Author Topic: Zen Calligraphy  (Read 7567 times)

Offline Erica McPhee

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Re: Zen Calligraphy
« Reply #15 on: February 08, 2016, 02:40:05 PM »
I find this topic very interesting!  :)
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Offline AAAndrew

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Re: Zen Calligraphy
« Reply #16 on: February 08, 2016, 05:36:31 PM »
I've been thinking a bit about this concept of "calligraphy" as practice, as mindfulness practice, and as zen practice. Not all quite the same thing.

Tools and materials comes to mind as central to my, "confusion" is too strong of a word, perhaps, "caution" might be a better term.  When you said that you know someone practicing zen calligraphy with a brush and English words, it made me pause. I tried to explore why it would make me pause.

On the one hand, it could be another case of relatively benign cultural appropriation. Brush calligraphy is not a tradition in English speaking countries, but then using another culture's tools, and religious terminology, if not the practice, but within your own cultural context of your language could be seen as falling somewhere in that grey area of appropriation and cultural enrichment. I do not plan on tackling that topic here.

On the other hand, there is something about the brush, as opposed to the steel or reed pen, or even the quill, that seems to lend itself to a more fluid movement. That fluidity seems to be in synch with the idea of releasing from constraints, or "letting go" that seems to be important to Euro/American ideas of Zen.

But, if you've ever tried to study traditional Chinese or Japanese or Korean calligraphy, it is anything but spontaneous, easy and fluid.

Just as in any art form, in order to get to the stage when you can become spontaneous with the brush, such as running or grass script, you first have to learn the rules and conventions so you know what and when to break them for a given effect.

One aspect of traditional brush and ink on silk or paper that differs somewhat from pen and ink on paper or vellum, is that the performance of the writer is foregrounded in the brush tradition, and only incidental to the pen and ink tradition. When you make a mark with a brush and traditional Chinese inks, you cannot take it back or disguise it. There's no writing over a stroke to fill it out. Once it's down, it's down. That's why my old Chinese painting teacher called it primarily a performance art. It also helps that all Chinese and Japanese and Korean characters/kana etc... have a very specific order in which the strokes are laid down. You can look at any character that's written and know exactly in what order the person wrote it: first this stroke, than that stroke written always in the same way.

Between the nature of the medium, brush and ink, and the nature of the written language, specific stroke order, any knowledgeable observer of a piece of calligraphy from that area of the world can recreate the exact performance of the artist.

Even great calligraphers in this school who take this to true Zen extremes and their writing is so broken with the conventions that no one can even read it, it still looks like writing. They've taken it past the necessity for "reading" and deciphering words. The words, after all, just distract us and put up barriers to a deeper understanding of the reality of samsara. What is left, is the contemplation of the performance of the brush. The action becomes the meaning. (as well as pointing out the futility of words and how we cling so hard to them that we try to find meaning in the words that are not there.

The closest I've seen to this are those calligraphers who write nonsense that seem to be words, but are not. I remember some thread on this not long after I joined. Some reject this as calligraphy at all, because of the foregrounded nature of the word, including its meaning and not just its shape.

How would you blend these two traditions together with a brush? Would you really be able to master the brush for western letter forms in such a way that the performance, rather than the words themselves, becomes foremost? Traditionally, the ultimate example of zen calligraphy is the simple painting of a circle with a single stroke. What would be the equivalent with English?

That's why I'm curious to see what those who claim this are doing, yet also somewhat cautious about the final results. Does it come from a real understanding of Zen philosophy, Zen practice, Zen traditions, or is it just appropriating the word to appropriate the authority and richness of Zen, as a byword to signify something "other" and thus something attractive?

For the same reasons, but I find the abuses much greater, in the whole Feng Shui movement that was big some years ago. But that's for a whole other off-topic thread. (warning, don't get me started)

And I don't claim to be a big expert on Zen either, but I was a minor in Buddhist studies throughout my bachelors, master's and Ph.D. work in Asian art history. I worked closely with Buddhists of various schools, and studied the art, history and traditional culture of China and Japan. Alas my knowledge of Korea is much more shallow. My training in traditional brush painting and calligraphy is rather shallow as well, or at least I didn't get much past bamboo, orchids and pine trees. And that was long ago.

