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translated from the French by Julia Robinson Monod

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   In the light of a persistent misconception, I must make it perfectly clear that I belong neither to any sect nor to any religious group. I have studied Kyudo according to the techniques of the Heki-Ryu Bishu Chikurin-ha school, and this practice has absolutely nothing to do with any 'spiritual' commitment which, to my way of thinking, is in any case only genuine if it transcends rites, caste, politics and discrimination, in short all that which separates people rather than bringing them together. That being said, let us proceed.
   Kyudo is not merely a sport or hobby. The significance of the discipline goes far beyond its physical dimension. Kyudo offers an alternative approach to one's very perception of every moment of everyday life. Used in earlier times in life-threatening situations, martial arts forced those who practised them to surpass the technical aspect of the art and to gain a deeper understanding of the meaning of life and death. Nonetheless, although martial arts are rarely used nowadays to maim or kill, it is possible to recreate, in the dojo, conditions that allow us to understand their underlying philosophy. Practising them becomes a way of developing the lucidity, serenity and energy necessary to deal with the challenging world in which we live.
   Kyudo as we practise it requires constancy and selflessness. " Dan " are not used as benchmarks, and some practitioners may find the inability to measure their progress discouraging. This absence of any point of reference is intended. It frees the spirit and releases us from our certainties and from the way in which we perceive ourselves. It encourages us to seek harmony rather than prowess and fosters a working atmosphere that allows each person to develop freely. The instructor does not judge or criticise and, for the most part, rarely speaks. He or she helps to release the physical knots that may prevent us from achieving inner balance and expressing it through elegant motion. " Art takes time and life is brief " goes the saying. This is particularly true for Kyudo, which may require a great deal of practise before its benefits become apparent. Moreover, the equipment is costly. But there is another aspect to this discipline to be taken into account before making a decision. One of humanity's oldest books explains it very well :

   " However diverse people may be due to their different dispositions and education, human nature is basically always the same. And everyone can, in the course of his or her development, drink from the inexhaustible fountain of divine nature that is the essence of humankind. But even so, two dangers remain: the first is that man and woman, in the course of their education, might not penetrate to the real roots of their humanity but remain prisoners of convention - such an education is as bad as no education at all - and the second is that they might suddenly break down and abandon the shaping of their spirit ".

   It is therefore important that candidates, before committing themselves, carefully evaluate their patience and endurance.

Personal space

   My interest in Kyudo was triggered by an article I read in a newspaper. As soon as I could, I took part in an encounter organised by the European representative of the Bishu Chikurin-ha school. My enthusiasm was intense and immediate. I was convinced on the spot that I had found in this unusual art the means of realising a profound aspiration: to be ready, at any time, to leave this world without regret. Even today I cannot say where this strange certainty came from. Indeed, what connection can there be between the constant wish to liberate oneself from the past and the act of shooting arrows, for days or even years, at targets that one does not seek to reach ? No theory can provide a satisfactory answer. Only the practise of Kyudo and the intense self-awareness it requires can release our internal bonds and shed light on our fundamental nature. And indeed, the latter appears more and more "empty", more and more essentially free. This "emptiness" and this freedom are the crucible in which Energy concentrates and constantly renews itself; they are the source of the power that enables us to push forward on the dark, and probably dead-end road humanity has chosen to take.

   In the years that followed my first encounter with Kyudo and the purchase of my first bow (a " weapon of light "!) I participated in numerous seminars in Europe and in America at Karmé Chöling where I was appointed instructor by Kanjuro Shibata XX, Sensei, keeper of the tradition of the Bishu Chikurin-ha school. The " dan " system does not exist in that school. Recently introduced because of Western influence, " dan " represent exactly that which Kyudo wants to root out : competitiveness and the exaggerated ( and exasperating ! ) affirmation of self. The Bishu Chikurin-ha school emphasises the importance of not preparing the shot, or rather the importance of not calculating it. Hitting, or failing to hit, the target is not important. The goal is pure action unhindered by the desires of the ego.

   Suzuki, one of the last grand masters of Kyudo, explained : " Before you release your arrow, do not think about what you are doing. Learn to wait. Be free of yourself. Leave behind who you are and all that you possess, so that all that remains of you is pure tension, without any goal. Look at the bamboo leaf as under the weight of the snow it bends further and further down. The snow falls suddenly from it without the leaf having moved. Be like the leaf. Until the tension is maximum, and the arrow is released, because when the tension is maximum, the arrow MUST leave ; your shot must leave you just as the snow leaves the bamboo leaf ". There is no better description of pure action and the state of mind it requires.

   Kanjuro Shibata often states that archery is a way of " polishing the spirit ". In other words, emptying it of parasitic thoughts, rendering it more and more crystalline in order to reveal our true nature. Repeatedly, relentlessly, the arrows are shot against a single target as though one were polishing it, as one would patiently polish the lens of a telescope in order finally to be able to see clearly and far. Often, after a shot, he simply says, " too much thinking! ". The shot was calculated and therefore worthless, even if it hit the target. Vision was obstructed by thought.

