What would Sensei do?
The events this week are reverberating far and wide. Waking up Wednesday morning from a wave of anxiety dreams, my immediate and very unoriginal thought was, "Time to renew that Canadian passport!" And then, I remembered this:
One Thursday evening practice, in the summertime, we sat with the large kyudojo door open to the outside, flanked by two young women who had happened to drop by to watch. I don't remember how they heard about Sensei or kyudo or why they felt compelled to come, but they gravitated towards him fearlessly.
At one point, one of the young women looked at him and asked, "Do you like living in America? Do you ever want to go back to Japan?"
Sensei replied succinctly, "I don't make decisions based on 'like' and 'not like'."
Big pause. No one said a word.
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The second memory to emerge was from September 11, 2013, the day of the massive Boulder flood. It kind of crept up on us. The rain had poured all night and by late morning it was clear we were in a crisis of some kind, but not yet clear what we could or should do about it. Answering a loud knock at the door, I faced an emergency responder.
"We understand you have an elderly person in the house. Is that true?"
"Yes," I replied.
"You should evacuate immediately. The house next door has flooded and several houses along that street are full of water." He pointed to the neighboring street to the north. "If one of the houses blows, you won't have time to get out of here." I thanked him profusely and dashed back to the kitchen to tell Sensei we needed to pack up immediately.
He sat very still, looked up at me from where he sat drinking his tea at the table and said, "Okay. But we should move slowly, slowly, no big hurry."
I understood right then that he wasn't referring to timing so much as state of mind, a directive not to get caught in the crisis mentality, but to move steadily, gently, deliberately. In all the years we were together, through various crises of health, environment, politics, kyudo student dramas, I never once saw him panic. So, we did move slowly, but economically, too.
We were out within an hour or so, with the dog, bird, wheelchair, oxygen machine, rice cooker and as much Japanese food as I could imagine being able to prepare in a hotel room. By the time we left the driveway, the streets were closing all around us. We had managed to reserve the last available room at a hotel in Broomfield. Crisscrossing our way, we approached a major intersection just as two road workers were putting a barrier in place to stop the traffic. It was the only road left to get us out of town.
"Please, we have to get through. I have an elderly man in the car and I need to get him to a hotel." I made our case to the workers as quickly and emphatically as I could.
They took a look at Sensei in the passenger seat and waved us through, saying, "That's it. You're the last one," and closed the road.
Sensei wasn't always slow. He could be aggravatingly quick in the face of any kind of laziness, scattered overwhelm or "space out" from anyone in the environment and was almost always first to leave the house when we were going somewhere. Most of the time, I had to work to keep up with him. (Albeit, as the one handling a lot of earthly details, like packing and phone calls, there were reasons it took me longer.) Nonetheless, he imparted much in his demeanor, unswayed by the push-pull of ordinary anxieties or the compulsion for self-preservation.
At this moment, the recollection of his "slowly, slowly" has restrained me from bolting for the border or quickly making plans of any kind. If and when plans do emerge, may they arise from a place untainted by "like" or "not like," the small-minded impulse towards self-preservation. And together, neither paralyzed by overwhelm nor driven by the force of panic or predjudice, may we gently carve a path through the storm.
Below is an excerpt from my journal entry dated December 11, 2004. We had been living together for about six weeks.
Over breakfast, Sensei placed his two hands together to describe how virtually all rooftops, the world over, come to a peak. This point is the Kami connection. If the balance of communication in the household, between the husband and wife, is good, this works. The Kami connection remains, the house stays, and they have long life and good health together. If they do not have good communication, if one or the other pushes too hard, the roof collapses. He said he felt that, at times, he pushed his first wife too hard. Then, she would push back hard, coming back on top, and finally, she "went up and out fast."
Sensei’s first wife, Kiyoko, passed soon after they had come to Colorado from Japan. During the time she was in the West, she graciously taught the students of Trungpa Rinpoche the way of tea (chanoyu) and flowers (ikebana) and greatly enriched the culture of the Shambhala community.
