Recently, to unwind after several months of a crazy busy work schedule, I participated in a weekend workshop to learn about Asian calligraphy. I certainly wanted to learn about calligraphy, in which I have had an ongoing interest, but really wanted to meet the scheduled teacher, Kazuaki Tanahashi, a well known calligrapher, artist, Japanese scholar, and peace activist. His most recent book, Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, is an English compilation of the complete works of 13th century Zen master, Eihei Dogen. It comes in a beautifully bound 2 book set including a huge glossary and Zen lineage. I asked Tanahashi, who calls himself Kaz, how long it took to translate Dogen’s works.
In his own simple style of few words, he answered, “Fifty Years”. Kaz is 78 years old, but still writes east Asian characters without glasses, though he does pull out a pair when reading from his book. Kaz is one of those people who make you more peaceful by his mere presence. His teaching style is traditional, letting you make your own mistakes, then correcting by demonstration. My knowledge of calligraphy increased multiple fold when I watched him draw his first character. After having done a couple of characters myself in true Western style, being careful to not use too much ink, controlling the brush like a ball point pen, and being tense, I watched in amazement as Kaz put the entire bristle into the ink, carefully pulling off the excess using the edge of the bowl, then slowly and in simple movements drawing a perfect character for Human. My blood pressure went down just watching. We would then try it, imitating his movements and technique with sometimes remarkable results. One particular endearing teaching technique he used was “holding your hand” where you would sit in his chair at his table and he would literally hold your hand to draw a character with your brush as you let him do all the work. Not only did his “holding your hand” teach the movements, it formed a clear connection between teacher or sensei and student like no amount of talking could ever do. Whenever he would introduce a new character to us, he would have us stand in a circle around him as he created the figure on the paper. Sensing our tension, he would sometimes say, “It’s OK to breathe, now.”
As the weekend progressed, Kaz encouraged creativity, introduced us to multiple colors (all at the same time), and finished with a long session of experimenting with large brushes and bold interpretive work. Soon the entire floor of our study hall was covered in multicolored Zen circles (called ensos), Kanji, and script japanese characters, all painted on rice paper, a great finale to an enlightening weekend. Among these images, we then all sat with Kaz and spoke of our experiences of the weekend. To a person, there was a connection between the images we were creating and our own minds. For me, it was a calming time in a period of general upheaval in my own personal life.
I learned of Kaz some years ago when I found some of his bold work of large, multi-color ensos. As I read about him, I learned that, along with his art and translations of old Zen texts, Kaz is a long term peace activist. Coming from his native Japan in 1977, he spent a number of years at the San Francisco Zen Center, founded by Shunryu Suzuki, one of the first Soto Zen masters to bring the practice to the masses in the West. During his time in the US, Kaz has been profoundly influential in the world peace movement, and founded of A World Without Armies, a coalition of peace activists bound together by the remarkable goal of demilitarizing the entire planet. Though a seemingly impossible task, AWWA continues to work towards that very goal. AWWA stages events promoting peace, especially focusing in Latin America.
A world without armies seems an absurdly impossible goal, but also very Zen-like. Suzuki said,
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.”
Maybe we need more beginners and fewer experts to rid the world of war. Can you imagine A World Without Armies? Besides the millions of lives saved and the trillions of dollars not spent, we could solve world hunger and poverty in an instant. We would immediately reduce the toll that our civilizations take on this small planet. We could spend more of our time and treasure helping one another rather than dominating or fighting domination. It’s an admirable, if not mandatory goal for all of us.
Kaz was featured in the Fall 2011 issue of Tricycle, The Buddhist Review. Read more about him and see his artwork at Brushmind. One of Kaz’s ensos, Miracles of Each Moment, Blue, is the image that Kaz graciously allowed us to use our our symbol here at this small planet.
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