Brushing up

This past Saturday I attended a zazenkai at Empty Bowl Zendo in Morristown, which also included a class in Chinese brush calligraphy.

Zazenkai is a kind of mini-retreat, usually a day or half-day of group zazen (sitting meditation) and kinhin (walking mediatation). I’ve known some of the members of Empty Bowl for awhile now, I go to their monthly Zen parenting meetings, and I love the big, old stone Episcopal church where they hold their meetings. But I confess, the real impetus to join them this day was the chance to get some calligraphy instruction.

I’ve been interested in sumi-e — Japanese ink painting — for a few years now. During a trip up to Massachusetts awhile back, I was fortunate enough to have a private audience with sumi-e master Jan Zaremba, who told me, among many other things, that learning brush calligraphy was the best approach to proper brush technique, that it was, in fact, the foundation of sumi-e.

This half-day zazenkai got started at 7:30 in the morning. After some meditation, a dharma talk by Sensei Ray Ruzan Cicetti and some refreshments, it was time for the calligraphy lesson.

Our instructor, Amy Chan, was wonderful. She explained the seven basic strokes that make up all Chinese characters, and how Zen practice and doing calligraphy share the same spirit: focus, spontaneity and “letting go.” We also learned that there’s no hiding in this kind of art. Everything is done once, in the moment. The idea is to envision what you want to write and then execute it in one flowing performance. There is never any going back to fix flaws. A teacher can see at once if there was any hesitation or lack of mindfulness in your work.

Equally interesting were her stories of growing up in China and how calligraphy was just another one of her school studies, like penmanship. All students had brushes and ink pads (that would often stain their clothing), and she really didn’t view it as art or Zen practice until she came here and started sitting with Morning Star zendo in Jersey City.

After practicing the various strokes, we were asked to select an ideogram to commit to better quality paper as our take home piece. Appropriately, I chose to write “patience.” My daughter thinks it looks like a distorted smiley face. When I look at it, I can see my hesitation. But now I have a direction for my brush practice.

And like Charlie Parker said about learning jazz, I need to learn the changes, and then forget them.

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