A blue at the Falaise Verte

- through Henry Oudin

Published on

A look back at the immersion of a journalist on a kyudo course, Japanese archery, at the Zen center of master Taïkan Jyoji. Or how to learn to aim right at the target of samadhi.

Saturday, July 6, 2019. While the Julyites are taking the holiday highways by storm, I have chosen to travel on the (not really express) Way of Zen, a path certainly longer, but without traffic jams. Direction the Falaise Verte, in Saint-Laurent-du-Pape in Ardèche. No, it's not yet another campsite along the Eyrieux river, but the Rinzaï Zen center run by master Taikan Jyoji. Twenty hectares of greenery in the Vivarais mountains, which house a complex comprising a freestone building, a refectory, a zendo (consecrated by Master Kohno Taitsu in 2010) and the Direct Spirit Dojo, inaugurated in 1988 by a delegation of sixty kyudokas (archers) and Japanese senseis. This is where I will spend six hours a day trying to hit the bullseye without causing an accident.

Don't follow the arrow

Kyudo, kezako? Japanese ancestral archery, better known as the "Way of the bow" or "Zen standing". Much more than a sport, "Kyudo should be considered not as the simple handling of the bow and arrow, but as a meditation, a long journey leading to a maturation, to a maturing of the individual , to an elevation of consciousness”, specifies the presentation of the Falaise Verte. A question torments me: is it not dangerous to entrust such a weapon to a twisted mind? From the outset, master Taïkan Jyoji explains to me that it is the opposite: the pattern is not what we believe. Here, we make fun of the "bullseye", all that matters is the slow mechanics of this interior precision shot, which is broken down into eight consecutive phases, called hassetsu. No offense to the apprentices William Tell, shooting an arrow is not a piece of cake: stretching the bowstring, managing its tension with relaxation, holding the position without stiffening, releasing its arrow without trembling, and all this in putting his brain aside precisely not to put it aside… In three days of kyudo, it was a disaster, nothing came out of my yumi (bow)… But as the master reminds me, that's not the point, I'm the real target of this shot.

Around me, about twenty trainees of all ages and backgrounds, collecting dan (grades), shoot arrows at the speed of a snail. Tense muscles, straight eyes, in themselves, dumb and in rows of onions, they fight their own battles. Draped in her white keikogi (a kind of training kimono) and her black hakama (wide pleated pants), Heini, a discreet sixty-year-old Swedish woman, has been practicing this discipline for five years. Competition does not interest him, “kyudo is an art of non-ego, it teaches us through all its rituals to free ourselves from the thoughts that assail us and from everything that hinders us on a daily basis. Through the mastery of gestures, the kyudoka seeks a perfect movement to be able to transcend both his body and his mind”, she summarizes.

The Mysteries of the East

To avoid skating in a vacuum, the figures are imposed. Each gesture, meticulously measured, timed to the nearest second, is part of a meticulously choreographed whole and requires deep attention. It is necessary to follow to the letter an oiled, ritualized, even off-putting mechanics for those who have never practiced a martial art. But for Jonathan, a 43-year-old kudyoka from Lyon and regular at the course, following the rule is the sine qua non for reaching not the mato (the target located 28 meters away, or the makiwara, a warm-up straw bale within reach of ' arc), but his objective: "Certainly, kyudo is an extremely framed art, but with a space of freedom inside. »

All of these phases – the salute upon entering the dojo, the raising of the bow above the head (uchiokoshi), the release of the arrow (hanare), etc. – are obligatory passages. "By following them scrupulously without asking questions, one concentrates only on the present moment, in accordance with the teaching of non-thinking of Zen", he adds. He the joker, so jovial on a daily basis, enters an impassable bubble, a kind of Zen force field, when he enters the dojo. Like Jonathan, the other kyudokas have adopted respect for etiquette (rei) and a taste for Japanese aesthetics, these straight and rigid postures of the samurai. Some detail the famous zanshin (literally “the spirit continues”), or the spirit of the gesture, others, like William, a student from Marseilles, prefer to break down the movements rather than decipher them. Formulating, intellectualizing, is a bad Western habit; at the Falaise Verte, a veritable Japanese island, the sun rises and sets in the East.

“Realizing one's inner nature is no joke. » Master Taikan Jyoji

Under the watchful eye of the dojo master, kyudo training takes place in two stages: a first part devoted to "sharei" (or ceremonial shooting), carried out in groups according to a strict protocol, before a free shooting session, during which everyone does at their own pace. After two hours of training, the warriors rest. Strangely, after my first session, I don't feel any fatigue or pain, but a peaceful energy. Yes, kyudo is calming.

Broom strokes and ballet kyudokas

I am one of the only two rookies on the course, which earns me a few sympathetic looks since during this intensive dive, all the poisons that sometimes make life salty (cigarettes, alcohol, mobile phones, wifi connection, etc. ) are prohibited. As master Taïkan Jyoji reminds us, “self-transformation is no joke”. This is not false, the proof: get up at 6:40 am to the sound not of the bugle but of a bell, for half an hour of zazen. A quick breakfast in stride, then we are requisitioned for the "samou", work of general interest to become aware of its place within the collective. You can choose: maintaining the vegetable garden, cutting vegetables, digging a trench for the plumbing, cleaning the toilets and other life-saving chores. Without forgetting the weeding of the Zen garden (25 meters long by ten wide), covered with dead leaves, on which you have to crab in the furrows of stones without flattening them. Avoid flat feet. After an hour and a quarter of non-forced work, it's time for two hours of kyudo. Then vegetarian lunch taken in bowls that the trainee will clean with hot water and finger before wrapping them in his towel, which he will reopen in the evening and the following days. All meals take place in the same way: everyone in the same place, facing their bowls, in absolute silence and in full awareness. No question of cutting the end of fat, the bowls are quickly swallowed. Resumption of activities at 15 p.m. for a new kyudo session, then a hitsuzendo workshop (calligraphy or "Way of the Zen brush"), followed by dinner at 18 p.m. and a last night session of free fire. Lights out at 30:22 p.m.

During my immersion, the weather is stormy, the weather alternates between stifling heat and torrential rain, without disturbing the ballet of the kyudokas. This course is a crossing of oneself, conducted at a pianissimo tempo, but not cruising. If the atmosphere is one of contemplation, it is no less good-natured. Like the master, inflexible but benevolent, each trainee seems to listen to himself and, by extension, to the support of his neighbours. Imagine a summer camp without monitors and a Zen master as the sole director.

Tender, relax. Like the rope, my emotions yoyo as the days go by, I think about leaving everything on the second day, uncomfortable in this Spartan universe; my thoughts race at the speed of the TGV towards my Parisian cocoon. But I think back to this phrase from the master who explained to me at the start of the course that “realizing one's deep nature is not done in whipped cream”. Letting go is the only dish on the kyudoka menu, and it is a feast in itself.

photo of author

Henry Oudin

Henry Oudin is a Buddhist scholar, spiritual adventurer and journalist. He is a passionate seeker of the depths of Buddhist wisdom, and travels regularly to learn more about Buddhism and spiritual cultures. By sharing his knowledge and life experiences on Buddhist News, Henry hopes to inspire others to embrace more spiritual and mindful ways of living.

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