The Return of The Archer


Hunger Games

The Return of The Archer By Popular Demand:

Archery is a unique endeavor. It is a sport (like most sports) based upon an original desire to turn our human-cleverness and fundamental body mechanics into a survival advantage. Archery has recently become a very popular sport due in part to movies like Brave and Hunger Games, and television shows like Arrow. Archery is currently the fastest growing sport in the nation in all demographics, and according to the National Safety Council, archery is one of the safest sports, only slightly more dangerous than billiards. Shooting an arrow toward an obvious goal—either for survival or for sport—has always been understood and universally accepted a symbol for success through following a set process, which cannot be ignored. Perhaps being a metaphor for success is why archery is enjoyed (by all ages and demographics) as both an individual as well as group activity, and partly why there is a vast increase in interest for this prehistoric sport.

Naturally, as with any sport, interest ebbs and flows. Right now, archery is on a high note, partly due to a well-organized push by USA Archery to promote the sport at all levels. Another of the reasons for the increased popularity is the celebrity connections that have been associated with it, since actress Geena Davis took up the sport in 1997 and almost made the 2000 Olympic USA Archery team. Also, Khatuna Lorig has contributed a great deal to the recent rise of archery’s popularity…especially among women, as both a competitor, as well as a coach of the sport. Beside being a certified coach with USA Archery and a fourth place finisher at the Beijing Olympics (she has also earned a spot on the Rio Olympics teach, which will compete in 2016 in in Rio de Janeiro–Ms. Lorig was Jennifer Lawrence’s archery coach for The Hunger Games movie series. This series of films, with this caliber of actress, is no doubt one of the main factors for the increased popularity. Here, in L&L Magazine we will take a close look at archery, the legends and the legacies.

–Below are comments, mostly excerpted from The Five Principles of Everything, regarding archery, with additions by Gordon Richiusa:

It seems like I’ve always been an archer. I can remember, at a young age building bows with my brother. I competed in high school on the archery team and carried my arrows and bows with me throughout the world. In 1980 I had the pleasure of moving to Oahu, Hawaii to live, work and learn. One of the experiences that I had was to study Kyudo (traditional Japanese Zen Archery) with a group who gathered at the base of Diamond Head on a weekly basis to practice this unique form of Zen Meditation. Masters would come from Japan on a monthly basis to demonstrate technique and to encourage a devotion to purity.

Simply stated, in Kyudo the archer, the bow the arrow, the target and the process all become one with the ultimate goal of awareness of our spiritual selves.

Without belaboring the subject, it is necessary to say that Zen Archery is heavily laden with the study and practice of Buddhism and so the shot is divided into eight parts symbolizing the eightfold path of enlightenment. I am not a Buddhist, but when I returned to Los Angeles (after a stay in Idaho) I continued to practice and to study with a Master Mishima of a Los Angeles Buddhist Temple. I also was in the process (as was my nature) of developing a kind of Archery Meditation that incorporated other teachings from which I had benefited.

I had the experience of working and learning from a number of Native Americans, in a variety of ways, including martial arts training. The subject of archery often came up.

Their style of constructing and shooting a bow was very different from the Japanese Zen Master, although there was one important similarity. The experience of shooting an arrow was a very spiritual one. In both the American and the Japanese styles of shooting, the bow when fully drawn creates a circle. The circle or hoop are sacred symbols of the spiritual path in both, diverse cultures.

When I began to incorporate archery into my teaching of martial arts, I was given a Long Bow by one of my students, which cannot physically be held or shot in exactly the same way as the other two methods that I’d studied (the bow was held parallel to the ground instead of upright), but the basic function and relationship of bow, arrow and archer to one another WAS ALWAYS EXACTLY THE SAME. It didn’t matter what kind of bow you were using, or how many steps there were. My high school archery coach—a man who knew all the steps and names of steps from many different methods of shooting– said, basically, “There’s a beginning, a middle and an end to everything.” Therefore, for my own sake, I divided the shot into—as I always do–five parts.

