Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Sensei Won't Let Me Die

The other day I participated in a kyudo tournament at my dojo with all of the members from Takaoka City.

If I hit two out of the eight arrows, then I could participate in a big Prefectural tournament.

I hit zero arrows.

Sensei said I can go to the tournament anyway.


That morning was a new low in kyudo. I went into the tournament after a couple weeks of frustrating but kind of good kyudo practice. It was frustrating because of two reasons: the thumb on my left hand which holds the bow hurt, and I wasn't hitting the target much. All of that compounded on the morning of the kyudo tournament: my thumb really hurt and I hit zero arrows.

I talk a lot about humility on this blog. I talk about how it's not so important to win and that it's OK to realize that we are really just a small piece of the world. But, I really ... hate ... failure.

I've had a few experiences in kyudo of not hitting the target while standing in front of people to the point of embarrassment. I feel like I've done that already and really need to do that anymore. But that's not how kyudo works. I guess that's not how the world works. Kyudo is simple cause and effect: If you do this, that will happen. Just because you don't want it to work like that, doesn't mean it will change for you.

The only issue with cause and effect in kyudo, is that I don't understand what they are. Why does this happen? Why does that happen? Sometimes these questions are easily answered with technical corrections in your form. Nobody has perfect form, so this is an issue that concerns everyone. But you certainly don't need perfect form to hit the target, most definitely not. I've gone through periods where I feel like I can't miss the target at all. That was in the past, when my form wasn't as good as it is now.

How do you explain that?

Isn't that cause in effect? I put this much time into practicing form which enhances my ability to put the arrow where I want, and yet I'm hitting it less.

Do I not want to hit the target?

I remember in practice I asked sensei if he saw anything strange in a shot I made seconds earlier.

"Sensei, did you see anything strange in that shot?"

"Not really, I'm suprised you didn't hit the target."

"Well, why didn't I?"

"I don't know. I can't see what's going on inside of your heart."

Why don't I hit the target, especially after I've practiced so hard, want it so badly, and really need to? My initial response to this has been to just go harder.

I've learned I'm really good at putting a lot of effort into something. I can focus all of my physical and emotional will into something, even at the expense of damaging other things like health and peace of mind. But now that I see that, it's really not all that special. Putting that kind of effort into something is like pushing a button: it's a "yes" or "no" question. It's clear, and doesn't require much thought. I guess that's the answer I wanted. I wanted an answer that didn't require thinking or problem solving, just a pure, "Yes, Zac ... just try harder."

Kyudo cause and effect doesn't work like that. Maybe it does, just not how I want.

More effort = less hitting the target.

But that's too simple as well.

Kyudo requires a great balancing of things. Generally, there needs to be a balance between physical and mental ability, an ability of the kind which is not just strength. Achieving this kind ability will not come about by blind effort.

After the tournament I started talking to one of the other sensei in the changing room. He's another sensei who trains in the morning at the same time as me. He's not the main one that works with me, but he is a great man who's company I enjoy and someone who has given me a lot of advice to fill in the cracks. My main sensei teaches me by correcting technique. He's also strict. I go to practice, sensei watches me, tells me something I should fix with my technique, and will focus on it until the problem is fixed. It's a very practical approach, and I like it. This other teacher I was talking with in the changing room though, has a much more philosophical approach.

"Sensei, did you see anything strange in my technique today?"

"Not really. Your technique is generally fine. Maybe something with your hanare (release)"

"Really? Like I should do it like this?"

"No, it's not really just what you're physically doing. If you were my student, I would give you less advice and say JUST DO IT!"


"You are your own greatest teacher. We other teachers will come in and give you little pointers here and there, but your body is what teaches you the most. Learn by doing, have fun, and don't care so much."

Personally, I listen to my main sensei give me advice about my technique, and then focus all of my energy into fixing it. However, these problems cannot be fixed in a single surge of effort, and instead require a long period of constant small effort. Furthermore, focusing on one particular thing takes your mind off other things that need your attention. One's focus of effort is important, but that alone will not save your kyudo soul. Actually, such blind effort will make you a demon.

I looked around at all of the other people in the tournament. Why did he hit the target so many times? What makes her so special? Chaos reigns in hell where cause and effect cannot be seen.

On the day of that tournament, I understood I didn't need to care so much and just have fun, but my desire to "win" was stronger ... so I was unconfident and shaky. I was relaxed, but my hands still fumbled with everything they touched throughout the morning, my kyudo gear, my train ticket, my coffee. My will powered through the pain in my hand, and my technique was adhering to all I learned, but something kept me from hitting the target. It was impossible, and I understood this before I even finished. I lost before I even finished. Maybe I wanted to fail. Maybe I wanted to die. Maybe I didn't want the satisfaction of earning my way to this next tournament.

When I finished shooting and still had a lot of time before the tournament was over, I moved with my thoughts and confirmed, "Yes, I wanted this to be over. I have died, and will be resurrected to shoot again, but this is over and will be forgotten." At the end of it all before everyone went home, my main sensei gave an announcement to everyone who will participate in the next tournament and said something about me. I was nervous and didn't understand what he said, and just nodded in agreement like I usually do when I don't understand what's going on in Japanese and immediate recognition doesn't seem to be important. Everyone laughed and we all dispersed. Afterwards, one of my training partners came up and said that it's great I get to join in the next tournament.

"What!? I'm going to the tournament even though I didn't pass?"

"Yeah, sensei says you can, so it's all good."

I went up to sensei and asked him about it, talked for a bit, and thanked him.

I am happy, but it somehow made me sick, like I didn't deserve it.

"Sensei, just let me die!" I thought to myself.

I want things to change. But that will alone will not be enough ... no ... it's not about being "enough". Just do what you do. When you hold your kyudo equipment, you don't grip it with all of your strength, you hold it softly, and thorough enough to complete the job.

What's my job?

Enjoy my life. Enjoy my practice.

Strength and success is not about winning. It's about not being able to win, it's about failing, and still being OK. This may be the ultimate secret of budo:

No matter what happens, you're OK.

This is invincibility, and it isn't about strength. It's also not just about intelligence, or effort, or luck. It's invincibility even though you are going to lose, freak out, make mistakes, do incredibly stupid things. It's invincibility even though you are going to die.

Who are we to choose when we fail or succeed?

Who are we to choose when or how we die?

I'm going to take the week off to rest my hand. Then I will go back to kyudo.

When I walk to the door of the dojo, I will not swing it open shouting "I am going to win!"

I will just open it and say, "Onegaishimasu."

1 comment:

  1. You may not have hit any arrows in your tournament but you sure smacked one RIGHT INTO MY HEART! I can't believe how much you are me... except kyudo instead of judo. Excellent, excellent post. Thank you :)