Chinese Calligraphy

"The Dao of Chinese Insight Calligraphy" by Bio Sattva

Cool Koi Fish Yin Yang Tattoo Art by Rachel Martin

"The fundamental philosophical principle of yin and yang is reflected in every aspect of Chinese calligraphy. [...] The study of Chinese calligraphy is not only a study of Chinese writing. In many ways, it is also a study of Chinese philosophy and the Chinese worldview. Aesthetic principles and standards are rooted in cultural and philosophical tenets, and Confucianism and Daoism form the basis of Chinese culture. Of the two Daoism has the stronger influence on art. It is no exaggeration to say that Daoism, from its place at the core of Chinese culture, is the spirit of Chinese art. Many characteristics of Chinese calligraphy reflect Daoist principles." - Wendan Li, Chinese Writing & Calligraphy (University of Hawai‘i Press. 2009), p175


"You can buy the ink, the rice paper, the brush, but if you don't cultivate the art of calligraphy, you can't do calligraphy." - Vietenamese Zen teacher and mindful calligrapher, Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Power (2007), p81

"The Zen way of calligraphy is to write in the most straightforward, simple way as if you were a beginner, not trying to make something skillful or beautiful, but simply writing with full attention as if you were discovering what you were writing for the first time; then your full nature will be in your writing. This is the way of practice moment after moment." - Richard Baker Roshi, Introduction,
Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p14.
A Zen Calligraphy piece by Japanese Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki painted using a plant from outside. It reads: "Beginner's Mind”.

When practising writing Insight Calligraphy, there are so many things for the beginner to consider and bring together as one flowing whole. As when learning to coordinate one's body in order to ride a bicycle, the intended outcome can seem like an impossible endeavour - that one is attempting to achieve some supernatural feat that one's teacher cannot explain. However, with persistence those moments of balance do come, and one feels the flow of the process more and more.

This is something which appears to be at the core of Chinese artistic disciplines, and it comes from ancient philosophies which encourage practitioners to go beyond concepts and instead seek harmony with nature. The author of the book
Chinese Writing and Calligraphy, Wendan Li, points to this when he says (p180):

"Without the Daoist principle of diversity in harmony, there would be no Chinese calligraphy. Chinese calligraphy is often likened to Chinese Zen in that it does not lend itself very well to words and can only be experienced and perceived through the senses.”

As with seated mindfulness meditation, Insight calligraphy has an apparent subtle yogic physical dimension to it. My calligraphy teacher here in Beijing, Paul Wang, said to me last week: "One must use one's whole body to write. If there is tension anywhere, then the expression will be limited, and so a whole-body focus needs to be maintained". Wendan Li supports this by saying (p184-5):

"Writing involves almost every part of the body, from the fingers and shoulders to the back muscles and the muscles involved in breathing. Similar to Taiji, calligraphy is based on a typical Chinese philosophy that emphasizes moderation and detachment. Through slow, moderate movements, the energy... passes through the writer’s back, shoulders, arms, wrists, palms, and fingers, onward to the brush tip and, finally, is projected onto the paper.[..]...the initiation of writing is usually accompanied by a decrease in heart rate and lowered blood pressure. When a high degree of concentration is reached, the heart rate significantly decelerates and blood pressure drops significantly. These responses are similar to those created by meditation with one major difference: Meditation seeks tranquillity in a state of rest, whereas calligraphy seeks tranquillity in motion. [...] Prolonged practice of calligraphy can play a significant role in keeping one fit and improving one’s health. This explains the well-known fact that, in traditional China, most calligraphers lived to an age well beyond the average life span.”

During my private class with Paul Wang yesterday, we discussed the role of the Daoist Classics; the DaoDeJing and JuangZi in writing Insight Calligraphy. In the DaoDeJing, LaoZi writes (Chapter 25):

"Imagine a nebulous thing here before Heaven and Earth, silent and elusive it stands alone, not wavering it travels everywhere unharmed, it could be the mother of us all,
not knowing its name, I call it the Tao, forced to name it, I name it Great,
great means ever-flowing, ever-flowing means far-reaching, far-reaching means returning,
the Tao is great, Heaven is great, Earth is great, the king is also great, the realm contains four greats, of these the king is one,
Man imitates Earth, Earth imitates Heaven, Heaven imitates the Tao, the Tao imitates itself.”

Writing Insight Calligraphy is the
Dao (or Tao in the old Wade-Giles Chinese romanization) expressing itself. To see this positively, we allow for an expression of our inherently positive being to manifest itself through skill, thus giving rise to a positive piece of art.

