In Chinese calligraphy as it developed to heights undreamed of in the West, there were three main styles: The Formal Style, the Running Style, described as waving grasses and running streams, and the ultimate loosening called the Grass Style, described in terms of Soaring Phoenixes and Fighting Dragons.
This last style was highly developed in Japan, and especially by Zen masters. They used it to express experienced spiritual truth, not merely by the words but by the very brushwork itself.
The accompanying poem is:
As in spring, the flowers,
As in autumn, the moon.
In Japanese aesthetics, the Three Beautiful Things are: Tsuki, the moon; Yuki, snow; and Hana, flowers.
Only in the extended list do wine, women and song appear. The Five Beautiful Things are Tsuki, Yuki, Hana, and then Iro, colour, implying also love-making, and Sake, rice-wine (which has however a low alcohol content).
The great character on the right of the picture means ‘Like That’, or ‘Thus’. It means: ‘That is the way things are; do not expect them to be different.’
But this does not mean apathy. In spring, to look at the flowers and appreciate their beauty without wanting to appropriate them; in autumn, not to waste thought by longing for flowers, but to appreciate the wonder of the moon in the clear skies. Flowers, however beautiful, have a sadness about them because they will fade and fall, but the moon does not pass away. There is a meaning for the whole of life: in springtime, to realize that the flowers will pass, and enjoy them without trying to capture or appropriate them for selfish ends, and then when autumn comes, to turn to contemplation of the calmness which is ever within.
In India, the Supreme Self is represented by the symbol of the sun, but in the Far East, it is often the full moon. In the second half of life, attention is to move from the short-range relations with the flowers upwards to the heavens; as the skies are cleared of personal selfish pettiness, a calm radiance takes over from the little anxiety-flashes of the small world.
The calligrapher is Ji-un, who was a follower not only of Zen but also of the philosophical Tendai sect, the Shingon mantra sect, and originally the ancient Indian Vinaya, in whose temples some of the early Zen masters resided before the establishment of specifically Zen temples.
Like That from the Old Zen Master
© Trevor Leggett