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Shodo: An Ink Painting of the Mind

One of the most popular arts in Japan is the ancient discipline of brush calligraphy known as shodo. And it’s not just an Asian phenomenon. Japanese calligraphy is appearing in a growing number of facets of American life, and the same is true for other Western nations. While some may still think of shodo as an Asian art form too esoteric and foreign to be appreciated by non-Japanese, that viewpoint is waning. Every day more people in the West are regarding Japanese calligraphy as a bona fide fine art equivalent to abstract expressionism.

What was once the domain of the Japanese island nation is starting to spread around the world. Today, Japanese calligraphy is for all cultures. But what, more precisely, is this art of the brush all about and how did it evolve?

A Brief History of Japanese Calligraphy

Around 2700 BC, according to Chinese tradition, a man with four eyes created Chinese characters. Captivated by the footprints of beasts and birds, he gave birth to the earliest Chinese writing. The God of Heaven was believed to have been so moved that he made grain drop from the clouds as a symbol of his happiness.

Unfortunately for our four-eyed friend, archaeology paints a different picture. Drawings engraved on tortoise shell and oracle bone date from the Shang Period in China, 1766 to 1122 BC. These pictures were the archetypes of Chinese characters.

Ancient shamans made holes in shells or bones, which were placed in a fire. The surfaces cracked. Priests, who etched their impressions of “The Voice of Heaven” on the bone or shell using sketches, deciphered the fissures. Eventually these pictographs were utilized for legal transactions, conducted via exchanging etched strips of bamboo or wood. Later, these writings came into religious and official usage as bell inscriptions.

Much later, these inscriptions developed into Chinese characters that Japanese and Chinese recognize today. Various script styles eventually also evolved. Around 552 AD, elements of Chinese culture came to Japan. Chinese characters also arrived during this era.

Japan had a spoken language but no writing at this time. Consequently, Chinese written communication was adopted. Initially Japanese used the multitude of Chinese scripts, embracing quite a few of the Chinese readings while adding as many of their own. Characters were later modified in Japan, and new phonetic scripts were born.

The verbal languages and cultures of Japan and China differ, but they share Asian characters, which pronounced differently by Chinese and Japanese can convey similar meanings. Note that while these characters are utilized for written communication, Japanese calligraphy isn’t just penmanship. Because Chinese characters began as simplified drawings, no clear-cut division exists between drawing, ink painting, and calligraphy. They originally used the same brush, ink, ink stone, and paper. Even certain brush strokes are similar. Japanese calligraphy can be thought of as a system of writing and abstract art originally based on abbreviated drawings. In characters like mountain, for example, it’s still easy to see three peaks.

The characters transcend their utilitarian function and serve as stirring fine art. Calligraphy allows the dynamic movement of the artist’s spirit to become observable in rich black ink. In great examples, you sense the beat of music and the elegant balanced construction of refined architecture. Practitioners feel that the visible tempo is a picture of the mind, and calligraphers recognize that it discloses our spiritual state. This age-old saying sums it up: “If your mind is correct, the brush will be correct.”

Uniting Mind, Body and Brush

It’s clear that the mind controls the body. It is equally clear that the body’s actions reflect the mind. Witness the slumped posture of someone who’s depressed and the shaking hand of a nervous student about to take an exam. In like manner, the mind controls the brush through the hand, and the lines of the brush reflect the mind. Asian art is a reflection of our mental state.

Japanese calligraphers and psychologists have written books on examining personality through calligraphy. Just as American companies have employed handwriting analysts to help select the best individuals for executive posts, the Japanese traditionally expected leaders in any field to display refined, serene script. It’s also been held that the subconscious can be influenced by copying brushwork by extraordinary individuals. Tradition teaches that using this technique, you cultivate strength of character akin to the artist being copied.

Most people want to realize their greatest potential, to be able to bring the full force of their minds and bodies to bear upon whatever they do. Yet for many, it’s difficult to coordinate mind and body. The body may turn the pages of a paperback, but our minds are frequently elsewhere. Such lack of attention becomes visible in Japanese calligraphy, which is a means of learning to unite the mind and body. Just as a bicycle only functions when the front and rear wheels move in an identical direction, we only display our total potential when the mind and body harmoniously work toward a related objective.

Thoughts and actions must match, and we must direct the coordinated energy of mind and body into the art we create. Failure to do so causes characters to end up where we hadn’t intended, lines to quiver, and the overall creation to lack vigor and grace. Japan’s calligraphy offers Westerners the same benefit it has offered Japanese—a visible barometer of mind and body unification.

Bringing the mind into the moment, realizing mind and body harmony, seeing into the mind—all of this relates to meditation and these points are part of Japanese calligraphy. It remains among old Japan’s most sophisticated arts of moving meditation. 

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