Tuesday, February 19, 2013
Today was much better than yesterday. (For a bit of griping check my last post.)
I woke up and had to rush to work, but had everything together. The initial feeling wasn't so good, not so bad either, but I wasn't exactly looking forward to doing my second job teaching English to hotel employees. Last week was left bitter in my mouth; the taste of unmotivated students following a fledgling teacher. But for some reason, they were great today, and lifted me up to this happy state. We had a great class.
I checked the bank and a week before payday, I have more money than usual. Some how I've managed to spend less than usual this month, which has been a rarity for the past few. Instead of forcing my hand into savings, I can enjoy myself a bit more with the cushion.
I felt optimistic about budo today. I had a great energy to study Japanese on the train.
I had excellent lessons planned for today. The kids were a little crazier than usual (crying, complaining, puking), and that's OK: That's what is supposed to happen.
As an artist, there is great responsibility. Half of the coin, which some deem "real art", is just expressing your feeling through the medium. But that alone will not ... be ideal. The other half needs to translate that feeling effectively for an outside party. That requires great patience and precision. It's not just pure expression. I listened to an interview with an artist I look up to, and he explained looking at a blank canvas as a riddle: a problem to solve. I initially squinched my nose at this; I'm not exactly fond of the first things that came to my mind: riddles, problems, math. I assumed that problems have correct and incorrect answers, but this is not necessarily true. One must simply answer the best they can. That requires effort, not just the kind that makes you blast through a wall, but the intelligent kind that asks you to think before you act ... write ... paint ... move. You must express your feelings honestly, but within the framework of our particular labrynth: The world. There are places to cascade upon without inhibition, and there are others to pick apart with a small needle. Other times, we ought to refrain from anything at all.
I remember talking with my advisor at the high school I used to work at. He is an English teacher who said he used to shy away from adversity. Now he considers it the best possible scenario. This was after helping me set up my own bank account, sign contracts with the landlord, translating random pieces of mail I received, and answering any of my seemingly worthless questions about whatever. Far from the epic quest we demand, yet right at the center of the spinning earth (or Dharma Wheel if you will, *for the Dogen geeks).
As an artist, I am responsible. As a teacher, I am responsible.
At both of these stations, the world says to Zacky Chan, "ONEGAISHIMASU!" And I am compelled to action.
Monday, February 18, 2013
Today there is ugly rain. The rain itself isn't ugly, but where it falls is. Or maybe not where it falls is ugly, but it doesn't look good in the rain.
I have a great affinity for the rain. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. If you know anything about the region, you know it rains more than anything else. I grew up on a small rural island there. It rains a lot. When it does, it's beautiful. The rain falls through the grey clouds and onto a monotone of green forest in fog. One cannot clearly see where the dark green forest ends and the clouds begin. I used to look out my back windows at the stretching yellow field that rose into a mountain. I grew up in that beatiful rain.
Now I live in Toyama Prefecture located on the Sea of Japan. If you know anything about this region, you know it's also famous for its precipitation. It's raining, but it falls on grey and brown buildings. You can see clearly the slime of civilization escaping the cracks and running down the sides of things. The streets are wet, making the cars loud. Riding my bike is hastened to escape the wet, and not without streaks of puddles splashed up from my back tire onto my ass, seeping through my pants. People walking on the sidewalks aren't looking around them and are instead hunched over staring at the ground, trying to escape the rain that surrounds them. The work doesn't stop, it just makes transport more difficult. That empty floating space is filled with inconvenience and hurry. People's faces naturally distort under such undesirable circumstances. People are rarely attractive in the rain. In fact, people are ugly in the rain. Civilization is ugly in the rain. I need green hills and fog. Now I can think of nothing but the dreary sludge of my day. I want to naturally slack in the rain, but as a teacher, I cannot do this. My students will slack further doing nothing, or go crazy under my lack of care. I must be 110% all the time no matter what with them. Teachers have great responsibility indeed. You don't see this when things are good.
