‘Makiwara Madness’
from the Bukyo Shagaku Sheiso
by Gao Ying (Ko-ei), 1637.
makiwa1.jpg (4850 bytes)

Another thing that archery beginners do is to practice at the makiwara. Why is it that they grow old without ever having perfected their shooting? Well, although the makiwara is a tool for learning technique, it’s a tool for getting you into a mess as well. The reason for that is: those who have a good grasp of technique benefit from the makiwara very quickly, while those who haven’t mastered technique mess up their shooting just as quickly and suffer the consequences even quicker still!

Why would that be? Well, the makiwara is a thing that you can put a few hundred arrows into in one day; so shooting at a makiwara at home for one day is the equivalent of shooting in the archery range for ten days. Take someone who is using the makiwara to learn technique and if he has grasped the correct method in the first place, he gets accustomed to the correct technique all the more quickly and leaves errors further and further behind him. In around a month, the correct technique will be completely ingrained and ‘the gates to the city’ will lie before him. From that point on he can put this basis to good use and work on the finer points of archery.

But take someone who just belts off one arrow after the other: he’s not learning technique - he’s learning errors! Give him around a month and his errors will be completely ingrained. The further he goes, the further he gets from the correct technique. A day’s worth or mistakes turns into a lifetime’s worth of folly. Can you afford to forget that?

If you take someone whose whole mind is devoted to learning - (and there are some who wish to learn but don’t devote their whole mind to it: they just fixate upon a ‘perfect’ model they have seen or some fine words they have heard and fail to examine the reality of what lies behind them: they just take it for granted that they are right. There is no progress to be had by mere mimicry of another) - anyway, supposing this person is endowed with a natural aptitude, he must never take it for granted. He must constantly discipline his mind around the techniques of: (1) concentration, (2) full draw, (3) balance, (4) lightness at the release and (5) focus. On the road and at rest, awake and asleep he must indoctrinate his eyes and his brain.

Only then do you stand straight before the makiwara, nock the arrow, pre-draw without releasing, come to full draw, keep the bow-arm shoulder depressed, keeps both upper-arms in a straight line, fix your attention onto one tiny point at the centre of the makiwara and release. Do this a few hundred times a day.

For the first ten days or so, concentrate on keeping your bow-arm shoulder down until you are so used to it that you can do it without the slightest effort. That is ‘shoulder practice’.

Examine your target with great care: as you raise your eyes, see that the centre point of the makiwara is not blocked by the grip of your bow. That is ‘eye practice’.

Grasp the bow grip comfortably with all five fingers: forget all the nonsense about settling the grip in your palm or making a ‘phoenix claw’. The key is in the upward tilt of the web of the thumb and forefinger. (There is a mnemonic about this.) At full draw, the arrowhead must come back to the grip without any interference from your fingers. The grip must be settled comfortably into the palm of your hand. This is ‘hand practice’.

The bow and draw-hand upper arms must be level: right through the pre-draw into the full draw, and once into the full draw the upper arms must be level and unwavering. This is ‘arm practice’.

Ten days or so like this and you have built your house on good foundations. (All these things are related only to drawing technique. But the crux of archery technique lies in a firm, full draw. That’s why I call it ‘a good foundation’. Once you have built up a firm foundation, shooting for distance and accuracy is relatively easy. Don’t start to shoot at the makiwara unless your foundation is firm.)

This is the correct technique: start your pre-draw low and get your bow-arm shoulder right down and very firm from the start. Coming up from the low start, your bow hand needs to push forward while your draw arm shoulder and elbow simultaneously do the reverse, drawing backward and downward from a high position and then stopping. This is shooting technique.

When you release, the draw-hand palm must face forward, but you must never use the ‘snapping’ action. If you do, you will spoil the spontaneity of the shot and it will not be accurate. (Keep the palm facing forward. At the moment of release the middle, ring and little fingers must all be tucked firmly into the palm. Don’t flick the hand open: just let the thumb and forefinger move apart and that will give a quick, crisp release.)

You need to work on getting your concentration, full draw, balance, and lightness at the release very fluent, and make all the details come naturally. Once the draw-arm comes up, go into full draw; as soon as you are at full draw, bring you balance, lightness of release and focus into play. It’s like riding down a slope on a good horse: it has a natural feel for where to place its feet.

A hundred days like this and your shooting will be smooth and under your control and that is the only way to take full advantage of the makiwara and prepare yourself for the archery range to rehearse for the examinations. Everyone who practices on the makiwara displays a degradation of technique once they get out on the range. So when I talk of ‘rehearsing’ I mean getting your range technique in line with what you achieved at the makiwara, so that your stance and hand technique are all exactly the same as you achieve with the makiwara. That is the only correct way to practice without falling into the common mistake of belting out arrows one after the other.

(This way of practicing with the makiwara as more than a hundred times more demanding than what most people do with it; but all that effort will reward you with greater skill and save you a lifetime of wasted effort. That’s why I say ‘without falling into the common mistake of belting out arrows one after the other.’ So many people nowadays don’t bother to study technique: as soon as they have a bow in their hands, off they rush to the archery range with hitting the target straight away the only thing on their minds. All their errors just get compounded, then how can they hit? That’s what I call ‘the faster you go, the longer it takes you get there.’)

If your technique is deteriorating out on the range, then get back in with the makiwara and refresh it. Once you have refreshed it and nothing is going wrong, get back out to the range and try it out again. Keep at it and don’t get frustrated at the repetition. You have to work on making your hits result from a winning technique.

Once I was coaching someone in archery practice and I told him to just get his technique right and not be get impatient about hitting. He said, "Mr Gao, all you ever want is to teach people style, you never want them to hit! What’s the point? People like me need to hit, not get hung up on style!"

"Nonsense!", I said, "If you hit without a winning technique, then it’s a matter of chance which is something which cannot be taught. If you can hit without good technique then you can keep up your run of luck with some practice over time; but then you have no basic technique you can maintain: stop for a while and the luck runs out and - no more hits. Or you might get to the competition ground, miss a few and get panic and not be able to hit; or you might be in a life-threatening situation and lose courage and miss then, too. That’s what is meant by ‘lucky hits.’

When I talk of not seeking to hit but seeking a good technique , what I mean is that when your technique is developed, hits will flow from it. Even if you are not striving to hit, you will still do so. Such hits will not be a mere matter of luck.

If you don’t believe what I say, then you’re saying that Confucius’s contention that ‘an official post is the natural consequence of hard study’ is off the mark.

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Translation copyright Stephen Selby.  1998.