Sensei loved describing one of his earliest encounters with the Vidyadhara Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. As is the case with memory, I have no idea how much of the literal detail here is true, but I expect it is mostly so. For sure, the heart-truth came through unchanged whenever he recounted this.
Excited to be hosting Shibata Sensei in Boulder, Colorado, Trungpa Rinpoche invited Sensei as a guest of honor to the opening night of The Mikado--yup, the Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera, satirizing the failings of the British government disguised in a quasi-Japanese setting. The play was fully produced, directed, and performed by the Vidyadhara’s students.
Showtime was set for 7:30pm. The audience assembled, along with Shibata Sensei, awaiting the Vidyadhara’s arrival. Time passed. 8:30. 9:30. 10:30. Another hour. Two. Another one. No one complained. No one left. They simply sat. Then, just as the first ray of sun began to peek over the horizon, the Vidyadhara arrived and took his seat next to Sensei. A student filled his sake glass, accidentally spilling some on Sensei’s kimono. The Vidyadhara took a sip and the play began.
“In Japan, no one would have waited more than a half hour.” Sensei was utterly struck by the patience of the students and the feeling of no complaint whatsoever—a sign of the Vidyadhara’s authentic power. Within this atmosphere of genuine trust and devotion between teacher and students, Sensei gained confidence that he could transmit the heart of kyudo practice in the West.
THE MEANING OF LIFE
Today marks the third year since Sensei’s passing. Arriving at Shambhala Mountain Center this past weekend to make offerings at his site, I remembered this:
Near the end of a kyudo program at SMC, we all gathered around a campfire, one of Sensei’s favorite pastimes. In the midst of some lively conversation, a student looked at Sensei and asked, “Sensei, what is the meaning of life?”
Without a moment’s hesitation, he answered. “Ai.” Love.
(photo courtesy of Ian Sheppard)
Never Give Up!
During the ten years at his side as wife and translator, the teachings from Shibata Sensei sprung forth, many and varied. But if one teaching could be said to run through them all, it is this: Gambatte. Persevere. Don't give up.
His own life exemplified this quality—perseverance through the harsh, old-school discipline of his childhood training from his grandfather, through war, national defeat, the infant death of his only son, the erosion of kyudo practice in his homeland and the transition to a new country at the age of sixty, surrounded by students of another master who didn’t speak his language. An undying loyalty formed between these two masters, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Shibata Sensei. And so, Sensei persevered, half-forgotten in his “junk house” in Boulder, Colorado, through the sadness and chaos that ensued from Trungpa Rinpoche’s passing, through divorce, esophageal cancer, dissension that fractured his kyudo group, and a series of pneumonias that finally spirited him away.
Much can be said about this quality and what he meant by the words: “Gambatte, never give up!” There was a tendency among all of us to think that he meant some kind of hardening of the heart, a tightening of resolve. In some sense, yes. He used the analogy, at times, of the jaw gripping tight, not letting go, gritting your back teeth and going forward. But fundamentally, his perseverance always emanated from a soft heart, and in this seeming contradiction, so much was transmitted. Perseverance meant loyalty. You don’t give up on your teacher, the path your teacher has shown you and, in his case, your connection with your students. You don’t give up on the vision. You don’t give up on each other. And with this perseverance, perhaps, in ten years of meditation practice, you might take one step.
Kami in a thrift shop
Wandering through a dusty thrift shop in Boulder with her sister, a kyudo student recently spotted this calligraphy, enveloped in saran wrap, on a shelf stacked with dishes. She sighted it across the store, instantly certain it was Shibata Sensei’s. Turning it over, “Kami = God” appeared on a piece of paper affixed to the backside. Her sister’s insistence doused a flicker of hesitation about whether or not she could make room for it and the calligraphy is now framed in her home.
She called me shortly afterwards to relate the story and double check the calligraphy’s meaning. The sadness of Sensei’s passing was still alive in her voice, along with amazement at her great fortune with this find. Hearing the story, I felt instantly heartened.
