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Hara: Rick Beal, Head Coach of Nanka Kyudo Kai on Japanese archery and the Way of the Bow

Samurai stories, Japanese archery, spirituality, and Reiki... Rick Beal, founder and Head Coach of Nanka Kyudo Kai talks to Marcus on the Japanese martial art of Kyudo, the Way of the Bow.

Story by Marcus / Lake Forest, California / September 26 2011

Hirokazu Kosaka and Rick Beal, founder of Nanka Kyudo Kai. More Info

Hirokazu Kosaka and Rick Beal, founder of Nanka Kyudo Kai.

Nanka Kyudo Kai

The bow in Japan has a long and fascinating history. First evidence of the characteristic asymmetrical bow can be dated back to the Yayoi period (ca. 500 BC - 300 AD), it became for a time the primary weapon of the Samurai, its practice was a measure of nobles, and it always carried a spiritual aspect that is retained in Kyudo today to discover a path of harmony and balance. Shamanistic uses for the bow abounded, primarily as a way of purification.

Rick Beal has been practicing Kyudo with Hirokazu Kosaka Sensei since 1983, and with his permission formed the Nanka Kyudo Kai in Southern California where he now teaches. We talk about the way of the bow and the system of Reiki.

Related articles:

 “You sound like a wolf howling to the moon...” 

Marcus: What got you started in the practice of Kyudo? What drew you to it?

Rick Beal: Originally I had no interest in kyudo. But I had studied Japanese Martial Arts my whole life when Kyudo entered my life. I had opened a small Karate dojo in my late teen years, but didn't know how to run a business and had to close it; a few students followed me to my home and continued to train with me there. The teachers I had often told Samurai stories, and talked of the sword being the heart of the Samurai; for my own training, I felt it was this heart that I needed; so I decided I needed to study Japanese Sword.

The Nanka Kyudo Kai in 2008 at Rancho Park Archery Range. More Info

The Nanka Kyudo Kai in 2008 at Rancho Park Archery Range.

Nanka Kyudo Kai

I found a local Kendo School, and there met Hirotaka Okubo Sensei. As we cut down on each instructor we would kiai or yell out what area we are cutting. As I cut down on Okubo Sensei he said, “You have the best kiai I've ever heard, you should come train with me at my class at UCLA on Saturday”; of course I answered “Hai!” or yes. The following week at my regular kendo class Okubo Sensei railed at me, “You said you would come train with me, but you didn't come.” So he had me pick him up at his house the following Saturday to ensure I came. Upon my first cut, at the class with Okubo Sensei, I let out a loud kiai, “Men!” or head; and Okubo Sensei said, “What is that? You sound like a wolf howling to the moon, that's the worst kiai I've ever heard.”

The reason I mention my kendo training, is that part of our warm up for the kendo class with Okubo Sensei included the kyudo tote-renshu (bare handed practice) so this is where my kyudo practice actually began.

One day Okubo Sensei told me, “You have to stop teaching. Every time I tell you what to do, I feel that you are evaluating me as a teacher; you're not listening to me.” So I closed my school and took each of my students around to other dojo to help them choose a new school. One of my top students didn't want to train anywhere else, but with me. So since I couldn't teach, I took him to see Okubo Sensei in hopes that we could train together. But he didn't bond with Okubo Sensei; however, he had seen the kyudo warm up, and exclaimed, “What is that? I want to do that!”

Okubo Sensei explained that it was kyudo. He wrote a note on the back of a napkin and told him to visit Mishima Sensei at Higashi Hongwanji where they teach kyudo. Not wanting to go on his own, he asked me to come too. I agreed and we went to my first official kyudo class.