In the case of Insight Calligraphy, this artistic expression is in the form of characters written with black ink on paper. The apparent similarity between some Chinese cursive calligraphy strokes and the Daoist TaiJi (YinYang) symbol is not coincidental. As Wendan Li points out, there has always been a link between Daoism and calligraphy (p178):

"The way of calligraphy and the way of nature, although differ in scope, share similar principles. Calligraphy best illustrates Daoist philosophy when the brush embodies, expresses, and magnifies the power of the Dao. Thus, an adequate understanding of the concept of yin and yang and its manifestations in calligraphy, and how various techniques are implemented to create contrast and unity in writing, is essential to your grasp of the core of the art."

In China, art is often seen as an expression of the human heart - a positive creation that brings happiness to the lives of others. It is also worth noting here that the Chinese considered
heart and mind to be one thing -  Xīn ().

The Chinese character for heart/mind carved into the wall of a Buddhist temple on KongTongShan, China, and into the rock at the Buddhist temple complex of PuTuoShan, China. The author visited both of these locations in 2006.

The beauty of this innate positive heart/mind is considered to be reflected in the natural world around us, and the calligrapher's practice is to render that beauty visible in a symbolic format. Li states (p179):

"The beauty of Chinese calligraphy is essentially the beauty of plastic movement, like the coordinated movements of a skillfully composed dance: impulse, momentum, momentary poise, and the interplay of active forces combine to form a balanced whole. The effect of rhythmic vitality rests on the writer’s artistic mind as well as training in basic techniques and composition skills [...] Generally speaking, Running and Cursive styles have stronger rhythm than the more traditional scripts. This is why many artists favor these two styles. When a piece is created with the vital forces of life and rhythm, the result is fresh in spirit and pleasing to the eye."
An Insight Calligraphy piece by the author's teacher Paul Wang. It reads: "Kong You Bu Er"  (Form is not other than Emptiness).

The inherently positive human heart/mind is something the Chinese have generally considered true since ancient times. In Junior schools all over the country, Chinese children are once again learning to recite the
Three Character Classic (三字經) - a philosophical teaching attributed to the disciples of KongZi (Confucius). For many children, as was the case over the past two thousand years, this is the first book learnt upon beginning formal education. The book begins:

" 人之初 (rén zhī chū) People at birth
性本善 (xìng běn shàn) Are naturally good (kind-hearted).
性相近 (xìng xiāng jìn) Their natures are similar,
習相遠 (xí xiāng yuǎn) (But) their habits make them different (from each other).”

The practice of honing skill in order to render works of art is considered, by the Daoists, a Sagely path in itself. In order to truly and repetitively render the positive mind's perception, one must manifest a seamless connection between heart and hand. This is apparently the highest level of skill - no matter the practice, whether painting, dancing, sculpting, doing KungFu, or even cutting meat from an animal. In the
JuangZi, LaoZi's Daoist disciples relate the skill of a Butcher who practices Daoism thus (Chapter 3):

"whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I'm doing, work very slowly [...] At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee - zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music. "Ah, this is marvelous!" said Lord Wen-hui. "Imagine skill reaching such heights!". Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, "What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. [...] I go at it by spirit and don't look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, ... and follow things as they are"

JuangZi - A student of Daoist Master LaoZi.

Bringing all this together - the desire to calmly express a positive heart/mind, and the pursuit of higher skill - the epitome of which is an appreciation of the Dao, or True Nature, it can be seen that Insight Calligraphy is a traditional and well-established kind of mindful practice. Even authors, such as Wendan Li, who do not primarily present and encourage calligraphy as a meditation practice, highlights the positive psychological benefits in the same way a mindfulness teacher would (p184):

 "During writing, the writer refrains from talking and concentrates on the task at hand. By so doing, he or she is able to project the characters in his or her mind accurately onto the paper through precise muscle and brush control. At the same time, the writing process also exerts a stabilizing influence on the writer’s mind, resulting in an even more transcendent sense of peace and clarity of thought. Thus calligraphy is commonly recognized as an effective way to remove anxiety and discover calmness and emotional grace." 
open mind open heart calligraphy enso with thay pic
A calligraphy piece by Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh
featuring a photograph of him.

As I practice Insight Calligraphy I can feel an unfolding - judgements, attachments, and intense emotions arising - all to be accepted and let go of in exactly the same way as during seated meditation. Here is a video of myself writing the character for 'Dao':
Getting the feeling for the character itself takes a long time, never mind the brush skill and mindful focus. This is the character I wrote in the above video placed next to the calligraphy teacher Paul Wang's (mine is on the left). There are plenty of places I made 'mistakes':
999T v P Dao1

I think mine lacks the confident dynamism and general structural integrity that Pauls has, not to mention some of the more detailed technical aspects of the strokes. Paul says that in order to capture the essence of the character as one looks at it, one must 'listen' to it before copying. He says it is the same kind of listening as the famous zen koan: "What is the sound of one hand clapping" - it brings one to a state of awareness that is beyond conceptual understanding - a 'don't know' mind that is receptive to wholeness; to the Dao.
TNH listen deeply circle
Another mindful calligraphy piece
by Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.

Mindfful Discipline