KYUDO - ZEN ARCHERY

Kyudo-the Way of the Bow-is the oldest of Japan's traditional martial arts and the one most closely associated with bushido, the Way of the Warrior.


Originally a samurai discipline, kyudo integrates technical skill with the development of a completely focused and disciplined mind. Influenced by Shintoism and Zen, kyudo is a path of self-development and meditation that requires the archer to cultivate precision, a clear mind, and freedom from fear.


Japanese martial arts are famous throughout the world, especially karate and judo, but Japan is home to many other martial traditions that are less well-known, and one of them is kyudo. Literally meaning the ‘way of the bow’, the roots of kyudo lie in ancient Shinto tradition, which has ritualized the use of bows and arrows for over 2,000 years.


For much of Japanese history, archery was considered to be the most important skill of the samurai, more important than the swordsmanship with which they are nowadays more closely associated. The importance of bows and arrows in Japanese warfare began to decline after the Portuguese introduced matchlock rifles to Japan in 1543. With the bow losing its place as a weapon of war, it increasingly took on a ceremonial role, leading ultimately to the highly ritualized form of archery that is kyudo.


For most practitioners, kyudo is an art and not a sport, and an archer’s attitude and dignity are often considered more important than actually hitting the target. A kyudo practitioner advances to the shooting place with slow and graceful movements, and lifts the bow above his or her head. They then draw back the string as they lower the bow until the arrow becomes level with their cheek. Finally, they release the arrow and let it fly towards the target. During this whole process, they focus completely, never once taking their eyes off the target. A sign of a good archer is that their concentration is so great that an aura of calmness and serenity seems to envelop them.


Like with many other martial arts, practitioners can gain ranks, or ‘dan’ based on their proficiency, but some people reject any form of grading or competition on principle, preferring to focus on the goal of personal development. Even when archers do take part in grading, they don’t wear the colored belts or symbols of rank worn by practitioners of other martial arts.


Kyudo is supposed to develop the character of its practitioners, not only in relation to archery itself, but also in how they conduct themselves in daily life. The idea is that immersing yourself totally in the task at hand can clear the mind, and so be a form of ‘meditation through action’ (a concept borrowed from Zen Buddhism). This will help your natural human dignity shine through the obstacles that are hiding it, leading to moral and spiritual advancement.


Perhaps surprisingly for a martial art, one of the key benefits attributed to kyudo is that it helps its practitioners to avoid conflict and to refrain from aggression. A kyudo practitioner is expected to show courtesy, compassion and morality at all times, and should be able to maintain composure and grace even when under pressure.


The principles of kyudo are sometimes summarised as ‘truth, goodness and beauty’, where truth relates to shooting with a pure mind, goodness to a person’s character, and beauty to gracefulness and the refined etiquette of kyudo. For some practitioners, kyudo comes close to being a religious observance, while for others it’s much more about skill and target practice, but it’s the philosophical and ritual elements that really distinguish kyudo from other forms of archery.


The Spirit of Kyudo (Zen Archery)

"Because the practice of kyudo involves little in the way of hard physical activity, spirit is extremely important. When the spirit is weak the shooting becomes dull and lifeless. Onuma sensei taught that if the spirit is strong one will appear like a deep-flowing river, calm on the surface but with tremendous power hidden in the depths. Compare that to someone whose internal spirit is weak. Like a small stream, they may appear powerful because of all their noise and turbulence, but underneath they are shallow and devoid of any real power. Strict self-control and emotional stability are crucial to the development of one's spirit and to the practice of kyudo. True creativity is sister to the spirit and both are born of simplicity. They are not a product of the intellect, but surface only when the rational mind is quieted and the intuitive thought process takes over. The guidelines and procedures established for the practice of kyudo have been borrowed from generations of past teachers, and are designed to put the analytical mind to rest and allow the practitioner to move into a state of consciousness known as mushin (literally, no mind). It is important to mention here that kyudo, by itself, cannot solve our problems nor add anything to our lives; at least not in the beginning. Kyudo may look simple but it is deceptively complex. It is that complexity, however, that makes kyudo such a rewarding instrument for self-discovery. Its practice peels away the protective layers of ego that we all hide behind and allows our true nature to be revealed. It is then our responsibility to examine the results and balance our character accordingly. Perhaps the best way to explain the spirit of kyudo is to put it in Onuma sensei's words: "When shooting, sometimes we will hit the target but miss the self. At other times we will miss the target but hit the self. Our purpose, though, is to hit the target as the self and hope that the sharp sound of arrow penetrating paper will awaken us from the so-called 'dream of life' and give us real insight into the ultimate state of being."
~ from "The Spirit of Kyudo"


Anything can be Zen

“If you understand real practice, then archery or other activities can be zen. If you don’t understand how to practice archery in its true sense, then even though you practice very hard, what you acquire is just technique. It won’t help you through and through. Perhaps you can hit the mark without trying, but without a bow and arrow you cannot do anything. If you understand the point of practice, then even without a bow and arrow the archery will help you. How you get that kind of power or ability is only through right practice.”
~ Suzuki Roshi

Our Guest Kyudo Teacher - Rick 'Jyozen'Beal

Our guest teacher of Kyudo at the Pine Mountain School of Zen Arts is Rick 'Jyozen' Beal (aka Budo Rick).

Rick describes his life as follows. "I began training in the Japanese Martial Arts in 1966.

But the real transformation began with Hirotaka Okubo, my first Kyudo teacher;

he also taught me Japanese Culture, Kendo, Kendo Kata, and Iaido.

My kyudo teacher after him was Rev. Hirokazu Kosaka, a Shingon Buddhist Priest, who I still study with today.

Another great influence was my Zen Master, Rev. Ryugen Watanabe.