Historical Overview
Historic Overview

Today, kyudo is being practised by thousands of people all over the world for the development of mental discipline as well as for spiritual development. The simple elegance of the movements, the beauty of the bow and the arrows and the atmosphere of quiet dignity predominant in the practice place, have a great attraction for those who wish to walk upon the path of self-knowledge.

If you look at it from the outside, kyudo seems to be archery. Drawing the bow and shooting at the target resembles a test of skill, but kyudo is no sport. To discover the true nature of kyudo one has to look inside, to cut through and go beyond any kind of preoccupation, whether it be worry, hope, doubt or fear. Although the actual form of Kyudo has changed over and again and become more sophisticated over the past centuries, and has been subdivided into various teaching schools (Ryu) and those in turn into subgroups (Ha), according to style (Kata) and specific techniques (Waza), the essence of true Kyudo practice always remains the same. It is standing meditation.

The Development of the Bow

The fertile ground on which the Japanese "way of the bow" grew to become as we know it today, is composed of various layers of the spiritual traditions of Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism and Shinto. From the mainland these traditions came to the Japanese archipelago at different times, where they interlaced inextricably with the native web of concepts in a very specific and typically Japanese manner.

Of course, not just religious ideas and practices or models for social organisation came to Japan from China and Korea, but also innumerable material and cultural assets. Thus also the prototype of the asymmetrical Yumi (bow) was probably not invented in the archipelago, but introduced to Japan through the carriers of the Yayoi-culture during about the third century BC. These immigrant ethnic groups of unmistakebly Mongolian origin used the bow and the arrow mostly in military conflicts over land and water rights.

To a certain degree they intermingled with the local Jomon people who on their part had brought their own knowledge about the manufacturing of ceramics, bow and arrow hunting, as well as other cultural achievements from the mainland (from about 10,000 BC onwards). The excavated Jomon and Yayoi bows, as well as the bows of the ethnic group of the Ainu, who were later driven away to the north, are made from a single piece of wood, i.e. so-called stave-bows, in contrast to the far more flexible and stable composite bows or reflex bows that appeared in Japan only at the beginning of the 11th century.

Here, too, one can assume that the knowledge about the composite bows came from China. The significance of the invention of the bow for the history of mankind is definitely comparable to the discovery of fire. It is an interesting fact that the bow itself, whether as a military or hunting weapon, as the prototype of a string or plucked instrument, or as a ritual object, has been invented in each continent independently.

The Bow as a Weapon

For military action - not only in Japan - archers on horseback were of extraordinary importance. At the beginning of a military fight it was possible, within seconds, to inflict disastrous losses on an enemy that was still far away. Archers were also employed in sieges and sea battles.

Today's Japanese bow, the Yumi, is unique not only because of its asymmetrical form, but also because at 2.3 metres long on average, it is the longest bow in the world. Its toughness and durability on the one hand, its sensitivity and tendency to change on the other, can best be compared to a musical instrument made of wood, for instance a hand-manufactured violin.

The Magical Bow

The bow in Japan was not only applied in a practical function as a weapon for hunting and warfare. Even today the bow is being used as a ritual and cultic object. Plucking the bowstring forms part of an ancient ritual of the shamans in Japan which serves to make them susceptible to messages from the unseen world. Although the material is bamboo, the magical bow Azusa-Yumi is called the "bow made from the catalpa tree". This goes back to an ancient Chinese tradition of magic regarding the appeasement of the souls of the dead. Furthermore the Hama-Yumi, the "evil-destroying bow" is used in numerous ceremonies in Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, and is set up in a place of honour or on the home shrine where it protects private households from evil influences.

From Technique towards the "Way of the Bow"

Confucianism taught archery as the most effective method to shape a perfect personality. Already in the 4th century this teaching had been met with enthusiastic approval amongst the nobility. It is true that during the 9th century contacts between Japan and China were interrupted for some time for political reasons, but the influence of Chinese thinking on Japanese archery, about world order, the harmony of heaven, about man and earth, persisted. The Shogun Yoritomo spared no effort in training his warriors more efficiently. He instructed Ogasawara Nagakiyo to teach them a new way of horseback archery, the famous Yabusame, which was put into action immediately. Thus the foundation of the Ogasawara-Ryu, or Ogasawara school, was paved. Both Takeda, the founder of Takeda-Ryu, and Ogasawara were descendants of the founder of Japan's very first archery school: Henmi Kiyomitsu (whose school is named Henmi-Ryu).