Recently, I have embarked on trying to legitimize martial arts ranking programs, by teaching archery certification classes to martial arts teachers, through the U.S. Olympic sanctioning body, USA Archery. This certification is well respected, because this organization does not separate themselves from the many legitimate organizations out there. USA Archery coordinates with the National Field Archery Association as well as World Archery, to help foster cooperation (rather than separateness) throughout the world archery communities.

The ultimate goals of the shot in archery are the same as those learned through practice of the eastern and western styles of shooting (hunting or target). The only differences are that a CONCEPT BASED APPROACH can be used with ANY bow, any arrow, any target, any skill level and any archer.

The act of shooting an arrow is often considered symbolic or even ritualistic. The stance one takes, the number of parts the shot is divided into and even the number of breaths that one takes (or how one breathes) all have greater or lessor meaning within a particular shooting style; otherwise one is not doing anything more than launching a small spear toward a target. Here, we will focus on the concepts.

Many people get tense at the sound of the word “meditation,” simply because they have given over to it too much significance. I have even heard some people say that it is “dangerous” to meditate unless you are contemplating some particular facet of their chosen religion. The word “evil” is sometimes tossed about in relationship to what some people consider “other” or “not sanctioned” forms of meditation.

All of this stress and worry is extremely counterproductive. No wonder people have such a conflict in their first meditation classes when the teacher utters the phrase, “O.K. now just relax.” There is simply no point of reference for such a thing!

To me, meditation is merely a state of mind, body and spirit usually referred to as a “heightened, relaxed or completely clear” state of being where a person can function at his or her most beneficial level. This would not, therefore allow for any “dangerous” condition to exist. There is no possibility of evil. That is my starting point when I practice alone or teach archery classes. If you cannot agree with this concept based approach, then perhaps archery is not a meditation or sport to which you should devote much time.

For those who are interested in learning new and more funs ways to increase awareness and focus a positive physical activity with a mental one, then read on.

In the arena of psychology it is also generally accepted that human beings learn in three basic ways. They are: Auditory, Visually and Tactually. This means that we learn by what we are told or what we hear. Or we learn by what we are shown or what we see. Or we learn by what we do or what we feel. Some people favor one mode of learning over another, which is why education classes guide teachers to teach to all of the strengths of their students. For instance, if a teacher just writes something on the board and haves a student read it they are teaching on one modality level. If they say the words that the students are reading (as in lecture with a blackboard) they are teaching on two levels. If they have the students copy the words in their own notes that they are seeing and hearing, then we are working at all three levels.

Generally, in the world of meditation it is accepted that there are two kinds of meditation, active and passive or moving and seated meditation. Within these two ends of the same spectrum there are variations which try to combine aspects of each (such as yoga) or rely more heavily on one of the five senses or another (as with the use of chanting, drums, bells, sand-painting or other finger or body positions or even oils, incense or other fragrances) offering an experience on more than one level. Actually, in meditation the kind of meditation is divided into three distinct types, “Mudra (hand and body positions), Midra (sounds and smells) and Mandela (pictures).”

My intent is not to apply any undue value to one form of meditation over another or to pursue an argument that one form of meditation is better than another. This article is merely to explain the origins of Archery as Meditation and to offer direction to those who which to pursue this wonderful art. It is my hope that every person who loves to draw an arrow, or even to witness others in this pursuit, will gain something from this article.

Even when I teach a 10 step procedure, as required for certification by USA Archery, I teach Archery as Meditation, because it is one of the “ways” that I learned to meditate, to benefit on a number of levels, to gain health, happiness and a sense of completeness. For these reasons, I thank my teachers for not ever limiting me to any particular form of meditation as the only path to enlightenment. In addition, I would like to express my gratitude to my students (especially the young ones) who have helped me to broaden and refine my thinking and teaching techniques over the years.

A History and Explanation of Japanese Zen Archery
If asked which of the many forms of traditional martial arts is the deadliest, the answers would be as numerous as the styles there are to study. Qualify this question, however, to include only those arts which are effective up to 100 yards from an opponent, and the field of answers would be narrowed to only one.

