Abstract Ink: Japan in a Paintbrush

What does it tell you when arguably the most famous abstract artist of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso, says “Had I been born Chinese I would have been a calligrapher, not a painter”? Eastern Calligraphy, with roots dating back thousands of years, has evolved from its humble and crude stone and chisel beginnings to a means of fluid communication and high art. Shodō (書道) “The Way of the Brush”, handed down through the generations, used by Japanese princes and monks alike, is to this day regarded both as a means for communication and of spiritual awakening. Though unaccustomed Western eyes may be intimidated by its complexity, what is certain is that Shodō is more than just painting: It is a connection to thousands of years of history dating back into Korea and China; it is connecting with language at a deeper level; and at some levels it is a spiritual pathway to enlightenment.


Chinese Characters on a Turtle Shell

Chinese Characters on a Turtle Shell

The story of shodo begins tens of thousands of years ago before the brush even existed. In dimly lit caves such as the ones of Zhongwei, China, our ancestors took stones to stone and chiseled away into history their everyday life: horned animals, fellow hunters, bows and arrows. Written language in the East, just as was the case in the West, was born out of pictures.

least as far back as 3,000BC one finds examples written on animal bones and that can be traced directly to characters in modern use. From here these characters and their use gradually spread until at one point roughly two thousand years when it was decreed a unification of writing was necessary and a standard of 3,300 characters were selected. It was at this time that the development of a brush gave way to more fluid characters, which in turn allowed for the development of different schools of style.

However, it was not even until the middle of the first millennium AD that the use of Chinese characters made its way across Korea and into Japan. Once there, its adopters faced the challenge of matching an already existing way of speaking with a foreign way of writing. In fact, for centuries Japan dealt with this problem almost by ignoring it completely. For hundreds of years characters known as Manyōgana (万葉仮名) existed in Japanese that were simply grammatical and the reader had to know which ones were which. (and you thought learning Japanese is difficult today?) Eventually the cursive 草書 (Sōsho) style of Manyōgana, developed mainly by women at the time, gave way to what we all know today as hiragana.

Oldest known example of Manyōgana in Japan.

Oldest known example of Manyōgana in Japan.

Now I challenge you to see painting a character as connecting yourself with history on a more abstract level: See in that brush the stone chisel used in Zhongwei, in that character you paint the history of that character and the part you play in its evolution of language.


The Japanese language is by no small measure difficult for the average native English speaker to use in daily conversation, let alone write. The grammar is the reverse, there are no spaces in between words, and a single particle (despite now made “simpler” with the advent of hiragana) used incorrectly changes the entire meaning of the sentence. Yes, it is certainly a tall hurdle to overcome.

            One of the hardest challenges, though once cleared, most useful is that of the kanji. Japanese has 2,136 official kanji for everyday-use (called 常用Jōyō). How does a recent college graduate go about committing to memory that many kanji? The way everyone else does: rote memorization. Games and memorizing gimmicks are nice at the beginning when you learn the first 100. Just as how seeing 人 as two legs helps you remember the kanji for person. But at a certain point one just has to sit down and do like the princes of ancient China did and copy by hand until even your hand memorizes the movements.

            Shodō offers someone who is learning kanji the perfect way to explore this new language while at the same time not becoming a social recluse. There are plenty of clubs out there where one can get their hands dirty, make new friends, and be artistic all the while learning bit by bit a language that surrounds you every day.


In Zen Buddhism, 筆禅道 Hitsuzendō (Way to God through the Brush) shodō is more than just painting. With the right frame of mind and open heart, the brush is believed to be a way to spiritual peace.

Painting the most lovely character or the most divine ensō (the circle that represents both enlightenment and the void) comes not out of years of practice, it is said, but out of state of 無心 (mushin) mindlessness in the sense that one’s mind must be free of distractions and thus free of thoughts.

The way the brush hits the paper, the weight the painter puts on the brush, and the final lift from the surface are all said to be indicators of the person’s mental state. Years of practice mean little in Zen Buddhism in the face of one moment of complete 無心.

Though I cannot claim to have even achieved such a state (because I tend to think of how much my legs hurt sitting seiza) I can attest to the calming powers of shodō. Concentrate on painting the perfect character and you soon make a mistake and grow frustrated. Think only of the now and the characters and you will achieve peace and beauty, both in terms of inner-mind and outer product.

Characters of My Own

Characters of My Own

Do not let the fear of being imperfect keep you from trying if only just once. Painting is an expression of your character and shodō is no different; Picasso knew this, Zen Buddhists know this. So it is that with shodō you learn not only how to express your character but how to do it while learning a new language, connecting you with thousands of years of history, and perhaps even journeying on a personal pathway to spiritual enlightenment.

My Brush Set

My Brush Set

The image above is my calligraphy set. ① Ink stone and ink blocks are the foundation (a good cheap set will do). ②Brushes come in all sizes and materials  (ask the storekeeper for a set of good beginner’s brushes if nothing else). ③Like chopsticks, a little brush-rest 筆置き is very useful. ④ A little ceramic container to hold water for when you grind the ink and last but not least, ⑤ don’t forget the paper!


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