Sensei began nearly every kyudo talk with “Kyudo is not about having a good form. Of course, a good form can be pleasing, but kyudo is not form only. A good style doesn’t necessarily mean good kyudo practice.”
This practice often seems to appeal to perfectionists, myself included. There is so much to learn, to unpack within the form, that it is easy to be lost in outer details or to think of refining the form as a goal. Or worse, to surmise that when you have grown reasonably proficient with the form you’ve significantly advanced in your practice. It’s a huge trap–one that could detour any of us for years.
On October 21st last year, in honor of the date of Sensei’s passing, Ian and I went to Shambhala Mountain Center and said hello with some fruit and flowers and a few simple rounds at the azuchi there. During our final round of shooting, I dropped my yumi (bow) on the release. It happens. Sometimes, especially with beginners, Sensei would be happy about it and say that it’s a good sign of a loose grip, that you were not holding the yumi too tightly. As one continued on with the practice, his reaction could change. He definitely admonished me for dropping the yumi on several occasions, saying I should know better by now. In any case, when the yumi flies from your fingers and clatters to the ground the moment the arrow releases, it can be a bit shocking—a visceral experience of everything falling apart. After having that happen at SMC, I returned home and found this teaching from Sensei among my journal notes, an excerpt from a talk he gave:
“What is the difference between target shooting and uncovering one’s dignity during practice? With target shooting, we are trying to get better, more and more perfect. This is like using a rear view mirror to put on makeup. Instead, a rearview mirror should be used to notice what is behind us, not how we look. When we are shooting for uncovering our dignity, it is like taking a spoon and going deeper and deeper, stirring so that things come up to the surface. Sometimes when you stir, lots of messy bubbles come up. They can go into your nose and choke you a bit. This is good. This is part of the process of uncovering one’s natural dignity.”
Reading this brought to mind one of our last practice sessions together, less than a month before he died. On that day, in particular, I was not doing well. In retrospect, I can see more clearly that all the ground was dissolving out from under me. In a literal expression of that, I had developed vertigo, which had started a few months earlier. I would fall down from looking up while trying to pin clothes on the line, or worse, trying to help Sensei up from the floor. I still had no sense then that he was so near to dying, but it was clear that he was increasingly frail, and I was increasingly exhausted. Although my general habit under pressure was (is) to push through with a kind of taut perseverance and perfectionism, it was all becoming rather impossible to accomplish. And it had been an emotional morning in which I’d been suddenly caught in an altercation with another person with no real understanding of why or how to steer out of it. As I stood up to shoot, the whole form was a mess from the start.
But there was another quality to that time as well. Always, with Sensei, there was a profound quality of presence around him. In those last few months, that’s almost all there was, but it was deep and strong. Somehow, this time, when I stood up to shoot and immediately sensed that the form was going to fall out from underneath me, I didn’t try to stop it. I didn’t tighten up or create a flimsy cover. I didn’t pull it together, in my usual way. I just let the hurt be there: my inability to stand straight, to shoot straight, everything wavery, messy, coming apart. It was a terrible two shots by any outer measure. The ya bounced off the target to land behind me. The yumi fell from my hand. I stumbled getting up and down. It seemed absurd given my years of practice under his guidance. But there it was. Those bubbles were choking me and I didn’t try, even a little, to cover it up.
We looked at each other. And he smiled. “Was it okay?” I asked, sensing his answer before it came. “Good,” he said. And we left it at that. I’m not sure writing this can communicate the profundity of that moment. It wasn’t a new lesson. It was an old one, but it came through with crystal clarity: kyudo practice, more than anything, is about clearing deception. It really isn’t about having a good form at all. It is about having a perfect mirror and not arguing or tampering with the reflection—just taking it in thoroughly, deeply, with no excuse, no bandaid, no makeup. It’s opening your heart to the whole messy stew and not fighting when the bubbles choke you.
