ZEN WORD, ZEN CALLIGRAPHY
Text by Eido Tai Shimano
Calligraphy by Kogetsu Tani
Shambhala Publications: Boston, 1992.
160 pp., $50.00 (clothbound).

 

THE ZENGO OR ZEN WORDS and phrases in Kogetsu Tani’s calligraphy cut right to the heart of dharma. Brief texts by Eido Tai Shimano frame the calligraphy by introducing the word or phrase in English and providing essential commentary on the tradition. At least since the T’ang dynasty, Ch’an and Zen masters have used the calligraphic scroll as a pointer or a reminder, an agent to provoke thought and preparation for zazen, not as a substitute for daily practice. But how can calligraphy and short commentary achieve fuden no den, that is, how can it “transmit the intransmittable” dharma?

Calligraphy becomes an expression of practice reflecting characteristics of the individual master. The fourteenth-century Zen master Ikkyu was noted for his very bold, high-energy hand; the hand of the eighteenth-century “snow country” Zen recluse Ryokan is as spidery as the mountain trails he roamed.

In Zen Word, Zen Calligraphy the authors have achieved a rare balance between inspiration and scholarship. Kogetsu Tani’s hand is strong without appearing to be highly “practiced,” a style that retains some rough (human) edges. He draws from the (nearly impossible to read) grass or “running hand” a vertical speed and grace in Chinese characters, retaining enough of the more formal and readable “clerk’s hand” style that a student can quickly count brush-strokes and enjoy some dictionary work.

One might learn, for example, that a line Shimano translates, “My mind is like the autumn moon,” offers other possibilities. The character for “mind” is kokoro in Japanese, shin in Chinese and also means “heart.” In Zen philosophy, mind is emphasized; but our (Western) understanding is deepened when we learn that “heart” and “mind” are the same thing. Furthermore, in the Chinese phrase there is no possessive. “Mind is like moon.” Ryokan wrote in a poem, quoting Zen teaching, that the finger pointing at the moon and the moon itself are one thing: pure mind.

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