Zen archery or KYUDO (meaning, “the way of the bow”) is a martial art that literally stands alone among all fighting arts. It is a martial art that is really a Japanese form of Zen meditation, and has no violence and no opponents. Ideally, training in any martial art should contain some sort of work by an individual alone (including weapons such as katana or bo) in the form of kata. But, it is the Zen archer alone who must always pit himself against himself to become part of the process of understanding that is hitting a target with an arrow.

The goals in Zen archery are characteristic of all Zen teachings. They are as elusive as trying to catch the wind in your hands. For, in the end, the archer can truly have no goals; in the end, the awareness or concept of archery, the target, the bow, the arrow and the archer must become one thing.

The beauty of this form of martial arts movement and its value to all others lay in its ability to expand the precepts of the fighting arts for the viewer onto a grand scale, while at the same time restricting the motions to a concise series of repeated, ritualized and meaning-filled movements.

All Zen archers perform the movements in the exact same methodical way. Master and student learn to flow with the same energy and therefore reap the same benefits. The ultimate result of hitting the bull’s eye is an immediate one that even the uneducated viewer knows the value of. If the archer does not perform the motions correctly, totally relaxed and without personal concern for hitting his goal, the arrow will simply not find its mark. A mistake is that obvious.

On the other hand, if one should happen to accidentally hit the bull’s eye and know in his heart that the movements were not performed in the proper spirit of concentration, then this too is of no value. There is no one to try to fool. For, shooting the arrow without the proper spirit is something else; it is not true Zen. What sets the master apart from the student is that he can both hit the bull’s eye with great regularity and at the same time, not care that he is doing so.

As I said, there are eight precise stages of shooting an arrow in this fashion. Each stage is roughly associated with the eightfold path of Buddhist philosophy. It must be remembered that all of the stages are performed with an unusual attention to exactness, while at the same time; the archer must be totally relaxed. There is a practical reason for this, beyond the religious significance. If the archer, for instance is not relaxed from the initial stages of the shot and remains so throughout his tension can cause a number of painful results. In kyudo there is a saying, “The bow is a good teacher.” For another curious attribute of the kyudo form is that the bow must be allowed to spin freely after the shot. No forearm guard is worn. The string actually spins entirely around the hand, from one side of the arm to the other. If this is not allowed to take place, there is another Zen archery expression that applies, “The bow will punish you.” The string will slap the archer’s arm. It is a lesson that need be experienced but once to be learned. On the other hand, as a final tribute to the Zen method, the archer always holds a second arrow in the little finger of the string hand, reminding him that ultimately, the last shot, regardless where it falls on the target will always be replaced by the next arrow.

Those who embrace the art of kyudo as their way to enlightenment must be prepared for years of training. There are two diverse training methods, which meet at the form that is described here. The first (and most traditional) is to teach a student to breathe properly and relax, and perhaps even perform the motions of shooting for up to a year and a half before he is allowed to actually shoot his first arrow. Moreover, the practitioner must ritualistically prepare all of his own equipment by hand. That is precisely what the traditional archer is taught to do by his sensei (teacher). Arrows are sanded smooth from a special type of strong, thin bamboo. Hawk or eagle feathers are cut to shape and glued into place. Tail feathers are preferred, if you are making your own arrows. The arrow nocking point is meticulously wound around with string and tied by hand. Every detail of preparation is performed as the act of shooting the arrow. Even stringing the bow or walking onto the field are considered part of the process and are performed with reverence.

The other method is to give an arrow and bow to the student and tell them to shoot a set number of arrows (sometimes, up to 1000) daily. No formal instruction will take place for up to one and a half years. During this initial stage the student irons out most of the specifics on his or her own and then the teacher merely refines the process.

I was instructed with a little of both ends of the spectrum. Master Mishima contended that every student was unique and the master was like a person sitting on top of a mountain instructing many people, coming from many different directions, with various obstacles in front of him or her on the best way to get to where he was. “Sometime a person may not see that if they go straight ahead they will fall into a great hole. Another must be told to turn left or right to avoid other obstacles. They do not have the advantage of looking down on the situation to see what the best path is.” In other words, one student should not concern himself with what the teacher is telling another student. If a student who “should go straight” follows the directions given to another to “turn left” there could be dire result!

