According to the Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitarō (1870–1945), true creativity is not the product of conscious effort but rather the ‘phenomenon of life itself’. True creation arises from mushin, or the state of ‘no-mind’, which lies beyond thoughts, emotions and expectations.
Zen calligraphy springs from shonen sōzoku, a Buddhist term equivalent to ‘true thought’. Although the hand of the artist can be seen in any work of art, it is the sho – the brushed calligraphy itself – that is the real artist. The pliant hairs of the brush, the life force of the carbon that constitutes the ink, and the spontaneity of the brushed letters work together to express the spirit of the calligrapher. The calligraphy of Zen masters such as Hakuin Ekaku (1686–1769) although written hundreds of years ago, still resonates with the energy of ‘no-mind’.
Sen no Rikyū (1522–91), who established many of the basic precepts of the tea ceremony, said that a Zen calligraphy on display in the alcove of the tea room was the most important utensil in bringing the host and guests together in a spirit of shared devotion. Rikyū recognized the essential function of Zen calligraphy and painting, which is to encourage the mind towards enlightenment.
The three shū of the Bakumatsu era
The three shū of the Bakumatsu (late Tokugawa) era were Yamaoka Tesshū, Katsu Kaishū (1823–99) and Takahashi Deishū (1835–1903). Each took the character shū, or ‘boat’, as the second element of their formal layman name. All three were deeply versed in the Chinese classics, calligraphy, poetry and the martial arts.
Katsu Kaishū was born in Edo (modern Tokyo) as the eldest son of the shogunal retainer Katsu Kokichi. From an early age he studied swordsmanship under Otani Nobutomo and Shimada Toranosuke, both great swordsmen of the period. He studied Zen at Ushijima Kōfuku-ji temple in Tokyo. Kaishū took an interest in Dutch and western martial studies, and became a commissioner in the Tokugawa navy and the governor of Awa (modern Chiba Prefecture).
In 1860 he commanded the ship that carried Japan’s first official delegation to the United States. Kaishū played a central role, along with Tesshū, in the transfer of power from the Tokugawa shogunate to the Meiji emperor. The Pine image on above the right shows his exquisite painting of a pine with an inscription.
Takahashi Deishū, Tesshū’s brother-in-law, was born in Edo as a member of the Yamaoka samurai clan, but was later adopted by marriage into the Takahashi family. Deishū, a vassal of the shogunate, was famed for his skill as a spearman, which he learnt from his grandfather.
Deishū served as a minister in the district of Ise and was an important figure in the last days of the Tokugawa government. He retired from public life soon after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 in order to devote himself to poetry, calligraphy (see image on the right) and painting.
Yamaoka Tesshū (1836–1888) was born in Edo (modern Tokyo) as the son of Ono Takatomi, a retainer of the Tokugawa shogunate, and later adopted the Yamaoka name through marriage. Tesshū was a lay Zen master. He received his certificate of enlightenment from Tekisui Giboku of the Tenryū-ji temple in Kyoto and founded the Zenshō-an temple in Yanaka, Tokyo, and the Tesshū-ji temple in what is now the city of Shizuoka. He also served as a swordsman and retainer of the Tokugawa family.
He played an active role in the transfer of power from the Tokugawa shogunate to the Meiji emperor at the time of the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Tesshū is famous for his statement that swordsmanship, Zen and calligraphy are identical in their aspiration to the state of ‘no-mind’. His awakening to the inner truth of Zen and swordsmanship was accompanied by a marked change in the quality of his calligraphy.
'Three Line Saying' (right) shows calligraphy written by Tesshū at the age of 37, before he attained enlightenment. The signature, which is above the seals to the left, is technically adequate but lacks the vitality and refinement of his later work.
By contrast the calligraphy in the Dragon and Tiger image on the left dates from the autumn of 1880, when Tesshū was 45, about six months after his enlightenment.
Massive in size and scale of conception, the two characters almost explode from the paper on which they are written. The brush strokes of the signature are vibrant and powerful.
In reproductions of Tesshū’s signatures from the age of 37 to 52 (right) it is possible to observe the increase in vitality and power of his calligraphic works.
Tesshū’s path to enlightenment was not an easy one and involved many years of rigorous practice. He studied swordsmanship with Asari Gimei of the Ittō-ryū school and became the thirteenth successor of the Nakanishi Ittō-ryū. He then went on to establish the Mutō-ryū (School of the Sword of No-Sword). Tesshū can be said to have been a swordsman for peace, encouraging his students to discover by personal experience the meaning of ‘the sword of no-sword’.
Under the tutelage of Iwasa Ittei, the fifty-first head of the Jubokudō school of calligraphy, he mastered the writing styles of the Chinese master Wang Xizhi (303–361) and Kōbō Daishi (774–835), the founder of the esoteric Shingon sect of Buddhism. Kōbō Daishi is credited with the invention of the kana syllabic writing system. As a young man he travelled to China, where he studied calligraphy in the tradition of Wang Xizhi, the ‘father’ of East Asian calligraphy.
If Tesshū aspired to the example of these historic geniuses of calligraphy, in the field of Zen it was the eighteenth-century Rinzai master Hakuin Ekaku whom he particularly revered.
Hakuin was responsible for revitalising the traditions of Rinzai Zen teaching, principally through instruction involving the use of paradoxical questions (kōan).
The way of the Zen brush – Hitsuzendō
Hitsuzendō has its origins in the declaration made by Tesshū that swordsmanship, Zen and calligraphy are identical in their aspiration to the state of ‘no-mind’. Put simply, hitsuzendō is the practice of Zen through writing with the brush. Inspired by the life and teachings of Yamaoka Tesshū, hitsuzendō was formalised by Yokoyama Tenkei (1885–1966), who studied calligraphy under the Jubokudō master Chōdōo Jakushun and Zen with Shaka Kaikō and Harada Sōgaku. He invented the term hitsuzendō in the sense of ‘expressing through the brush one’s original self’.
The second generation master of hitsuzendō, the late Terayama Tanchū (1938–2007), studied under Tenkei and practiced Zen and swordsmanship with the Rinzai master Ōmori Sōgen. He also studied contemplative art appreciation with the sword connoisseur Yamada Kensai. Professor Terayama was a leading authority on Tesshū and a major collector of Zen calligraphy and painting. He visited the UK in 2001, when works from his collection were shown in 'Traces of No-Mind; Japanese Zen Calligraphy (V&A), and again in 2004, when part of his collection was shown in 'Japanese Zen Calligraphy - The Way of the Zen Brush' (Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford).
This information was taken from the V&A exhibition 'Zen Calligraphy and Painting by Yamaoka Tesshū' (3 September-14th December 2008), commemorating the 120th anniversary of Tesshū's death. Featuring 22 magnificent hanging scrolls, the display included works by the two of his contemporaries - Katsu Kaishū (1823 - 1899), one of Japan’s first internationalists, and Takahashi Deishū (1835 - 1903), a Zen statesman who retired from public life to devote himself to calligraphy. The display also featured the work of the late Professor Terayama Tanchū (1938 - 2007), the second-generation master of Hitsuzendō (The Way of the Zen Brush), who was an authority on Tesshū and from whose posthumous private collection this exhibition was drawn.
The display was born out of Professor Terayama's hopes and wishes to bring Hitsuzendō to as wide an audience as possible. While it was originally conceived to mark the 120th anniversary of the death of Yamaoka Tesshū, it was also a memorial to Professor Terayama's scholarship and his vision of the Zen arts.