Article and Calligraphy
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Shodo for the West
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.