Tuesday, December 9, 2008

An Article by H. E. Davey, Sennin Foundation Director

Shodo: Japanese Brush Meditation
Article and Calligraphy by H. E. Davey

More and more Americans are captivated by Japan’s traditional art forms. In the 21st century, it’s almost as common for children to participate in martial arts like judo as to play baseball. Your wife may study Japanese flower arrangement, while you read the latest book on Zen released by a major American publisher. Although classical Japanese arts have grown in popularity, they aren’t inevitably well understood, and not everyone realizes that martial arts (budo), flower arrangement (kado), tea ceremony (chado), and other activities are actually spiritual paths.
Note that the terms for each of these disciplines end in the word “do,” which means the “way,” as in a way of life leading to spiritual realization. Not only are such arts more than what’s seen on the surface, numerous other activities were “spiritualized” in ancient Japan. Many of these arts are little known in the West, or at least little understood. One of the most popular arts in Japan, also ending with the designation “do,” is shodo—the “way of brush calligraphy.” Western participation in shodo is much smaller than in Japan, and many people have never heard of it.

Of course, a few American art connoisseurs may have seen shodo in museums or books, and some young people in the USA sport tattoos of Japanese characters. Still, even Westerners that know of shodo seem to think that it’s too esoteric, or too difficult to read, to be accessible to most non-Japanese.

I’m living proof that this needn’t be the case.

Discovering Shodo
I began practicing martial arts at age five, tutored by my father, who had studied these arts initially from Japanese-Americans. He later lived in Japan, where his martial arts study continued and intensified.
In addition to the aiki-jujutsu that I learned from my dad, I enrolled in a local judo school. Even as a child, I admired the beautiful Japanese brush writing on the walls of our dojo, or training hall. I didn’t know what it said, but I knew I liked it.
Skipping ahead a few years, I grew interested in painting and drawing in high school and majored in art in college. I also began studying Japanese language, meditation, and healing. And I still admired the calligraphy I saw in homes and businesses of Japanese-American friends, but no teacher of shodo was available to me.
Jumping forward even further, in 1981, I formed the Sennin Foundation Center for Japanese Cultural Arts in Northern California. The primary focus of study at the Sennin Foundation Center is Shin-shin-toitsu-do, the “Way of Mind and Body Unification.” Shin-shin-toitsu-do is a form of Japanese yoga and meditation created in the early 1900s by Nakamura Tempu Sensei. In addition to Japanese yoga, the Sennin Foundation Center offers instruction in Japanese healing arts and martial arts (aiki-jujutsu). I teach all three arts, and over the years, I’ve developed teachers to assist me. However, I also wanted to offer my students optional instruction in brush writing. Unfortunately, in 1981, I’d still hadn’t found a shodo teacher that I wanted to study under.

Practice Begins
After searching for years, in 1986, I met Kobara Ranseki Sensei, one of the most skilled shodo artists living outside of Japan. Deeply impressed, I began practicing with Kobara Sensei, originator of the Ranseki Sho Juku of San Francisco. Kobara Sensei has evolved a distinctive type of shodo and a creative program of instruction. He has, moreover, received numerous awards for excellence from various shodo associations as well as the Japanese government. With his help, I was in time able to exhibit my artwork annually at the International Shodo Exhibition in Japan, where I’ve also received awards, including Jun Taisho—the “Associate Grand Prize.” In 1993, I received Shihan-dai teaching certification, the highest rank in Ranseki Sho Juku calligraphy.
Upon receiving certification, I began offering my students of Shin-shin-toitsu-do instruction in shodo. Like Shin-shin-toitsu-do, shodo is a “way,” traditionally functioning in Japan as both fine art and moving meditation. As such, it’s ideal for students of Shin-shin-toitsu-do or any type of meditation.
Yet some of my students were intimidated by the “foreignness” of shodo, and few Westerners seem to grasp how it functions as dynamic meditation that leads to deeper concentration, willpower, and calmness. To counteract this lack of understanding, I authored Brush Meditation: A Japanese Way to Mind & Body Harmony in 1999. And I hope this article will also lead to a greater appreciation of shodo and its spiritual components in the West.

The Roots of Shodo
Around 2700 BC, according to Chinese tradition, an enigmatic man with four eyes called Tsangh-hsieh created the first Chinese characters. Captivated by the footprints of beasts and birds, he gave birth to the earliest Chinese system of writing. The God of Heaven was believed to have been so moved by Tsangh-hsieh's bird-based characters that he made grain drop from the clouds as a symbol of his happiness with humankind.

Unfortunately for our four-eyed friend, archaeology paints a different picture. Drawings engraved on pieces of tortoise shell and oracle bone date from the Shang Period in China, which is from 1766-1122 BC. These pictures were the archetypes of Chinese characters.
Ancient shamans would bore holes in the shells and/or bones, which were then placed in a sacred fire. The surfaces of these objects would crack and split. Chinese priests, who etched their impressions of “The Voice of Heaven” on the bone or shell using simple sketches, deciphered the resulting fissures. Eventually these pictographs were utilized for legal transactions, conducted via the exchange of etched strips of bamboo or wood. Later, such writings came into religious and official usage as bell inscriptions.
Much later in history, these inscriptions developed into the kanji, or “Chinese characters,” that Japanese and Chinese are familiar with today. Various script styles, such as kaisho (similar to printing in English), gyosho (a semi-cursive script), and sosho (an abstract, cursive form of writing), eventually evolved.
Starting around 552 AD, many elements of Chinese culture came to the Japanese island nation. Chinese characters also arrived on Japan's shores during this era.
Japan had a spoken language, but no system of writing at this time. Thus, the Chinese method of written communication was readily adopted. Initially the Japanese used the entire multitude of Chinese scripts, embracing quite a few of the Chinese readings while adding as many of their own. Characters were later modified in Japan, and new phonetic scripts called hiragana and katakana were born.

