[Calligraphy by Chogyam Trungpa from Vajra Gallery]
I was first introduced to calligraphy practice through the late Tibetan master, Chogyam Trungpa (1939-1987), my first Buddhist teacher, while studying and working at the Naropa University that he founded (then Institute ). Naropa, the first Buddhist inspired accredited college in the West favors a strong base in a variety of contemplative arts. For me both calligraphy and poetics became a powerful practice about presence. His introduction of calligraphy as “one Stroke” was based on the zen practice derived from traditional calligraphy in Japan.
The following is excerpted from Wikipedia:
Japanese calligraphy was influenced by, and influenced, Zen thought. For any particular piece of paper, the calligrapher has but one chance to create with the brush. The brush strokes cannot be corrected and even a lack of confidence will show up in the work. The calligrapher must concentrate and be fluid in execution. The brush writes a statement about the calligrapher at a moment in time (see Hitsuzendo, the Zen way of the brush). Through Zen, Japanese calligraphy absorbed a distinct Japanese aesthetic often symbolised by the ensō or circle of enlightenment.
Zen calligraphy is practiced by Buddhist monks and most shodō practitioners. To write Zen calligraphy with mastery, one must clear one's mind and let the letters flow out of themselves, not practice and make a tremendous effort.
This state of mind was called the mu-shin, or "no mindstate," by the Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro. It is based on the principles of Zen Buddhism, which stresses a connection to the spiritual rather than the physical.
Before Japanese tea ceremonies (which are connected to Zen Buddhism), one is to look at a work of shodō to clear one's mind. This is considered an essential step in the preparation for a tea ceremony.
See Gary Snyder’s poem "Mountains & Rivers Without End" for a poetic rendering of "One Stroke." This small verse is how he ends his monumental long poem!
The space goes on
But the wet black brush
tip drawn to a point
I recently came across the following passage from the Sakyong Mipham's newest publication, The Shambhala Principle, which was sent to me by my old friend Catherine Clark. The Sakyong, as he is known, is the eldest son of Chogyam Trungpa. These are the opening words of his chapter on Culture.
The first time my father taught me the art of calligraphy I was moved by the power of simply holding a brush in my hand and dipping it into ink, creating a symbol on a white sheet of paper. As I held the brush, my father held my hand. I felt his breath on my neck. As he guided my hand down the sheet of paper, I could feel the surge of power and nervous energy. When I completed my stroke, he looked at me and said, "Good." It was a curious moment of confirmation, for he was not simply saying that what I had done was good, he was also saying that my action allowed goodness to arise.
When I asked my father why I needed to learn calligraphy, he said. "Enlightened culture." In this simple act of teaching me calligraphy, he was passing along an ancient lineage of artistic expression, initiating me into his culture of goodness. He wanted to bring sophistication to a young boy and through this artistic ritual, he was contributing to my cultural self-identity. He felt that painting, poetry, music and dance are ways we can come into contact with that goodness. Even Aristotle talks about art being the truest expression of nature. Therefore art is considered to be one of the highest hallmarks of civilized culture. It communicates basic goodness through symbol, which gives others the power to realize it instantaneously. [from The Shambhala Principle: Discovering Humanity's Hidden Treasure by Sakyong Mipham, Harmony Books, NY, 2013, pp 149-150]
The following video shows a number of Tibetan Buddhist masters doing calligraphy including Chogyam Trungpaa, his son, the Sakyong Mipham and Tai Situ Rinpoche. I don't know if many people know this who haven't met the late Chogyam Trungpa in person but his left side was paralyzed from an early accident. This is rarely stated. But I love the graceful way he adapts his movements which says so much about his presence. If you like this video you can access the remaining four videos in this series on You Tube.