No one knows exactly when the term kyudo came into being but it was not until the late nineteenth century when practice centered almost exclusively around individual practice that the term gained general acceptance. The essence of modern kyudo is said to be synonymous with the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty.
Truth in kyudo is manifested in shooting that is pure and right-minded, where the three elements of attitude, movement, and technique unite in a state of perfect harmony. A true shot in kyudo is not just one that hits the center of the target, but one where the arrow can be said to exist in the target before its release.
Goodness encompasses such qualities as courtesy, compassion, morality, and non-aggression. In kyudo, goodness is shown by displaying proper attitude and behavior in all situations. A good kyudo archer is a person who maintains his or her composure and grace even in times of great stress or conflict.
Beauty both enhances life and stimulates the spirit. In kyudo, truth and goodness, themselves, are considered beautiful. Beauty can also be found in the exquisite grace and artistry of the Japanese bow and the elegance of the traditional archer's attire. It is also present in the refined etiquette that surrounds the kyudo ceremony. Etiquette, which is simply common courtesy and respect for others, is an essential element of kyudo practice.
Much has been written about the philosophical connections of kyudo. Perhaps most known is the book Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel. In his book Mr. Herrigel sets forth his experiences with kyudo in the 1930's. It was a beautifully written account that has been translated into many languages, giving people worldwide their first glimpse of the art. Unfortunately, the book was very one-sided in its description of kyudo as a Zen art and is responsible for a lot of the current misconception surrounding the practice of kyudo as a religious activity.
While kyudo is not a religion it has been influenced by two schools of Eastern philosophy: The previously mentioned Zen, a form of Buddhism imported from China, and Shintoism, the indigenous faith of Japan. Of the two, the influence of Shintoism is much older. Ritualistic use of the bow and arrows have been a part of Shintoism for over two thousand years. Much of the kyudo ceremony, the attire worn by the archers, and the ritual respect shown for the equipment and shooting place are derived from ancient Shinto practice.
The influence of Zen, on the other hand, is more recent, dating back to the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) when the warrior archers adopted Zen as their preferred method of moral training. Zen's influence on kyudo became even greater in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when Japan, as a whole, experienced a period of civil peace. During that time the practice of kyudo took on a definite philosophical leaning. This is the period when sayings like "one shot, one life" and "shooting should be like flowing water" were associated with the teaching of kyudo. Because of its long and varied past, modern Japanese archery will exhibit a wide variety of influences. Today, at any given kyudojo (practice hall), one can find people practicing ancient kyujutsu, ceremonial court games, rituals with religious connections, and contests of skill. The key to understanding kyudo is to keep an open mind and realize that any style of kyudo you see or practice is but a small part of a greater whole, and that each style has its own history and philosophical underpinnings which make them all equally interesting and important.
The Spirit of Kyudo
Hideharu Onuma sensei, believed that one's spirit was like a great oak tree, and in order for it to realize its greatest potential the seeds had to be planted early. He, of course, recognized the importance of technique; teaching that technique was the gateway to the spiritual level. But more often, he liked to echo the sayings of past kyudo masters and teach that "shooting with technique improves the shooting, but shooting with spirit improves the man."
Because the practice of kyudo involves little in the way of hard physical activity, spirit is extremely important. When the spirit is weak the shooting becomes dull and lifeless. Onuma sensei taught that if the spirit is strong one will appear like a deep-flowing river, calm on the surface but with tremendous power hidden in the depths. Compare that to someone whose internal spirit is weak. Like a small stream, they may appear powerful because of all their noise and turbulence, but underneath they are shallow and devoid of any real power.
Strict self-control and emotional stability are crucial to the development of one's spirit and to the practice of kyudo. But some are unwilling to adhere to the strict ceremonial procedures that the practice of kyudo requires. These people argue that any attempt at self-control stifles creativity. Attitudes such as this, however, are usually little more than an attempt to use unorthodox methods as a cover for insufficient skill or knowledge. True creativity is sister to the spirit and both are born of simplicity. They are not a product of the intellect, but surface only when the rational mind is quieted and the intuitive thought process takes over. The guidelines and procedures established for the practice of kyudo have been borrowed from generations of past teachers, and are designed to put the analytical mind to rest and allow the practitioner to move into a state of consciousness known as mushin (literally, no mind). And while some may associate a state of no mind with unconsciousness or even death, it is in truth a state where the remnants of thought are eliminated and only pure thought remains.
It is important to mention here that kyudo, by itself, cannot solve our problems nor add anything to our lives; at least not in the beginning. Kyudo may look simple but it is deceptively complex. Onuma sensei liked to tell us that the practice of kyudo made him feel like "A blind turtle in the middle of the ocean searching for a log." It is that complexity, however, that makes kyudo such a rewarding instrument for self-discovery. Its practice peels away the protective layers of ego that we all hide behind and allows our true nature to be revealed. It is then our responsibility to examine the results and balance our character accordingly. Perhaps the best way to explain the spirit of kyudo is to put it in Onuma sensei's words: "When shooting, sometimes we will hit the target but miss the self. At other times we will miss the target but hit the self. Our purpose, though, is to hit the target as the self and hope that the sharp sound of arrow penetrating paper will awaken us from the so-called 'dream of life' and give us real insight into the ultimate state of being."