Traces of Ink

From the palace of Emperor Saga to the streets of Beijing, it is interesting to see how calligraphy and ink painting has changed and endured throughout the centuries. Saga’s brushstrokes commemorate the death of Saicho, as they owe their existence, in a large part, to Saicho’s influence. As a Japanese monk who traveled to China in the early 9th century, Saicho brought back Chinese aesthetics and ideas that permeated the Japanese court, institutions, and art.

Calligraphy Inspired fashion by Jayson Brunsdon

Zen painting and calligraphy predominantly became the practice of monks who associated it with Zen in one way or another, so there is a tendency to look at their brushstrokes as independent entities as if we are somehow taking part in the enlightenment of the monks themselves. Looking at brushstrokes without understanding the context in which they were put down on paper leads to only superficial appreciation. We might not realize that they were not intended to carry Zen spirit, as is the case with Soga Shohaku’s Daruma. Shohaku produced many detailed paintings quite unlike his Daruma that were more indicative of the style of the Edo period during which he lived, but he also looked to the brushwork of previous Zen painters of the Muromachi period.

Daruma by Nakahara Nantenbo (1839-1925) and Soga Shohaku (1730-1781) • Zen Circle Earrings

Through out the history of Zen brushstrokes, there has been the tension of looking back to the work of previous masters and developing new meaning for ink on paper. Perhaps one of the most interesting personages is Nakahara Nantenbo, whose attitude and accomplishments ushered the transition from Zen painting from the Edo period into the 20th century. His belief in strict practice, known by his use of a stick as part of his teaching methods, was more indicative of his passion for Zen and its transmission. He was an activist who spoke strongly against Zen becoming associated with secular actions by advocating against the building of an extravagant Zen center, and the organization of monk prestige according to wealth. He was into his fifties when he learned calligraphy, and it became and integral part of his practice, as he believed that it must be done with the Zen spirit in mind. He never mentioned the beauty and elegance of his brushstrokes, talking only of the speed with which he could produce pages of calligraphy. When others criticized him for his One Stroke Daruma because it couldn’t be identified as such, he said, “Very Interesting. People talk as if they have seen Daruma, but who has seen the original Daruma?” His brushstrokes are sometimes described as blunt and rough, but they have to be seen as the embodiment of his own vision and his experience with going from monastery to monastery at the turn of the century.

For more about Nantenbo, read about him in Art of 20th century Zen by Stephen Addiss, or visit:

Today, traces of ink are found on ivory silk dresses, sidewalks, and in documentaries. Jayson Brunsdon’s spring collection hints at these influences but thoroughly incorporates them into his own modern take.

Although it will not be mainstream and might be hard to get, there is talk of a documentary about calligraphy. Read more about it.

Requiem dress—japonica printOm Buddhist Calligraphy Journal • Calligraphy Inspired fashion by Jayson Brunsdon

Cry for noble Saichō (哭最澄上人), written by Emperor Saga of Japan upon the death of the Buddhist monk Saichō in the 9th century • Photo by tyggy • Chinese calligraphy of mixed styles written by Song Dynasty (1051-1108 CE) poet Mifu