Chan in the Play Between Brush and Ink

P1010973The brush is a special writing tool for Chinese people.

Although Confucianism is cardinal in traditional Chinese culture, it is deeply influenced by Taoism. The school of Tao teaches, “In the pursuit of knowledge, to keep acquiring is beneficial; in the pursuit of wisdom, continuous discarding (of desire) is the way. Discard without cease, until virtue becomes natural”.

To learn anything one needs to acquire and grow in knowledge, but to practice the Way one needs casting-away (of desire). This is the same principle employed for the Four Noble Truths regarding suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and the path to ending suffering. While Taoism uses “discard”, Buddhism uses “diminish”; both are subtraction instead of addition. The end of discarding is empty, and the final result of diminishing is ultimate joy. The school of Chan adopted this principle of Taoism.

To achieve ongoing discarding or diminishing, one must employ methods. The methods can help practitioners reach enlightenment. In order to reach the goal, one must be familiarized with the methods until one becomes skilled; then one can discontinue the methods. As it is said, “Even the Dharma needs to be discarded in the end, much less the non-Dharma!”

It is the same with learning sitting meditation. In the beginning, posture is important. When one can sit well and become less effortful, many aspects of complexity begin to drop until one reaches the state of single-mind. Letting go of single-mind, it is “no-mind”. After reaching no-mind, of what use would the methods be?

There is saying, “Attain the meaning and forget the form”. The original meaning of this phrase is not what we understand today (which is often used to describe being overly excited). The original meaning is forgetting and dropping the form after getting the essence or the state of attainment. In Buddhism we often say, “Reach the other shore”, and use it as a symbol in teaching “not continue to carry the boat after ferrying people to the other shore”. After reaching the goal, the method can be put down. Putting down does not mean there is no method, but everything is the method.

It is no different in calligraphy. In the beginning, one should use this approach to become very skilled and increasingly effortless. In my observation, most of the calligraphy that has demonstrated the state of Chan is the unrestricted style called “running hands” because it is the freest style. “Cursive” style still has its rules. The best-known copybooks reserved from every generation or the best works of famous calligraphers are in the free style. The art of spontaneity it represents indicates that the skills of the artists have reached the supreme level. Thus, regardless of what style or what type of brush and ink used, the artworks naturally express the state of Chan.

For example, the calligraphy of Master Hong Yi (弘一大師) looks kind of slender and the structure is not tight, but it expresses a unique characteristic because he is very at home with it. Master Hong Yi learned very strict calligraphy; but in his later years, his artworks are closer to “running hand” style, neat but not fixed within norm. Each character of his calligraphy looks so clean as if it were untouched by the worldly mundane, very naturally expressing the great master’s state of mind.

In the process of calligraphy I gradually discovered that, if one can follow the causes and conditions, it is unnecessary to strictly pursue the neatness of the character or the thickness or thinness of the ink. The less one deliberately tries in artistic presentation of spontaneity, the more the work has a certain state of subtleness. In this aspect, I am still practicing, having not yet truly grasped it.

These years I often travel in Malaysia, Europe, United States, Taiwan, and China. People know I do calligraphy so they prepare the tools for me wherever I go. Usually I write whatever comes to mind, following the state of mind at the moment. I found that each year the works are different. I know I have become more and more familiar with the lines and structures and feel more spontaneous. In writing each character, I do it wholeheartedly. Almost all of them are Dharma verses or Chan poems, hoping that they will bring joy to those who received them as gifts for donations to the local Buddhist or cultural organizations. Through this venue, maybe those who keep the calligraphy may also become interested in Buddha-Dharma and Chan practice. Then the works of calligraphy are delivering the message of the Dharma.

(Interview with reporter Liang Jin-Man. Chinese published in the painting and calligraphy album “Buddha Mind, Chan Affinity” in 2013.)

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