Friday, October 25, 2013

Chinese to Roman Zen Calligraphy

I don't present the below graphic as an example of aesthetic achievement. It's only here as a suggestion to others interested in Zen calligraphy within a European cultural context.

Calligraphy has been an important form of art in Zen, and a practice such as copying the Heart Sutra while doing a prostration between the writing of each ideogram is an example of how it has been done. When a Zen practitioner in the West takes up calligraphy there's an immediate dilemma. Either the calligrapher must learn Chinese or must write in Roman lettering that spoils the entire rhythm of the traditional form that comes into the mind mostly at one idea (or Chinese ideogram) at a time. There may be some who would object to doing calligraphy in any but a traditional form, insisting on its superiority. I can't argue with such voices. I speak and try things out only as a Zen practitioner in America who has an interest in graphics.

A possible compromise occurred to me a couple of years ago after having chanted the Heart Sutra in English in the tradition of the Kwan Um School of Zen: take the English words and break them down into their syllables and use these as "units of calligraphy." Dividing the calligraphy syllabically would, I hope, parallel the mental rhythms that would accompany the writing of ideograms. The units of calligraphy would also parallel the language as it is chanted in my Zen tradition.

The experiments I composed involved putting a light pencil grid on paper and writing the letters of syllables, the units of calligraphy, in discrete rectangles on the page. Below is the only example I have left, that of the Heart Sutra, with the Sanskrit mantra brushed spontaneously (I'll admit to sloppily) in the middle, with the rest of the sutra written around it in squares subdivided into nine smaller units of calligraphy each. Loose longhand writing is interspersed within the mantra as an accent.

I found myself counting syllables and doing the math to try to divide pages up to hold texts evenly across pages, but I'm not convinced that would be necessary in all cases.

Again, the graphic is really just provided as a kind of schematic for those who would care to experiment with this way of writing. Currently I'm doing most of my calligraphy using the Palmer method and a flex-nib fountain pen.

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