Mishima Sensei was teaching a group of beginners the basic movements of walking, sitting, & bowing. At this time it was customary for new comers to watch a few times before they actually were taught (though I didn't realize this at the time). But Mishima Sensei said we should come learn too. My friend stood up, but I said that I only came to offer moral support for my friend. In my head I was thinking that I really didn't have any interest in kyudo. But Mishima Sensei insisted that I should practice too. But again I said that I shouldn't, that I didn't want to waste the Sensei's time, that I would only be here for this one time, that I would be here only one day. Mishima Sensei replied quite strongly, 'one day of practice is one day of practice!' As I stood up I thought to myself, 'ok, as long as you understand I'm only going to be here for one day.' But I practiced that day and I still practice today.

Rick Beal Teaching a Kyudo Student of Nanka Kyudo Kai at Rancho Park Archery Range. More Info

Rick Beal Teaching a Kyudo Student of Nanka Kyudo Kai at Rancho Park Archery Range.

Nanka Kyudo Kai

M: What does Kyudo mean to you as a person?

RB: Kyudo is integral to my life. The principles come alive in my daily life, and who I am is visible in my shooting.

M: Can you outline the spiritual aspects in Kyudo? [Fabulous reply from Rick!]

RB: Kosaka Sensei, my kyudo teacher for the past 27 years, has these great lectures and stories that he tells. He often does these to an auditorium full of people (though he prefers smaller groups). In the programs all the different parts of his life are often listed; he is a Shingon Priest, a Kyudo Teacher; Calligraphy Teacher; Performance Artist, the Gallery Director at the local Community Center, Husband, Father and so on. After one of his lectures he asked if there were any questions. A woman asked, “Yes, I have a question. I read here all these different aspects of your life... How do you balance all of those?” To me this was a great question, I had been with him for about 15 years at this point, but I'd never heard him answer this question before; I was really curious to hear his answer. But as I looked at him, for the first time, what I saw was a puzzled look on his face. Usually he would shoot back with something direct like, “This is your ego talking!” or perhaps with yet one more story. But here he was with that puzzled look. Did he not know the answer? I felt under his tutelage I had balanced my life fairly well, and knew exactly how I did it; but, how exactly did he do it? It was probably just a few seconds, but it seemed longer to me, when I could see the light bulb go off above his head, and I realized it was not the answer that puzzled him, but the question itself; He said, “Oh... I see, you've separated them”.

 “Mind, Body, and Spirit... they don't need to be balanced; they are already integrated. But as human beings we can choose to separate them, but I can't imagine why we would want to.” 

— Rick Beal, Nanka Kyudo Kai

The whole premise of kyudo is that there is no separation. I did a TV program segment once called “Living Better” and was told it was about how to balance the Mind, Body, and Spirit. But you know, they don't need to be balanced; they are already integrated. But as human beings we can choose to separate them, but I can't imagine why we would want to. But sometimes we do. Life is life, and that's what we all do, we all live life as best we can with what we have. Some of us do this in ways that enhance our lives, and some of us don't know how. But we can all learn how through practices that enhance our clarity. Kyudo is like that, it shows us ourselves quite clearly, if we know how to look.

Students Practicing at Nanka Kyudo Kai at Rancho Park Archery Range, Los Angeles. More Info

Students Practicing at Nanka Kyudo Kai at Rancho Park Archery Range, Los Angeles.

Nanka Kyudo Kai

M: Kyudo is often described as a moving meditation. What makes it so?

RB: Meditators, like me, will often describe kyudo as a moving meditation. People who don't meditate will probably not describe kyudo this way. For meditators, all of life becomes a meditation.

All of the 'do' arts of Japan like Kyu-do, Cha-do (The way of tea), or Sho-do (Calligraphy) have been influenced by Zen (Japanese Style Meditation). I say this because the word 'Do' comes from the Chinese word Tao, and these Taoist ideas infiltrated Japan most strongly from Chinese Chan; Chinese Chan is the integration of Indian Buddhism with Chinese Taoism; Chan-na is the Chinese pronunciation of Dhanna or meditation in Buddhism; and the Japanese integrated Chan with their local beliefs and formed Zen-na (or just Zen).

M: Present-mindedness is a cornerstone of the practice of Reiki (this stems from the Reiki Precepts that begin with “For Today Only”). Can you describe what present-mindedness means in the context of Kyudo?

