's explanation of the incident quite differently, saying that Herrigel went to retrieve the arrows and when he did not return, Awa called to him but received no answer. When Awa went to the target butts he found Herrigel sitting speechless in front of the target with the arrows in it. Awa said that this was just coincidence and that he had had no intention to demonstrate such a thing. Awa placed no special mystical significance on the shooting and may even have been irritated that the second arrow had damaged the first.
My experience of kyudo and my limited experience of Zen practice suggests that they are treated in a very matter of fact way, without mystification. And yet they still contain an unspoken reverence for the profound, which is not seen as different from the ordinary.
In the incident above, Awa wanted, I am sure, to demonstrate that with correct alignment to the target and correct conditions to make a natural release, the arrow will be sent to the target. He wanted to show that as a master, he did not need any special control, only the years of training that had created concentration and balance. He wanted Herrigel to have faith in this rather than to see it as extraordinary or mysterious.
This example is also important in understanding kyudo because the romantic mystical notion of kyudo sometimes gives the idea that one need not hit the target or implies that it is hit by some mysterious process that happens without the effort of proper training.
Beginners can find a way to hit the target, but the training demands that the arrow be sent to the target in the correct form. In mainstream practice, students are encouraged to enjoy the situation, through competition and without too many immediate expectations, but the form is gradually applied, and senior grades must meet -- strict requirements. They must obey the concept of seisha seichu -- correct hitting is correct shooting. They must meet the challenge and discipline of creating a true and natural release based on the correct and natural use of form.
The target is there for a reason. It reflects our shooting in an uncompromising way. If the arrow does not go to the target, then there is something lacking. Of course there may be impressive effort and a sincerity in the shooting -- these qualities by themselves are admired -- but to keep to the discipline of seisha seichu, the arrow must go to the target. The target also gives us the opportunity to meet desire. Everyone has the desire to hit the target, but in thinking about the result we are already separated from the moment and the conditions of the full draw, which create a proper release. Desire is always an idea, a hope or an expectation, which can lead us away from the real situation.
We have to work with desire and the sense of frustration we create from our expectation. This is a normal condition of the learning process. Those who want to do 'spiritual' kyudo, and pretend to be unconcerned about the result, are deceiving themselves. In many kyudo practice halls, you can find the calligraphy mushin, which is a state when the person is transcended and there is no separate conscious awareness. This is considered the highest state of shooting (a concept taken from Zen). Many kyudo students seek this condition, but it cannot be attained intentionally. My own teacher would always say that you must first of all have yushin, the heart full of desire, if you are to find the transcended heart.
Awa was uncompromising, and would have set the ultimate goals of practice from the beginning. His most radical view, and the central theme of his teaching, was that one should not to be caught by anything (torawarenai). One surrenders oneself completely to the shooting and the situation. For this to be possible, one must recognize that we do not own our body, spirit or thoughts and that they have their own life as part of Life.
In kyudo, the handling of the bow requires an empathy towards the bow that allows it to express completely its energy and life. It is a relationship and dialogue far removed from any idea of the bow as a tool to be manipulated for a result. The body is used in a natural way so that the alignment of the joints and the use of muscle power is natural and correct. The breath and posture must also obey the natural law. And this is where we must understand Awa's position on nani mo iranu -- nothing is needed. I do not believe, as some do, that in this approach he abandoned all technique, because this is impossible. What I am sure Awa meant is that nothing extra is needed. When we learn to use the body in the right way and to recognize the natural functioning of the bow, there is the understanding that nothing is added on -- no separate agency is needed to operate them. There is just the natural functioning of the situation.
The paradox we experience is that we feel separate and lacking in something, and yet there is nothing to gain. In acquiring 'naturalness' in the situation, we need to become rather less than more. It seems as though we are developing and advancing, which we are in a relative sense, but we do this by removing misunderstanding and our own ideas of how we should do something. This is why we need relational attitudes such as acceptance and trust and reliance more on our felt experience than our understanding.
We must live the paradox. In kyudo we must be in the middle of understanding and feeling, doubt and faith. We must seek an ideal but accept the matter of factness of the situation. We must have technical understanding, but not at the expense of felt 'understanding'.
