Review of Brush Meditation: A Japanese Way to Mind & Body Harmony, By H. E. Davey
Reviewed by Dave Lowry
Brush Meditation: A Japanese Way to Mind & Body Harmony (Stone Bridge Press), ISBN 1-880656-47-7, $16.95, soft cover, 144 pages, by H. E. Davey
Strike with the katana, the Japanese long sword. Arrange a blossom in that brief interval after it's been cut, before it withers. Whisk a bowl of tea into a perfect froth. Seemingly disparate activities, yet each demands a similar sense of irrevocable action; absolute commitment; total coordination of mind and body. Once begun, none can be retracted. The consequences of each are obvious: a blunder is, if anything, more manifest than a flawless execution. In perhaps no other Japanese form of creative impulse is this concept of ichi-go, ichi-e--"one encounter, one chance"--more dramatic or obvious than when the calligrapher first touches an ink-wet brush to the dry expanse of white paper before him. Shodo, the Way of the Brush, exemplifies the spirit of Japanese art. In its potential for artistic expression contained within the rigid demands of form lies the challenge and the infinite reward of all the classical Ways of Japan.
From the budo (martial arts) to kado (or ikebana) to chado, the discipline of the tea ceremony, the range of these traditional Japanese Ways introduced to the West in the past half century has been extensive. Shodo, for the most part, remains an exception. The elegant art of the Japanese brush has, in large degree, been overlooked by Westerners in pursuit of the various Ways.
Instruction outside Japan is limited. There are a few books on the subject; nearly all focussed on technical aspects of the art or else scholarly in direction, devoted to tracing the development of brush writing from its origins in China to its importation and evolution in Japan. In pleasant contrast, H. E. Davey's new book, Brush Meditation: A Japanese Way to Mind & Body Harmony, takes a unique approach in introducing shodo to the general public outside Japan. Quoting calligrapher Kobara Ranseki, who notes that "Every time I teach, I explain that art is balance," the author adopts a similar strategy in presenting shodo: a balanced one. The philosophical underpinnings of the craft are juxtaposed with practical advice on how to sit when practicing calligraphy, how to grasp the brush, what to look for in the shape and proper structure of the written character. Chapters are nicely balanced, with a history of ecriture in China and Japan, followed by an exploration of the mind-body connexions pursued by the student of calligraphy.
Then comes a chapter on the correct attitudes and habits of the shodoka ("calligrapher"), and finally one featuring instructions for calligraphic compositions and projects. The result is a well-organized, comprehensive introduction to the Way of the brush, with a number of points to recommend it.
As one reads through the book, another, incidentally, from Stone Bridge Press which is rapidly gaining a reputation as a quality purveyor of books about Japan, some observations occur. Included in the closing chapter are directions for brushing an enso, for example, the smooth circle of ink that is a provenance and signature of the Zen adept. Despite the do-it-yourself enso, Zen's overall contributions to shodo are given a mercifully short shrift here. The overemphasis on this sect of exoteric Buddhism in Western literature on all the Japanese Do ("Ways") has far eclipsed other equally important influences on them. Native Shinto sensibilities, Taoist cosmology, the arcane lore of mikkyo Buddhist teachings: all have been consistently ignored in the interpretation of Japan's arts. And so Davey's dismissal of all calligraphy produced by Zen adepts as being necessarily great or even competent is refreshing. On the other hand, a great deal is made in this book of the operation and importance of ki energies during shodo. This may irritate some readers impatient with the over-mystification of ki which has become practically a cottage industry among too many non-Japanese authors bent on draping Japan's artistic forms in impenetrable mysticism. In the author's defense, it must be noted that he is a no-nonsense pragmatist when it comes to ki. He is using the concept primarily as a way of explaining the control of energy, the conscious expression of spirit, the flow of intent from the mind of the shodoka to the brush in his hand to the flowering of the character on paper.
Davey struggles a bit when he explains the actual mechanics of making the three basic strokes of brush calligraphy. That is understandable. The simplest basic of any Do is impossible to describe through words alone. Ask the chajin (tea ceremony student), for instance, to try to write directions for the basics of fukusa-sabaki. These are techniques which, common to all the Ways, simply cannot be adequately explained in print, nor mastered unless one is directly under the tutelage of a teacher. This book introduces the skills and makes no claims to do more in that regard. As much as any "how-to" text, instructions for controlling the line and shape of written characters are clear, detailed, and sufficient to compel the reader to take out ink, brush, and paper, and to "give it a try." The book's usefulness and value, in addition to providing the technical basics of calligraphy, however, lies in the broader scope of rendering for the reader the process of undertaking shodo, or any of the Japanese artistic disciplines. Brush Meditation addresses a number of concepts that should occupy the calligrapher as well as anyone with an interest in these Ways. The author warns, for example, about the pitfalls of boredom, repetition, and the constant demand of systematic practice, and his comments on overcoming these are illuminating. His discussion of the spiritual component that elevates craft into art is informed and inspiring. He describes wonderfully the conflict between a natural spontaneity--which is the goal of anyone following a Do--and the vital adherence to a set form-which is vital to achieving that goal.
"If your mind is correct, the brush will be correct," the author reminds. The adage is equally valid contrapuntally. Beautiful calligraphy emanates from a correctly tuned mind. This is clearly Davey's motivation and intent for following in the path of the brush. His view of shodo is as a means of personal transformation and self-cultivation; his book is directed at sharing this perspective. Brush Meditation offers a splendid glimpse into the discipline of Japanese calligraphy as more than a purely artistic or communicative medium. It is an enjoyable read, one that educates as it stimulates the imagination, and is sure to be a welcome, quickly ink-stained addition to the library of those with a serious interest in the Ways of traditional Japan.
Mr. Dave Lowry literally grew up in the Japanese cultural arts. As a boy, he commenced a lifelong study of Yagyu Shinkage Ryu swordsmanship under a Japanese teacher who was living in Missouri. In 1985, Mr. Lowry's experiences growing up as a Westerner, who was deeply immersed in Japanese cultural and martial arts, formed the basis for Autumn Lightning (Shambhala), his first book, which was widely acclaimed. His sequel to this book, Persimmon Wind, was recently published by Tuttle.
In addition to Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, Mr. Lowry has trained in karate-do and a variety of modern martial ways. His current and primary martial arts activities are focused on Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, Shindo Muso Ryu (an old combative art utilizing a four-foot staff), and aikido.
He is heavily involved with the Japanese community in the St. Louis area, and he has practiced a wide variety of Japanese arts including go (an ancient Japanese game), shodo (calligraphy), kado (flower arrangement), and chado (tea ceremony). Mr. Lowry is also active in the organization and running of the St. Louis Japanese Festival, the largest such festival in North America. He is on the Executive Board of the St. Louis Japanese Festival as well, and he is the President of the St. Louis-Suwa Sister City Committee.
Mr. Dave Lowry has a degree in English, and works as a professional writer. He has authored numerous books, including Sword and Brush (Shambhala); his monthly columns appear in several martial arts magazines, and he is the restaurant critic for St. Louis Magazine.