Lecture on Zen and Calligraphy


The following is the text of a talk I gave on zen and calligraphy during the Open day of Hangarii Shorakukai.

(Translated from here)
Translated by Judit Simon


„Zen teaching is like  a window. At first we look at it, and see only a dim reflection of our own face. But as we learn, and our vision becomes clear, the teaching becomes clear. Until at last it is perfectly transparent. We see through it. We see all things: our own face.”

 (from the book Dropping ashes on the Buddha by zen master Seung Sahn)




Zen (禅, Chinese: chan, classical Chinese: 禪)

Etymology: the word is derived  from the sanskrit word dhyāna or the pali jhāna , both meaning „absorption” or meditative state.

According to zen tradition, when Shakyamuni Buddha (Japanese: Shaka釈迦 or Shakyamuni Butsu) stayed at Vulture Peak in Grdhrakuta mountain, he twirled a flower in his finger and held it before his congregation. Everyone was silent. Only Mahākāśyapa  (Japanese: Daikashou 大迦葉 or Maka Kasho Sonja) wholeheartedly smiled. Buddha said, 'I have the eye of the true teaching, the heart of Nirvana, the formless form, the mysterious gate of Dharma. Beyond the words and beyond all teachings to be transmitted, I now pass this on to Maha Kashapa. This famous teaching later became one of the four key principles of zen.


The Four Key Principles of Zen:

1.    an independent transmission apart from written scriptures (教外別傳, kyōge betsuden)
2.    not relying on words and letters (不立文字, furyū monji)
3.    directly pointing to the human mind, in order to realize the Buddha-nature (直指人心, jikishi ninshin)
4.    awakening to one’s original Nature and thus becoming a Buddha (見性成佛, kenshō jōbutsu)

The historical Bodhidharma (known as Daruma  達磨 in Japan) who lived  in the sixth century AD.  is commonly considered the founder of  Chan (Zen) Buddhism. He was the 28th patriarch of Indian Buddhism and the 1st patriarch of zen buddhism.

Lineage of patriarchs:

1.    Bodhidharma (達磨) ( 440 – 528 A.D.) (Jp. Daruma Daishi)
2.    Huike (慧可) (487 – 593 A.D.) (Jp. Niso Eka Daishi)
3.    Sengcan (僧燦) (? - 606 A.D.) (Jp. Sanso Kanchi Zenji)
4.    Daoxin (道信) (580 – 651 A.D.) (Jp. Doshin Dai’i Zenji)
5.    Hongren (弘忍) (601 – 674) A.D. (Jp. Gunin Daiman Zenji)
6.    Huineng (慧能 vagy慧能) (638 – 713 A.D.) (Jp. Eno Daikan Zenji)

By the eighth century, the early chan school had been split in two: Northern chan and Southern chan (zen). Huineng is considered the founder of the "Sudden Enlightenment”or Southern Chan school of Buddhism. As opposed to the Southern School or Rinzai-shū (臨 済宗) which uses kōan introspection (公案) in its practice, the Northern School  Sōtō-shū (曹洞宗) focuses on the gradual attainment of enlightenment through meditation.


Zen in Japan

Dōgen Zenji  (道元禅師; also known as Dōgen Kigen 道元希玄, or Eihei Dōgen 永平道元, or Koso Joyo Daishi 19 January 1200 – 22 September 1253 A.D.) introduced the sōtō school to Japan after his return from China in 1227 or 1228 A.D. The  rinzai school was established by Eisai Zenji (栄西禅師, or Myōan Eisai 明菴栄西, 20 April 1141 – 5 July 1215 A.D.) after finishing a seven-year zen practice in China in 1191.


Zen Practice zazen (坐禅)

Zen meditation ( zazen 座禅 or 坐禪) is a „seated” meditation. It can be practised either facing the wall of the zendō  or turning away from it, depending on the given school's practice. The school following the rinzai (臨済宗) lineage, led by Shōdō Harada rōshi [Harada Shōdō rōshi (1940-) 原田正道] uses the practice of  susokkan or breath-counting as a meditation technique.

Traditionally the following practices form part of the zen monastic life: sanzen (参禅) personal discourse with the master, kōan (公案) studying, samu (作務) work, sesshin (接心/摂心/攝心) intensive practice period, teisho (提唱) teachings given by the master, takuhatsu (托鉢) alms gathering.


Clear Mind or Mindlessness

„Clear mind” or mindlessness”, is a key notion of buddhist philosophy and  zen practice. We can often read or hear that through practising zazen the aim is to reach mindlessness and attain kenshō (見性)  or satori (悟 り) – enlightenment. Here we need to point out that a clear mind is not a mind without thoughts. There are thoughts, but the mind does not cling to any of these. There is no judgement, there is no good or bad. The mind is free and open, not fixed or occupied by thought or emotion. Takuan Sōhō (沢庵 宗彭) calls this the „Unfettered mind” (Fudōchi Shinmyōroku, 不動智神妙録), where the mind is like a still pond, clearly reflecting everything  without attaching itself to thoughts or emotions.