I have been quiet for a while. Well, that’s an understatement. The truth is, it has been hard to find the way to “open the vault” for this blog. It’s not for lack of material or motivation. It’s just that I’m still weighing how to transmit the rays of Sensei’s sun without dragging along the clouds that inevitably gathered around him. But in fact, it was the very contrast of sun and clouds that made the sun appear as it did. It was his utter lack of rejection of the clouds, his willingness to work within a continuous maze of obstacles, that provided most of the framework for his teachings. So much illumination came from how he navigated thorny politics and ambitions, tangled misunderstandings and jealousies, and all kinds of emotional turmoil within his kyudo group, family, and the sangha of Trungpa Rinpoche — not to mention the health of his body.
Very early on in our marriage, we had a terrible argument one night. I don’t remember the content, but the next morning I awoke and pulled open the curtain. Still feeling upset, I looked over at Sensei and made some mention of the subject between us. He pointed out the window and said, “It’s a beautiful blue sky day! Don’t pull yesterday’s clouds into today.”
Just like that, he cut through to give us a fresh start. It was a powerful transmission, a fierce glimpse of how we continually re-toxify our world by pulling on old wounds, rehashing, and not letting go. We might think we are looking for harmony, but we end up digging ourselves in deeper. He was, of course, not commanding me to repress anything, but to honestly let go and start anew—to face forward, not backward.
There were times when our misunderstandings needed more verbal communication and he was up for that, too, when it made sense. But on that morning, I understood immediately how being with the Kyudo Master would demand constant forward vision: gaze up, heart open, fearlessly letting go.
If this blog were to become a backwards looking lens, it would quickly lose its purpose. If it merely becomes a window into the ghosts of yesterday, what fresh sunshine will illuminate this present? At the same time, it is difficult, if not impossible, to transmit some of the most powerful teachings that passed between us without some context, and that context was most often very gnarly.
So these are the things I am weighing. How much to share of the details? How much is the core teaching extractible without those details? Good manners are a must to be true to his way. This morning, writing for the first time in a while, this is the story that came up:
Sensei always had ghosts around him. He said this plainly many times. Trungpa Rinpoche apparently made the same observation, pelting Sensei with mustard seeds in the shrine room, declaring (according to Sensei), “Many, many gaki!” Gaki, hungry ghosts.
Once, when we were in the midst of a particularly arduous round at the hospital, following an emergency esophageal procedure, Sensei, who was barely hanging on to his body at that point, started counting the ghosts in the room. One nurse recoiled a little. Another thought he might be reacting to medication. Two others, much enamored of him, said, “Oh yes, this room is famous for having the most ghosts on the floor. Of course, he would see them!”
He told me there was a three-year-old child and an older Japanese woman and a few others, counting five in all. For some time, he nodded his head back and forth, gazing around the room, murmuring. The thinning effect on his physical, earthly presence was palpable and I finally reprimanded him for spending too much time hanging out with them. “This is not good for your body, Sensei. Stop it now.”
“I know, I know,” he conceded, demurely. But then he had me go fetch food—a banana and I don’t remember what else—saying it was important to give them some things to eat.
As we placed the food offering on a shelf in the room, he said, “When you understand that everyone’s heart is good, deep down inside, there’s no need to be afraid.”
Perhaps there is direction in this story. Perhaps it is possible, with the right sense of offering and an understanding of the good hearts in everyone, not to be afraid of these ghosts and to visit with them a little, allowing their place in these stories to be as it is. These ghosts are not certain people, particularly, but the inescapable shadows in all of us that he contended with over and over in the process of drawing out our good hearts. If it were possible, I’d just stick to my own shadows on this blog, but these, too, were intertwined with a bigger world and cannot always be neatly be extracted from the whole. So, it is my hope that as I venture a little further into investigation of Sensei’s teachings, I can provide just enough context to serve illumination, but not in any way drag the clouds of yesterday into the brilliant blue sky of today.