Whatever route one pursues, it will generally take years before the student can master the basic elements of kyudo. There are then ten levels of mastery that may be reached by the archer. It is no wonder that the art is often considered the archer’s best friend after so long a personal relationship with the process. When asked why he continued to shoot his bow everyday, in any weather, without fail, on Kyudo master replied, “ Even if I no longer had a bow or the strength to pull the arrow back, I would continue to perform the motions in midair and empty handed. I have learned the most valuable lesson from kyudo. I am no longer an archer who shoots his arrows with a bow. I am a part of the process.”

The Five Stages of the Five Birds Archery Shot
The question, at this point should naturally arise, “Why Five?” As I have already said, the Zen archer divides his shot into eight stages to align himself with the eightfold path of Buddha. The Western Archer (Olympic Archery as prescribed by USAA and World Archery) uses a 10 Step process named after the originator, Kisik Lee. It’s called the KSL Shot Process.

I am not a Buddhist and have learned, at the same time to appreciate the value of pursuing spiritual mediation through archery while knowing that, as Mishima might have put it, “There are many kinds of mountains to climb.” In other words, I don’t believe that a person must pursue Buddhism or Olympic glory (you can insert any other name of a religion, discipline or focus here) to gain value from archery as a “way” to enlightenment, or as an enhancement to the perspective that one is pursuing.

For me, the number five works. It coincides with my own personal belief system and it’s easy for me to teach it to those who are interested in my style of martial arts.

Having said that, I have divided the shot into five parts in this manner:
1) Preparing to shoot
2) Focus on the goal
3) Lifting the bow
4) Draw and release
5) Savoring the shot

There are, of course several layers or aspects of each of these stages, and, plenty of room for individual creativity. For instance, when one “prepares to shoot” they are putting themselves not only in the proper mood and attitude, but also in the appropriate stance with the proper equipment. Again, there are various ways to teach. Knowing the KSL Shot Process has made me a better archery practitioner as well as teacher. One cannot shoot well without covering all ten of these steps, even if you put join steps together and call them something else.

I was taught (and sometimes teach) that the archer does not even need a bow, arrow or target to perform the shot. Indeed, I must say that even when I was physically unable to raise or draw a bow, I still performed the task in my mind and heart on a daily basis. Today, I shoot my physical bow as often as possible, but I practice tai chi, including a technique called, “shooting the bow” every day as soon as I wake up, without exception.

For most purposes, however I recommend that archery can be performed with any bow, at any draw poundage at any distance using any of a number of “anchor points,” and with any level of intent. The archer is sure to benefit at some level with practice.

I prefer an English Long Bow, about 35 lbs. of pull (these days), but I have used a recurve and even own a compound of much greater weights in the past. Now that I think of it, I have even used a blowgun, and thrown knives, hatchets and shaken (stars) following similar rituals and gotten adequate results.

I personally don’t shoot any mechanically enhanced bows (compound, assisted draw or cross bow) simply because I have yet to be able to figure out how to make the fluidity of the shot work for me with these devices. This is not to say that it can’t be done. I merely say that I have not done it, and I really have no intention of putting the time into it to change my habits now. The shot I use suits me and is sufficient to the end, which is to transcend the shot and relax into a state of heightened awareness. I help my archery students pick their bows, arrows and style of shooting which best suits their needs. They are, however, required to learn a little bit about the unifying concepts, which are inherent in any style of archery.

Gordon Richiusa is an Italian American who has been a martial artist for some 50 years. He teaches the Five Bird System. Gordon earned a Master of Arts degree in English and has written numerous articles, stories, books and scripts under his own name and his pen-name, Gordon Rich. He has been a teacher of English Composition, Film as Literature, Creative Writing, and Scriptwriting and He holds two teaching credentials.