Speaking of snow, there is a great lack of it in the city despite being mid Febraury. Actually, the mild winter we've moved into here is throwing the rest of things out of shape. The branches of the sakura trees are already changing color, to a kind of haunting red-pink, reminding me of agitated nerves reaching into the grey sky. And there are mosquitos! I found one in my bathroom this morning. I went out on my balcony and saw tens of them hovering in the air. I pity any nature that is waking up, because it will die in the next heavy snow.
WHAT IS HAPPENING!
I went snowboarding in the mountains yesterday and it was amazing. Sunny blue sky, white mountains, powder snow, too many people, but one can get over it in such circumstances. Yet the dreary Monday morning down here is almost unbearable.
Sensei didn't come to kyudo this morning, so I was left to my downward spiral tendencies. I started the day off well, but gradually dug myself into a hole of bad technique. How does that happen? One of the other teachers was there trying to help me, but he was giving me information directly contradicting what my main Sensei usually says. Perhaps they're saying the same thing, but it translates differently. I never really experienced this in other martial arts. Kyudo is a prickly bitch sometimes. Yelling at it usually doesn't fix the problem, but sometimes doing your best doesn't seem to either.
Kyudo is like sailing. (Not that I know much of sailing, but I really don't know much about kyudo either, so what the hell.) When wind fills sails, and you're cutting through the water, even more so due to your efforts, it feels great. You're passing through the beautiful ocean, but can't even see around you because you're moving forward so fast. However, when that wind is absent, you're left fumbling to compensate, but the efforts only drive you further down. In the end, you're on a bit floating, maybe backwards. Staring at the endless nothing around you. "Why?" You ask the gods. No answer. That's how kyudo felt this morning. I've said for so long, "Just go to practice! The results will come!" Well I went! And it wasn't immediately gratifying. Maybe I'm investing in good future karma. Maybe it was perfect. Maybe it was totally worthless. Maybe it doesn't mean anything. Maybe it was a huge waste of time because I want to sleep and write, not ride trains in the rain to toil and work.
A rambling post for a wet gaijin trying to make sense of this city rain. Why doesn't anyone else here understand. Today I hate the street that lies between my apartment and the train station, and the walk from the bicycle garage to the ticket gate.
It's supposed to be snowing. I'm supposed to be getting better at kyudo. I'm supposed to be happy.
I'm investing a lot of hope into this hot cup of coffee I've just made.
Thursday, February 14, 2013
(Picture taken from "Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition", looks like a sick game, but haven't played it, just liked the art)
There's got to be an entry in the I Ching that deals with exactly what I'm speaking of, and I bet it's called "small preparations", or something to that effect. I'm talking about a very specific detail, smaller than the grand event itself, which fits into the grand scheme of the Great Cycle, which its name itself is only a part. In my grand life, there will be a great revolution coming up soon this summer when I move southwest to Kyushu. It will be a great revolution because a lot of things will change. My physical environment and possessions will change. That will be "outside". But what arguably greater effects change, are certain phenomenon inside of me. I believe it will be the "outside" that will be the greatest agent of change, but its effect will be drastically affected by what's going on inside of me. Specifically, if I don't get myself out of the way, I won't be able to fully engage the new world I move into. Small preparations are about preparing yourself so when the revolution does happen, you're ready to hit the ground running. As opposed to falling on your face, realizing you've got to take care of a lot of things before you can start properly.
This is one of the greatest 2-part lessons I've learned from budo that I can apply directly to my daily life:
1.) Cleaning all of the unnecessaries out of the way so that you can focus on what you decide to focus on.
2.) Deciding on a goal, and making small efforts everyday before you expect to have substantial results.
I don't want to get to Kyushu and flounder around to get things started, I want to begin perfect. This doesn't mean that the results will be perfect, but it means the problems I run into are ones I was not aware of. Truly new terrain, and yourself finding the way; that is perfect.
In Kyushu I want to write more, and differently. I'm not sure exactly what that means, but I'm going to explore that a bit before I get there.
In Kyushu I won't make formally practicing budo a necessary in my life, so I'm not going to sweat it if I don't make it to practice now and see how that feels.
