Chinese calligraphy or the search for the pure act

- through Francois Leclercq

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Calligraphy, as a practice of the right gesture, allows one to experience the non-duality which is the heart of meditation. It is for this reason that in China, Buddhism and calligraphy have always maintained close relations. To understand one is to open up to the possibility of the other, and vice versa.

For anyone interested in Chinese culture, one essential thing to accept as a fact is that China, in a way and in large part, no longer exists. What does that mean? Quite simply that the transformations that this immense country has undergone for more than a century are beautiful and very real! It is not only a question of Westernization in the sense of a cultural adaptation manifest by a few technical imports. These would only be cosmetic changes. The image that the make-up would have changed, but the face would remain the same seems false to us. The face of China has indeed changed too. This manifests itself not only in urbanization and political economy, but also in the country's relationship to its own culture. Of course, there are still many cherished traces of the past in China, and the ancient ways are still represented. Buddhist temples are numerous, frequented and maintained. The monks are still going about their offices. You can meet Taoist priests and talk about Yin and Yang… But, once again, the real change does not concern the disappearance of what was or the mere importation of new elements. It essentially affects the relationship one has to one's past. However, this relationship is no longer, to a very large extent, strictly “Chinese”. It is thus on a heritage or religio-cultural mode that Buddhism is now conceived or even on a psychological or even therapeutic mode. The same goes for Tai Chi Chuan or Qigong understood as gymnastics or relaxation exercises. The list of these displacements, of these deframings is innumerable. Also, those who seek to learn Chinese ways, find themselves, more often than not, brought back to perspectives very far from what was understood in China under the term Dào. Despite everything, there remains intact a true Dào in China, an absolutely original and properly Chinese way: what is called the " calligraphy ". Quotation marks are required here. Indeed, as the word "calligraphy", which originally speaks Greek, says, it is a practice of "beautiful writing". However, the only prospect of writing nicely does not interest the Chinese "calligrapher", or only at its beginnings, and still... What is translated by calligraphy is the expression "shufa" which literally means the "law of writing", or even better based on the French expression: "write according to the rules of the art". However, here again, the meaning must be clarified. “Law” here does not refer to compliance with agreed rules, but more to regulation. It must be understood together with dào, which certainly means the “way”, but also, and more fundamentally, the current, in the oceanic sense of the term. Thus one enters the path as one would enter entirely into a river in order to embrace its flow and allow oneself to be modified and guided by it. Entering the dào means becoming one with it, regulating your whole being there. Being one with the dào implies no longer deciding the goal, because it is the direction of the current that decides it and not the swimmer, but learning to evolve in his element and according to his direction. Consequently, Chinese "calligraphy" is much more than an art, much more than an aesthetic practice of ornamentation, much more than an exercise in writing. It is even something completely different, in the precise sense that it is a dao; and, without doubt, one of the last actually living in China. But then what differentiates the practice of writing, in the ordinary sense of the term, from that of calligraphy? This is where the way or dào comes in.

Poetry and calligraphy

Not being a calligrapher, or very little, the best thing here would probably be to describe and not to theorize too much about this practice. I am fortunate to know intimately an assiduous follower of calligraphy and who can, if we are to believe the great respect that his arrival and his works provoke, pass for a true master. It has been practiced daily for fifty years while exercising a professional activity in the administration. He therefore does not live from his art, whereas he could easily do so, but has chosen to follow the path of the "literati", those former high officials who devoted themselves either to poetry, or to painting, or to music or calligraphy, in addition to their (heavy) public responsibilities. Of course, I asked him why he didn't want to live by selling his works: "We'll see later... in retirement, maybe..." Elusive answer meaning: "Why not, but that's neither essential nor important" . As a comment to this answer, he clarified to me that a calligraphy is not like a painting. The aim of the calligrapher is not really to produce a work. What interests the calligrapher is the very act of writing. The painter must represent things, show creativity, surprise and touch the spectators with his original approach. The means available to the calligrapher prevent such an approach. The characters are fixed and there is no question of inventing new ones, because no one would understand anything. No color either, or even play on the black gradients. As for writing styles, there are certainly a few. We can thus write in an antique, classic or cursive way, for example. But again, these styles belong to tradition and are not the result of personal creativity. What remains is the text itself. Indeed, isn't writing sending a message, making a sign and thereby saying something meaningful, beautiful, original? To this question, my friend replied as follows: “Poetry and calligraphy are not the same person. They just like to walk hand in hand. »

The aim of the calligrapher is not really to produce a work. What interests the calligrapher is the very act of writing.