I welcome your comments, corrections and insights as we go along.
This photograhh of our kyudo master, taken less than 6 months before his death, reflects the grace, dignity, power and perseverance he embodied every day. He was, and remains an example of impeccable warriorship. Today Kanjuro Shibata XX would have been 97 years old. May his teachings live on.
(photo and text by Sue Kranzdorf)
This post is written by Vivi Spicer. Photograph offered by Jim Boorstein.
This was the last demonstration I offered at Karme Chöling in June 2004 together with Jim Boorstein. It was an Intermediate/Advanced Kyudo program with Sendai (Kanjuro Shibata XX), sometimes using the Pavilion as in the case of this demonstration of the kneeling form (sukobai).
During intensive programs like this one, everyone was challenged each morning to arrive before Sendai, with equipment ready and in clean clothes for practice (hakama and gi). Sendai would call for a demonstration to open practice and it was a toss up who would make the demonstration. It was always Sendai's decision, and this morning he asked for Jim Boorstein (Toko Kyudo in Manhattan) and me (Miyako Kyudo in Washington, DC). For whatever reason, Sendai assigned me the number one position for this dual demonstration.
The demonstration would be straightforward for Jim and me, since we had practiced together well enough to know each other's form and timing. But early on, something was not right. In the number one position, I rely on sound to tell me what the number two position is doing. Ready or not? On to the next movement? I never had that confirmation from Jim in this demonstration. I never heard him nock the arrow (ya) on to the string (tsuru), or not cleanly. Something sounded wishy-washy. Even after I heard him drop his second arrow for release (otoya) to prepare to release his first arrow (hiya), there were sounds of something not quite right. I paused longer than would be necessary in the form. I didn't want to get ahead of Jim since we were in this demonstration together. [In hindsight, the longer I paused, the greater the difficulty for Jim to hold the arrows in a nocked position. And I thought I was being kind!]
We did release both ya and approached Sendai after closing the form to bow from our kneeling position. As the number two position, Jim moved into a position between me and the target (makiwara) as we both faced Sendai. I felt a jolt of, what's that (?) but kept my seat. Jim had no sooner settled into his seat when Sendai roared that he should move. Where? What's wrong? Sendai roared that Jim should not place himself between me and the makiwara. I was the number one position with the makiwara to my left, so Jim should take his place next to me on my right.
That was not Sendai giving favor to me, so much as teaching both Jim and me that it was not good manners to place yourself between the number one position and the makiwara when facing Sendai to bow. It was a lesson in manners.
As for Jim, you cannot underestimate the intensity of a ten day long intermediate/advanced program with Sendai. This was not the beginning of the program, but toward the end and we were all rode hard and put up wet. Hard to believe, but Jim (of all people!) put his bowstring (tsuru) on his bow (yumi) upside down, so the wrapping that keeps the arrow in place (nakajikake) was NOT where it should be when nocking the arrow. Jim would add to this storyline that we should all be able to release without a nakajikake. I would add that we all hope that we cultivate manners, which is another way of inviting kindness among ourselves. I entered the demonstration thinking it would be straightforward, but it was anything but that and more. I found a way to accommodate Jim and he accommodated us in his own challenging situation. Together, I think Jim and I manifested kindness toward each other, and ultimately good manners. That, after all, is the whole point from Sendai's point of view.
The photograph of our demonstration is worth a thousand words.
photo courtesy of Sue Kranzdorf
Although the #metoo movement officially started well after Sensei’s passing, I thought it might be of interest to share this story in light of the times.
Sensei had given a directive to the Boulder kyudo group at the end of one class that men and women should alternate as the instructors opening class. (It was generally understood that whoever opened class was also serving as the main instructor for that session.) The class was virtually always opened by male students as a default. At that time, there were only 2 or 3 of us women practicing in a regular way, as compared to maybe 6 or so men. Nonetheless, Sensei asked that we alternate each time for more balance. It happened once. Then, it just defaulted back to men opening class without any particular discussion. I think the men forgot the directive quickly and the women just let it slide, since we just weren’t prone to taking the initiative to do it if someone else was more enthusiastic for that role. In any case, the directive wasn’t followed.
