The relationship between Zen and Shodo is like salt and pepper. You don’t need one for the other to be good, however it is the combination of both that truly season the character.
The practice of Shodo has been an integral element of Zen training for centuries. It all started with Wang Xizhi (303-361), considered to be the most famous Chinese calligrapher and painter. His work is still used today as learning material; many calligraphers copy Xizhi’s work on Kaisho (block script) and Sosho (cursive script) as a way to grasp the basics of calligraphy. In my upcoming Basic Japanese Calligraphy Workshop, we will be exploring the calligraphy of Wang Xizhi and copying some of his work.
Another major influence in Zen Calligraphy is Kukai (posthumously known as Kobo Daishi). Kukai was a famous buddhist priest whose cursive style gave birth to the Japanese Hiragana syllabary. On Lesson Three of Learn Shodo: Advanced Techniques I explain in detail how the cursive calligraphy of Kukai became the hiragana syllabary. In addition, I also teach how to brush all 46 characters of the hiragana.
These two major historical figures inspired many Zen teachers throughout the centuries. Most recently, we have the works of Miyamoto Musashi (1582-1645), the famous Japanese samurai who
penned “The Book of Five Rings”, a strategy book used in martial arts, but which concepts are also relevant in the modern business world. We also have the works of Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1768) a Rinzai Zen Master who is credited for reviving the Rinzai lineage of Zen and for standardizing the use of Koan practice as a tool to reach realization. And, of course, we have the works of Yamaoka Tesshu (1836-1888), another Japanese famous samurai, scholar and politician who played a major role during the Meiji Restoration. It is Tesshu’s direct influence that inspires the calligraphy I do today.
One of the Zen Calligraphy Masters of today that I look up to is Shodo Harada Roshi, Abbott of Sogen-ji in Japan. His Zen calligraphy lineage traces all the way back to Tesshu and Hakuin. Harada Roshi’s students run One Drop Zen, a Zen community website and resource. Through One Drop Zen I submitted a question for Harada Roshi.
I asked Roshi: “How would you explain the relationship between Shodo and Zen?
Harada Roshi replied: “As Hakuin writes in the Song of Zazen: “As for the Mahayana practice of Zazen, there are no words to praise it fully. The Six Paramitas, such as giving, maintaining the precepts and various other good deeds, like invoking the Buddha’s name, repentance and spiritual training, all finally return to the practice of Zazen.” The same is true for tea ceremony, archery, calligraphy – for all martial arts as well. If one is able to reach the depth of these paths, then it is the same experience as Zen. Zen is samadhi. All needs to be experienced in samadhi for being able to perceive the depth.”
Harada’s Roshi’s words truly penetrate the essence of Shodo practice and he points directly to the relation between Zen, Shodo, and the martial arts. It is no surprise this relationship has survived for many centuries, and the work of the masters from the past is still relevant and inspiring today.