So, with that all said, I would love to see what these practitioners are doing, and to hear from someone who does practice purposely meditative calligraphy in a western or hybrid tradition. Or someone with a counter view of things. Or both.  :D
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Offline SunnyMoni

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Re: Zen Calligraphy
« Reply #17 on: February 08, 2016, 06:51:05 PM »
I really appreciate your well thought out reply. I'm going to think about everything you've said for a while before I reply.
Monica

Offline AndyT

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Re: Zen Calligraphy
« Reply #18 on: February 08, 2016, 08:19:25 PM »
Andrew, if you can track down a copy of Michael Gullick's "Words of Risk", I expect you would find it interesting.

Offline AAAndrew

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Re: Zen Calligraphy
« Reply #19 on: February 09, 2016, 07:04:15 AM »
Andrew, if you can track down a copy of Michael Gullick's "Words of Risk", I expect you would find it interesting.

I'm going to be dropping by John Neal Books today, they have a copy, soon I will have a copy. Thanks for the recommendation.
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Offline AndyT

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Re: Zen Calligraphy
« Reply #20 on: February 09, 2016, 09:41:10 AM »
Crikey.  I was thinking in terms of the library ... hope you don't wind up cursing me.   :-\

Offline jeanwilson

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Re: Zen Calligraphy
« Reply #21 on: February 10, 2016, 10:07:41 AM »
I've been thinking a bit about this concept of "calligraphy" as practice, as mindfulness practice, and as zen practice. Not all quite the same thing.

<snip>

So, with that all said, I would love to see what these practitioners are doing, and to hear from someone who does practice purposely meditative calligraphy in a western or hybrid tradition. Or someone with a counter view of things. Or both.  :D

AAAndrew: Your long post was such an interesting post to read. I thought there might be more responses.
As I see it, any discussion of art, religion, or philosophy stirs up an endless stream of opinions with very little agreement.
It never bothers me to say things like zen-like about art or things that remind me of the few things I have learned about Zen. Zen reminds me of the Shakers. They had a very minimalist view - and their art/craft might be described as zen-like. Other forms of art are much more detailed. I believe that there are a couple major religions that even consider calligraphy to be sacred. Such interesting topics - which could eat up a lot of time in research.

It doesn't bother me when people embrace snippets of teachings from other religions. To embrace some of the teaching from Zen masters is no different from a non-Christian embracing the Sermon on the Mount - and saying, gee, these are very good ideas - they inspire me. I might letter a few and hang them on my wall. We are all free to sponge up ideas and then make art. If someone makes a complete mishmash - what's the harm? If you are drawn to very specific teachings and you want clarity, you are free to find a group that shares your very specific perspective.

I usually bring my comments on the forum back to teaching. In art classes, you find students with strong opinions about all kinds of things. Art (and studio classes) are very good places to demonstrate that art trumps everything else. People have been compelled to draw pictures for more than 40,000 years. It is a primal urge. While many people try to make sense of it and there are volumes written about art/religion/philosophy - the bottom line is that you may benefit in making art more than you will benefit from just talking about it.

If you are more compelled to research and discuss religion and philosophy, I believe you can raise that activity to an art as well.

Thanks again for your post, Andrew.
« Last Edit: February 10, 2016, 10:10:19 AM by jeanwilson »

Offline SunnyMoni

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Re: Zen Calligraphy
« Reply #22 on: February 12, 2016, 11:00:39 PM »

So, with that all said, I would love to see what these practitioners are doing, and to hear from someone who does practice purposely meditative calligraphy in a western or hybrid tradition. Or someone with a counter view of things. Or both.  :D

I really appreciate your comments and they gave me a lot to think about. When I think about whether or not it's okay to use something from one culture or tradition, adapting it for use with one's own culture/language/traditions/etc, food comes to mind. We take food from cultures all around the world and adapt the ideas/flavors to make them our own. Most Mexican food found in the U.S. isn't traditional Mexican food, it is a hybrid. I don't think that lessens it in any way. It just makes it different. When considering calligraphy I think more than the performance of it has to be considered. What are the reasons behind adapting for language? What methods are being used? Is the zen part of the practice still practiced in the same way? I guess this would vary from person to person.

Aside from my friend I mentioned earlier who has attempted zen calligraphy in English I am familiar with the work of Thich Nhat Hanh. He is a zen buddhist who practices mindful calligraphy and his work is sometimes done in English. Here's an example of his work:

Monica

Offline Empty_of_Clouds

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Re: Zen Calligraphy
« Reply #23 on: February 26, 2016, 02:42:05 AM »
You are referring to my teacher. He is truly a man who is wholly here.