I want to focus all of my efforts on whatever it is I decide to do in Kyushu, so that means eliminating excess spending of money, physical energy, and efforts. That means practicing a bit of discipline now, and seeing how that feels. Supplementing that with sitting, which I've been away from a bit, will greatly affect things I think.
We'll see how it feels. Small test flights before the eagle just falls from the tree and into the canyon.
But this is all because I have time. Some revolutions, some tests of budo, leave one with no time to prepare ...
That's why we prepare before that happens :)
Tuesday, February 12, 2013
(picture found at http://www.japanese-archery.org.uk/kyudo.html)
For a few years practicing tai chi chuan and then aikido, the number one thing I was trying to do was learn to relax my body in movement for maximum results. Relaxation, of the body as well as mind, is also important in kyudo ... but there's also a lot of tension.
I first noticed it in just watching my teacher walk to the target in the traditional fashion. It wasn't necessarily rigid, but tense. Then in preparatory motions and non-motions before the shot; he seemed the taut string itself strapped on the bow, pulling the wooden ends back. Then actually pulling the bow, the subtle sound of it all puts tension into the viewer. He stood there at full draw, eyes focused on the target sharp as his body was frozen, so frozen it shook it a bit, holding the arrow back, and then SMACK! The arrow was gone, and he walked away just as he had approached, tense.
Tension is not the exact word, but the best one I've thought of.
In Japanese it's way more ... difficult to explain. In Japanese they tell you to maintain a certain amount of kinchou, 緊張. When you look it up in the dictionary, it translates as "nervousness, mental strain", and more accurately to this point, "tension." It says tension, and it is also what I'm saying, but it's a little different. Maybe it's exactly the same, but I think it's a little different. Tension has too much of a negative connotation; like it's a description of a symptom, instead of a painting or a musical note, which it seems more like to me.
The first time Sensei told me to maintain the kinchou, I automatically thought of the "nervousness" translation, because it's all I knew. It's the common word for "nervousness".
"I should be nervous?!"
Thinking of it now, between English and Japanese, I almost think "nervousness" is closer than just translating it as "tension", though it has nothing to do with the English "nervousness" and most exactly as "tension." Is that weird? That may be just me. There may be some truth there, of the difficulty in translating the feeling between English and Japanese. I don't know. But it's how I feel, and in budo that's a very important thing.
Anyway ... tension.
After experiencing the tension of kyudo while watching sensei, I felt it first-hand when gripping the bow. I held the bow in the right posture, but Sensei told me to flare out my elbows, creating kinchou. He told me to do this by haru-ing. 張る. This is a verb that translates as "to stretch". (I can't help but notice a resemblance between this kanji and 引く which means "to pull".) It's not just "stretch" though in English it is, I feel. It's a stretch that creates tension, much like a taut string. Yes, "taut" is another important word in English. So I flared my elbows out to make my triceps taut, while stretching my spine vertically (just like you should in other martial arts and meditation, as if the bottom of your spine is reaching down to the center of the earth while the top shoots through the crown of your head to the sun), and then Sensei also told me to flex my buttcheeks together, turning my pelvis up (much like I've learned in tai chi chuan), which makes you more ... tense.
When you pull back the bow, it's tense. I learned the tension of the string very thoroughly when feeling it slap my face when it pre-released. There is a lot of tension in kyudo which can be built up and used for good; releasing, seamlessly shooting the arrow straight forward into the target. Or for evil; as it warps your posture.
Perhaps that last bit is the biggest trick in the art: learning how to deal with the tension so that it helps your shooting instead of inhibiting it. Your placing tension in the right places, while erasing it from the wrong. Perhaps there is tension in tai chi chuan and aikido, but it's different.
Back to walking. Before you even begin drawing the bow back for the shot, you must walk. When you walk, you slide your feet across the ground, making sure to not lift your heels. The steps are shorter than you would expect. Your body weight is ... forward. The complete opposite of kyudo walking is sliding your foot forward with no weight, and then following it (perhaps what you learn in ba gua!) you push your weight forward, like you're falling. But you don't push with your upper body, you push with your tanden, your dantien, your center (2-3 inches below your belly button). You walk primarily with this part of your body, and apparently walking is one of the most difficult things to do correctly in kyudo. They say learning to do ... something (can't remember) takes one year, learning tenouchi (left hand grip on the bow) in three years, and walking in ten. You walk with your tanden.
