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.