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For me, the bow has always been a provocative weapon. Something in the stillness and tension, the manner in which the archer's body must sit in accordance with the weapon's form -- arms extended, legs apart, muscles reflecting the tautness of the bowstring until the moment of release, when the silence is broken by the slicing of air and a gratifying thwup! I remember an early fascination with Robin Hood, the simple tunic and the graceful curvature of the bow seeming much more elegant and efficient than the burdensome armor and swords chosen by his foes; and a much earlier fascination with -- dare I say, embarrassing devotion to -- Rama, the bare-chested, blue-skinned hero of the Ramayana, which was given to me in comic book form at an early age. In the epic Sanskrit poem, Rama wins his ladylove, Sita, by lifting and drawing a mystical bow and later slaying her kidnapper, Ravana, by placing arrows in the evil king's navel and each of his 10 heads. Rama eventually led me to an interest in Artemis, the truculent Greek goddess of the hunt, and the Amazon warriors who, it is said, seared their right breasts to aid the precision of their archery. When I finally saw an old-fashioned cowboys-and-Indians movie, it was no contest. Compared to the Spartan spasm of the gunslinger, the nocking of arrows and drawing of bows on horseback seemed passionate and fierce, if not entirely effective in the midst of bullets.
Dating from prehistoric times, bows are thought to be the first mechanism devised to hurl objects through space, and, apart from Australia, the bow and arrow has been used as a principal weapon for hunting and battle in every corner of the globe. Since 1930, when the longbow gave way to a composite design of laminated wood, plastic, and Fiberglas that was less affected by temperature and humidity, Western archery has grown as a hobby, most notably in the U.S., where over 10 million active archers are estimated to reside. The Bay Area has no fewer than 10 archery ranges, where hunters and marksmen practice on everything from indoor targets to rough-terrain 3-D shoots with realistic animal bodies or cartoon shapes.
The Bay Area is also home to three Kyudo groups, which instruct students in the Japanese "way of the bow." Kyudo, the most ancient of Japanese martial arts, is a standard part of the school curriculum in Japan, and as many as 20,000 students will participate this year in the coming-of-age ceremony held in Kyoto, but here in the U.S. there are fewer than 200 practicing kyujutsushi(archers).
"I think the pace of Kyudo is too slow for sport," says 19-year-old Alexandra Connell, laughing quietly inside a makeshift dojo in Los Altos. In Japan, the Kyudo dojo typically consists of a highly polished wooden floor, on which the archers may stand or kneel, and a bank of moist earth lined with targets; both ends are protected from rain by rooftops, but the arrow's 28-meter path (ya-michi) is completely open to the sky and the ground is covered in grass that is stippled with snow or cherry blossoms from the surrounding trees. Today, Connell's dojois a warm school gymnasium atop a tawny knoll on the campus of Foothill College. Still, but for the constant whir of a fan in the neighboring gym, the setting is quiet and reverent as the three Kyudo groups practice for an upcoming national seminar.
Five students wearing traditional garb -- plain shirts called dogi, baggy pants called hakama, and three-fingered gloves called yugake, with a thumb reinforced by bone or wood -- bow at the imagined entrance (iriguchi) to the dojoand again at a small shrine that has been set up on the eastern side of the hall. They take their positions on the shooting line (shai) and slowly raise their asymmetrical 7-1/2-foot bows until the grips are above their heads, drawing the bows overhead and slowly lowering them to eye level. The arrows, some of them still of the ancient (and terribly expensive) bamboo design, fly across the room with breathtaking speed, but only two stick into the targets. It is not uncommon to miss, even with students who have been practicing for many years. In Kyudo, the target is not the objective.
"It is a way," says Connell, a linguistics major at UC Davis who stops for a moment to struggle for words. "It is a thing you do to become better."
It is said Kyudo archers hunt only for truth (shin).
According to Kyudo Manual Vol. 1: Principles of Shooting (Shaho), the Kyudo "bible," "Truth is the prior reality of shooting." Goodness (zen) and beauty (bi) should follow.
"I don't think you ever get gratification doing this, not the way a Western archer might," says eight-year student Bill Tyler, whose interest was initially piqued while reading Eugen Herrigel's 1948 memoir Zen in the Art of Archery, a book that has been criticized by many practitioners of Kyudo for its purposefully mystic aspiration. "You have to be interested in the internal pursuit, rather than the external manifestation."
But when asked if Kyudo is a form of meditation, Tyler shakes his head quickly. "It requires strength of mind, but it is not meditation. I practice it more as a form of sport. It is a martial art and was considered a necessary skill for warriors until gunpowder made it obsolete. Like all martial arts, it is important to maintain an intense level of focus. It is very easy to be distracted by thoughts, like taxes, bills, and work, but those thoughts get in the way."
Before an archer even enters the dojo, 57-year-old Yoshiko Buchanan, instructor of the Shisoikangroup in San Jose, suggests sumashi, a committed effort to cleanse one's mind that includes active breathing and a proper, half-lidded gaze that "catches objects softly."
"Eyes can tell as much as the mouth," goes the Japanese saying.
Proper sumashiassists in the perfection of the eight stages of Kyudo, which remain unvaried throughout the life of the kyujutsushi.
The first is footing (ashibumi); the second is forming the torso (dozukuri), which emphasizes the difference between Western archery and Kyudo in that attention is focused on a region below the navel known as the tanden rather than in one's shoulders; the third is nocking of the arrow (yugamae); the fourth is raising the bow (uchiokoshi); the fifth is drawing the bow (hikiwake) -- typically two-thirds with the left arm and one-third with the right; the sixth is full draw (kai); the seventh is release (hanare); and the eighth is the final settlement of accounts (zanshin), the point during which, Buchanan says, a person may recognize reality and analyze the reason why the arrow could not fly with excellence.
Each movement is measured by breath, and the spirit of the archer is demonstrated by the poise and concentration exhibited throughout the eight stages. The only variation in these stages occurs in the shamenstyle developed by Honda Toshizane and taught by Earl Hartman at Seishinkan Kyudojo in Emeryville, in which the archer pre-draws the bow alongside his body before raising it.
"An interest in another martial art helps prepare for this," says 41-year-old Jon McAllister, a general contractor who has been a student of Kyudo for over 10 years. "Though, this is even somewhat more esoteric because it's not really practical, not for people looking for self-defense or something of the like. But it's good for smoothing the rough edges between physical body and awareness."
"Aikido is my first love and Kyudo is my infatuation," exclaims Steve Scott, instructor at the San Jose Kyudo Club, before solemnly approaching the iriguchiwith four other archers, some of them wearing the kimonos of a fifth-tier Go-Dan.
In formal ceremonial style, the five archers remain kneeling until it is their turn to stand, moving exactly one half-position behind the archer before them. I watch as their movements become more fluid, blending into one another until they are nearly seamless, the arrows seemingly projected by their breath, the towering bows quivering and rotating in hand with the release of the powerful strings, while eyes remain half-lidded and unblinking. Only three arrows stay fixed in their targets, but the archers are beautiful.
A far cry from the last time I went in search of archers, only to find a group of beer-guzzling sharpshooters with compound bows, looking to lengthen their hunting season by several months.
"No, Kyudo and Western archery are nothing alike," agrees Tyler, "except that you have a bow and an arrow."