Your tanden is arguably the most important part of kyudo, and something you need to keep tension in.
Interestingly enough, my teacher says one should do reverse-breathing while practicing kyudo. (When you inhale, your stomach comes in, pushes out with the exhale) which certainly deals with tension. (Go ahead and try it!)
So you keep this tension when you walk up to shoot, while you shoot you maintain this tension with your breath. After you shoot, it is a great release of pressure, but you don't let it all out. You maintain some tension.
Or else you'll die.
Or something like that.
(No one has ever said you will die if you don't maintain tension after your shot, but there is some truth in the statement.)
There is lots of tension in kyudo! I'm learning, but not sure yet. Stay tuned for more revelations on tension in kyudo.
Thursday, February 7, 2013
The main character is a young boy learning to perform magic, "sympathy" as referred to in the book, and for particular abilities, he must split his mind into two different parts to concentrate on various phenomenon. I can't quote it directly, but I remember being duly impressed by the author's description of such a feat that boggles the logical mind, but nevertheless is a recurring theme in some martial arts and zen philosophy; particularly kyudo, which incorporates qualities of both.
In kyudo, your hands are doing completely different, but equally important jobs. Your left hand is working on the tenouchi, your grip of the bow, which is comprised of holding the bow in the proper way before you release, as well as moving the bow inside your hand in transition through the movements and during the rotation of the bow within your hand during the release. In your right hand, which is inside of a kake (glove), is placed where the arrow is knocked (clipped into the string) and the string is pulled by this hand. The hand must maintain the correct position with the back of the hand facing up (if you've read any of my posts concerning kyudo you know why!), and is responsible for the hanare, release.
Up until now, with about seven months of training, I've gone through correcting and improving a wide array of issues in kyudo form. I think first you have to get to a point where you can stand and learn to safely shoot on your own at the target while generally adhering to the basic principles. That took me about two months (the two month introductory course seemed to successfully achieve this goal.) After that, some main issues have been:
Keeping my back straight. (I had a tendency to lean my chest too far forward for many reasons.)
Turning my head far enough. (It seemed very unnatural to turn it so far at first.)
Positioning my arm and rotating my left hand so I didn't get slapped on the forearm by the string. (I see a few details of the why's concerning this issue, but the problem seriously just disappeared on it's own! Strange stuff.)
Positioning my right hand so that the string doesn't come out too early. (Nightmare. See many previous posts for more details.)
Pulling the string back far enough over your head into a full draw. (Perhaps the number one issue I've been working on recently, and the one that effects shooting the most.)
Scooping the bow in front of you. (When you raise the bow in uchiokoshi, it's not just a straight up movement, but a slightly curving one that resembles scooping up a big net full of water.)
Correct Daisan posture. (After raising the bow over you head, you move into this posture, slowly raising your hands, aligning a correct angle with the target, moving your left hand slightly before the right.)
This doesn't include a lot of smaller issues I haven't really had specific problems with, as well as all of the problems I've never even thought of.
This also includes all of the movements of etiquette that are performed before and after the shooting, like the proper movements for entering and exiting the shooting area in a demonstration, test, or competition, movements for practicing on your own in the dojo, both sitting and standing.
This also includes putting on and taking off your hakama, traditional kyudo super hero outfit, which is by far the most complicated clothing I've worn to date. Doing this by myself took way longer than any one would expect.
This also includes some simple maintenance on your arrows, like fixing deformed feathers, and fixing a fraying string on the bow.
This also includes setting and taking down the targets for shooting and cleaning the dojo.
Wow, I guess I have learned a few things.
ANYWAY! Back to the splitting the mind in two idea ...
Now my current issues are dealing with the left and right hands as mentioned earlier. These seem to be some of the most basic issues in kyudo, but also incredibly difficult facets that remain the focus of practitioners for many long years (now seemingly more so than other parts of technique). Up until now, much time has been spent on them already, but they've finally seemed to override other issues and take the spotlight.