Takuan teaches the same idea of „no-mind” in martial arts where the swordsman also needs to attain this state. An unmoved/impartial mind has no form thus it ceases to be „mind”. Mind becomes „no-mind”.

Zen Calligraphy (shodō, 書道)

"Iaido, like zen, is very popular,
But to practise zen  is by no means popular."

(Kozhuharov Ognjan: Iaido Seitei)

(Translated from here)
Transleted by Judit Simon

Maybe it is not an overstatement to say that Japanese arts go back for their inner form to a common root, Buddhism. When we try to comprehend the different "Ways" in Japan, we will soon find that they are all  impregnated with the same spirit: the spirit of zen buddhism. This applies for all kinds of art forms from archery to sumi-e painting, calligraphy, acting, dance, tea ceremony, ikebana  and swordsmanship. How is this possible? Because zen is not mere speculation. It is experience. It is much  more about  intuitive cognition than abstractive knowledge which we can define, nail down or explain.

This notion clearly manifests itself in zen archery where the bowman unites himself with the target to the extent that he finally becomes one with it. In this oneness the archer and his target become inseparable. If he does this, his arrow will eventually hit himself, the Buddha and the target all at once. Archery becomes the artless art, motionless motion. That is the true manifestation of zen.

Kendō, or the way of the sword is connected to zen in a very similar way. Takuan Sōhō (沢庵 宗彭) zen master explained this connection in the early 17th  century. A central thought of his was the notion of the "motionless", freely responding mind. This free, spontaneous reaction is the secret to the warrior's victory. Taisen Deshimaru (弟子丸泰仙) also points out that since zen and swordsmanship is all about the same thing: the self's fight with itself, both should be practised with the deepest devotion until "one's last day".

Tea ceremony is not only closely related to zen buddhism, but it also takes its roots in it.It originates from the tea-drinking gatherings of Japanese monks who, before taking their tea, made offerings to various deities. Zen buddhist monks became the first tea masters and the Japanese tea ceremony began to evolve its own aesthetic. Tea ceremony dates back to the 15th-16th century when Japanese masters like Murata Shukō (村田珠光, 1423-1502 C.E.) or Sen no Rikyū (千利休, 1522-21 April 1591 C.E.) perfected the art of tea-drinking, developing it into a  fully spiritual practice.A tea master aspires to be more than an artist - he wishes to become one with his art. The aim is to reach total unity. A tea master becomes one with his art  like a zen archer becomes one with his target. There is no clear boundary between the mind and the hand, action and non-action.
Ikebana, the art of flower arrangement evolved parallel to tea ceremonies. First it was looked upon as the art of tea masters. Unlike colourful western flower arrangements, ikebana  is never voluminuous. It usually employs only a few stalks and leaves or blossoms, in that respect  being very much like the brush strokes of a calligraphy piece.Since it forms a harmonious whole with its surroundings, ikebana can only be appreciated fully in the environment it was created for.

Calligraphy has its connections to buddhism, too, although we can say that it also functioned  independently from it. Over the centuries many calligraphy schools have been established. They do not differ much in their teaching styles or the brushing techniques they employ. Differences show in the forming of a particular kanji or kana. If we take a look at the school that Hangarii Shorakukai (ハンガリー書楽会) belongs to, we can see that in the horizontal lines there is always a slight
break. This is a very significant attribute of the strokes.

Zen calligraphy does not have such distinctive features. On the contrary, its significance lies in not having any of those. If we examine the calligraphies of zen masters we will be more likely to note the differences than the similarities. Of course, there are certain styles in zen calligraphy, too, like the so-called Daitoku-ji (大徳寺) style, founded by Ikkyū Sōjun (一休宗純, 1394-1481 C.E.). He was an abbot of the monastery , which functioned as a zen centre at that time. This style prevailed for many years and was revived during the Edo-era. This style is characterized by dry, open brush strokes, the frequent  employment of flying whites that give a spontaneous openness to the characters.

We might often hear our calligraphy master say that all our movements should start from the hara (腹) or the tanden (丹田) so the brush can move of itself, in accord with the rhythm of the flowing life force. This idea originates from zen and ancient Chinese healing, according to which all life energy is concentrated in the centre of the body, two finger widths below the navel. This is the point from which the swordsman begins his movements, and this is the area we focus on  in zen meditation. From here the inner energy, or force "ki" (気) can flow  into the brush and through that into the ink and the paper. This life force, called bokki (墨氣 vagy 墨気), the energy of ink, shines through the calligraphies as we view them.

