Friday, April 15, 2005

calligraphy, mu-eui (wu wei), and samadhi

I don't know if I read the hanging banner correctly, but it appears the calligrapher in Korea University Station is one of several who are out displaying their work as part of a cultural event that lasts through Sunday. So it seems you've got until Sunday to see this guy. He's better than the dude at Ch'eong-gu Station, whose work isn't bad but looks too hasty and scattered. The Ch'eong-gu guy has one good gimmick: a really neat yong-ja ("dragon" character) that I like. I wasn't impressed with his other calligraphic pieces, though.

I watched the gent at KU Station as he did some calligraphy for a student. His grip on the brush was relaxed and unorthodox. His strokes weren't hasty at all. He knew just how much ink to put on the brush, just how long to tap the brush on the bowl's edge if the hairs were too saturated. Strokes seemed simultaneously spontaneous and deliberate. For me, it was mesmerizing.

The calligrapher was also extremely patient-- a quality I lack when doing brushwork. Impatience shows up in the work itself. Look at the power behind the strokes; look at the shape of the characters. Theoretically, all the characters should fit inside imaginary squares (and Hangeul, even though it's an alphabet, follows this "imaginary square" rule). How disciplined an arrangement do you think you see?

As I've noted before, brushwork walks the fine line between order and chaos, dharma and adharma. The paper is unfriendly: thin and volatile, it sucks ink up and spreads it out fast through vicious capillary action. Too much ink, too long of a hesitation, and you ruin the work. Getting just the right amount of ink on your brush is fundamental: it gives you time to hesitate if you need to.

Too little ink, of course, presents its own set of problems. You're doing a complex series of strokes, when suddenly... you run out of ink. At this point, you've broken the rhythm, canceled out your momentum. Ever started writing something longhand in a journal, been interrupted mid-paragraph, and then tried to continue after a few hours? You see a noticeable difference in your handwriting, don't you? This is related to the state of your mind, and just as you see it in a journal, you see it even more clearly in brush calligraphy.

"Mastery" in calligraphy is like "mastery" in other pursuits, such as surfing: it's less about controlling outside circumstances and more about mastering oneself. The surfer doesn't seek to subdue the wave; his mastery involves an understanding and harmonization with it. By the same token, the calligrapher can't alter the physics of ink's interaction with paper, but he can alter his own technique to produce the desired effect. As the ink is absorbed into the paper, so the calligrapher is absorbed into the work he creates.

Such activities point us to a way to conduct our own lives: not attempting to control what we can't control, worrying about what we can't change, but working instead to change how we move through the world, and therefore how the world moves through us.


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