Training is the foundation of all this. Although the teacher pushes us when we are lazy or avoiding ourselves and although we have the experience of all those who have gone before to help us, the practice is the real teacher in which the truth of seisha seishu exists. Without the daily repetition of giving in to the practice and confronting ourselves, nothing is realized. But no one can do this for us. Only our own effort and our own perseverance can make this possible.
The process of learning is often seen traditionally in three phases: shin, gyo and so. Shin is the character for truth, which represents the fundamentals and essence of the practice, and at the shin level the student must unreservedly copy the fundamentals of form without deviation or personal interpretation. This is the essential training of the heart to establish right attitude and remove resistance. We must practise repetitively, trying to keep to the established form, and in so doing we meet our frustration and desire to do things in our own way. What we are taught are the fundamentals, which are also the absolute possibilities of the form, so we continue to seek to make the correct stance, for example, to the end of our lives. Once the practice has become more accepted and more in the body, the practitioner is at the gyo level, where the form is carried out with some degree of naturalness. Following on from this, the ultimate condition of so is the state in which practitioner and the form are one. The character so is the character for 'grass' (kusa), representing movement with the thousand things, as though we were moving as one through a field of tall grass.
Other elements of traditional learning also emphasize the felt and intuitive approach rather than technical understanding. For example, traditional methods of learning rely on observation practice (midorikeiko) rather than simple explanation. I experienced this as a beginner, when I was asked to watch the example of an instructor and then just to copy it. In the natural world the young of animals do this, and there is evidence that the acquisition of behaviour is a skill that is often learnt only in this way, by observation and then internalizing the action. My teacher would say to me, why don't you just do it. Younger students just copy and do it. But of course, I, as a Westerner and an older person, would have to try and filter the experience through my own understanding. And then, when I felt it was mine, I would allow it to be acquired (this practice involves not simply observing with the eye but observing with all our senses).
In modern kyudo, and also in the shooting of Awa, every movement and element of the shooting offers an opportunity for self-examination and relationship. This is most evident in the release. In kyujitsu a controlled and intentional release is used, deriving from the days when the bow was used as a weapon. But in the shooting of kyudo, the creation of a natural and uncontrived release is the real challenge.
For the kyudo practitioner this is the 'iron wall' and the 'glass mountain'. This is where we have to choose either a 'safe' controlled and prescribed release, which will give you the result you want in hitting the target, or a release based on the principle of seisha seichu, when the archer attempts a sincere giving in to the correct and natural release, which will send the arrow to the target. The effort of Awa's issha zetsumei -- one shot with all your life -- is the effort to give in without giving up. How to let go without just letting go? In Herrgiel's own commentary this is well illustrated. He trained on an arrow stop, a makiwara, for the first four years of his training. This is quite demanding and not usual today because most modern students in Japan and the West have different expectations and would find it unfulfilling and possibly give up. But Herrigel persevered and saw the search for a proper release as his training purpose. Initially he had an idea that there was some technique to the release, like that of shooting a pistol, which he had experience of. But when he tried to create a contrived release he was admonished by Awa, and gradually he realized the meaning of a natural release.
In kyudo the bow is not actually held: the pressure of the bow is used to keep it in the left hand. On the right side, the power of the bow is transferred from the glove to the elbow, which in turn takes the tension of the bow. The archer is between these two points of the power of the bow; and by bringing the body inside the draw of the bow, he is centred inside the pressure of the drawn bow. Through an opposite expansion of feeling-body energy the pressure gradually increases to its optimum, when the string is naturally ripped from the glove hand and a natural release is expressed. Any imbalance of power through gripping in either hand or a collapsing of this tension will result in an unsatisfactory release, which will affect the flight of the arrow. The moment before the release is the time to realize the balance of body, bow and spirit and to allow negative feelings and disturbing thoughts to disperse.
This expansion of energy (nobiai) to create the release is unique to kyudo, it is not found in any other form of archery. It is at the heart of understanding kyudo. When we give ourselves to the effort of the expansion, then we are in the living moment. (To stop this and make a separate action of release is a contrived release.) As we cannot know this actual moment, only the condition of 'nobiai', for this moment we are beyond thinking and the separate person.
