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Oct 13
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Beginner’s Heart and the Way of the Bow

Kyudo students meet their new sensei during the most recent Kyudo Assembly at Karme Choling

by Adrienne Kehn, with photos by Gary Vu

A beautiful day at the azuchi

A beautiful day at the Karme Choling matoba    (all photos courtesy of Gary Vu)

Since my beginnings in the art of Kyudo, the Way of the Bow, I have been taught not to aim. To be more precise, the form includes aiming in the direction of the mato, or target, but the point of the practice is to be genuinely present with each movement, as though polishing the mind, and not to be attached to a specific outcome. Whatever arises and manifests during a shot is accepted, the main criterion being that one shoot “from the heart.”

My earliest lessons came from the enigmatic Kanjuro Shibata XX, now posthumously referred to as Sendai. He was the lineage holder of the Heki Ryu Bisshu Chikurin-ha school of Kyudo, and Imperial Bowmaster of Japan. He was also a student, friend, and compatriot to Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, founder of Shambhala. Trungpa Rinpoche had invited him to teach in the U.S. in 1980, and in 1985, discouraged by the competitive direction in which kyudo was headed in his native Japan, he moved to the U.S. permanently.

I never studied directly with Sendai, but had the honor of interacting with him on several occasions. He rested in my consciousness as grandfather figure, somewhat intimidating but warm-hearted nonetheless, with my best interest in mind. I learned at a young age the basic form of shishido, the “Seven Coordinations,” from his students, but I learned from Sendai the dignity and strength inherent in returning to the form, again and again, without judgment.

Given the training I had received, imagine my surprise when Kanjuro Shibata Sensei XXI, the current, living lineage holder and Imperial Bowmaster of Japan, organized a competition for his students during the most recent Kyudo Assembly at Karme Choling. The prize: a yumi, or bow, made by Sensei himself at his workshop in Japan.

Kanjuro Shibata Sensei XI

Kanjuro Shibata Sensei XXI, on the platform

Sensei was teaching at Karme Choling for the first time, in what has been described as a “getting to know you” phase in the meeting between him and followers of his predecessor. The new Sensei had had less contact with the Shambhala world, but it was generally agreed that he was more easy-going and unassuming than Sendai had been. The group who had gathered for this particular Assembly was largely composed of kyudoka, or experienced practitioners, many of whom were instructors themselves.

Teams were carefully selected, based on level of experience and demonstrated skill during the course of the Assembly. Prior to the competition, Sensei heartily encouraged us to eat, drink, and be merry, presumably to shake off any anxiety and build a sense of camaraderie between competitors. A festive atmosphere prevailed with much light-hearted banter, as in the waning light of evening, we lined up to take our turns at the platform. Each person was given two rounds to shoot, with two ya, or arrows, for each shot. That gave four opportunities for each person to hit the mato.

The stakes were higher once a winning team had been selected. Now verging on complete darkness, a light was needed to illuminate the single mato at the other end of the shooting range. Someone helpfully provided a cell phone for lighting, and we gathered in muted suspense as we watched the final round between the six members of the winning team. Each person received only one ya this time, and it was declared that whichever ya landed closest to the bullseye, would determine who took home the prize.

The moment of truth, just before the winning shot.

The moment of truth, just before the winning shot

Five seasoned practitioners and newcomer Amber, who had only just started shooting from the platform earlier that day, took their turns, one at a time. Five ya released, none landing on the mato. Amber, nervously sixth and last in line, raised her yumi, and with a distinct thwack, made a direct hit! Her victory released a roar of amazement from the crowd, and Sensei was heard to comment with delight, “Now that’s true beginner’s heart!”

My mind turned to a poignant experience from near the end of Sendai’s lifetime two years ago, when my own ya hit the mato. In the moment before release, I could have sworn that Sendai’s voice whispered to me on the wind, “Just shoot from the heart.” The memory was swiftly followed by a more recent remembrance, when the new Sensei, upon witnessing one of my rare mato hits, raised his arms in unbridled enthusiasm and exclaimed, “You did it!” A new era may have opened for Kyudo practitioners of this school, but the spirit of the old era lingers still at Karme Choling.

Interested in exploring Kyudo? Karme Choling offers programs for beginners and returning students in spring, summer, and fall, and hosts weekly practice sessions in between programs. More information can be found on the Seiko Kyudojo website.

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