It is taught that zen calligraphy also involves other aspects of brush-handling techniques and this way transcends other calligraphy schools. A notion can manifest itself in a single line like the ensō (圓相) or a sumi-e painting.

Zen calligraphy aims to reveal the condition of "no-mind" or mushin (無心) through its artworks. Ultimate creation springs from this state, which is beyond thought, expectation or emotion. Besides mushin, shōnen sōzoku (正念承續), the state referred to in buddhism as the "real thought" is also expressed in calligraphies. Shōnen means the state of profound concentration, while sōzoku stands for "free-flowing continuity". Grandness cannot be attained through conscious effort, only through theses states which are free from thought, idea and anything that can distract the mind from being fully focused.

Almost all contemporary calligraphy schools point out that works of art should come to life from conscious concentration, as a result of artistic wholeness. In spite of this, we can rarely see truly outstanding, lively artworks.Since Zen masters create their calligraphy masterpieces in a  state of "no-mindedness" (a state where the mind flows freely and ultimate concentration can be attained), their works are fresh and original,  full of energy. Master Sen no Rikyū believed that a tea-room should be decorated with nothing else but a piece of calligraphy. He was certain that only the kind of art that truly reflects the vitality of zen can lead the mind towards enlightenment. He realized that calligraphy inevitably  followed high-level spirituality. A perfect brush stroke can only be drawn with a hand led by a compassionate mind. A calligraphy that reflects deep thoughts cannot be created with a wandering mind filled with superfluous thoughts. A kanji that can reveal  its innermost meaning to the viewer must be written by a master who has attained oneness of mind through meditation and understanding. Thus one must carry on practising until they completely forget the brush and only concentrate on the strokes. Students of calligraphy should not even be attached to their brush. All concentration should be focused on what is happening on the paper. Most people tend to cut the flow of their concentration as soon as the character
is completed. When flawless concentration is attained, everything melts into an undisturbed, peaceful awareness. As all characters invisibly join together, ki  will flow freely and perfect unity will be reached.

Brush strokes manifest out of emptiness at the moment the brush touches the paper. The brush starts to move towards the paper to create a stroke so this way the touch already contains the stroke as ot touches the paper. When the brush is done, it retreats, leaving behind the shadow of emotion, the awareness of all things being transient. The brush should move evenly, led by flawless concentration. 

It is characteristic of contemporary calligraphy schools to value highly the execution of  precise, well-burshed kanji, which are pleasing to the eye. In zen calligraphy schools, like  Hitsuzendō (筆禅道), the emphasis is placed on brushing energetic calligraphies. A character like this is not the result of conscious effort, but of concentrated unity where we forget the "self". This state is called sammai or sanmai (三昧) in Japanese. Old masters maybe all aspired to attain enlightenment so aesthetic beauty was never a goal to reach in  zen calligraphy.

In Hitsuzendō school there are two exercises that are closely related to buddhism. One of them is Yōki-hō or the gathering of ki and warming-up, and the other is Kūsho or writing in the air. Yōki-hō is usually practiced in the morning to improve the senses and in the evening to purify the body from bad experiences. In the short, five-minute version we first do long prostrations then sit in seiza (正座). Focusing on the tanden, we concentrate on our breathing. When we breathe out we release all the stress from the body. Then we use a visualization technique of Hakuin Ekaku's (白隠 慧鶴, 1685-1769 C.E.) in which we first focus on the crown of the head, the crown chakra, picturing an egg-sized piece of balm. This piece of balm slowly starts melting from the outpouring heat of our heart and flows into our body. After wholly purifying it, it leaves the body through the legs. Then we extract the spiritual energy from the ground and drive it up into the tanden. We fill with this energy the centre of our body, then radiate it out into space. Then we repeat the same procedure, now with the energy of the heavens, first driving it into the body, then radiating it out into the infinite distance.

The exercise of Kūsho is attributed to Kūkai (空海, 774-835  C.E. or Kōbō-Daishi, 弘法大師). This usually follows the previously mentioned warming-up exercise. Here we write in the air with our hand. First we clearly grasp the picture of a character (kanji) with our mind, (for example the kanji of mu (無). Then we write it in the air as if our hand and arm were the brush. We move lightly and freely. We can also practise it as if we were firmly rooted in the ground. This time we write the character as if our whole body was the brush. We let our upper body move easily and freely with big, spacious sweeps. We should always write with a focused mind and body. We can further enhance the effectiveness of this exercise by closing our eyes and not using our arms, this way making it possible for our body to "see" the shape of the character. We can also try this with arms stretched out over our head or pressed to the sides of our body. This exercise helps our body  get tuned to the calligraphy practice.