I practiced Japanese calligraphy without formal training for 10 years. When I finally found a teacher, Maki Sensei, I was eager to show her my work. When Sensei invited me to her house for an initial meeting I brought with me what I considered to be my best work.
She looked them over, cautiously examining them and sometimes showing them to her husband who sat with us.
I kept explaining my work; why I brushed some things a certain way, what my inspirations were, what the calligraphies meant — even though she didn’t need help deciphering their meaning. I was nervous. I have been looking for a teacher for 10 these years and have finally found one. I wanted to make sure she accepted me.
“These are good”, she said, and I said “thank you”.
“They are strong, you have good energy”. I smiled and I thanked her again.
“You need to learn how to write”, she continued. She then grabbed my calligraphies and pointed how each character had been brushed incorrectly.
She traced the characters with her finger and showed me where the brush strokes needed to be instead of where I had placed them. After that meeting I became her student. I started a series of personal lessons where I learned not only calligraphy but penmanship as well.
A few years later, after I was no longer taking personal lessons, I came across the idea of BOKKI.
BOKKI is a word composed of the kanji BOKU (墨 ink) and KI (氣 energy).
Basically, BOKKI is the manifestation of your KIAI in the ink. When you brush calligraphy your insight, your internal energy, feelings and emotions can be transmitted to the paper and manifested in the ink via BOKKI.
I’ve explained in a previous post that KIAI is the harmonization of your KI energy with physical action, sometimes expressed by a yell in martial arts practice. In calligraphy, however, KIAI is sensed through BOKKI.
This idea that KIAI can be incorporated in the ink was explained by Omori Sogen and Terayama Katsujo in their book Zen and the Art of Calligraphy (transl. by John Stevens. RKP, 1983) . In the book they showcase microscopically magnified calligraphies. These magnified photographs illustrated the carbon particles of the ink affected by the artists energy. In some examples, calligraphy by the famous Zen and calligraphy master Yamaoka Tesshu, the BOKKI looks weak, sloppy, and inert according to Terayama. In other examples, after Tesshu had reached samadhi or enlightenment, his BOKKI looks vibrant, powerful and full of vitality.
I realized that what Maki Sensei felt in my calligraphy when I went to meet her for the first time was my BOKKI. My brushstrokes weren’t correct by any means, and my composition was horrible, but she saw my KIAI in it, and maybe that’s why she took me as a student.
I had KIAI in my calligraphy, but I had no visual appeal. I lacked technique. This can happen the other way around too. A calligraphy can be visually appealing but have no KIAI in it, therefore while beautiful, the work will carry no emotions.
The ultimate goal is to be able to achieve both, so then a masterpiece can be created.
When you brush calligraphy you need to pay attention to technique, yes, but also you need to put your heart into it.
Shodō is your mind on paper. What you put down on the paper is the manifestation of yourself in that moment, good or bad, it is you.