The Zen Stick

The Zen Stick

I have already mentioned the „zen line” and the „zen stick”. Due to their deep connection to zen buddhism, they often appear in calligraphies of zen masters. And what is so intriguing about these simple lines? Let’s find out together!

(Translated from here)
Translated by Judit Simon

Let’s begin at the beginning. I wrote about the Hitsuzendō (筆禅道) school in my previous article. In this zen calligraphy school two things are  considered fundamental, regardless of whether one is a beginner or a master. One of these is the „zen circle” and the other is the so-called „zen line”. These two form the basis of all practice, in other words they are the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end. The line and the circle is where we start our practice from and this is where we return to over and over again.

Although the circle may not appear in other schools, the line plays an important role everywhere. I have already mentioned that at the beginning of our practice, we all start with drawing vertical and horizontal lines. One might think this is an easy task, but when tried, it soon becomes clear that it is not so! First of all the brush tip reacts to every little movement sensitively, so even a tiny bit of unevenness in our handling the brush will instanty show in the line we are drawing. It is also not easy to draw a straight and even line. Our body has to get used to a new way of writing, i.e when we draw the lines by moving our whole upper body, not the wrist or the arm. It is very difficult to draw an even (and also straight) line without using our body. In order to master this kind of „whole-body-movement’ in the Hitsuzendō (筆禅道) school, the students also practice drawing diagonal lines.
Here is a zen line:

japanese calligraphy

So the „zen line” forms a fundamental part of the practice. „Zen line”, although in a lot of ways similar to „zen stick”, still differs from it. „Zen line” is called mujibo (無字棒), which literally means „not a character line”. This might sound a bit obscure so let me put it this way: mujibo means: „empty line”. Whereas „zen stick”, usually made from bamboo, is called kanabō (金棒), or „iron stick”. This „iron stick” is not the weapon which looks like a flail without the chain.

This stick is called „iron” because it keeps the „devil” away with its power and helps the buddhist monks in their practice. This is a tool with which the master (at the right moment) strikes the student so as to bring his wandering mind back to focusing wholly on his practice.

If we now take a closer look at the „zen sticks” of zen master Hakuin (Hakuin Ekaku, 白 隠 慧鶴, 1685-1768 A.D.) we will find that they sometimes transform into a character or a dragon, accompanied by further teachings written next to the „stick”.

Hakuin Zenji

Here are some other „zen sticks” for further study.

Japanese calligraphy zen sticks