Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Insight Calligraphy: Mindfulness Character 念 (Niàn)

"The Sanskrit word for mindfulness, smriti, means "remember." Mindfulness is remembering to come back to the present moment. The character the Chinese use for "mindfulness" has two parts: the upper part means "now," and the lower part means "mind" or "heart."" - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, in The Heart of Buddha's Teaching (2008), p64.

The ancient Chinese Bronzeware calligraphy character for mindfulness was a speaking mouth above a heart:
Ancient Chinese Bronzeware Style character for 'mindfulness' - Niàn 念 - by Insight Calligraphy teacher Paul Wang, Beijing.

My Insight Calligraphy teacher, Paul Wang, told me that this originally represented the spoken teachings of the heart. Language was spoken before it was written, so the spoken form is considered the purest. As ink became  used to write on bamboo strips, this character evolved and an early more fluid cursive (zhāngcǎo 章草) form of the character looked like this:

Ancient Chinese Early Zhang Cao Style character for 'mindfulness' - Niàn 念 - by Insight Calligraphy teacher Paul Wang, Beijing.

Later, an even more fluid cursive version was written like this:

Ancient Chinese Later Zhang Cao character for 'mindfulness' - Niàn 念 - by Insight Calligraphy teacher Paul Wang, Beijing.

This video shows myself writing the two cursive characters:

video

Here is a comparison of the two cursive characters written in the above video by myself (left) alongside my teacher's (right):
Mindfulness - Niàn 念 written in ancient Chinese Early and Later cursive calligraphy style.

As one writes, if one must write the same character more than once, then it's structure must be varied. Unlike in the West, where handwriting is seen as something which requires uniformity and consistency in strokes, chinese calligraphic writing requires just the opposite. Here are some examples of variations in the later cursive zhang cao style for the character for mindfulness that Paul Wang wrote for me to show variation within the form:

Ancient Chinese Later Zhang Cao character for 'mindfulness' - Niàn 念 - by Insight Calligraphy teacher Paul Wang, Beijing.

This character is also used in Chinese to mean the word 'remember'. Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn writes of the role of remembering relative to mindfulness practice as follows, in Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p94:
"I like the words remember and remind because they imply connections that already exist but need to be acknowledged anew. To remember, then, can be thought of as reconnecting with membership, with the set to which what one already knows belongs. That which we have forgotten is still here, somewhere within us. It is access to it that is temporarily veiled. What has been forgotten needs to renew its membership in consciousness. For instance, when we "re-member" to pay attention, to be in the present, to be in our body, we are already awake right in that moment of remembering. The membership completes itself as we remember our wholeness. The same can be said for reminding ourselves. It reconnects us with what some people call "big mind," with a mind of wholeness, a mind that sees the whole forest as well as individual trees. Since we are always whole anyway, it's not that we have to do anything. We just have to "re-mind" ourself of it."

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