Despite its ostensible esoteric content, Kyudo is not a short-cut to a certain development of mind achieved in other Budo by many years of regular retraining of physical and mental reflexes. Like any other Japanese Budo it is a lifelong study of oneself and is about continuous effort, hard knocks, bitter disappointment and failure and a few moments of ecstatic understanding. Its purpose is exactly the same as the other mainstream Budo - to produce a well balanced, healthy, long-lived human being with respect for others and a willingness to live positively and usefully in society. It is not a religion, although some of its forms and beliefs have been influenced by Confucianism, Buddhism and Shinto. Nor is it a practical fighting system although its origins are in hunting and battle; all aspects of killing another living creature have been removed from the training.
In full draw the archer is surrounded by an asymmetrical bow made of bamboo and hard woods over two metres in length. The fragile, hemp string “rests” in a slippery leather groove two millimetres deep cut into the reinforced thumb of a leather gauntlet made from deer skin. The focus of the bow's draw weight is held in the groove, not by the grip of the fingers but by the correct positioning of the arm, the shoulder and the torso. Nocked onto the string, just above the thumb, is a bamboo arrow a metre long. This tremendous focus of natural power cannot be controlled by force and rigidity, but by cooperation and delicacy. If the former are used then the bow breaks, to apply the latter takes considerable mental and physical training. The lightest, fastest, most accurate and acoustically pleasing shots are produced by a continuing struggle between the mind and the body of the archer inside the fully drawn bow. The tensions and expansions of the body and bow are maintained at their peak for as long as twenty seconds and maximised to a point of perfect balance between the archer, the natural forces of the bow, and the determination of the archer's mind not to release prematurely. When this harmony is at its most vibrant the arrow is propelled to the target with the joint force of the bow and the archer. There are no mysteries in kyudo. Like any craft where art and action combine, the skill to be able to use the tools is a secret only accessible through experience and reliable instruction.
The most commonly used target in Kyudo is 36cms in diameter, ten centimetres off the ground, and 28 metres away from the archer. Unlike the sword, the fist, the foot, or the throw, the bow resists the user: in full draw the bow is nine tenths towards actually breaking. In kyudo the arrow is drawn back almost to the right shoulder, so that the archer is inside the bow, not alongside it. To achieve a correct hit the degree of technical precision required is phenomenal-the slightest imbalance, wrong breath, lack of mental concentration will produce a miss. This is unique in an action involving such enormous physical involvement. Precision of this level is seldom found in other Budo where a centimetre in either direction would not be noticed in the result, the result being a fictional action, not a real one. In kyudo the arrow does what it is intended to do-it penetrates the target, there is no fiction or pulling back. But one centimetre imbalance by the archer in controlling the bow will result in a 26cm error when the arrow reaches the target area.
The movements in formal kyudo are very beautiful and are as complex as the shooting itself-the standard shooting form for a single archer takes twenty minutes during which only two arrows are shot. The use of the hips and the slow positioning of the body, the waiting postures and methods of walking produce considerable strength and flexibility. The mastery of the breathing patterns gives the movements a magical and dynamic pace that is not found in everyday life. This combination of the warrior, the dancer and the monk can teach the archer patience, concentration, relaxed focus, improved decision making, harmonisation with others, and a realistic view of their potential for self- development.
One of the differences between sport and Budo lies in the pursuit, for its own sake, of a certain beauty of movement and moment that goes beyond everyday logic. All the Japanese Budo put the ethic of correct posture and skeletal/muscular balance infused by sincere effort, before effectiveness for its own sake.
When that beauty, and the reality of the arrow in flight come together, then something truly magical happens producing a unique experience for the observer and the archer.
The archer, inside the opened bow, surrounded by tremendous natural forces that are uncooperative and dangerous, has the possibility of experiencing a unique physical and emotional balance that is akin to a fundamental life experience. In Kyudo the search for this experience is pursued to its highest level: every small action has the potential of becoming a transient work of art within itself, approached with patience, determination, calmness and an unhurried pace. Yet the ultimate technical intention is to be able to propel a deadly missile across a long distance at a tiny target and hit it with enough force to penetrate steel. When the archer hits the target correctly in kyudo it is not just a technical feat of controlled energy. Something of natural beauty has been achieved and it brings a completeness to the action that lifts it far above its violent origins.
When the physical skills of shooting have been acquired the archer discovers that they are not enough alone to produce consistent performance: if the psychology of the archer remains undeveloped and is not in harmony with the bow and the body then the arrows continue to miss. Thus, the final technique for mastery is a spiritual one.