What is this about?: It’s a personal narrative of working with symbols to connect with the mysteries of the universe and the unending quest to find balance in the simplest of everyday actions.
Why am I writing about this?: I have been feeling a strong urge to let these words tumble out of the cage of my skull onto a screen and have them placed out there for anyone else who is able to connect to this experience and can share the joy of this process. We have so much to learn from the ancients and this article talks about one such serendipitous find.
I also promised myself that I would express more often without criticizing the style of my own writing or worrying too much about the form. The meaning is more essential.
So here goes.
Last year, on a cold and grey morning in Wisconsin, my friend and I got into the car for the long journey back to Minneapolis. It was something we were looking forward to because the quiet of the road coupled with the duration of the journey would give us plenty of space to catch up on life’s goings-on.
Halfway through that drive, the conversation took a turn toward working with symbols as a means to connect with the essence of how life moves, unfolds and breathes. The form we discussed at length was that of an Arrow: a single arrow as an analogy for everything from seeking direction to working with the power of thought. The potential, the purpose and the meaning of an arrow. Our discussion, unbeknownst to us at the time, gave us a subconscious approach to working with our goals for the coming year and being better prepared to aim for them. As my teachers would put it, it set the foundation for us to work with spirit and matter.
As the Fletcher whittles and makes straight his arrows, so the master directs his straying thoughts.
– The Buddha
A year later, as I scrolled through Facebook one evening sipping on some tea to ward off the wintry chill, I received a notification that I had been tagged by a friend in a post with a link to a video. I opened the link to watch a 44 minute episode on Kyūdō: an extremely simple yet powerful form of Japanese martial arts through the eyes of a Westerner, courtesy Japanese TV NHK (which I love by the way). The friend who had tagged me is someone I consider to be a soul sister, someone who engages on exactly the same vibrations and thought patterns as I do and has journeyed with me on several introspective moments into the mysteries of life, having also been a former batch mate in philosophy school. And so, I considered this to be another one of her perfectly timed gifts from across the world as a reminder of that very symbol I had begun working with.
Before this day, I had never come across the concept of Kyūdō and once I did, I found so much beauty, meaning and power in this that I felt compelled to share it further.
What is Kyūdō?
A little background here. Kyūdō, which literally means The Way of the Bow, is considered by many to be the purest of all the martial ways. In the past, the Japanese bow was used for hunting, war, court ceremonies, games, and contests of skill. The original word for Japanese archery was Kyujutsu (bow technique) which encompassed the skills and techniques of the warrior archer. Some of the ancient schools, known as ryu, survive today, along with the ancient ceremonies and games, but the days where the Japanese bow was used as a weapon are long past. Modern Kyūdō is practiced primarily as a method of physical, moral, and spiritual development.
The essence of modern Kyūdō is said to be synonymous with the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty.
- Truth in Kyūdō is manifested in shooting that is pure and right-minded, where the three elements of attitude, movement, and technique unite in a state of perfect harmony. A true shot in Kyūdō is not just one that hits the center of the target, but one where the arrow can be said to exist in the target before its release.
- Goodness encompasses such qualities as courtesy, compassion, morality, and non-aggression. In Kyūdō, goodness is shown by displaying proper attitude and behavior in all situations. A good Kyūdō archer is a person who maintains his or her composure and grace even in times of great stress or conflict.
- Beauty both enhances life and stimulates the spirit. In Kyūdō, truth and goodness, themselves, are considered beautiful. Beauty can also be found in the exquisite grace and artistry of the Japanese bow and the elegance of the traditional archer’s attire. It is also present in the refined etiquette that surrounds the Kyūdō ceremony. Etiquette, which is simply common courtesy and respect for others, is an essential element of Kyūdō practice.
To one who comes across this concept, what was most striking yet very unsurprisingly Zen was the fact that the sole purpose of Kyūdō is not to hit the target but to achieve Mushin: a perfectly calm and balanced state of mind, of being. The video uncovered how masters of this art took several decades to achieve this state of mind, right at that moment before the bow left the arrow. It also showed the Hassetsu, the eight fundamental stages of shooting.
How does all this translate to working with everyday life? My take.
Coming back to my original story of working with symbols, over the past year I have been trying hard to work with the essential nature of a bow and arrow to how I can find balance, composure and calm amidst the shackles of the daily.
Simply put, if each thought is equated with an arrow, it means that the archer holds both the power to point it in a given direction as well as apply the desired amount of force and technique to shoot it, while doing so with grace.
This often brings me to evaluate my arrows from time to time. It leads to me asking myself a series of questions and investigating my own behavior, my own habits and tendencies.
- Do I understand that the bow and arrow are a way of life and in that sense much larger than me?
- How can I one with the arrow I hold?
- Am I shooting the right arrows?
- How can I keep it simple and straight?
- What is the direction that I need to aim at?
- Am I working with the right tools to use my bow and arrow better?
- Am I focusing more on shooting the target than achieving a more balanced state of mind?
- Does my lack of consciousness in a given moment lead to arrows being shot that do me no good?
- Are my arrows shot more out of a personal necessity than in being of service to the universe for greater good?
- On a given day, in any given moment, how much of Mushin can I bring myself to be in?
- What makes my arrow falter/stumble and how can I be aware of this to work with it better? I feel this one in particular is both powerful and painful because it reveals the amount of work I need to do in making myself a better archer.
- How does the shooting of the arrow affect other aspects of my life: amount of patience, clarity of thought, kindness in word and deed, setting the right level of expectations from myself and others, enabling me to better than who I was yesterday and most importantly not falling into the same traps of my personality over and over again.
- How can I translate each step of the physical act of Hassetsu into an equivalent step for work with the inner self on a daily basis?
- And lastly, how can I keep reminding myself about the the Way of the Bow every single day in both moments of calm and chaos?
In writing this article, I felt like Kyūdō is a great microcosm to represent any action in life: from waking up to a new day with courage and enthusiasm to being mindful of every sentence and deed as the day unfolds. It is as deep as the oceans and yet as simple as that one principle it boils down to. The effort is precisely because of that sheer simplicity which our complex minds cannot fathom easily.
We often fall into the traps of our own desires, fears and habits and the simplest tasks of routine when repeated a thousand fold can seem painful. Personally, I hope to not just understand Kyūdō better but to be it (which may take multiple lifetimes!) even in the most daily things like watering a plant or cleaning the house. For after all, that is the beauty and simplicity of Zen in that it is not something out there, but something within that is simple yet sublime perfected with a single task repeated a thousand fold.
I hope you find an inkling of calm wherever you are, as you read this and in that moment we create a Kyūdō connection across time and space. Sayōnara!