   Kyudo does not require simultaneous use of any other meditation technique. Nevertheless, some practitioners of Kyudo disregard this evidence ; they distort and remodel it according to their own perception, going so far as to introduce their own brand of meditation during training sessions. An uncompromising, sectarian attitude ( disguised by a superficial gentleness ) that is often found among practitioners of meditation who, for lack of self-confidence, cling to it desperately as they would to a lifesaver. Having lost their judgement, they are easy prey for " masters " and other " gurus " to whom they forgive all, even the latter's inability to help them out of their rut. It would be beneficial for these meditation enthusiasts to carefully reread the remarkable work of Chögyam Trungpa : " Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism ", in which he says that it is important to understand that the essential point of any spiritual practice is to free oneself of the bureaucracy of the ego, i.e. of the constant desire of the ego for a higher, more spiritual, more transcendent form of knowledge, religion, virtue, discrimination, comfort, in short, of whatever it is one is seeking. We must free ourselves of spiritual materialism. If we do not, if we practice it, we will perhaps accumulate a vast collection of spiritual paths that will seem very precious to us. We have studied so much ! Perhaps we have studied western philosophy, or oriental mysticism, or practised yoga, or embraced the teachings of dozens of grand masters. We are accomplished, because we know so many things ! We are so firmly convinced that we have acquired a wealth of knowledge. And yet, at the end of this path, there is still something left to abandon. What a mystery! How can it be ? It is impossible… But alas, it is true. This wealth of knowledge, this sum of experience are but an element in the showcase of the ego, they concur to make it more grandiose. We flaunt them and in so doing we reassure ourselves about our comfortable, safe, existence, our " spirituality ". In reality, we have only created a shop, an antique shop. We might be specialised in oriental objects, in medieval Christian antiques, or in old things from a certain culture of a certain period, but whatever it is, we are shopkeepers ".
   In addition to divergent points of view on meditation there is the attitude ( quite natural, unfortunately ) of certain practitioners more inclined to power play than to selfless practise. Such behaviour is completely at variance with my own approach to Kyudo. Finally, the burden became so heavy and the discomfort so acute that I was forced to detach myself from Kanjuro Shibata, Sensei and from the entire structure organised around him. Thus, " Asuka " was born. Asuka is pronounced aska, the bird that flies, free.
Asuka is not a new community but rather a meeting point for friends who share a passion for the same art, unencumbered by that which generally tarnishes human relations: differences of sex, race, caste, religion. A meeting point for those who wish, amidst the increasing darkness, to keep alive their internal flame.

A trip to Japan

   In October 2001, the various European Kyudo groups met in Kyoto. Under the leadership of Kanjuro Shibata XXI, Sensei, we participated for a fortnight in meetings between the different schools. Naturally, it was not possible in such a short period of time to approach and understand the depth and complexity of Japan and its inhabitants. Nevertheless, this brief encounter allowed me to glimpse what I believe to be one of the fundamental elements of the Japanese spirit, i.e. love of tradition. The latter is felt in every domain and, in many instances, it appeared to me that it stifles the individual, suppressing personality and replacing it with a fixed mask. But is that not the most harmful aspect of all traditions ? Initially an aid to survival and later the " signature " of membership in a particular ethnic group, they became a serious handicap, hindering acceptance of the world and limiting freedom of expression. Because they have survived the centuries they have become truth incarnate, they are unquestionable, they do not let the new emerge or the old renew itself. They invade every aspect of daily life, their weight imprisons the individual in a vice of habits whose origin is never questioned, even if the effects of these habits are devastating. They give rise, inter alia, to nationalism and religious fanaticism, foster the notion of caste and create an ever-widening gap between rich and poor. And yet, traditions are only the trappings of a place, a group; they are but the mantle in which local characteristics deck themselves out. They have no universal character. Understanding their essence would no doubt put them in perspective and perhaps make it possible to introduce more authentic, more harmonious relations among peoples. But can one hope for a new approach to others if individuals themselves are not transformed by an expanded awareness of their own real nature ? This poster on the walls of the Kyoto train station seems to bring the answer. But is anyone listening ?

Looking back

   Ten years have gone by since I first took up Kyudo. It’s time to take stock.

   The initial group broke up, mainly through the fault of instructors who took themselves too seriously, exasperating their students with their arrogance. The latter, focusing only on their own – often unreasonable – expectations, neglected to look to other, humbler practitioners who, although ready to provide guidance and coaching, did not put themselves forward. Some did not find the motivation to persevere on such an arduous path – an austere journey towards silence and vulnerability. These " defections " first brought to light my own penchant for teaching, and then helped me to overcome it. They helped me to accept solitude, which in turn led me to see the world as it is : unacceptable, but unchanging. All this does not make for easy or agreeable social relations – on the contrary. Conformity of thought does not accept any questioning of its foundations and its sheer weight silences those who refuse it. Black sheep are always ill perceived and harassed, even if they are discreet. And yet, it is by facing up without compromise, by looking at the facts and not at the ideas and the images, by ignoring the deafening, hypocritical discourse of politicians, religious leaders and the business community that we could, if it’s not too late, give birth to another civilisation. That is what I wish for those who follow. I have cast aside my philosophy books but I will continue to practise as regularly as possible, and my door is always open.

   I wish you all a good journey.

Arzier, 21 April 2003

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