In the Toyoda Shihan style of Aikido, when students take their second kyu (brown belt) test they have to answer the question, what are the four basic principles of Aikido? I remember learning these principles early on my training. When the time came for me to test for my brown belt I recited them without any hesitation. Later, I would learn that these four basic principles were in fact Koichi Tohei’s Sensei’s principles of KI (or Chi in Chinese). Tohei Sensei was Toyoda Shihan’s teacher, so it was no surprise that Toyoda Shihan taught these principles to his students. Although Toyoda Shihan taught them as principles of Aikido, Tohei Sensei taught them as a way to unify body and mind.
Tohei Sensei’s four basic principles of KI
- Keep one point
- Relax completely
- Keep weight underside
- Extend KI
Just like Aikido and KI development, the practice of Shodo serves as a way to unify body and mind. The practice of Shodo helps enhance our sensitivity and awareness. We must sense the connection between our hand, the brush, and the paper. Each line is created through sensitivity.
Martial artists use Shodo to nurture and complement their training. Shodo allows us to develop our KI and manifest it though art. The best calligraphies in the world are not brushed by scholars, but by Zen monks or Samurai warriors. Their martial and meditation training helped develop their KI. It is the KI that produces a masterpiece when transmitted to the paper through brush and ink.
Because of this clear connection between Shodo and martial arts, I followed on Toyoda Shihan’s footsteps and adapted Tohei Sensei’s principles of KI to Shodo practice. To practice Shodo to its fullest, these are my four basic principles:
1. Compose in harmony and with balance
Every character has to have balance within itself and other characters in the calligraphy. Brush your characters living harmoniously together on the paper. The best way to achieve this harmony and balance is to learn how to write the Kanji on a grid. This will teach you proper spacing and composition.
Some artists may take some freedom in composing the calligraphy, and that’s ok, as long as there is harmony and balance in their interpretation.
2. Vary between strong lines and delicate ones
Straight lines, whether horizontal or vertical, are done strong, firm, and heavy. While curved lines are done more delicately carrying a sense of motion and fluidity. Balance between the two is a must, otherwise the calligraphy can either appear too heavy or too weak.
3. Finish once started
Once started follow through! There is no stopping in the middle of it. There is no re-touching. This is the critical point of manifesting your energy– your mind on the paper. Your calligraphy is a snapshot of your mind, your feelings, your emotions at that moment. This is why when practicing Shodō one can fully experience ICHI GO ICHI E or “One Time One Chance”. You only have one life. There is only one opportunity.
4. Extend KI
This principle is borrowed directly from Tohei’s. You have to extend KI in order to have good Shodō. Your energy, life force, your entire existence need to flow from within you through the brush into the paper. If there is no energy in that brush, if there is no commitment, conviction, emotions or feelings, then it is going to be a sloppy and boring piece of calligraphy. So, put some energy in it, extend your KI, relax, and keep one point concentrating on what you’re brushing and the meaning of what it is that you write.
Shodo, like Aikido and Zen, is not something you can master quickly, but you will find a lifelong fulfilling practice that will allow you to create beautiful art that is born from the absence of the superficial mind.