- STANDING ZEN
by Christopher Triplett and Katja Triplett
(Translation/Editing: S. Albrecht)
the way of the bow, is a living tradition of meditative archery, rooted in the
old warrior traditions of Japan. The perfect mastery of the bow was considered
an art by the Samurai, an art that knew no other goal than the highest experience
of the here and now, of the moment as it is, beyond any strategies of thought
and concept. Christopher and Katja Triplett on the history of the bow and the
way of the bow.
Today Kyudo is being practised by thousands of people all over the world for
their mental schooling as well as for their spiritual development. The simple
elegance of the movements, the beauty of the bow and the arrows and the atmosphere
of quietness and dignity predominant in the practice place, have a great fascination
for those of us who wish to walk upon the path of self-knowledge. Because to
set out on the path of archery means to set out on a journey of understanding
where you learn to see with a new set of eyes and to listen with new ears. If
you look at it from the outside, Kyudo seems to be archery. Drawing the bow and
shooting at the target resembles a test of skill, but Kyudo is no sport. To discover
the true nature of Kyudo, through hitting the target one has to look inside and
cut through and go beyond any kind of preoccupation, whether it be worry, hope,
doubt or fear. Although the actual form of Kyudo has changed over and again and
become more sophisticated over the past centuries, and has been subdivided into
various teaching schools (Ryu) and those in turn into subgroups (Ha), according
to style (Kata) and specific techniques (Waza), the essence of true Kyudo practice
always remains the same. It is standing Zen.
The development of the bow
The fertile ground on which the Japanese way of the bow grew to become as we
know it today, is composed of various layers of spiritual traditions of Confucianism,
Daoism and Buddhist teaching. From the mainland these traditions came to the
Japanese archipelago at different times, where they interlaced inextricably with
the native web of concepts in a very specific "typical Japanese" manner.
Of course, not just religious ideas and practices or models for social organisation
came to Japan from China and Korea, but also innumerable material and cultural
assets. Thus also the prototype of the asymmetrical Yumi (bow) was probably not
invented in the archipelago, but introduced to Japan through the carriers of
the Yayoi-culture during about the third century BC.
These immigrant ethnic groups of unmistakably Mongolide origin used the bow and
the arrow mostly in military conflicts over land and water rights. To a certain
degree they intermingled with the local Jomon people who on their part had brought
their own knowledge about the manufacturing of ceramics, bow and arrow hunting,
as well as other cultural achievements from the mainland (from about 10,000 BC
onwards). The excavated Jomon and Yayoi bows, as well as the bows of the ethnic
group of the Ainu, who were later driven away to the north, are made from a single
piece of wood, i.e. so-called stave-bows, in contrast to the far more elastic
and stable composite bows or reflex bows that appeared in Japan only at the beginning
of the 11th century. Here too one can assume that the knowledge about the composite
bows came from China. The significance of the invention of the bow for the history
of mankind is definitely comparable to the discovery of fire. It is an interesting
fact that the bow itself, whether as a military or hunting weapon, as a fire
drill, as the prototype of a string or plucked instrument, or as a ritual object,
has been invented in each continent independently.
The bow as a weapon
For military action - not only in Japan - especially the archers on horseback
were of extraordinary importance. At the beginning of a military fight it was
possible, within seconds and by covering the entire target area, to inflict disastrous
losses on the enemy who was still far away. Archers were also employed in sieges
and sea fights. Today's Japanese bow, the Yumi, is unique not only because of
its asymmetrical form, but also because at 2.3 metres average it is the longest
bow in the world. Its toughness and durability on the one hand, its sensitivity
and tendency to change on the other, can best be compared to a musical instrument
made of wood, for instance a hand-manufactured violin.
The magical bow
However, the bow in Japan was not only applied in a practical function as a weapon
for killing animals or doing away with people. Even today the bow is being used
as a ritual and cultic object. "The Master began by showing us various Japanese
bows (…) Then he grasped the best and strongest of his bows and, standing
in a ceremonious and dignified attitude, let the lightly drawn string fly back
several times. This produces a sharp crack mingled with a deep thrumming, which
one never afterwards forgets when one has heard it only a few times: so strange
it is, so thrillingly does it grip to the heart." Thus tells us Prof. Eugen
Herrigel in his famous book "Zen in the Art of Archery" about his first
lesson of being instructed in "the artless art".
"After this significant introductory act of purification and consecration"
the master shows Mr. and Mrs. Herrigel a first demonstration of the "proper
drawing" of the bow. Indeed, plucking the bowstring forms part of an ancient
ritual of the female shamans in Japan which serves to make them susceptible to
messages from the unseen world. Although the material is bamboo, the magical
bow Azusa-Yumi is called the "bow made from the catalpa tree". This
goes back to an ancient Chinese tradition of magic regarding the appeasement
of the souls of the dead. Furthermore the Hama-Yumi, the "evil-destroying
bow" is used in numerous ceremonies in Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines,
and, set up in the niche of honour or on the house shrine, protects private households
from evil influences.
From technique towards the way of the bow
Confucianism taught archery as the most adequate form to shape a perfect personality.