RB: I like to translate Zen as mindfulness. As alluded to above, it wouldn't be an epistemological translation; but I think mindfulness reaches to the heart of the zen practice.

 “In kyudo we allow our mind to settle naturally in the center of ourselves, in our core (we call this our tanden), but we have our eye on a target some distance away. This naturally reminds us of our connection with our core and that which seems to be outside ourselves.” 

— Rick Beal, Nanka Kyudo Kai

In kyudo we allow our mind to settle naturally in the center of ourselves, in our core (we call this our tanden), but we have our eye on a target some distance away. This naturally reminds us of our connection with our core and that which seems to be outside ourselves. If either our mind or our eye waivers, we have missed the target; the target is of course to remember the connection, and if we remember the connection we have hit the target.

To shoot well, we must be mindful of each phase of the shooting. In our school we have the hassetsu (or 8 stages) of shooting. We must be mindful of each stage as we do it and not leap forward to the next; if we do leave the stage prematurely it will be incomplete, the shooting will be more difficult, and it will lack something; it will be incomplete, because by moving forward too soon we did not really complete the stage we were in.

Kyudo Students of Nanka Kyudo Kai. More Info

Kyudo Students of Nanka Kyudo Kai.

Nanka Kyudo Kai

M: In the practice of Reiki, breathing (viewed as the connection between the physical and the ethereal) is also of primary significance (joshin kokyu-ho is one technique practiced to focus the mind with breath). Can you describe the significance of breath in Kyudo?

RB: Everyone knows that breathing is fundamental to living. If we don't breathe, we will die; and fairly quickly too. It has therefore become a skillful method in almost all traditions to use our breath to connect us to life, both our own and that of others; for as we also know there is no separation between ourselves.

In kyudo, we are connected to the target by the empty space between us. We appear to be separated by air, by nothing. Perhaps this nothing in between is the most important connection we have.

In kyudo training, at the beginning we often teach (Shin Kokyu) or deep breathing; but this is only because as we go through life we often cling to fears that shorten our breath (and shorten our lives), so the deep breathing brings us to natural breathing (Shizen Kokyu).

The breathing expands us, and allows us to align properly; without the breath this is not possible; and our shooting will die, it may hit the target, but it will have no life.

Kyudo Students of Nanka Kyudo Kai. More Info

Kyudo Students of Nanka Kyudo Kai.

Nanka Kyudo Kai

M: In common with other Japanese arts, in the practice of Reiki we understand hara as both our physical and spiritual center, and we work with meditations and practices that help us increase our awareness of energy, for example in the tanden (e.g. seishin toitsu — creating a unified mind). How does this relate to Kyudo?

RB: The mind naturally sits in this core, in the tanden, if allowed to do so. It's the center so naturally that is where we will sit. Fear and greed bring it up or push it down and create the fight or flight syndrome, but without these, the mind will rest quite quietly in the tanden; let them go and you will instantly see this for yourself.

M: Let's say that I became Rick Beal for a day. Take me through what I might do on a typical day of Kyudo.

RB: In my kyudo school we begin by cleaning the dojo (school). In this way we participate in the community and this kind of service cleans us too; thus preparing us to let go of everything we carried in with us.

Students at Dojo, Nanka Kyudo Kai, Pasadena Japanese Cultural Institute. More Info

Students at Dojo, Nanka Kyudo Kai, Pasadena Japanese Cultural Institute.

Nanka Kyudo Kai

We continue this process by preparing our equipment. The equipment seems outside of ourselves and we can connect inside and outside this way.

Next we change into a modern version of traditional clothing. This allows us an opportunity, if needed, to change our mind. Also the clothing is designed to enhance our awareness of our body. In kyudo too precision is needed, and in all these processes we begin to see where our attention waivers and how every little detail reflects in our shooting and in our lives.