Some months later (I believe it was at the end of a program in Boulder because there were more than the usual number of students present), Sensei gave a concluding talk in which he said, “Men are stone heads.” He repeated the phrase, in English, multiple times.
Finally, in some apparent frustration, one man raised his hand and asked, “Sensei, if men are stone heads, then what are women?”
Sensei replied, “They are the heads men walk on.”
All the women immediately broke into laughter while a number of the men appeared to puzzle over this.
It’s easy to project on Sensei that he would have been a chauvinistic Japanese male, given the tradition he came from, but this was not my personal experience of him at all. We had many discussions about male vs. female power, historical and planetary imbalance of those energies, and so forth. At one point, I asked him about how to bring feminine energy back into balance in the world.
He answered, “It’s important, but it can’t be done too quickly or it will have the opposite effect and just create more chaos and difficulty. It needs to happen gradually.”
At that moment, I reflected on how patient he had to be in teaching us. So much of what he had to give could not be transmitted in the ground of a culture that simply didn’t understand the student-teacher relationship, the importance of good manners, keeping one’s word, and loyalty which were at the core of the kyudo path he taught. He constantly had to begin at the beginning with each of us and give us a tremendous amount of room to discover the practice for ourselves, so we could begin to open up enough for more teaching to occur. Thus, at that moment, in light of his example, great patience seemed reasonable, essential and possible in order to build a firm foundation for change.
"OKII WA - Great Peace
Whether you have great peace or small peace,
they are the same.
For example, America is big.
Japan and Vietnam are small.
But peace is peace, regardless of size.
Within one's own heart,
between a husband and wife,
throughout a country,
or the whole world,
it's all the same peace."
--- from Sei Ran - Sky Storm, calligraphies and teachings by Kanjuro Shibata XX, Sensei
May every one of us bring this, in big and small ways, wherever we go, whatever we do. Wishing you all a healthy, prosperous, and happy New Year.
February 7, 2008 Sensei was invited to Shambhala Mountain Center to help celebrate Shambhala Day or Losar, the lunar New Year.
In his brief talk before the ceremony, Sensei explains that it’s a little odd to call this the New Year, because everyone is aware that the year’s calendar actually changes on January first. Traditionally, he says, it’s true that in Asia, including in Japan, they follow the lunar cycle. If you ask the old people in Japan, they will agree that this is the real New Year. But the younger generation all accept January first as the turning of the year. That’s the way it is now. To solve this seeming contradiction, Sensei suggests we call the lunar New Year the “New Spring”, a way to welcome the new Spring flowers and a fresh feeling in our lives. We can relate to January first as the time to set our schedules for the year, to organize ourselves for the next calendar year to come. But this New Spring is the time that we actually set our deeper aspiration for the coming year.
To help with this, he offers a Nosha, a form of ceremonial shooting to clear out all the obstacles, the old ghosts, debris, bad feeling leftover from the previous year. He makes the point that every year brings us lots of obstacles and difficulties and it is good to clear this out to make room for a fresh beginning. Following the Nosha, at Sensei's request, Vajra Rich offers a Reisha to invite blessings and an excellent aspiration for the New Year.
For the sake toast at the end, Sensei made quite a point that everyone should not gulp their sake and not be particularly greedy or indulgent. It is an offering to the Kami. So one takes three sips, offering each time, with a good, clear heart.
May this Nosha offering circulate the airwaves to help clear old obstacles and make room for a fresh beginning as we enter this New Spring in 2017.
photo above by Anthony Rich, taken on Sensei's birthday (December 29th).
