My favorite thing to brush is Zen calligraphy. However, I strongly believe that learning the fundamentals of calligraphy, such as the eight basic strokes, are necessary steps in order to be able to brush Zen calligraphy.
My approach may be different than others. Some calligraphers prefer to dive in the Zen ways of brushing without first learning penmanship. Others may consider Zen calligraphy too abstract and its lack of care for correctness unappealing.
I’ve seen the works of many calligraphers without Zen training. While their work is beautiful, it lacks the sense of deep feeling that’s tapped when someone digs deep into their heart. My favorite calligraphers are Zen masters. Yamaoka Tesshu, Yamada Mumon, Hosokawa Roshi, and Shodo Harada are among my favorites. Their calligraphy is not only beautifully composed, but also full of vitality. Their heart beats on every drop of ink.
Zen and Shodo have so much in common. It is one of the reasons why I can’t almost differentiate them anymore. To me Shodo is Zen. And Zen is Shodo.
Shodo and Zen look eye to eye in the following ways:
1. You need heart. It is not by accident that the word KOKORO “heart” is one of the most commonly brushed kanji. In both, Shodo and Zen practice your heart is the main ingredient. It’s the salt of your dish. Without heart you work is bland and mediocre. Zen without heart is punishment to the body. Shodo without heart is spilled ink on fine paper.
2. You need to reach deep into the essence of life: breath. The first meditation technique you learn is counting your breath. Concentrate with all your might and spirit on every breath. Do this and all the mysteries of Zen will be revealed. In Shodo, your breath is concentrated on your abdomen— the energy created there is then projected to the brush. While I don’t count my breath in Shodo, each breath is connected to each stroke. Big bold strokes are the results of long deep exhalations.
3. You need to tap into the state of no-mind. MUSHIN or “no mind” is a famous Zen koan and calligraphy. The goal of Zen meditation is not to empty your mind of thoughts, but to realize there is no mind and hence no thoughts. In order to produce a calligraphy that’s a product of this state of no-mind one must completely let go of the desire to produce anything at all. That freedom will tap into the state of no-mind and produce a pure piece of calligraphy that’s a mirror reflection of the artist’s heart.
4. Your struggles make you cut through illusions. The perception that meditation is a relaxed activity performed in front of breathtaking ocean views is laughable. Meditation is hard. You need to commit. You need to cut through illusions, pain, doubt, anger, and frustration. The moment you try to brush a kanji for the first time you realize it will take time and effort. Any illusion that, because you bought a fancy brush or watch all my videos, you will brush amazing calligraphy will be destroyed the moment you have to brush a kanji to perfection inside a grid. Overcoming these struggles will be the path of cutting those illusions and waking up to reality: life is hard work.
5. The rigidity of the practice is the path to liberation. The first thing you are told when learning how to sit in zazen is: DON’T MOVE! Don’t sneeze, don’t scratch your nose, don’t wiggle. Don’t you dare to move for the next 30 minutes. Learning how not to move will be the most liberating experience you’ll have. If you can manage to not move everyday for 30 minutes you will be able to accomplish anything in this world. The basics of calligraphy are strict. Kaisho or block style, is all about learning how to brush the kanji precisely. No wiggle room. However, the skills acquired by mastering the rigidity of Kaisho is what’s needed to brush the more relaxed cursive style of Zen calligraphy.
I could go on and on and on. Zen and Shodo are similar in far more ways. But these 5 specific similarities are the ones I am reminded of everyday.
Think of Zen and Shodo as peanut butter and jelly. Both by themselves are great and very satisfying. But when you combine peanut butter and jelly in a sandwich, you’re like holy sh@t this is good!