Sunday, 19 August 2012

Insight Calligraphy

"There is a vast difference between calligraphers' art and Zen masters' bokuseki [Japanese zen calligraphy]. Basically, both are done on white paper with black ink and red seals; both have good composition, and both are beautiful. But, in general, calligraphers' art is not alive. Bokuseki, on the other hand, has life, because it is created from the samadhi energy of the Zen masters' insight." p.xii Zen Word, Zen Calligraphy
Insight Calligraphy piece by teacher Paul Wang
It seems written chinese characters have always been appealing in the West. Beyond the concepts the characters represent, the abstract symbols appear to often hold an intriguing, mysterious, and aesthetic appeal for those who encounter them.

David Beckham's chinese proverb tattoo in cursive calligraphy.

My family has had a close connection with bold visual art - especially painting and printing. My mother is a watercolour artist and my grandfather on my father's side painted and engraved, and later made stained glass windows. Here are some pictures made by my mother and grandfather:

Watercolour by Catherine Herve-Petts
Wood engraving by John Petts
I feel both my mother's and grandfather's practices influenced my own personal appreciation of, and exploration of visual art, and the talents I honed as a child while following in their footsteps earnt me many prizes won in school drawing and painting competitions. I studied and practiced drawing, painting, and sculpting from 16 to 18 years old, obtaining an A-level in art, and I enjoyed it a lot, but then stopped when I went to university to study archaeology. I remained, however, incredibly interested in chinese and japanese painting and calligraphy - I often pondered over what lay behind the ink symbols and imagery included in some of the zen books I read.

A Song Dynasty Chinese Landscape Painting.
Last year my partner and myself attended a calligraphy class in Beijing to find that the teacher, Paul Wang, was also a zen meditation and taichi practitioner. His apparent serenity and tangible skill when using the brush and ink encouraged us to seek private classes with him. His calligraphy practice, which is different from standard modern chinese calligraphy as taught in universities and schools, is called 'Insight Calligraphy'. He sums up the approach as follows:

"Hands follow brush,
Brush follows mind,
Mind is along with insight,
Flowing together into very next moment." - Paul Wang
The author at a calligraphy class in Beijing China Culture Center with Paul Wang.
We have been attending weekly 1.5 hour classes with him at his apartment since February 2012 and have been practicing at home also. We take our 'homework' to him and he corrects it, and then he teaches us how to practice more correctly. In 7 months we have learnt just over a dozen characters, and we began with the Han dynasty Bamboo Strip style (created when writing had just made a solid transition to ink from bronzeware):
Han Dynasty bamboo strip calligraphy.
The general script development/evolution of Chinese written characters.
We begin each calligraphy session with 5 minutes of seated meditation, and then we get going, occasionally stopping to do some seated 'BaDuanJin' yoga to relax our limbs when tension builds up from the concentration. Paul learnt this yoga from a ShaoLin tradition. He emphasises the requirement for whole body awareness while writing Insight Calligraphy, and so he practices taichi and traditional chinese yoga forms daily, as well as seated meditation. Here are some photos of our teacher:

Paul Wang - Insight Calligraphy Teacher, Beijing.
At the moment I am practicing the cursive style of calligraphy which emerged as a strong style after the Han Bamboo style. It is more relaxed and flowing - emphasising the dynamic movement between solid and empty within the character as one renders it. Paying attention in the moment and with honesty, as the incredibly fluid ink moves into the paper, is essential to repeatedly present anything which will profoundly touch a viewer. As yet I still feel very limited compared to Paul and it seems there are many, many years of practice ahead before I can feel I have achieved anything of comparative merit. Here is my most recent home practice paper - it takes me around 30 minutes to do this:

The author with Insight Calligraphy Teacher Paul Wang at his apartment, Beijing.
One day I hope to produce something which looks like this:
Cursive calligraphy piece by Paul Wang.
The enjoyment of creating a work of art so deeply connected to mindfulness practice and in such a fluid and beautiful way is becoming one of the most positive and rewarding habits in my life. I really hope that some day I can share it with others in the West - by inviting Paul over to the UK, or by being able to teach the basics.
Chinese calligraphy brushes hung up for storage.

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