November 18, 2004

書道 (shodou) and the Sublime...

Dear Friend, I have a short anecdote to share with you based on an experience, or lack of experience, that I have been faced with in the past few weeks. Whether or not I will get to that point in which a promise is fulfilled is still a rather cloudy issue. So, I'll start with the hope that I can finish. Ever since the spring of this year, I took up 書道(shodou), or Japanese calligraphy. Like other Japanese arts (judou, sadou), the second character means "road." So in the case of what I am currently practicing, it is the "road of writing." I have been advised sometimes to stay off of roads, or get my mind clear of the fact that I am always already on a road, on the road, but this forgetting is certainly a talent which is for me impossible to master. Anyways, I started practicing shodou at the first school that I taught at, Arida Chuo Koko. Here my teacher, Mori sensei, was a happy-go-lucky, easy to talk to (if I were able to speak fluent Japanese, that is) kind of guy who is always smiling. When I went to practice there, which never had a definite start or finish, I was allowed to write whatever I wanted, without paying attention to form, technique, or even the amount of ink I wasted on terrible characters. I produced one copy of a haiku by Masaoka Shiki (Summer river, / In mid-stream, / Looking back), which now hangs on my wall with a humble sense of its beautyless innocence. Now I am at a new school. It is a high level academic school, and the teacher of shodou here recently won a calligraphy competition for all of Japan. That could say it all but I am going to say more. He granted me the generous permission of joining Koyo Koko's shodou club. I have gone twice thus far, writhing in my own lack of ability, my sense of needing to acquire ability, and finally now, becoming still again to notice another truth outside of this welter of desire for achievement. What I now mention is something simple. It does not require practice, a technique, or even a form, but it is buried beneath all of the latter, and one could easily leave it in the ground for most of one's life, until, at some critical moment (perhaps too late) it is all exhumed and set free. Yet this subterranean material remains unchanged. This is subliminal, but not in a spatial sense. Apologies: digression. New paragraph. There is a proverb in Japanese which also makes use of the road: "学問にお道無し," or "there is no royal road to learning." I learned this quite viscerally in my attempts to write a four letter saying. Failing quite miserably in these attempts, Kojima sensei decided to give me some rudimentary lessons--forming a line, ending a line, holding the 筆(fude), or brush, and finally the movement of my arm. Shodou requires absolutely no thinking, and considering I am a big bubble of wayward thoughts these days, my frenetic daydreaming precludes the composure, silence, and emptiness required to write kanji well. It is imponderable, this non-method. I think Suzuki talks about it at length in his book on Zen and Japanese culture--the no-mind, or emptiness, from which the world's inexplicable and unique forms (characters, etc.), spring forth into being of an inherent givenness. In a passage I was reading last night taken from Chuang-tzu, there is a phrase that is incredibly believable, 無生念, or museinen , which signifies a desire to for something both transcendent of life and death but what is also immanent in the former. The characters are 無, a negative prefix like non- or un-, 生, or life, and 念, or desire. In shodou, as in any practice which is both silent and sublime, there is an emptiness on both sides of the creative spectrum--both form and content. Thomas Merton reflects that while 'an inspiration is barren without an effective technique, a technique is also barren without its inspiration.' If one were to isolate either, form or content, whatever two you poles take as your reference points, one would find two arid landscapes, without life, without signs. But at the meeting of these two worlds, between the emptiness of one's concrete materials, and the emptiness (or a supreme fullness not in any way comprehensible) of the abstractions that rise and fall within the mind, there is a garden. No, not Eden (perhaps). Marvel but it best as "a green thought in a green shade." I am only doing it second worst to mention his poem in this long-winded scenic route. That's all about shodou for today. Still writing the numbers one " 一" and two "二". Maybe that's all there is to write anyways. They are the most difficult.


Blogger Brittany said...

Hi Jeff, happy Saturday. It's bright with icy deposits here. I found a bunch of chairs seats in a dumpster with new, bright fabric and undamaged wood: purple and magenta. I am going to try to make a sit-down cushion area in my house. Everyone thinks it's strange that I call my 30m2 space my house. Silly them. Hope you are having a nice day. I can never focus on weekends. Well, less so than weekdays. Now, unexpectedly, I will try constructing some kind of low-laying couch out of very girly colo(u)rs. I'm haunted by the flat on my bicycle. It's a shame that everything you write in Japanese becomes boxes in the post. I'm sure something poetic and on the depressive side could be said about that. A greater challenge would be to make something positive out of it. Thinking...

9:25 PM  

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