I told the group I was going to get to know them a little. I had them collect their materials and passed a sheet of Hanshi to everyone. I pulled out a sample of the Kanji EI (永) I had brushed earlier. The Kanji EI is composed of the eight basic strokes. If a student can brush the Kanji EI, they can technically brush any Kanji. The class had about 15 Roger Williams University’s senior students who were taking a class in Chinese culture. I was there to give a short lesson so students could experience the art of calligraphy.
“Take a minute or two and brush this character,” I said as I passed around a copy of the Kanji EI sample.
Everyone sort of smiled, looking confused at the same time. I walked around the classroom and watched everyone. They were trying to brush a Kanji they have never seen while using a brush they have never touched before. Some looked around them to see what everyone else was doing. Some copied what others were doing. They didn’t know where to begin or what order the strokes were supposed to go. Eventually, there was the “screw it” expression on their faces, and they went for it and brushed something on the paper.
Naturally, every Kanji was different. Some students brushed thick, powerful lines, while others drew thin, delicate ones. Some of them brushed quick; others took their time. There was so much reflection of each of them in the lines they drew. Their mind was transmitted through the brush and into the paper.
I walked around the class looking at their very first piece of Japanese calligraphy.
“Are you always in a rush?”, I asked, and she smiled. Her Kanji looked hastened. The lines looked unfinished, and there was no connection between them. She just wanted to get it over it.
I walked towards another student.
“You must be anal about everything,” another student laughed. Her lines all looked the same— meticulously placed on the paper with care and precision. She also brushed the kanji very small, leaving most of the paper cleaned and intact.
One of my Aikido teachers, Fumio Toyoda Shihan, used to say “technique is your mind.” I tell my culinary students their food is a reflection of their state of mind. Shodo is your mind on paper.
All of these practices, martial arts, cooking, calligraphy, are ways that reflect your mind.
But what the mind?
The Kanji for the mind is Kokoro and is often translated also as the heart. The heart is what keeps us alive. It is the only organ that works by itself- it does not need any other organ to function. However, Kokoro signifies not only the physical heart but also the emotional one. In the west, heart and mind are two separate things, but eastern philosophy makes little distinction between the two. The heart/mind is where emotions, feelings and the Self exist. It is the source of our inner spirit (SHIN 神) and life force (KI 気). Therefore our physical and emotional health is connected to the state of our heart/mind.
Everything you do is a reflection of the Self and the mind. Your habits, your routine, and your moods are all interconnected. You do not know yourself if you have not paid attention to your actions and the outcomes of your work.
You may be unaware of who you are, however, those around you that see your technique, your work, eat your food, they know you very well. This is why I knew who these students were by looking at their lines, because as Norio Yagamuchi says: “ Shodo is a portrait of the heart.”
If you realize you don’t know your mind, that you don’t know yourself, then find a path that will show it to you. Once you see your mind, you will be scared shitless, but then, after you get to know yourself, you will find peace.
I believe the best ways to know your mind is through Martial, Zen, and Shodo training. It is the triangle that combines the gravity, vigor, and sensitivity needed to enrich our lives in a meaningful way.