For another explanation of what's happening with my tenouchi (left hand grip on the bow), I'm working on:
1.) Getting a proper grip in the beginning to set up the rest of the movements.
2.) Turning the bow in my tenouchi so that it doesn't break down the form (seemingly the most difficult part right now).
3.) Propelling the arrow forward with the inside base of my thumb, instead of turning my whole hand during the release.
As for my right hand inside of the kake (glove), I'm working on the form of my hanare (release). When you release with the right hand, it should release behind you, as if you're hitting a drum a foot behind you with the back of your hand. I have had a tendency to release my hand up, but instead I need to release it out more in front of me while slightly dropping my elbow.
So during practice, I keep receiving advice concerning one of these.
"Zac, be mindful of your tenouchi and do it like this." (Enter lengthy verbal descriptions and physical examples)
"You forgot about your hanare!"
"What the hell! You told me to focus on the tenouchi!"
I don't ever say that last part, but I can't tell you how many times I've heard it howling from the inside of my head. But I also understand that when doing kyudo you have to be mindful of all of these things at the same time, or at least you can't compromise one for the other. I'm aware of the ideal, I just can't put it into practice yet. This is why budo takes so much time. One must practice all of the basics until they are ingrained so deeply in one's movements that they don't require your conscious attention.
It's funny, this phenomenon of not focusing on something that matters often relates to aiming the arrow. While practicing kyudo, I'm working on all of these various things with all of your attention, and so often I don't even aim! So many times Sensei has asked me where I was aiming, and my mind draws a blank, because I totally forgot to do so!
It's amazing, you hit the target a lot more when you consciously aim.
So ... dividing your mind in two:
It is impossible. But you can do it.
Until now I've only been able to do one at a time, but I need to do both. The concentration required is intense, and quiet. Standing there at full draw with all of the tension of the bow between you. Parts of you begin to shake. Eyes staring through the bow in straight into the target. Relaxing your core, rising from the solid trunks of your legs, to your chest and shoulders spreading impossibly outwards, extending your skeleton beyond human design. Slowly the breath is leaving you like a small gas leak, expanding from your tanden (dantien, center 2-3 inches below your navel) in reverse breathing. There in that moment, you split your mind in two, one for each hand. On your left hand you are pressing forward with the base of your left thumb in order to launch the arrow forward at the release. On your right hand, you are preparing to drop your elbow and release your hand forward.
That tension explodes, shooting yourself out of each hand in opposite directions, as well as up through the crown of your head. Your chest expands out, breaking from the center of your heart.
SMACK! The sound of the arrow piercing the paper (or plastic) target.
Split your mind in two while doing something else completely. It feels less like a man doing two different things, and more like God tending to everything from the sky at once. From the sky, in the middle of your mind, deep in your heart, located in your tanden, which exists nowhere, and everywhere.
Kyudo is irrational science. The result is magic.
Monday, February 4, 2013
(This great photo was found at http://taintedink.com/hit-the-heart/, a site well worth a check. Though I'm not sure if it's the original source. If not, I will cite it correctly if notified.)
Speaking of that particular issue, it's pretty well taken care of. It doesn't happen anymore primarily for two reasons. First, I just don't want it to. I won't let the string hit me anymore. I won't tolerate it. I'm so sick of it that lousy situation, it's just not going to happen anymore. Make sense? It's the same thing teaching particular kids that make my life a living hell for the hour they are in my classroom. I would spend weeks devising new plans to break them, but usually it wasn't until I finally said, "No, they're not going to do that anymore. They're not going to f$#k with my class anymore" that they magically stopped being so powerful. This does not mean beating your kids physically or emotionally into submission, and it's not overcoming the kyudo bow with invincible strength. It's a very soft and quiet strength: it's fact. It doesn't need loud proclamations or physical effort. It's fact. "I'm not going to get slapped in the face anymore."
