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Kobun and the art of Kyudo

Many remember Kobun as a Zen master and for his calligraphy. However, he also practiced Kyudo. The traditional art of Japanese archery played an important role in his life. He received his training from Kanjuro Shibata XX in Kyoto (Heki Ryu Bishu Chiku Rin Ha) already at an early age. He had a close friendship with Shibata Sensei. Throughout his life he practiced with varying intensity.

He taught on behalf of Shibata Sensei and sometimes independently. In the article below Kobun discusses some essential points of Kyudo. For him the ultimate goal of Kyudo is to uncover one’s natural dignity. He further stresses that there is no difference between Kyudo and Zazen. Both require lifelong training to reveal who you really are when you meet the target.




Natural dignity and the arrow of the mind

A conversation with Kobun Chino on the 8 July 1987 during the
Kyudo Intensive seminar at the Rocky Mountain Dharma Center


Question: What is natural dignity in Kyudo?
Chino Roshi: It is about the essence of ‘shahin’. What are the characteristics of shahin? How to reach the practice of this shahin, whatever it is? (Laughter) [‘sha’ means shot; ‘hin’ means something like dignity or the noble creature that is polished out by practice] It refers to the goal. The goal becomes a mirror, and my understanding is that this ‘goal-mirror’ is an accurate reflection of one’s self, one’s own form, which is called ‘shakei’. [‘kai’ means form]


Our body, the limbs, the bow, the string and the arrow, should all be in a balanced harmony, such as a healthy family. The father is the strength of the bow pressed from the left side; the mother is the tension of the string drawn from the right side; the arrow is the child, let gone to grow. You shoot to release the arrow so that it unfolds in space and time. You shoot in a way that the spirit of archery gets a visible manifestation and also that you develop the invisible quality in your life. ‘Shashin’: ‘Shin’ means the center of the mind, and mental life; it has further meanings based on these.



As Shibata Sensei has put it, no one ‘achieves’ shahin. What is polished out from inside unfolds naturally by itself and manifests as properties of your own life, the life of an archer itself. These properties can be seen not only during shooting but also as a living proof in the appearance of such a person. They determine how life manifests day by day. We appreciate not only to have such an advanced practitioner among us but also to see practitioners that do not practice the way of the bow and yet see and feel shahin.



For the old man that shot his arrow into the rock it was perhaps his last arrow and his last shot of the day, as Sensei explained. In the history of archery the young archer on horseback was of higher rank than the old man that went on foot according to the hierarchy of the warrior class. The two men’s attitudes to the way of archery were quite different. Sensei spoke of shahin and shakei together as the spirit of the archery path. When the old man pierced the rock with his last shot it must have been shashin, shahin, and shakei, as well as the proof of his lifelong practice. He was beyond of just shakei and shashin. To pierce the rock is amazing and seems impossible. However, the arrow of the spirit pervades everything.


Kobun with Reb Anderson

Some texts speak of a famous Chinese archer called Gei [Ga]. He never missed the target under any circumstances – also at a distance of 100 yards. The mechanism of shakei and practice leads people to such a level. In addition – to return to your question of what we actually learn and master on the way of the bow – it is not just shakei and the polishing out of one’s own shashin or the blossoming of our being in the fruits of dignity. Dignity usually accompanies high and graceful action. There are even charismatic indicators of merit in archery, which can be seen by others …


However, the merit of the practice of archery, which is seen by others, is the final proof on the archery path. What is the real aim of Kyudo beyond such merit?


Gei and his teacher were well advanced in archery. Gei’s teacher was approaching death and there was no written evidence of the transmission to Gei. Without a written evidence of Gei’s teacher concerning the completion of his mastery there was no confirmation and no way for Gei to become independent of his teacher. The fact that Gei had not received this transmission and independence caused great suffering in him and his teacher on the archery path. If someone has a profession, he experiences such situations. A true teacher actually is impetuous and, ultimately, responsible for you as the student. For the student there is no end of learning as long as the teacher lives. There is also no end of teaching for the master. Therefore, it is very difficult for the master to see his accomplished student, who he cannot teach anything anymore, but who is still in its proximity – as was the case with Gei. Day and night he and his master were like wild dogs, or something such. Gei discovered weak points, unclear moments and gaps in his teacher. In Japanese this is called ‘suki’, which means ‘gap’ or ‘objective’.



The student was ready to shoot his teacher. This is how a swordsman looks at his opponent. Two people that have trained so hard reach a point where there are always two swords in the dojo. This tension between them continued until one day each of the two felt ‘suki’ in the other. They shot at each other in the dark. At such an occasion one discovers the real meaning of his goal in life. What happened was that their arrows collided with each other. Finally, both gave up and said: OK you can go … You can go … You can die at any time, and goodbye. (The student says to his master: ‘I have received everything that is possible from you, so I no longer need you.’ The master is happy and relieved because he can die with this disclosure of the inheritance.) The relationship between teacher and students is such as this – very intense.



It is not necessarily one correction after the other, but a way of learning from each other – a satisfying way of learning. The student learns from the teacher and the teacher learns from the student; perhaps the teacher learns even more than the student. It is this kind of emerging energy. (Break)


As I sit here today I looked back on my life and I really felt what kind of poor student I had been. I did not go to see or to visit my teacher after so much generosity and hospitality I had received. I have not even written a letter of thanks. However, it seems that one feels this shahin in others. Probably it is not necessary to talk about it. Everyone recognizes the real exchange in teaching.


Student: Some years ago I asked Sensei for advice concerning my practice. He said that I should no longer shoot for myself but start to shoot for the others …

CR: I knew that you wanted to talk about that.

