Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Why 書道 is so difficult, and why I do it

It was over 8 years ago that I met Sogen Roshi, who at that point had had some medical issues. He was a pretty accomplished calligrapher in Japan; and he graciously made for me 2 works. To see him work, putting his "spirit" into the works, was simply amazing to me. Years earlier I had gone to Zen Mountain monastery on a beginner's retreat, and there was about an hour or so where calligraphy was practiced. I'd thought I had no capability in this area, but one of the folks there had encouraged me, saying in essence that one's "capability" in this area was a preconceived notion, especially if one hadn't done it before. So, after seeing Sogen Roshi do this, I was quite intrigued. This man could put ink - handmade, mindfully made ink - on paper with a brush and he could leave himself everywhere. 

After returning home I started every now and then to use the 書道 set I'd acquired a couple of years earlier. And it's difficult. Forget the issues of stroke order in 漢字  - stroke order is vitally important to writing the characters, but it is hardly even the beginning of doing this well. There is also the issue of "seeing" the characters on the paper before they're written, getting each character in proportion to the next. Then there are the variables of the type of brush being used, the type of paper being used, the quantity of ink on the brush, and the viscosity of the ink, what part of the brush is being used, and how much force is used to apply the inky brush to the paper. All of these play a role in how the ink is transferred to the paper, and each encounter of human, brush, and paper is unique. So yeah, it's good mindfulness practice. But beyond that, like 詠春拳, it's something difficult, and it's good to learn something difficult outside of one's own experience.  Oddly enough, though, the selection of subject matter seems to be pretty easy compared to the execution of it all.

I hope in the coming year to do much more of it.  Thankfully every now and then something gets on paper that's better than I thought it would be.  I also keep meeting experience when I do this, and practice continues that way.  Hopefully that's true in my day to day interactions with others as well.

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