Her call came as I’d been ruminating over how to bring Sensei’s teachings into the light from the archive material he left in my care (videos, photos, letters) and from the everyday notes kept in journals through the decade spent by his side as his wife and translator. Many people have asked when I was going to make these archives available and what my plans are. It has haunted me during this time of transition since his passing. How would he want me to do this?
His style does not lend itself to systematization. There are a few teachings here and there with categories and such, but for the most part he did not teach through book learning or studied logic and generally did not indulge attempts by students to apply that kind of thinking to kyudo practice. He taught by example in everything he did, through subtle communication, through his refined attunement to each moment and his fearless, natural presence within it. For this reason, it has not made much sense to me to create an “archive” in the traditional style of a library where people can search keywords and look up talks by date and such. In doing so, I fear the true richness and poignancy of his teachings would be lost and I don’t think he would have had much interest in such a project. (For an example of his view of what an archive should be, stay tuned for a future post: Shibata Sensei visits the archives of Trungpa Rinpoche in Halifax.)
Finding Sensei’s Kami in a thrift shop struck me as an apt omen, in keeping with his style. He had a bearing of impeccable elegance, but spent so much of his life in rugged circumstances. He often received compliments on this old tweed sports coat that somehow remained crisp and fresh as he sported it for some twenty years. In response, he’d proudly declare how he’d found it a “long time before, for five dollars in the second shop!”
In this era of “things” (mono no jidai, as he called it), fueled by the hunger for material wealth and newness, he had a gift for drawing the richness out of whatever he touched: a yumi, a cup of tea, a dead mouse, the heart of a restaurant waiter, the movement of stars in the night sky. Thus, to the earthly life around him, no matter how dim, dusty, scattered or confused, he brought a refined presence, a gentle, fearless radiance. Like a Kami in an old thrift shop.
It would be foolish to imagine that the repository of Sensei’s teachings could be held by a single person. These are gems scattered all about, placed in the hearts of his students, new and old, in twenty-year-olds who vividly remember their only meeting with him when they took first shot at the age of eight, in the many people he encountered. My hope is that this blog will become a place where these gems can surface, coming into the light for others to see.
The aesthetic choice of sharing in blog format is to give the necessary space for contemplation and absorption of singular teaching moments, calligraphies, quotes, a few minutes of video extracted from a talk—again, more in keeping with his style than providing a deluge of information. If, in the end, a repository is created that demands more organization or a broader format, we’ll keep that possibility open. Until then, I hope you can simply take a moment here and there to enjoy these gems from the Kyudo Master as they naturally surface.
(Kami photos courtesy of Lauren Sanford)
VIDEO - Sensei Reviews 7 coordinations
This video was taken in very early days of me translating for him, mostly English into English back then. Luckily, there was a Japanese woman in the group that day who helped out. As with much of the video in this archive, it is a little rough. The camera was generally just set to roll or handled by a willing novice. Here are a few notes/highlights from Sensei's points in case they don't come through clearly on the video:
- In Yoi, the preparatory stance, the yumi (bow) and ya (arrow) should be held close to the body, with your hands touching your body, so you can feel your pulse.
- In ashi bumi, the first coordination, the yumi tip should not float around or off to the side. It should be straight in line with the navel. The yumi and ya should be at the same angle behind you. You can’t see behind you, so you should be checking this balance from your heart.
- Moving from ashi bumi into dozukuri, first extend the yumi forward, then sweep up to your knee. This gesture signifies cutting ego, clearing the gaki or “hungry ghosts”.
- When you grip the yumi properly, it turns upon the release of the ya. When you grip too tightly, sometimes the tsuru turns, but not the yumi, so the tsuru snaps around to the other side.
- When shooting with two ya, cover the tip of the second ya with your thumb.
- When he refers to the Dalai Lama talking about the Stupa, he’s recalling having just attended the event of the Dalai Lama’s visit to the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya at Shambhala Mountain Center.