Contemplative Archery: First Shot Kyudo

By Garrison Institute

As spring arrived in the Hudson Valley, the Garrison Institute staff was lucky enough to participate in a First Shot lesson with Toko Kyudojo to deepen our understanding of kyudo as a contemplative practice. We were taught by Don Symanski and instructors from Toko Kyudojo before they hosted their own private daylong kyudo retreat.

Kyudo is an ancient Japanese archery technique taught by senseis who can trace their lineage back to the Edo-period wars of Japan. While originally a martial art, kyudo has evolved into a contemplative practice that combines moving meditation, respect for the equipment, and tradition. The focus of the practice is on “clearing the mind” rather than on marksmanship. The target becomes a mirror reflecting the quality of one’s mind at the moment of the arrow’s release.

Don Symanski is Toko Kyudojo’s senior teacher and first led a program for Toko in 1998. Don is an experienced and experimental maker of traditional bamboo bows, and a quiet and skillful teacher of meditation kyudo. He began the study of kyudo with Kanjuro Shibata Sensei XX in 1980, and was a bow-making apprentice with Nobuhiro Shibata (now Kanjuro Shibata XXI) in Kyoto, Japan in 1991.

Don demonstrated the first shot, and then explained the form as a meditation in action as another teacher slowly showed us each coordination. Don noted the small differences among practitioners, and shared how every person, no matter how advanced he or she may be, will always feel something when drawing the bow–the point of the practice is to become aware of and present to those feelings, and then let them go. After the demonstration, we broke out into small groups and practiced going through the seven coordinations. The practitioner first examines the bow (called a yumi), and the arrow (ya), before drawing the arrow back using a special glove (a kake), and releasing it. The entire action of drawing and releasing the ya comprises of seven coordinations – the basic form for aligning the body and properly releasing the arrow.

Although this sort of practice takes years to master, and certainly longer than an afternoon to learn, the Toko Kyudojo teachers were incredibly patient and accommodating, and went through a basic First Shot practice with the staff in just a few hours. Each of us practiced the seven coordinations and took a first shot at the hay bale set up as a target.

We then went out to our back yard to practice long-shot archery, and were instructed in the proper way to approach a target (a makiwara) and walk to the shooting line. Each coordination is done with intent and purpose. When the technique is done correctly, the arrow hits the target. To give oneself completely to the shooting is the spiritual goal, achieved by perfection of both the spirit and shooting technique. Whether you hit or miss the target is immaterial; the real purpose of the practice is to know that shooting is a way to become more present and deepen awareness.

Don told us as he demonstrated the first shot, that “to let go of the arrow is an act of courage.” He explained further, “Everyone feels afraid. What if you miss the target? What if your form is incorrect? What if you aren’t in the correct Zen frame of mind? When you let the ya go, all your worries and fears go with it. There is nothing more for you to do but reflect and observe. These feelings come and go, but the practice of Kyudo is to understand them, and realize that every time you take a shot, you learn something new about yourself.”

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