Kyudo like many Japanese martial arts has spiritual aspects attributed to it. Most notably Kyudo is seen primarily as a practice of Zen Buddhism in the west. Eugen Herrigel was the first to popularize Zen in the practice of Kyudo with his book “Zen in the Art of Archery”.
In recent years, a few Japanese writers have argued that Herrigel’s view was both the result of poor or vague translations at the time and Herrigel’s aspirations to find Zen in Kyudo. The strong association of Buddhism and Zen with Kyudo doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon, regardless of recent journal articles arguing against Zen’s inclusion. The relationship is so intertwined in the collective consciousness that it seems unlikely to ever disappear. This is due to the nature of religion and Japanese martial arts in general.
Buddhism and Shinto are the two main religions in Japan and they are so interwoven that most Japanese cannot tell the difference between the two. Often one will find Buddhist temples next to Shinto shrines, which further confuses the differences between the two faiths.
Kyudo is primarily used in Shinto ceremonies. The bowman will wear the white garments of a Shinto priest while performing ceremonies. Unlike Buddhist ceremonies in which pure white garments are not used. The arrow itself is a Shinto talisman to ward of evil and to attract good luck. In Zen the sword carries a heavy symbolic weight and the arrow has no symbolic significance.
Despite the utter lack of Buddhist ceremonies involving Kyudo in Japan there are an extensive Kyudo exhibitions in the west involving Zen temples. Kyudo exhibitions are never held at Buddhist temples in Japan. It seems that Zen and archery has stronger associations in the west than it does in Japan.
Although Zen Buddhism might not have anything to do with Kyudo directly, the ideas and practice of it are quite Zen-like. Central tenets like the concepts of no-mind and non-attachment are notions shared with Zen Buddhism, however slightly differing in aim and approach.
Since Shinto lacks a founder and religious texts, many attribute Buddhism to things that are primarily Shinto in origin. The Shinto/Buddhism difference is paper-thin in Japan which further perpetuates the seemingly contradictory statements about Kyudo and Japanese spiritual life.
Some might regard Kyudo as an inner and outer practice uniquely Japanese, the outer as the expression of Shinto with the inner the expression of Zen Buddhism. Regardless what is attributed to Kyudo, the practice requires diligence, concentration and Zen-like qualities to perform the elegant and sublime feats of Japanese archery.