Thought you all might appreciate reading Sensei's New Year's Day address given at Ryuko Kyudojo in Boulder in 2007--as pertinent as ever!
HATSUYUME - The Dream of the New Year
At this time, of course, everyone hopes that the year ahead will be better than the last
year. But, this year, my hope is that we progress naturally. Power, strong power, comes from the
plan we make for the New Year. This year we can elevate our aspiration one step from the
previous year. We can have a high quality dream, not just for ourselves as individuals, but for
We have many dreams at the New Year. You will have many, many good dreams, I hope.
But the starting point for realizing our dreams is the cleaning of your inside ki. This is where the
New Year begins. Everyone understands having aspiration on the morning of New Year’s Day,
hatsuyume, the first dream of the New Year, and trying to pull a good dream. Many, many good
dreams arise, but these dreams are also too good! Too much hope, in this way, is not helpful. My
wish is that you will realize your dream in a more natural way and not just try to pull a dream
based on hope for yourself.
Everyone’s various desires for the year: to make good friends, to have a beautiful house,
a good car, money—many, many hope, hope, hope. Too much hope! This is all a rental from
Shakyamuni. Now, everything you have, your money, your car, your house, your friends, you
seem to have a lot, but the truth is, it’s zero. You have nothing. It’s all just help from
Kyudo is not a sport. It is Zen style meditation, standing meditation. Dojo, dojo, kyudojo.
What is that? The kyudojo is a Buddhist meditation hall. Kyudo is standing meditation.
Meditation, everyone understands, sitting, zazen, is first. Second, is standing meditation.
Standing meditation is kyudo. When you see kyudo, you look at the target and think, “shooting,
shooting”. But shooting the target is not the essential purpose of kyudo.
Today, outside, is an exceptionally blue sky. May everyone have blue sky on the inside,
as well, during this year 2007. From this new feeling we take one step, this year walking. Many
good wishes for the New Year to you all. Thank you very much. Please keep your bodies strong
and healthy, so that from the good help you are given, you are able to offer back!
Just back from a very full and rich trip to New York City and each step of the way I was reminded of being there with Sensei in the fall of 2006.
He enjoyed the city overall, said it gave him energy to be there, but he also noted that the people were “heavy” in some way. Wherever we went, doormen, taxi drivers, waiters and shopkeepers had strong reactions to him, either darting away or (more often) remarking that he was “different, special”, lingering to be near him and sometimes straight out asking his advice for their lives. It was interesting to note because none of them knew anything of Sensei’s background or status. Without even language in common, they were reacting purely from his presence.
At the end of our time in New York, Sensei insisted on going to Ground Zero. Back then, it was still a big hole in the ground, with rubble all around and the beginnings of new construction. We managed to walk from the wind-whipped corner where the taxi left us, up the sidewalk, and into the temporary memorial hall lined with photos and stories from the events of September 11, 2001.
“Very heavy feeling,” Sensei said, upon entering the hall. It affected him deeply; it seemed he could hardly bear to be there. A female security guard spotted us among the crowd and asked if we’d like some help. As so many people had on this trip, she was taken with Sensei and followed us around, offering help whenever she could.
When we came to the end of the exhibit, Sensei filled out a card to leave in the visitor comment book, writing the following in Japanese with my translation beneath:
“Please always remember the blue sky deep within your hearts and keep that feeling with you wherever you go, whoever you meet. That is very important…………………(he entered a carefully penned, long ellipses)………………..because words cannot express……………..
Kanjuro Shibata, Zen archery master of Trungpa Rinpoche’s kyudo group”
The morning after this visit, the day of our flight home, Sensei awoke with an alarming red rash all along the right side of his body and in considerable pain. I wasn’t certain if we should fly home, but also felt he needed to be home and he concurred. It turned out to be shingles. We treated it quickly and he managed to overcome it in a few weeks with no relapses, but I always felt haunted that he had contracted it from the depths of whatever he encountered that day at Ground Zero.