Second, and perhaps more important, is that I understand completely that I need to keep my hand properly rotated throughout the pulling back of the bow so that the string doesn't slip out. That is another fact. It doesn't matter what I do otherwise, if I turn my wrist the wrong way, the string will come out. This is something I made sure to fix the other day, and I got hit a total of 0 times. But I still have a bit of the fear in me. I pull with confidence, but I'm incredibly sensitive to the potential of a slipping string that more than a couple times in the middle of the draw I got spooked and returned. This isn't good, and Sensei reminded me of it when he caught me.
Also, this may be the most important part of the post, in case people are actually reading this blog looking for technical pointers on how improve their kyudo. Luckily, I don't think that's the case. People shouldn't take my words of technique as fact for quite a long while. Anyway, in a post or two back I mentioned one method of pulling the bow back which would better ensure my safety from the string. Instead of pulling the string straight back to the position it should be behind my head in one motion, I would pull it back in front of my face, and then touch it to my face in it's proper position. This way, in case the string pre-released, my face would not be in the way. Seemed like a brilliant idea, actually. Well, the day after I wrote that post I went to kyudo, and the first thing Sensei said to me, even before I took my first shot, was to be careful of not doing that. I didn't understand completely at first, but it makes perfect sense now for three reasons:
First, it makes your shot incredibly innacurate. After you raise the bow over your head and move into the daisan posture, the arrow should be aimed at the target, and aimed thusly until it's stuck right through the middle of the bullseye. If you pull the string back in front of you, the arrow points far to the left, so that when you are in the full draw, you have to readjust to the target. Aim, misaim, aim again. That's no good. Your arrow should be locked into the target from daisan until the very end.
Second, you can't pull back fully, which also makes your shot innacurate. This has been my number one immediate issue lately: not pulling back enough. More than anything else, Sensei is always telling me "More!" "Pull back more!" "Farther!" Those words are pretty well burned into my head whenever I'm going through the motions, which I'm thankful for. He says once I start pulling to my full potential, I'll begin to hit the target a lot more. Those few times I do pull back successfully, the result is usually a hit target and a great feeling, not just because of hitting the target, but because of the great release from the maximum tension. For one to execute an effective release, one must pull back as far as possible. All afterwards depends on this.
Thirdly, it's not economical movement. If there's one common theme my teachers have linked to the theory of budo, it's economy of motion. The shortest path between two points is a straight line and less is more. By pulling the string in front of my face, I'm adding superfluous movements which weaken the structure of the whole.
So yeah, no more string slapping. That's really exciting. Hopefully I won't have to talk about it anymore in future posts.
Now for a couple exciting improvements to my kyudo.
Sensei started teaching me his style of shooting. In this area of Japan, the most commonly practiced style of kyudo is reisha 礼射, which is what I started learning and what probably 95% of practitioners in Toyama Prefecture practice, but it's not what my Sensei does. Reisha is basically the standard form of shooting. But what my sensei does is actually called musha 武射, because he spent most of his formative years in kyudo in Fukuoka City in the southwestern island of Kyushu where this style is more prevalent. He says you can shoot more accurately with it, which is probably one of the many reasons he uses it instead of the reisha. To be brief on the subject, this is very exciting to me because he's teaching me this style which he doesn't do for everyone, and I believe it has more roots in the practice samurai used back in the day. Soon I'll do some more hard research on the subject and let it be known here.
Also, I upgraded to a stronger bow, 16 kg to be precise. As you practice kyudo, it's natural to move up, and symbolic of one's progress. The feeling is completely different. It wasn't so hard to pull as I had expected, but when you release there's a lot more force going into the shot, which is really fun to feel. I'll have to speak more on this in a future post.
Obviously I'm running out of juice here, but I'd like to say one more thing about kyudo before I sign out.
I feel incredibly lucky to have the teacher I have who spends so much uninhibited time and effort into my progress. My kyudo would be completely different without him, and lacking I think. One cannot do kyudo alone, and it cannot be well without an excellent teacher. This is true with all budo, but for some reason, it's really that way with kyudo.
From an eager practitioner to all teachers: please continue to give your absolute excellent best no matter what.
From an eager practitioner to all other eager practitioners: give everything you can every second the light shines on you, and just as much when you're in the shadows. It is indeed a privelage to receive and give to the various practices of budo.
That is all.