Body, Mind & Spirit

The Zen Practice of Calligraphy

Published on January 30, 2017

Article by Christine Fugate for Bodhi Tree

For cultures who believe in the value of calligraphy as a Zen practice, it’s the merger of art and language that creates access to the spiritual realm where one can worship, meditate and, perhaps, even heal one’s own body. The ritual of making the ink, painting a sacred text or tracing letters are thought to raise one’s level of consciousness and awaken a power that lies within.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist, uses calligraphy as part of his meditation practice. He begins by sitting and drinking tea. He then takes the brush, dips it in his tea and makes strokes on the paper. “In my calligraphy, there is ink, tea, breathing, mindfulness and concentration,” the Zen master shares on his website. “Writing calligraphy is a practice of meditation. I write the words or sentences that can remind people about the practice. For instance, ‘breathe and enjoy the kingdom of God in the here and the now’ or ‘breathe and enjoy this wonderful moment.’ I think the word ‘wonderful’ means ‘full of wonders.’ If you are truly there in the moment, you can recognize so many wonders in that moment. The Kingdom of God, the Buddha land is there. So breathe in, bring your mind back to your body and you can touch many wonders in this moment.”

Some of his calligraphy work, available for purchase on the website for Buddhist magazine Lion’s Roar, has the following phrases: “be still and see,” “peace is every breath” and “no mud no lotus.”

Copying Sacred Texts as a Meditative Practice

In many cultures around the world, using calligraphy to copy sacred texts has been an important spiritual and meditative practice. During the Middle Ages, monks used Western calligraphy to replicate the Bible. In Tibet, Buddhist texts, like those seen on prayer wheels, were written in a style of calligraphy that includes letters from the Dalai Lama. For Muslims, Islamic calligraphy, seen on the walls and ceilings of mosques as well as on many important religious texts, is considered the highest form of visual expression and art of the spiritual world. For Sufis, practitioners of the inner mystical dimension of Islam, verbal recitation of sacred texts is important, but it is the writing of sacred words that they believe brings one closer to Allah.

Healing Through the Power of Calligraphy

If calligraphy can bring us closer to mindfulness and our higher power, can it also aid in the healing of our body and soul? According Dr. and Master Zhi Gang Sha, a Tao master healer, spiritual teacher and New York Times best-selling author of 21 books, it can. Trained as an MD in Western and Traditional Chinese Medicine, Master Sha has devoted his life to healing others through the power of touch, chanting and, now, calligraphy.

In his 2013 book, Soul Healing Miracles: Ancient and New Sacred Wisdom, Knowledge, and Practical Techniques For Healing the Spiritual, Mental, Emotional and Spiritual Bodies, Master Sha offers Source Ling Guang (Soul Light) Calligraphy that, he believes, can transform the energy of the body, spirit and soul. In this healing practice, some people place the book right on the area of pain while meditating; others put one hand on the book and the other hand on the area of pain. Master Sha also recommends tracing the calligraphies that are in the book while chanting or meditating. Some of the Chinese calligraphy phrases are Guang Liang Hao Mei (“Transparent Light Bring Inner and Outer Beauty”), Da Ai (“Greatest Love”) and Da Kuan Shu (“Greatest Forgiveness”). According to Master Sha, these calligraphies have jing qi shen (“matter, energy, soul”) that carries a higher frequency and vibration than the jing qi shen of a human being. He believes this stronger jing qi shen can remove energy and matter blockages and allow the body and soul to heal.

Using the Brush to Empty the Mind

In Japan, elementary school students study Shodo, a Zen Buddhist calligraphy style meaning “the way of writing,” considered by many to create a meditative state of mind. To practice Shodo, one must clear the mind and let the brush flow, without thinking about the characters being painted. This state of mind is called Mushin (“no-mind state”) and is more about the spiritual experience than the physical. In Hitsuzendo (“the art of the brush”), practitioners work to attain samadhi, or in Japanese, samaai (“unification with the highest reality”), by standing up and painting with a large brush onto a newspaper roll. This practice allows the whole body to guide the brush as opposed to an arm on a table.

“When we paint, we want our whole body to be involved, so that the energy is vibrant,” says Alok Hsu Kwang-han, 78, an acclaimed Chinese Zen calligraphy teacher whose methods combine Mushin and Hitsuzendo. “You can allow your whole body to feel the energy and then there’s a smoothness.” Exiled from China in the late ’90s after publishing 20 popular books on meditation, Kwang-han moved to the United States, where he studied mathematics, Christian theology, sociology and pyschology before developing his calligraphy art into Zen calligraphic portraits for couples, individuals and corporations to help them find their “inner environments.”

People travel from around in the world to study with him at his studio and at Mii Amo Spa in Sedona, Arizona. There, he might ask students to “paint the energy of music, a Rumi poem, a partner acting like a wild animal, the sound of silence, the Lord of Chaos, or your heart’s desire,” says Kwang-han. “As your brush dances from emptiness, you will watch amazed, exuberant and grateful.”

The ancient art of calligraphy is still practiced by many cultures around the world. More than just a form of writing, the rituals involved in Zen calligrapy—making the ink and painting letters or sacred text—can transport one into a meditative and even a spiritual state. Ultimately, Zen calligraphy is about attaining a sense of authenticity of self without working to do so.

Published on: January 30, 2017

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