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The swift strokes of ‘no-brush’ calligraphy

December 28, 2008

From The Japan Times

Yamaoka Tesshu (1836-1888) was a lay Zen master famous for, among other things, his statement that swordsmanship, Zen Buddhism, and calligraphy were identical in that they aspired to a state he described as “no-mind.”

His study of kenjutsu (i.e. kendo), begun at the age of 9, resulted in the style of combat now known as “no-sword,” where the samurai (to which class Tesshu belonged) realizes that there is no enemy, and that a purity of style is all that is necessary. Or, as Alex Bennett has phrased it in his introduction: “The sword changed from a weapon of destruction into a tool for spiritual emancipation through ascetic training.”

Likewise, zazen is not about spiritual aspiration, and calligraphy is not, primarily, about communication. “No-mind” describes a desired lack of cogitation. Things are done for themselves. Zen understanding, the brush of calligraphy, the flash of the sword are manifestations, uncontrolled, eventually intuitive.

They also confound time in that their creation takes no time at all. It is said that during his life Tesshu created more than 1 million Zen art works — considerably more than that credited to Rinzai Zen master Hakuin Ekaku, whom Tesshu particularly revered.

These include not only pictures, scrolls and tablets but also shop signs (kamban) of various sorts. One of these is said to be still observable on the Ginza, the 1869 wooden signboard that Tesshu did for the Kimuraya bake shop.

On the occasion of the 120th anniversary of Tesshu’s death, a selection of this art work (from the Tanchu Terayama collection) was exhibited at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (Sept. 3 to Dec. 14) and this beautiful publication is its catalog.

Reproduced are some of better-known works — the hanging scroll with the kendo helmet and the bamboo sword and the aphorism stating that the art of fencing is like the willows in the wind; and the verses that echo the thought of Miyamoto Musashi (another strong influence) from 200 years before.

Especial note is taken of the change in Tesshu’s calligraphy after his “enlightenment,” an event dated as of March 30, 1880. The calligraphy prior to this date is found to be “technically accurate” but not to be compared to the post-enlightenment writing where the characters “almost explode from the paper on which they are written,” where the brush strokes are “vibrant and powerful.”

Those desiring more background on the man and his accomplishments can turn to Daisetz Suzuki’s section on him in “Zen and Japanese Culture,” to Paul Reps “Zen Flesh, Zen Bones,” which contains translations of Tesshu’s three Zen koan, and to John Steven’s masterful biography “The Sword of No Sword: The Life of Master Warrior Tesshu.”

This catalog offers us pictorial evidence of what one might be called no-brush calligraphy, mere intent no longer there, rather, sheer manifestation itself. Ken-Zen-Sho in a single movement.

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