Already in the 4th century this teaching had been met with enthusiastic approval
amongst the nobility. It is true that during the 9th century contacts between
Japan and China were interrupted for some time for political reasons, but the
influence of Chinese thinking on Japanese archery, about world order, the harmony
of heaven, about man and earth, which was to be aspired, did persist. The Shogun
Yoritomo spared no effort in training his warriors more efficiently. He instructed
Ogasawara Nagakiyo to teach them a new way of horseback archery, the famous Yabusame,
which was put into action immediately. Thus also the way for the foundation of
the Ogasawara-Ryu, or Ogasawara school, was paved. Both Takeda, the founder of
Takeda-Ryu, and Ogasawara were descendants of the first founder of Japan's very
first archery school ever: Henmi Kiyomitsu (whose school is named Henmi-Ryu).
In the period during which the Shogunate was located in the city of Kamakura
(1185-1333) the samurai took up again the methods and the contents of Zen-Buddhist
teaching. Zen or meditation Buddhism had only just been introduced from China
through the monks Dogen (founder of the Soto school) and Eisai (founder of the
Rinzai school). The warriors were greatly interested in the monks' concept of
unconditional devotion to the master, and their emphasis on strict ascetic practices,
where direct and intuitive experience of the non-dualistic nature of reality
is central, they found worthy of emulation. The new Zen practices allowed them
to fulfil their duties more efficiently and to go into battle unmoved by hope
and fear. Only much later however, the Zen aspect within the bow practice came
to full maturity.
One of the most influential archers is the legendary master Heki Danjo Masatsugu
(about 1443-1502). His shooting technique which had been revealed to him in the
form of a flash of inspiration, was nothing short of revolutionary and quickly
spread amongst the archer warriors, and in the course of time many "new
schools" were established, Heki-Ryu subgroups, some of which exist even
up to this day (Chikurinha, Sekkaha and Insaiha).
Although in the beginning the Samurai regarded European fire-arms with distaste,
from the 16th century onwards these, first in the form of Portuguese muskets,
replaced the bow as a military weapon. Some efforts, such as the introduction
of a sports archery competition at the temple of Sanjusangendo in Kyoto (which
still takes place once a year today), were made, but the days of the military
bow were counted. This is the reason why the emphasis in archery practice was
ultimately placed on mental schooling and the forming of character, the more
so as the centuries under the reign of the Tokugawa Shoguns were comparatively
The term Kyujutsu existed well into the Edo-period (1600-1868), although Morikawa
Kozan, founder of the modern Yamato-Ryu, first mentioned the term "Kyudo"
even in the year 1600.
The modern way of the bow
In 1868, the year of the quasi enforced opening of Japan and the reinstatement
of the emperor (Tenno) as an active political ruler, the imperial government
attempted to abolish the "warrior ways" (Bushido). However, this attempt
was not very successful. Simultaneously the until that time politically leading
Samurai ranks were disbanded.
Around the turn of the century another reformer entered the Kyudo scene: Honda
Toshizane (1836-1917) who with his new form of practice unifying the warrior
and the ceremonial style, was at first met with fierce resistance from the old
schools, but was finally accepted by the general public in the form of a new
school, the Honda-Ryu, which has had a lasting effect on the manner of practice
up to this day. During the thirties, the Greater Japanese Organisation of Warrior
Virtues (Dai Nippon Butoku Kai) tried to establish practising standards for Kyudo,
which in 1934 succeeded.
After the defeat of World War II, the martial arts were prohibited at first.
After being readmitted in 1952, the classic martial arts, organised in clubs,
are now open to everyone, regardless of their financial situation, and, for the
first time ever, for women as well.
Since 1946 most schools are a member of the all-Japanese Kyudo Federation (Zen
Nihon Kyudo Renmei) which in 1953 established practising standards that are now
being observed by its members, even in those groups outside of Japan. Today the
number of Kyudo practitioners is estimated at about half a million.
A spiritual path
Although Kyudo is not a religious practice, it has been deeply influenced by
Zen Buddhism and Shinto. The ceremonial aspects, the etiquette and the respect
given to the bow, the arrows and the practice place (dojo), are all reflections
of Shinto thinking. Whereas the outer forms of Kyudo closely resemble Shinto
ritual, into which in turn some elements of court archery from the Chinese tradition
have been incorporated, the heart of Kyudo is inseparably linked to Zen philosophy
and the interpretation of Dao melted into it.
The teachings of Zen tell us that our true selves are hidden within deep layers
of habitual thought patterns, self-delusion and ego. We live in a dream-world
of our own making. The aim of Zen practices is to wear away these layers of illusion
and ego so as to be suddenly free from the dualistic outlook that keeps us from
understanding our true nature and living harmoniously with ourselves, others
and the universe at large.
In Zazen (sitting meditation) one strives to unify body and mind the medium of
the breath and maintaining a strict sitting posture. Kyudo as "Zen in action"
incorporates the same concepts of mind, breath and posture working in unison;
so the experience of Zen is vital to understanding the essence and philosophy
To the sincere practitioner Kyudo is a way of life, and there is no separation
between Kyudo training and everyday activities. Each arrow is shot as if it were
the only one, just as each moment of one's life is the ultimate moment. The Kyudo
practitioner does not look at the target for the result of his/her practice,
but inward, for the target is not a target - it is a mirror. And if the heart
is right, each shot clears away some more of the obstacles clouding the vision
of one's true nature.