In my school we do have seated meditation. This allows us a chance to settle in and get ready. Each stage of the preparation gives us the chance to see clearly. The approach is just as important, if not more important, than the shot itself. If done quickly, it might be easier, since there is less of a chance for us to think and interfere; but if done quickly and we are not prepared the shot will lack something that is vital to the practice. If however we can take a lifetime, and every step of the way leave a lovely fragrance, what a wonderful legacy that would be. So mindfulness of every step is of the greatest importance.

In this same vein, we next practice an approach to the target that takes about 10 to 15 minutes to shoot a couple of arrows. We do this over and over again, round and round in a ritual that has roots in ancient Japan.

Tea break is next, to connect as a community... To break bread together, as it were.

After tea break is open practice and perhaps some instruction, until it's time to clean up and go home. Then we meet first thing in the morning for casual shooting and eating and talking; a great stepping stone for taking our practice into our daily lives.

Student in Kai, Nanka Kyudo Kai, Rancho Park Archery Range. More Info

Student in Kai, Nanka Kyudo Kai, Rancho Park Archery Range.

Nanka Kyudo Kai

M: Describe what you feel when you are preparing to take a shot at the shooting line, from beginning through to release through to coming back to rest.

For training, all the things we've discussed like breathing and bone alignment are very important. In some traditions we say this training takes 20 years, or maybe even one lifetime. But really it only takes a moment; perhaps a heartbeat or a breath. Shooting a bow and arrow is natural. All kyudo requires is that we mindfully adhere to the principles of shooting as they have been laid out for us. These principles are all based on what is natural to do when we release fear and greed; so just release these, and the release of the arrow will be beautiful too.

Personally, I just shoot. I feel like a boy with an unknown toy; wondering how it works and what it will do... You know I gave my daughter a small bow and arrow as soon as she could stand upright, and she shot it without any instruction at all. Kyudo is like that. There isn't a culture in the world that didn't have a bow and arrow 2000 years ago. It's in our DNA. Even if we just give a child a hammer, they'll hit something with it.

M: Regarding Kyudo we sometimes hear phrases like seisha hicchu (“true shooting, certain hitting”), shin-zen-bi (roughly “truth-goodness-beauty”), seisha seichu (“correct shooting is correct hitting”), tomunen muso (“no thoughts, no illusions”). Can you elaborate on these?

Nanka Kyudo Kai Students Waiting for Class to Begin at Dojo, Pasadena Japanese Cultural Institute. More Info

Nanka Kyudo Kai Students Waiting for Class to Begin at Dojo, Pasadena Japanese Cultural Institute.

Nanka Kyudo Kai

RB: To expound on these would be very un-kyudo like. Even all I've said so far, is never said. We just shoot. We follow the guidelines, and let the teaching teach us. We could talk for days on any one of these and learn nothing. Each one is multi-layered with meanings. Each comes from a set of stories and principles that are integral to the traditional Japanese way of thinking.

All of these phrases are based on natural shooting and come from the traditions like Shinto, Confucianism, & Zen that live in Japanese Culture. Every 'Do' in Japan has similar phrases to remind us that they, and life, are more than just what we can see; the world includes the science of what we can't see or measure too. In kyudo, of course, it means that just the target we see, is not the only one.

M: In the book Hara: The Vital Center of Man (by Karlfried Graf Durckheim), the author quotes his kyudo master as saying: “What is the point of all this? Not hitting the target. For what ultimately matters, in learning archery or any other art, is not what comes out of it but what goes into it. Into, that is into the person.” What are your thoughts?

RB: Of course, everything counts; hitting the target too. Even if I'm doing a purification ritual with the bow, it's best if the arrow strikes the target. The ritual works by the action alone, even if I miss; but we use a paper target extended on a hoop to make a certain sound... to produce a particular vibration (like a drum), we don't even lower the bow until that vibration is received... so the arrow must hit the target. But we rarely forget that the arrow should hit the target; the target is right before our eyes. So most of the esoteric teachings, that some of us like, remind us of the invisible; indeed, for me at least, the invisible target may be more important than the visible one; but this is not the case (nor should it be) for all archers.

