Whenever I went into central Kyoto, the martial arts center was one of my favorite stops, especially the range for Kyudo–the Art of Archery.
Eugen Herrigel’s book Zen and the Art of Archery was my very first introduction to Zen Buddhism, and I can still feel the excitement I felt as I read the book in the Spring of 1968. I don’t think it is accurate to call the Zen arts in general, and the Art of Archery in particular, “religious.” The use of the word “religious” is problematic when applied to Japanese culture. For most Westerners, the word carries the connotation of rigid dogma, exclusivity, and strict moralism. None of these characteristics applies consistently to Buddhism or Shinto, which from the Nara period (8th century CE) have been marked with a syncretism only occasionally marred by feuds or Nationalistic cooptation. During the six years I taught in a Japanese University, I had a fascinating time explaining why Westerners took Religion so seriously.
Still, as with all things Zen, there is a marvelous ritual and spirituality in the Art of Archery. Practitioners wear special dress and approach the line with reverential short steps. They first kneel sideways to the targets, and, as in the tea ceremony, every movement is prescribed, from the stringing of the bow, to taking aim, to releasing the arrow:
Here is another picture from the Kyoto Center:
On every visit, I was transported by the grace and beauty of the Art. It was truly a marvelous dance. I was also amazed at the distance to the small target:
One day as I was enjoying the artistry of the archers, I noticed a man who seemed about my age (at the time, 72), moving with exceptional grace and apparent lack of control, who hit on or near the bullseye every time. It was a privilege to watch him, and I felt his centered concentration seep into my own mind and heart. When he finished, I approached him to offer my gratitude and appreciation. He was most gracious in return–but then he said “Nansai desuka? (how old are you?)” Nanajunisai desu (72) I answered.” He smiled. “Kodomo (a child!)” he said. Pointing to his nose, he said “Kyujunisai desu (I am 92).” I was swept away by the wonder of artistic mastery and the relativity of age:
grace smoothly flowing
his back straight as an arrow
old man disappears
linked to carpe diem haiku kai