Experience teaches the archer to rely on the situation and to accept emotional reactions, so that they do not have so much hold. The shooting gradually becomes in the body, and in the highest level of practice the presence of an independent agent is not apparent. There is no person shooting; there is just shooting itself. This 'naturalness', without the person, is the ideal of truth, goodness and Beauty (shin, zen and Bi), the 'effortless effort' mentioned by Herrigel in his book, effort that has nothing added, that is not seeking for anything special. From the viewpoint of the person, this is complete effort with all our heart, but without the person it is the boundless effort of ordinary doing. It is effort without definition -- just effort itself.
We should remind ourselves that although we seek the profound, it is also the ordinary. In the practice hall there is no philosophy, just training the body and spirit to find its true nature.
But in our own culture the body is so possessed by ourselves. Our 'personality' is expressed through the face and the hands. To shift energy from the hands, the face and the upper body, is very demanding; and with the focus of power on the upper body and the breathing locked in the throat and upper chest, the whole body cannot function naturally. Body awareness should be centred in the abdomen just below the navel, known in mediation practices and in traditional Japanese arts as tanden or, more commonly, hara. This centre is where we start to bring everything together by placing our concentration and breathing there. With this focus the practitioner expresses the natural state of non-division between body and awareness. Without division or attachment to our experiences, feeling and thoughts, we can be what we are.
What we can see is that although kyudo and Zen are not synonymous, having their own separate form and traditions, they do seem to seek for the same reality. If Zen in its purity is not the property of any school but as a expression of truth is in essence without any special spiritual allegiance, then I believe that Awa's approach to the transcendental and his own search had much in common with Zen's ideals and purpose.
In Buddhism we question the meaning of being a person, an individual. In doing this we practise the giving up of attachment to these notions and become aware of the whole of life. We surrender ourselves. All great spiritual traditions and practices that recognize the something beyond the individual need this understanding as the foundation of training.
Traditional Japanese practices place great emphasis on subordinating ourselves to what is beyond ourselves. Many Westerners, and I guess many Japanese as well, enter into a practice such as kyudo or the tea ceremony with the idea of an individual purpose and experience. But in tea, for example, the guest is more important than the host; and in the larger tea gathering, one must be very aware of others. The same is true for kyudo. Although there is often ceremonial shooting performed by an individual master or senior grade and although the individual performer seems quite heroic alone in the shooting area (much like the individual meditator), it is the community of the practice place and how to work together with others that is essential for training. Working with others is in some ways more difficult than with the bow or the situation: it challenges our relationship to ourselves, and in this and all the prescribed aspects of the dojo and the practice there is very little room to indulge ourselves. I think this is also true for Zen training.
Herrigel helped in creating the myth that kyudo and Zen are in some way the same and that kyudo is an esoteric practice. As we have seen, they are not synonymous but they do share the same reality and have much in common. However, kyudo is not seen as part of a religion, as is Zen, even if for some there is a recognition of the spiritual. When Herrigel practised kyudo very few kyudo practitioners connected kyudo to Zen or practised it. The same is true today. Modern kyudo owes its recognition of the spiritual to the legacy of Awa, but a large majority of practitioners in Japan consider it as a recreational activity used for moral discipline or as a way simply to have good health. Although some practitioners of kyudo in the West also espouse a utilitarian view, the vast majority, through the influence of Herrigel, have taken it up on the assumption that it was imbued with Zen purposes and ideals. This understanding was for many Westerners about Zen only as sitting mediation practice (zazen) and some notion of personal transcendence. It ignored the fact that the Zen schools are an intimate part of the religious purpose and practice of Buddhism.
The value of Herrigel's contribution to a popular appreciation of the spiritual is unquestionable. Traditional Japanese practices such as kyudo or a religious practice such as Zen require a commitment and dedication beyond any romantic view, and they do not consider the profound as extraordinary or separate from the mundane. If we realize this, we shall understand them better and bring ourselves closer to the examples set for us by the great teachers, who have shown us that farther along the path there is a unity we lack in our present condition. But as we look ahead, we must also look to where our feet walk now.