An Ink Painting of the Spirit
The spoken languages and cultures of Japan and China differ greatly, but they share a common set of Asian characters, which although pronounced differently by Chinese and Japanese, often convey similar meanings. It’s important to note here that while these characters are utilized for written communication, Japanese calligraphy should not be thought of as just penmanship. In light of the fact that Chinese characters began as simplified drawings or pictograms, it’s evident that no clear-cut dividing line can be found between drawing, ink painting (sumi-e), and calligraphy. Ink painting and shodo originally used the same brush, ink, and paper. Even certain brush strokes are similar. Shodo can be thought of as a system of writing and abstract art originally based on abbreviated drawings. In characters like mountain (yama), for example, it’s still easy to see three mountain peaks.
Kanji transcended their utilitarian function and collectively serve as visually stirring fine art. Shodo allows the dynamic movement of the artist’s ki ("spirit") to become observable in the form of rich black ink. In great examples of shodo, you sense the rhythm of music as well as the elegant balanced construction of refined architecture. Many practitioners feel that the visible rhythm of Japanese calligraphy ultimately embodies a picture of the mind, and calligraphers recognize that it discloses our spiritual state. This recognition is summed up by the saying: Kokoro tadashikereba sunawachi fude tadashii—"If your mind is correct, the brush will be correct."

Shodo and Mind and Body Harmony
With a bit of thought, it’s apparent that the mind controls the body. Based on this line of thought, it is equally clear that the actions of the body serve as a reflection of the mind. Witness the slumped posture of someone who’s depressed and the shaking hand of a nervous student about to take an exam.
In like manner, in shodo the mind controls the brush through the hand, and the lines the brush creates reflect the mind. In this way, shodo functions as an outer reflection of our mental state.
Some Japanese calligraphers and psychologists have written books on the examination of personality through calligraphy. Just as American companies have employed handwriting analysts to help them select the best individuals for executive posts, the Japanese traditionally expected their leaders in any field to display refined, serene script.
It is even said that health defects are revealed in byohitsu, “sick strokes.” This stems from the belief that brush strokes unveil the state of the body and subconscious mind—its strengths and weaknesses—at the moment the brush is put to paper. It has also been held that the subconscious can be influenced positively by copying consummate examples of calligraphy by extraordinary individuals. Tradition teaches that using this technique, you cultivate strength of character akin to the artist being copied.
Even today, some of Japan’s highest executives and politicians endeavor to develop traits for success by reproducing the artwork of an emperor or famous religious leader. At its ultimate level, shodo has historically been regarded as a means of refining personality.
What’s more, most people want to realize their greatest personal potential. We want to bring the full force of our minds and bodies to bear upon whatever we do in life. Yet for many of us, it’s difficult to coordinate the mind and body. The body may turn the pages of a magazine or the steering wheel of a car, but our minds are frequently elsewhere. Such lack of attention becomes visibly apparent in shodo, and thus Japanese calligraphy serves as a means of learning how to unite the mind and body. Just as a car only functions well when the front and rear wheels move in the identical direction, we only display our full potential when the mind and body harmoniously work toward a related aim.
In shodo, thoughts and actions must match, and we must direct the full, coordinated energy of the mind and body into the artwork we create. Failure to do so causes characters to end up where we hadn’t intended, lines to nervously quiver, and the overall creation to lack vigor and grace. In essence, shodo offers Americans the same benefit it has traditionally offered Japanese—an instantaneous, visible barometer of mind and body unification.

Shodo for the West
Just as many Western people appreciate jazz, rock and roll, or blues without being able to read music, so can Americans appreciate shodo when they’re properly exposed to it. Since shodo is an abstract art, it’s not strictly necessary to be able to read Chinese characters or Japanese phonetic scripts to admire the dynamic beauty of shodo. Within Japanese calligraphy, we find the essential elements that constitute all art: creativity, poise, rhythm, gracefulness, and the beauty of line. While shodo is a fun way to learn about Japanese language, initial lack of Japanese reading ability needn’t be a stumbling block to shodo appreciation, and the universal aspects of shodo can be recognized and admired by every culture.
Bringing the mind fully into the immediate moment, realizing mind and body harmony, seeing directly into the actual character of the mind—all of this relates to meditation and all of these points are part of shodo. Shodo remains one of ancient Japan’s most sophisticated arts of moving meditation.

About the Author: H. E. Davey is the Director of the Sennin Foundation Center for Japanese Cultural Arts, which is based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He can be reached at
www.senninfoundation.com and by telephone at 510-526-7518 (evenings). He is the author of the books Brush Meditation: A Japanese Way to Mind & Body Harmony, Japanese Yoga: The Way of Dynamic Meditation, The Japanese Way of the Flower: Ikebana as Moving Meditation, Living the Japanese Arts & Ways: 45 Paths to Meditation & Beauty, and Unlocking the Secrets of Aiki-jujutsu.