Calligraphy also has another outstretched hand towards Buddhism, and in particular Chan Buddhism. Many great masters of this school were great calligraphers, like Han Shan or Bai Juyi for example. All associated poetry, meditation and calligraphy, in order to find, in the words of Han Shan, “the right word”, “the right mind” and finally, thanks to calligraphy “the right gesture”. Thus, gradually, calligraphy was conferred in China the status of an artistic, poetic and also spiritual, that is to say meditative, practice.

From the search for the right gesture...

Indeed, many poets were also great calligraphers, like Wang Wei for example, and all calligraphers are fond of poetry, some even trying their hand at composition. But how to explain that this solidarity, this very intimacy of the two arts, should not lead to their unification? Because the purpose of calligraphy is not to write messages; it is not an art of speech, but a graphic practice of writing. The goal of calligraphy is to draw the right line. If these traits form a meaning that is beautiful, so much the better. We see here an inversion of common usage, where we use the spelling to say something. For the calligrapher, the word or the message is only the occasion, the ornament of the line. “Write, just write, but completely! my friend often repeats. We find in this injunction the one that prevails in Zen on the subject of meditation: “Sit down, just sit down, but completely! » ; and it is not at all by chance. Indeed, if calligraphy in China is older than the arrival of Buddhism on its territory, since it has coexisted since the very invention of writing, its practice has been modified by contact with the Dharma to the point of becoming, too , an original form of meditation. It had, before this decisive encounter, a classical ornamental function as well as a magic one. But the idea of ​​writing to write; to be entirely in an act, in a trait: this certainly comes from Buddhism. This displacement did not only take place in calligraphy, but also in Sino-Japanese martial arts. The parallel is quite striking: as a meditative practice, calligraphy seeks the right line and no longer concerns itself with the message, leaving the linguistic and communicational logic that prevails in language. As a meditative practice, martial arts seek the right gesture, pure movement and no longer concern themselves with their effectiveness in terms of attack and defense, and leave the logic of combat which prevails in the arts of war.

… On the path of existence

It is from this meditative displacement that calligraphy has become a dào in the most radical sense: a path of existence. This is how the true exercises daily to exist. How ? By drawing a few brush strokes on white paper, and doing it totally! It is something other than simple concentration which, in order to fix itself, often needs to exclude the motives of dissipation. On the contrary, it is a question of including everything in an act done without any other intention than itself. One day when I was looking at my friend's works, I noticed that he was smiling amused by his work. Asking him the reason, he replied by showing me how in each of his essays were present the circumstances in which he had drawn them. The inflections of the lines, the variations of their delineations, the space between the characters, all that constitutes what is called the "style"; all this was not the work of one author, but the manifestation of an entire situation. He was showing me three very different calligraphies, one of which had been done on a sunny Sunday morning, in the solitude of a day off. The other had been made following a dinner with colleagues, and the third, still following a dinner, but this time with friends. They looked like they came from three different authors! Even if looking closely, that is to say at greater length, one could notice a link between them all. Thus, when we say that a true calligraphy is "without ego", that is to say without an author, we must not be mistaken and see or look for some element of impersonality. The non-ego that is at work in this age-old practice does not consist at all in the deprivation of oneself, in the extraction of all personality, but rather in integrating everything, including oneself, in the instant of a gesture. pure, that is to say whole. This is how a whole world manifests itself in a few traced words, that is to say a unity which is not that of isolation, of separation, but, on the contrary, of synthesis, of the whole. . This unity of the whole and not of the alone is called in Buddhism samadhi, the culmination of the meditative state. Now, this is also what is at stake in calligraphy. So, failing to make it my practice since we can't take all the paths, I learned to appreciate these works so intimately Chinese, by changing my look on them. Whether they are pretty or not, original or not, is of no great importance. What matters is that a sense of deep unity, an entire life manifests itself there, sometimes with a tiny discretion, sometimes with bursts. A beautiful calligraphy is nothing but a samadhi of ink on white paper.

The practice of calligraphy remains, in this China which has taken the turn of modernity in the most "tight" way, an island of authentic spirituality which truly resists. Seeing a calligrapher at work, fully unified in his act, is totally reminiscent of meditation. In these two practices the heart of Chan and what he calls "the naked spirit" still clearly resounds. And this is how many Chinese Buddhists are increasingly turning to calligraphy, which has managed to preserve simple access to the "unmade".

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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