Training in Zen Calligraphy (shodo) at Wisconsin Betsuin/ International Zen Dojo of Wisconsin

Miyamoto Musashi, a master Japanese swordsman of the 17th century, wrote “kan no me, tsuyoi; ken no me, yowashi” (the eye of intuition is strong; the eye of vision is weak). In other words, what matters most in life are not the visible forms seen by the eye but that which is perceived by a deep spiritual intuition. And that which is perceived is a spiritual force or vital energy called kiai. In the masterpieces of calligraphy in Japan and China, this energy is called bokki, the “kiai of the ink.”

For the ink to have this force, the person who drew the calligraphy must have a strong spiritual foundation. Or, in terms of our style of Zen training, a highly developed use of breath and posture. Calligraphy with such kiai has the power to move those who encounter it. Training in calligraphy at Wisconsin Betsuin aspires to this standard, tough as it is.

Our approach to calligraphy traces its lineage through a school of calligraphy established by Wang Hsi-chi (Wang Xizhi), a Chinese calligrapher of the 4th century. The name of the school – Jubokudo in Japanese – means “deep in the wood” and comes from a story about a work of calligraphy that Wang Hsi-chi had brushed on a plank of wood. Finding the calligraphy some time later and not recognizing its value, a man began shaving down the plank to erase the ink and create a fresh surface for writing. No matter how deeply he cut the wood, however, the ink went deeper still. This “deeper still” when expressed with ink is bokki. The Jubokudo lineage is thus not the transmission of a body of teachings or techniques but the transmission of kiai.

Our line of Jubokudo comes through Yamaoka Tesshu, a noted swordsman, statesman, and lay Zen master of 19th century Japan. What is important for our training purposes is that he created a calligraphy manual based on the 154 Chinese characters of a poem – “The Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup” – by the Tang Dynasty poet Tu Fu (712 – 770 A.D.). The story goes that Tesshu picked this poem as the basis of a calligraphy manual he made for his wife when she asked to learn calligraphy. If so, we have to admit that we practice calligraphy by brushing the characters of an 8th century Chinese drinking song.

Tesshu’s story is told by Omori Sogen Rotaishi, a Japanese Rinzai Zen master and the founder of Chozen-ji. Omori Rotaishi was also a teacher of Jikishinkage-ryu swordsmanship and the calligraphy of the Jubokudo lineage. Given this background, he established the three core training methods at Chozen-ji as “Zen Ken Sho” – translated as “Zen, sword, and calligraphy.” Together with his successor Tanouye Tenshin Rotaishi, he established the kiai of the training methods at Chozen-ji.

As for our actual training methods in shodo, we start by grounding our breath and posture as we draw a diagonal line with as much physical concentration as possible. We then train through imitation, brushing characters as shown in Tesshu’s manual, three characters at a time. 

The weight of the brush helps to ground the physicality of the work. If the hand and arm, for example, are doing the work of holding the brush up, the resulting stroke is much less refined than if the work of holding the brush is done by the hara. This is a Japanese word that refers to the particular workings of the area below the belly button, developed over time by intense focus on the sensations of breath and gravity in the body.

This physical approach to calligraphy means that it is much more like a martial arts workout than an artistic encounter. In many of the Japanese cultural arts, there is a tradition that says it is hard to train a beginner until they have done 10,000 repetitions. And this is no less true of our style of calligraphy. In order to brush 10,000 3-character pieces, you would need to brush the whole Eight Immortal poem two times per day for 100 days. You would then have a starting point for serious training.

One thing that is unusual about our use of calligraphy, as least as it is practiced outside of Japan, is that we rarely talk about the meaning of any given character or set of characters. Certainly there is a long tradition of Zen masters brushing calligraphy of a phrase meaningful in the world of Zen. But the problem for most Western viewers of such a piece is that the translation of the phrase, the meaning of the words, immediately obscures the experience of the calligraphy itself.

Another way to say this is that the master is not telling the viewer something; the master is being that something. And if he or she can be that something, then there is a chance that a sensitive person encountering the calligraphy can also be that something, if even just for a moment. As I said in at the beginning of this essay, the power of the piece is not in what is seen but in what is felt.

For example, if there is a single brushed character that could be translated as “to sit,” the character itself should “sit.” There should be a sense of gravity and repose in the ink on the paper because that same sense of gravity and repose is in the person who picked up the brush. And, of more importance than this, the calligraphy should generate a sense of gravity and repose as you encounter it. Of course that might not happen if you keep your eyes closed but the impact of the character when done correctly is far more of a visceral experience than a visual one.

And a final word about the two or three red seals stamped on our calligraphy. One seal shows the priest name of the calligrapher, carved in one of the particular scripts used for seals. The second seal shows the name of Spring Green Dojo in its Chinese form: Chun Yin Dao Chang, translated as “a lush carpet of grass, the place for training in the Way.” Often the calligrapher also has an artist name and this becomes the third seal when present.


Haku’un So-ei (Gordon Greene)

Head Priest, Spring Green Dojo

Spring Green, Wisconsin USA