The Heart of a Single Stroke

Sutra Calligraphy By Venerable Miao Way

Manila Bulletin, By MA. GLAIZA LEE, EDWIN DIAZ and SAMANTHA BELTRAN
July 29, 2012, 6:58pm

Photo by PINGGOT ZULUETA
MANILA, Philippines — With a shaking hand, the 86-year-old old man wearing an orange monk’s robe dipped his brush in the inkwell filled with ink made from lampblack, a sooty residue created by burning pine resin underneath a hood. Just like a father caressing his sleeping son, he carefully touched the paper with his other hand as he contemplated on what piece to write.

As soon as the brush hit the parchment, the Buddhist monk skillfully maneuvered it from top to bottom, left to right, without a pause. He never once lifted the brush off the paper, and had finished the piece in a single movement.

The monk, Venerable Master Hsing Yun, has been battling with diabetes for more than 40 years now. His condition led to a serious eye condition, along with retinal detachment. With unclear visions on both eyes, he can barely see. His failing vision makes it very difficult for him to continue to the next character. He could not distinguish the distance between each character.

Under such challenging circumstances, the Venerable Master still makes efforts to keep his brush moving between ink and paper. He just lets his heart guide his hands to create calligraphy pieces for his disciples and friends.

“Thousands of disciples and devotees of Venerable Master all over the world have requested him to visit them. But as much as he would want to grant their wishes, his health conditions have limited him to travel from one country to another. So, he managed to let his presence be felt through his artworks, his calligraphy pieces, which he has especially written for those who have requested them,” shares Ven. Miao Jing, the head abbess of Fo Guang Shan (Buddha’s Light Mountain), a Buddhist order that follows the leading proponent of Humanitarian Buddhism, emphasizing the integration of spiritual practices into everyday affairs and working on the promotion of peace and harmony among all human beings.

Determined to be with his disciples and devotees, the Buddhist monk has adopted and developed a unique style and technique, the one-stroke calligraphy, wherein the characters are connected with unbroken strokes, the whole piece completed in a single stroke.

Literally translated as “beautiful writing,” calligraphy has been a most appreciated art form in different cultures around the world. But in China, calligraphy is considered not just a decorative art, but an absolute visual art. It is more valuable than paintings and sculptures. It is the visual poetry of self-expression. In calligraphy, how the person writes is as important as what he is writing.

The history of calligraphy goes as far as the beginning of civilization. The earliest evidence of Chinese writing are the inscriptions on the oracle bones, as well as bronze vessels (the oldest dating back to the Shang Dynasty) which the early Chinese people used for divination rituals.

The early inscriptions on the oracle bone or bronze mold were made using a sharp, pointed object; thus, the characters lacked the linear variations and other characteristics attributed to true calligraphy. It was not until the Chinese artisans perfected the production of the calligraphy materials when those qualities began to emerge.

‘The Four Treasures Of Study’

These basic materials – brush, ink, paper, and inkstone – are known as the “Four Treasures of Study” (wen fang si bao), indicating the high esteem the calligraphic materials hold.

Although they were invented at an earlier date, the brushes only became popular during the Han period. A typical brush is made from animal hair, usually black rabbit hair, white goat hair or yellow weasel hair, pushed inside a tube of bamboo or wood; although sometimes jade, porcelain and other materials can also be used.

According to Asia Society, “the hair are not all of the same length; rather, an inner core has shorter hair around it, which in turn are covered by an outer layer that tapers to a point.”

Although the brushes come in different shapes and sizes, they are known for their flexibility, which enables the calligrapher to create fluid and expressive lines and characters. A calligrapher should be able to manipulate the brush not only from left to right, but should also be able to raise it up and push it down so that he could give character to the lines. The various styles in Chinese calligraphy have evolved because of the brush and how it is manipulated.

In calligraphy, good ink should be finely grained and has smooth texture. It should be firm, not sticky. It has a pure, solid black color, without any hint of murkiness.

The ink is usually made from a kind of soot residue, often called lampback. After burning the pine resin, the soot residue would be collected and mixed with glue. It would then be pressed into molds, creating a hardened cake or stick.

When a calligrapher needed ink, he would ground the cake or stick against the ink stone. Then, he would slowly pour water and mix it with the soot. This process would allow the calligrapher to control the thickness of the ink as well as the density of the pigment.

One of the most important Chinese inventions, paper is indispensable in calligraphy. The very medium in which the calligraphy art is presented and preserved, it is thus very important to choose the right paper. While it can be made from various fibers such as mulberry, hemp, and bamboo, the paper should be able to absorb ink better and hold it well. Its surface must be very firm yet smooth.

The art form requires strict discipline and control of the various elements such as the concentration of ink and qualities of both paper and brush to create diverse styles and forms. But more than the quality of materials used, what is essential to calligraphy is the harmonization of the body and mind in conveying the content of the passage.

The calligraphy pieces are valued, collected, and treated as art because it presents the character of the artist. Beyond the technique, styles, and forms produced in calligraphy, the intention of the artist is felt. The inner self of the artist is revealed.

“My calligraphy does not look great, but I am proud of my intention. Hope you can read my mind through my calligraphy,” said Venerable Master Hsing Yun, adding “Do not look at my writing, but look at my heart.”

True, the calligraphy artworks of the Venerable Master may not show the perfection found in the creations of other calligraphy masters, but they nonetheless possess great aesthetic and cultural values that stem from the wisdom and compassion of a man who has devoted his entire life for the propagation of the Dharma (the great body of Buddhist teachings) as well as in spreading the spirit of compassion to as many people as possible.

The “One-Stroke Calligraphy by Venerable Master Hsing Yun” exhibition will run from July 28 to August 31, 2012, at the Fo Guang Shan Mabuhay Temple, located along Vito Cruz Avenue, Manila.

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