In the period during which the Shogunate was located in the city of Kamakura (1185-1333), the samurai again took up the methods and the contents of Zen-Buddhist teaching. Zen or "meditation Buddhism" had only just been introduced from China through the monks Dogen (founder of the Soto school) and Eisai (founder of the Rinzai school). The warriors were greatly interested in the monks concept of unconditional devotion to the master, and their emphasis on strict ascetic practices, where direct and intuitive experience of the non-dualistic nature of reality is central. The new Zen practices allowed them to fulfill their duties more efficiently and to go into battle unmoved by hope and fear. Only much later, however, the Zen aspect within the bow practice came to full maturity.

One of the most influential archers was the legendary master Heki Danjo Masatsugu (about 1443-1502). His shooting technique, which had been revealed to him in the form of a flash of inspiration, was nothing short of revolutionary and quickly spread amongst the archer warriors, and in the course of time many "new schools" or Heki-Ryu subgroups were established, some of which exist to this day (Chikurin-ha, Sekka-ha and Insai-ha).

Although in the beginning the Samurai regarded European fire-arms with distaste, from the 16th century onwards Portuguese muskets, replaced the bow as a military weapon. Some efforts, such as the introduction of a sports archery competition at the temple of Sanjusangendo in Kyoto (which still takes place once a year today), were made, but the days of the military bow were counted. This is the reason why the emphasis in archery practice was ultimately placed on mental schooling and the forming of character, the more so as the centuries under the reign of the Tokugawa Shoguns were comparatively peaceful. The term Kyujitsu existed well into the Edo-period (1600-1868), although Morikawa Kozan, founder of the modern Yamato-Ryu, first mentioned the term "Kyudo" as early as the year 1600.

The Modern Way of the Bow

In 1868, the year of the quasi enforced opening of Japan and the reinstatement of the emperor (Tenno) as an active political ruler, the imperial government attempted to abolish the "warrior ways" (Bushido). However, this attempt was not very successful. Simultaneously,the Samurai clans were disbanded. Around the turn of the century another reformer entered the Kyudo scene: Honda Toshizane (1836-1917). His new form of practice unifying the warrior and the ceremonial style, was at first met with fierce resistance from the old schools, but was finally accepted by the general public in the form of a new school, the Honda-Ryu, which has had a lasting effect on the manner of practice up to this day.

During the thirties, the Greater Japanese Organisation of Warrior Virtues (Dai Nippon Butoku Kai) tried to establish practice standards for Kyudo and in 1934, succeeded. After the defeat of World War II, the martial arts were prohibited by the occupying forces. After the ban was lifted in 1952, the classic martial arts, organised into clubs, were open to everyone, regardless of their social situation, and, for the first time ever, to women as well. Since 1946 most schools are members of the All Japan Kyudo Federation (Zen Nihon Kyudo Renmei) which in 1953 established practice standards that are now being observed by its members, even in groups outside of Japan. Today the number of Kyudo practitioners is estimated at about half a million.

A Spiritual Path

Although Kyudo is not a religious practice, it has been deeply influenced by Zen Buddhism and Shinto. The ceremonial aspects, the etiquette and the respect given to the bow, the arrows and the practice place (dojo), are all reflections of Shinto thinking. Whereas the outer forms of Kyudo closely resemble Shinto ritual, into which some elements of court archery from the Chinese tradition have been incorporated, the heart of Kyudo is linked to buddhist philosophy, with the interpretation of Dao merged into it. The teachings of Zen Buddhism tell us that our true selves are hidden within deep layers of habitual thought patterns, self-delusion and ego. We live in a dream-world of our own making.

The aim of Zen meditation practice is to wear away these layers of illusion and ego so as to be free from the dualistic outlook that keeps us from understanding our true nature and living harmoniously with ourselves, others and the universe at large. In Zazen (sitting meditation), one strives to unify body and mind, the medium of the breath, and maintaining a strict sitting posture. Kyudo as "Zen in action" incorporates the same concepts of mind and body working in unison.

To the sincere practitioner kyudo is a way of life, and there is no separation between kyudo training and everyday activities. Each arrow is shot as if it were the only one, just as each moment of one's life is the ultimate. The Kyudo practitioner does not look at the target for the result of his or her practice, but inward, for the target is not a target - it is a mirror. And if the heart is right, each shot clears away some more of the obstacles clouding the vision of one's true nature.