Nanka Kyudo Kai Students, Makiwara Practice, Pasadena Japanese Cultural Institute. More Info

Nanka Kyudo Kai Students, Makiwara Practice, Pasadena Japanese Cultural Institute.

Nanka Kyudo Kai

M: I was fascinated to learn that the arrows (ya) used in Kyudo have a gender; feathers used from different sides of a bird causing them to spin either clockwise or anticlockwise upon release. Is this symbolic, if you like, of Heaven and Earth, Non-duality, in-yo (yin-yang)?

RB: Since 'Do' is Tao, it must be based on In-yo. In yo or the interplay of shadow and sunshine is evident in the common symbol of its teachings. The Tao is a way of living in the world with all its seeming dichotomies. These dichotomies solved, is a wonderful way to live; to play with the interactions of shadow and sunshine. I think the most surprising thing for me was the emphasis placed by the esoteric schools on the shadow; even though we know the shadow cannot exist without the sunshine. I certainly do like to sit beneath the shade of a tree on a hot day.

 “My roots to the past are deep in the earth and support me should I fall as I hang from the heaven to loose the arrow.” 

— Rick Beal, Nanka Kyudo Kai

M: I liked this post on your blog very much, entitled The roots of the stance, and I think Reiki practitioners everywhere will be able to relate to it: “As a tree first stretches down its roots, we too should drop our energy deep into the earth. Then from this stable rooted position, stretch up along the spine, to use the whole-self to connect the Earth and Sky, just as a tree then spreads its branches and bears its fruit.” Can you elaborate more on what this means within the context of Kyudo?

RB: Someone once told me that a tree must first place it roots, then the branches will grow. This makes a lot of sense for the stability of the tree; the branches we see are always at least matched by the roots below the ground that we don't. This sounds exactly like what I hear when I stand to shoot, like my roots to the past are deep in the earth and support me should I fall as I hang from the heaven to loose the arrow.

 “When we release fear, the mind drops to the tanden and connects our body to the center of the earth; anyone who has released fear will have experienced this.” 

— Rick Beal, Nanka Kyudo Kai

When we release fear, the mind drops to the tanden and connects our body to the center of the earth; anyone who has released fear will have experienced this. From this stable posture it is easy to take a breath and stand upright. To maintain this upright posture is something that only human beings can do well, and we say in kyudo that its ultimate purpose is Nin Ken Kei Sei (to be human); by maintaining an upright posture in just precisely the proper way is a human thing to do, and gives us the opportunity to do humane things too. From an upright posture we stretch to the heaven and hang from there.

This upright posture without fear or greed produces the cleanest most beautiful shot; everyone in attendance will see it, and perhaps be transformed by it too.

Kyudo Students, Nanka Kyudo Kai, Pasadena Japanese Cultural Institute. More Info

Kyudo Students, Nanka Kyudo Kai, Pasadena Japanese Cultural Institute.

Nanka Kyudo Kai

M: For those interested in experiencing Kyudo for themselves, who should they get in touch with?

RB: Kyudo, outside of Japan, can be hard to find nearby (especially in the America's). If there is a school nearby seize the opportunity to visit them, and see if the practice is for you. Kyudo is promoted by the International Kyudo Federation and its affiliates around the world. If there is no affiliate near them, there are a few other smaller groups that can be found. 'Google' kyudo and be prepared to travel. It's a wonderful practice in all of its myriad aspects. They can get out of it whatever they put into it; whatever they are looking for is available in it (should they be open to it, and learn how to see with their ears and listen with their eyes).

Thank you for your questions.

rick 'jyozen' beal

head coach

nanka kyudo kai

www.nankakyudokai.org

More Information on Rick Beal and Nanka Kyudo Kai

Visit the Nanka Kyudo Kai website here: www.nankakyudokai.org

Rick Beal also blogs here: www.americanzenarchery.blogspot.com

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