Archery as Meditation: In Barnet, Vt., Martial Arts Enthusiasts Learn Kyudo, ‘The Way of the Bow’
Maria Cilia, of Delmar, N.Y., puts on a kake, the glove that helps archers grip the string, or tsuru, at the Karme Choling meditation center in Barnet, Vt., last month. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Ray Chin instructs a group preparing for their first shot. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Ric Kaplowitz, left, of Delmar, N.Y., reaches Kai, the sixth of seven positions an archer moves through to prepare for and release a shot, on the shooting tplatform at the Karme Choling meditation center. Each position is prescribed and precise. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Ray Chin, of Thetford, right, repairs the nagajikake, the area of the bow string where the arrow is nocked, as Kevin Thayer, of Barnet, left, prepares to put on his kake. Sixteen students went through the first program during the event. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Gene Kadish, of Thetford, sweeps the shooting platform befotre the other archers return from tea. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Ray Chin, of Thetford, draws his bow during kyudo practice in Barnet, Vt., last month. Chin tells his students to approach the practice with a mond filled with truth, goodness and beauty. (Vallley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
The archers stand tall and alert in the sunshine, arms at their sides, each holding a slender bamboo bow in one hand, an arrow in the other.
One at a time, they slowly make their way through a series of movements before ending much as they began, gloved hands at their sides, the tips of the bows lowered almost to the ground. Somewhere along the way, the arrows have been released and with muted “thwacks” punctured the targets, in this case hay bales wrapped in black plastic.
Calm and precise, the archers make the martial art look easy, but kyudo, literally “the way of the bow,” can take years to master.
Ray Chin, of Thetford, was among the group of kyudo enthusiasts who gathered to practice together last month at Karme Choling, a Buddhist meditation center just off Interstate 91 in Barnet. On a recent Friday morning, as people were still arriving for the weekend, Chin coached a group of beginners through the movements step by step. He wore a practice uniform — a white top tucked into dark, flowing pants. But for his instructions and various birds singing away, the lush, green grounds of the retreat center were mostly silent.
Sue Patz, of Hollis, N.H., traveled to Barnet with her adult son, Dave, to try kyudo for the first time. She shoots a recurve bow, which has tips that curve away from the archer, and likes meditation, so the martial art “kind of brought it all together,” she said.
How the gloves are put on, the way the bow is lifted, the arrow nocked — each motion has its own protocol. And unlike the sport style, which involves belts and ranks, this form of kyudo is designed to be a meditation practice, Chin said in a telephone interview. Each step, even handling the equipment, is part of the process.
“When you struggle with the equipment, that struggle is a form of meditation, the same way we struggle with our thoughts and our focus and trying not be judgmental,” he said. “You can get down on yourself pretty quickly.”
Kyudo, pronounced cue-doh, is one of the oldest arts of the Japanese tradition of contemplative warriorship, organizers said in a description of the weekend event. “The aim is not the target, but synchronization of awareness and body in the present moment.”
For Chin, a clinical psychologist, kyudo is a way to learn discipline, focused concentration, and most
difficult, non-judgmental acceptance. Kyudo involves shooting two arrows, one after the other, and the time between shots can be a perfect moment for practicing acceptance.
“Is my second arrow going to be good enough or better than my first arrow?” he said. “Right away you … regret the past or revel in the past and forget what you’re doing. … You start to second-guess yourself and judge yourself, and before you know it, you’re all in a tizzy.”
Gene Kadish, another Thetford resident, spent much of the weekend at Karme Choling, using feedback from his fellow kyudo practitioners to hone his skills. “By the time I was done, I had a blister,” he said, laughing. “It was wonderful.”
For Kadish, a longtime friend of Chin’s who learned about kyudo from him, the art provides lessons that can be applied to other parts of his life.
“The nature of it is such that you maintain dignity all the way through, even if you are having a hard time or feeling like you are not doing it right … even if you messed up,” he said. “The intention is to end with dignity. Just respect yourself, tell yourself you’re OK.”
Chin, was among a handful of people who were instructing at last month’s gathering. Like him, they had each studied with the late Kanjuro Shibata Sendai XX, whose lineage continues with his son-in-law, Kanjuro Shibata Sensei XXI.
About eight groups around the country practice the same style of kyudo, called Heki ryu Bishu Chikurin-ha, Chin said. They gather throughout the year for days-long “intensives,” often in Montreal, Vermont, Boston, New York, Chicago or San Francisco, along with places in Europe.
In Vermont, practitioners meet regularly in Montpelier and at Karme Choling, and Chin organizes a small group at Thetford Academy.
Practicing together provides camaraderie and a way to learn from one another, along with the chance to try group forms of kyudo, where “you really try to synchronize everybody,” Chin said. “That’s a real powerful feeling, when you do it and you practice it so you are all in harmony.”
Editor’s note: For more information about kyudo in Thetford, call Chin at 802-785-2649. For information about the Montpelier group, call Tom Kyle at 802-279-2891. To find out about kyudo at Karme Choling, go to www.karmecholing.org. Aimee Caruso can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3210.