S: He has not answered the same question today. – I have raised it even a few times. I have my own interpretations of what that means, as Kyudo apparently is an individual exercise, all up to oneself. It is emphasized in this way. I wonder if you can help me in this matter.


CR: I know what you mean with the archery for oneself and for the others. I particularly know the shooting for the others. I have a small question what it exactly means and what you meant. It was very strange to hear what you said. Or maybe you talk about to hunt and to bring home food for one’s family or something like that. You think: ‘This is not for me – my part is very small.’ What do you mean with shooting for others?


S: I thought that you could give me a clue … or because the form is the form – a robot could do that as well …

CR: Oh yes! (Laughter) I know your kind of polite questions. It is a serious question. Why do I do this? An advanced student always has this problem. (Laughter) Like the idea of the Mahayana and Bodhisattvayana – you are talking about the quality of the way of the bow.


S: I guess I had to.


CR: In the Hinayana path and in Mahayana there are shakei, shashin and shahin. All together.

The reason I say that is that while I have been sitting here today, I have not only felt as a very poor archer … possibly the laziest in this room (Laughter) – I was wondering what I have been doing all these years? … playing around or something like that. I did not have any resistance. I have been enthusiastic for the bow and the arrow since I was three years old. I always shot. So, looking back and wondering how bow and arrow landed in my hands – how did I pick it up? At what stage of my life was I picked up by the way of the bow?


When I am aware of the long breaks in my practice I see the archery path disappear for about ten years from my life. However, in spirit the path of the bow was always there, even if I have not touched the bow and have not shot the arrow. Returning to Rick’s question on the first day – or was it on the second? – it is not necessary at this point to see the bow as a weapon. Now we are beyond such a point and I can talk about how the arrow of the mind penetrates our daily life. The arrow of the mind acts in the same speed and accuracy each day. Thoughts are like arrows. You do not miss, you do not miss the goal. Have you noticed that? (Roshi looks around questioningly.) You have not noticed it.


All these years, in which I have touched neither bow nor arrow, my mind has always been on the archery path.


In those years I had a big dilemma. The dilemma was whether the archery path was different from the practice of Zazen (sitting meditation). There was no difference. Although I have devoted most of my life to this strange thing (Zazen), my own root master has never taught me Zazen. I started with Zazen when I studied Buddhism and have become committed to it. I have chosen to do nothing but Zazen in this life. The dilemma between the path of the bow and Zazen ends as soon as I choose one of those. Bow and arrow disappear when I practice Zazen. When I practice archery I am not thinking about sitting at this point. I forget Zazen, so to speak. Hmmm … you see how there could be a dilemma. However, what I have learned from the Zazen master was not Zazen. He has not even practiced Zazen anymore, but I have practiced Zazen and he always said, ‘Oh, you still sit?’ (Laughter) And I say ‘Yes, I am still sitting.’


This Zen master lives in Japan and he is an actual teacher of mine. For me he is really the only one concerning teaching and being a teacher. When I look at you individually he is always standing behind you. That is a big problem. (Roshi laughs.) It is a very strange and frightening situation. Believe it or not, it is very common. He never wanted to get known. Perhaps you can feel that he is a kind of yogi. He lives so simply and quietly. No one notices that he is a master. When I think of him in terms of shahin or in terms of what I learned from him and how I could observe him it is only one thing: hin.


My master has taught me only one thing. I cannot express it very well in English: ‘Be like me, do not be like me.’ That was the only teaching that I have received. Become a master of the way of your teacher, learn, and watch everything that the master does and people’s response to him. In everyday life you can see everything from the life of your teacher. As you follow his spirit of devotion to the path you realize everything at the end. So you can, when your master dies, be your own master yourself.


This ‘be like me, do not be like me’ – is frightening. It is like getting thrown out of the house. You go, discover and do something else. Just something. I think you know that very well. You have experienced this in different situations your whole life when you meet people, especially if you get closer to them and enter into their lives. It may well be twenty such people since your childhood. Shall we quit here – or do we still have time?


Kuden? Mysterious. I have always been interested in: Kuden. Do you know Kuden? It is the oral transmission, not written, and usually it is the only one that is given, and only to one person – not like here now in public. There is the question of the content of Kuden. Again, if you look back on your life and recognize your deepest interest, in which you have put most of your energy until now, there is something that you have learned from this activity. Also, maybe someone has spoken to you about what you have done. For example, suppose you are a cook and you had many teachers before. There is one that taught you physically, another that let you watch the way of cooking, and yet another that gave you many fine recipes. Teachers appear in this way. However, the root teacher, if he really trusts you, is the only one that can give you transmission and confirmation of your progress.


This Kyudo family – Heki Ryu Chiku Rin Ha (‘sun set river bamboo grove wave’) – to which we belong, I do not know how many generations ago it started, and when the Shikan-no-sho (‘book of four volumes’) was written? This is a book that was written by one of our ancestors. It ranges from the basic to the really advanced. It says very often that one should rely on Kuden, oral transmission. When you get in trouble on your way of training – about the exact and individual how and why – you struggle by asking yourself, ‘Where am I? I thought that I had reached that already. What happens in fact? What can I possibly understand in such a situation?’ And so on.


In such situations Sensei opens to you and there is no stinginess anymore accompanying his teachings to you. He does Kuden. I have noticed that all along, so I congratulate you very much: transmission from face to face, physical presence and participation. His whole body and mind, his presence, is like an arrow that reaches us from the past. That is a wonderful thing you can rely on and should appreciate highly.


Let us call it a day. I thank you.